Center for Community and Economy Newsletter – Nov. 17, 2011

1. Home Economics: A New Look

By Allan C. Carlson 

What the nation – and Utah – needs today is a fresh understanding of and commitment to home economics.

Six decades ago, this discipline seemed to be at the top of its game. Home economics was the most popular major among women attending colleges and universities. Mandatory courses for girls in cooking, sewing and child care could be found in virtually every American high school. In the words of UCLA Professor Olive Hall, “[The homemaker] knows that she is performing a task that is the very pivot of society,” and home economists understood that too. The marriage boom and the baby boom of the 1945-63 era underscored the truth of this claim, as American family life showed a statistical strength unseen for nearly 100 years.

Then came the “new feminists,” led by Betty Friedan and friends, who placed home economics squarely in their cross hairs. They attacked “women’s continued imprisonment in domesticity.” They argued that American society no longer wanted “any drones called ‘housewives.’” Invited to address the American Home Economics Association, Robin Morgan – the editor of Sisterhood is Powerful – stated that “as a radical feminist, I am here addressing the enemy.” She charged that young women who passed through home economics courses were usually left as “a limp, jibbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage.” Her primary recommendation to the audience was simple. “You can quit your jobs!”

While there were some notable dissenters, most home economists did something like that; more accurately, they frantically attempted to alter their discipline in order to appease the feminists. The most blatant expression of this change came in the very name of the field. In 1960, the relevant higher education departments all used the “home economics” label. By 1970, five different names were used; and by 1990, more than 75. These new labels included “human ecology,” “human development,” and “consumer sciences.” The only word that never appeared was “home,” a concept now fraught with embarrassment.

Also banished was the word “marriage.” Instead, the discipline would provide “an innovative approach to the relationships among individuals, families, and communities.” This linguistic contortion eventually settled into “relationship studies,” which abandoned all sense of normality relative to the family.

The irony is that the home economists surrendered en masse to the radical feminists at the very time that researchers in a different discipline were beginning to document the critical role played by the modern “homemaker” in holding the most corrosive of industrial capitalism’s incentives at bay. The key figure here was Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. His first article laying out the contours of what would eventually be called “the new home economics” appeared in 1965. The full argument came in his 1990 book, A Treatise on the Family, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Using complicated but compelling econometric calculations, Becker showed – among other insights – that the 1950s version of the homemaker had been, indeed, the very pivot of industrial society. This social role managed, for a time, to reconcile certain negative incentives of capitalism (e.g., a preference for workers free of family entanglements and a tendency to turn all human ties into commodities) with the natural family, allowing for human reproduction within a system of sustained economic growth. Put simply, Becker’s analysis showed that with a majority of young American women in the homemaking role, as found during the 1950s, Americans could have both economic growth and children in relative abundance. But with relatively few full-time homemakers, the result was ever-smaller families and economic stagnation.

At another level, though, the home economists of the 1950s undercut their own prospects. In line with the discipline’s founders, they called for an “ideal home life for today unhampered by the traditions of the past.” This dismissal of the wisdom and skills of those who had come before was combined in that decade with a rejection of “the production of commodities or services” in the home (Olive Hall, again). Instead, theorists called for a focus on frenetic consumerism and psychological “adjustment,” striving toward “a harmony of personalities.”

This turn toward psychological mumbo-jumbo also meant sacrificing the discipline’s strongest card: the home economy is actually the true free economy. Tending a family garden, home carpentry, home canning and other forms of food processing, the urban chicken coop, child care in the home, home-cooked meals: All of these tasks – and countless more – happen free of bothgovernment regulation and taxation. The formal marketplace is actually a creation of the state, designed so that governments might suck their sustenance – vampire-like – from the money flowing about. The value of the home economy accrues entirely to families and individuals. And it is not negligible. Even in these degraded times, recent reliable estimates of both the American and Australian “non-market” home economies have shown them to be just as large as the official gross domestic product: all without taxes or significant regulation.

An effective “new” home economics would toss the radical feminists out the door and would focus on nurturing, improving and expanding the true free economy: the economy of the family home. Why not begin this revolution right here, in Utah’s high schools and universities?

The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and distinguished visiting professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.


2. A Step Forward for Defense of Prop 8

The California Supreme Court ruled today that the Proposition 8 campaign has standing to defend the law in court. See Sutherland scholar William C. Duncan\’s take on the ruling in his commentary for National Review Online at