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University of Iowa. Department of Home Economics



From 1913 to 1991, the University of Iowa's Home Economics Department trained thousands of women (and a few men) for careers as artists, counselors, dieticians, extension agents, fashion designers, homemakers, interior designers, mothers, nutritionists, preservationists, professors, secondary-school teachers, and weavers. Home Economics was a "historically female" department not only in the students who enrolled but also in another sense: it was chaired exclusively by women and women constituted over 95% of its faculty over the life of the department. Thus, the University of Iowa's Home Economics Department played a pivotal role in the history of women's education at the University of Iowa.

Ruth Aimee Wardall, the first woman to hold a Master of Arts in Foods from the University of Illinois, served as the first chair of Home Economics (1913-1922). Along with numerous instructors, Wardall offered comprehensive and challenging coursework that attracted students in substantial numbers. Eighty-one of the five hundred or so women on campus completed the 1913 course in Textiles; sophomore women specialized in the preparation and preservation of foods. In two years, the program doubled its enrollment, necessitating the hiring of more instructors for the introductory courses.

Under Wardall's leadership, the Department had an impact beyond the campus as well. During World War I, the Home Economics Department added a special foods training course for nurses. Junior and senior women helped to train Red Cross volunteers and made "cootie suits" to keep the Iowa soldiers lice-free. Students also nursed and fed the ill during the influenza epidemic in 1918. The creation of the Child Welfare Research station and the addition of specialists in pediatric development and nutrition rapidly increased the range of the department's offerings. When Wardall left the University in 1922, the department was well established as an interdisciplinary and rigorous academic program.

Wardall's successor, Helen Pope, presided over a thriving department. Summer School was especially popular; these accelerated courses provided training for rural secondary school teachers who were required by law to teach Home Economics. Established home economists from across the state could update their skills or form professional networks while mingling with beginning students. Although Pope only served two years as Chair, the department offered Summer Session coursework until its termination. Frequent changes among the junior faculty, overcrowded classrooms, and a lack of continuity in administration began to affect student morale. These problems would have to be faced squarely by the next administrator.

Frances Zuill, who served as department chair from 1923-1939, stressed the dual goals of community service and academic excellence. At her urging, the Department began to offer graduate work. She also encouraged faculty members to pursue the doctorate, an unusual attainment among home economics educators at the time. Zuill was responsible for instituting the Alumnae newsletter and the campus-wide Christmas dinner, two of the activities that characterized the Home Economics Department in the minds of graduates of the era. The Zuill administration was a golden time for the Home Economics Department. Zuill herself was president of the American Home Economics Association. Another faculty member, Mate Giddings, was national president of Omicron Nu (home economics honorary society). Superior educators like Edna Hill, Alice Brigham, Ione Hosman, Merle Ford, and Lula Smith joined the faculty during Zuill's tenure as chair. Additionally, the department moved to more spacious renovated quarters in McBride Hall. When Zuill departed to chair the Home Economics department at the University of Wisconsin, Mate Giddings served as interim chair the following year (1939-1940).

Under Dr. Sybil Woodruff, head of the department from 1940 to 1955, the Home Economics Department developed a national reputation for its work in the fields of dietetics and nutrition. Students worked closely with Dr. Kate Daum (Director of Nutrition at the University Hospitals until 1955), Dr. W. A. Tuttle, and Dr. Genevieve Stearns. The Iowa Breakfast Studies, joint research conducted by the University Hospital's Nutrition department and the Home Economics department, conclusively established the health benefits of eating a well-balanced breakfast. Wartime shortages led to rationing of fabrics and foods and presented new challenges in pedagogy. Moreover, the skills of home economists were more in demand than ever, and the department struggled to offer enough classes to keep up with rising enrollments. The interdisciplinary nature of Home Economics made its courses required work for those studying to be dental hygienists, elementary educators, artists, advertisers, and social workers. Student demand drove the expansion of the department and soon, more floor space and more faculty were required.

Dr. Floy Eugenia Whitehead, department chair from 1955 to 1971, presided over Home Economics during a time of great change in American society. The department continued to stress "dual career" training for women, acknowledging that most women would marry and raise children as well as pursue employment outside the home. Whitehead's academic excellence in the field of nutrition set the tone for the department; she encouraged all faculty members to explore professional development opportunities. Yet, research had to be subordinate to quality teaching; the department firmly believed that hands-on learning, rather than "indoctrination," better served the civic mission of their discipline and the nation. Classes continued to grow throughout the 1960s and graduate study (particularly in the areas of nutrition and textiles) substantially increased.

Dr. Sara Wolfson presided over the Home Economics department from 1972-1989. Under her tenure, the department's faculty received accreditation from the American Home Economics Association and was rated as one of the top ten departments in the nation. A major renovation of department facilities was completed in 1985. There were signs, however, that Liberal Arts administrators did not support the department as enthusiastically as these accomplishments seemed to merit. Professors continued to share office space, the only faculty members in the Liberal Arts required to do so. When professors retired, the money to hire replacements was slow in coming. The size of the teaching staff diminished; qualified faculty were hard to find due to a national shortage of Home Economics graduates with advanced degrees. Those with the desired skills could find higher salaries elsewhere. Remaining professors had to bear a heavier load of teaching and advising, with some diminution of their research activities. The department began to rely more heavily on teaching assistants and temporary or adjunct personnel to teach classes. As the university positioned itself to become a premier research institution, those Home Economics faculty members whose strengths lay in the quality of their teaching and mentorship abilities perceived themselves to be undervalued in a system that increasingly assessed scholarly worth by examining one's publication record. Those faculty members appointed to the textile and design branches of the department also noted that their exhibition work, while professional in nature, was not considered tenure-worthy under the guidelines set forth by the College of Liberal Arts. The department, already stretched to the limit in its efforts to maintain a full menu of courses for its numerous majors, was informed in 1987 that it should plan to add high-enrollment General Education Requirement courses as well. By 1988, morale in the Home Economics department was flagging.

Dr. Carolyn Lara-Braud took over as the chair of the department during its valiant, but ultimately fruitless, battle against termination. Administrators reacted to the deep economic distress produced by the 1980s farm crisis by eliminating all perceived duplications at Iowa's regents institutions. "Historically female" programs, such as Home Economics and Dental Hygiene, had been marginalized in the years prior to external review through funding decisions, staffing priorities, and resource allocation made by University administrators. Moreover, national trends within the discipline had moved toward reorienting the field toward family and consumer science; Iowa's department remained committed to an older humanistic vision of home economics education that some administrators perceived as old-fashioned. During the drive to eliminate duplication, the Home Economics department was perceived as a "logical" candidate for liquidation and deemed "no longer relevant to the mission of the liberal arts." Despite outcries about gender discrimination and even unconstitutionality, the Home Economics department offered its last class in 1991. (See Termination of Department series for quoted material.)

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Floy Eugenia Whitehead papers

Identifier: IWA0037

Nutrition scholar and chair of the University of Iowa's Home Economics Department for sixteen years.

Dates: 1935-1998

University of Iowa Department of Home Economics records

Identifier: IWA0720

Provided training in a variety of careers including dieticians, extension agents, designers, and homemakers.

Dates: 1913-1991

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