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A century on, ‘home ec’ remains as vital as ever

In 1923, the department of household economics boasted a state-of-the-art “nutrition lab.” Often dismissed as being about ‘cooking and sewing,’ the discipline of what is now called human ecology has always been much more than that.
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While much has changed in the last century, the study of home and family life remains relevant.

This year, the University of Alberta marked the centennial of the founding of the Department of Household Economics.

“There aren’t a lot of programs at the U of A that have been around for 100 years, so it is an exciting and important milestone to celebrate,” said Deanna Williamson, chair of the department now called human ecology.

“The longevity of our programs in home economics and human ecology speaks to the ongoing relevance of our education and research programs, that there’s a place for the kinds of things we do focus on — which is enhancing everyday life.

“That’s looked a little bit different at different times in history, but what has remained the same is our focus on the perennial problems people face in their lives, in their families, in their communities, and how to address them.”

One reason for the program’s resilience, according to Williamson, is the applied discipline approach. By including a required practicum in the field, the department stays very connected to communities, so it can respond to the needs and concerns in people’s everyday lives. So students and researchers deal with topics such as aging; children, youth and families; textiles and science; and material culture.

The centenary was not just a celebration of a milestone but a chance to take a deeper look into the role of women in society, and how they are viewed, said Sherry Ann Chapman, the department’s practicum co-ordinator who was asked to give its annual Empey lecture on the centenary.

About 170 people gathered in September to celebrate the department’s centennial, including a number of graduates from the 1940s. Front row (l to r): Marilyn Moret, Katherine Sawka, Anne (Puchalik) Sawka and Fay Winning. Back row (l to r): Sophie Rasko, Phyllis Fowler and Sheila McLaggan. photo: Sarah Pratt/University of Alberta

In digging into the past, she discovered opposing views of women’s roles are as old as the department itself.

“It was a great opportunity for me to actually put some pieces of the puzzle together for my own understanding,” said Chapman. “I was aware of a ‘social justice’ component of what human ecologists do, yet I was also bumping into what people call the cliché (of the profession) as ‘just cooking and sewing.’”

Even as the school was being founded, there was a debate about where women “belong,” she said.

“The very first director of the household economics department on campus, as she was trying to pull together resources for that new curriculum in 1918, was up against this cliché,” said Chapman. “Some of the early leaders were focused on education for women, but in the private sphere, at home. Other leaders were saying this was the time to advocate for the women’s vote, for education to be in the public sphere.”

These two opposing views persisted over the decades — although in sometimes surprising ways.

A particularly striking example for Chapman was in the 1960s when female professors and instructors at the university were fighting for equal benefits. Meetings were organized to push for this change, but some ‘feminist-minded’ fellow instructors claimed home economists didn’t belong at the meetings because they taught cooking and sewing — and were therefore ‘part of the problem.’

But the home ec instructors stayed at the table, talking about their role in the lives of women. The two sides found they had some common goals, and over time became allies.

“Very much in keeping with the nature of human ecology, it’s about relationship building and trying to affect change — and that’s exactly what they were doing,” said Chapman.

Enrolment in the department, which has gone through several name changes and relocations over the years, was as high as 400 in the peak years of the 1970s. These days, the department has between 150 and 180 undergrads. It is also the only department of human ecology in the country — other universities have some of the same courses, but they’ve been absorbed into a variety of other departments.

Graduates work in a wide range of careers, including in government, non-profits, the textile industry, and even museums. And while many might recall district home economists, who were part of the provincial Agriculture Ministry for many years, the training takes students to many specialized fields and diverse careers. That now includes the Canadian Senate, which welcomed Patti LaBoucane-Benson in October. She obtained her master’s degree and PhD in Human Ecology and worked for many years with Native Counselling Services of Alberta, focusing on the well-being of Indigenous youth and families.

Because of the diverse specialties that fall under the ‘human ecology’ umbrella, creating awareness of the opportunities that the department offers isn’t always easy, said Williamson.

“Lots of people don’t know what we are,” she said. “But our work is on topics important to people. Being a good parent; supporting parents/grandparents as they age; design of clothing that’s not only esthetic but also safe and comfortable; design of workplaces that are accessible and meeting the needs of people.

This centennial quilt, which took volunteers more than 300 hours to create, bears the names of supporters of the department. The project raised more than $10,000, which will be used to support the school’s collection of some 23,000 clothing and textile artifacts. photo: Sarah Pratt/University of Alberta

“All of these things really do have an effect on quality of life.”

Much has changed in the 100 years since ‘Miss’ Mabel Patrick was hired as the first household economics instructor (and later the school’s director for more than three decades). But the core values of the department are unchanged, said Williamson.

“We’re not sending people to the moon, or curing cancer,” she said. “We focus on things that do matter to people, but are often taken for granted.

“They’re not super-sexy… although we do focus on sex!”

About the author


Dianne Finstad

Dianne Finstad is a Red Deer based reporter and broadcaster who specializes in agriculture and rodeo coverage. She has over thirty years of experience bringing stories to light through television, radio, and print; and has a real passion for all things farm and western.



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