Ever since I discovered the amazing Home Economics Archive from Cornell University, I have changed my view of this field of inquiry. Like many young women who came of age in the 1960s, I felt that Home Ec was a subject for girls who didn’t want to work outside the home. However, the women who founded the field in the early twentieth century were forging new careers for women. They went into consumer protection, hygiene, and industrial reform. Those who focused on the family provided information on child care, health, and financial services.
For African American women, Home Economics offered a chance to do community organizing while earning a salary. State-based Home Extension Services, founded in the 1910s with federal government aid, were segregated. The “Negro Sections” were usually run by college educated black women who set the agenda for their African American staff.
This 1967 photo from North Carolina State University shows a gathering of black women discussing financial issues. The young group leader, with a notebook on her lap, is surrounded by older women. Look at the wide range of clothing styles! The two oldest women, one at the far right and one in the center, are wearing more formal clothes. The one in the center (is it perhaps her living room?) has on a slim dress with a matching jacket, an up-to-date style for the sixties. The older woman at the right has on a suit and wears a hat, marking this as a special occasion. While the other women are more casually attired, their crisp dresses could easily have come from an earlier era. The young group leader really stands out here separates with a shorter skirt and her natural hair style. Fashion historians note that the sixties were a time when clothing for young women really diverged from the styles of their mothers—and we can really see that here.