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Just what is the BettyLab cooking up for girls?

A half-baked kitchen-science initiative brings back the troublesome history of home economics.

Globe Staff/Adobe/General Mills Archives

This month, the Betty Crocker division of General Mills launched BettyLab, an initiative designed to get children — though the Web page shows only girls and women — excited about science through cooking. “The kitchen is more than a room. It’s a place to connect, create, experiment and innovate. To learn, test, try and discover,” reads the marketing copy. “In other words, it’s the original lab where culinary science and personal expression fuel confidence and creativity in all makers, young and old.”

At the moment, the BettyLab website features four projects — making rock candy, making ice cream in a freezer bag, baking a cake with soda pop, and slow-cooking cake — designed to empower “girls and kids to connect, create, experiment and innovate in the original lab.” The centerpiece of the initiative appears to be a strawberry-flavored cake mix aimed at helping girls “build confidence in STEM fields through the power of baking and culinary science.” It’s a joint project of Betty Crocker and the Barbie Dream Gap Project, a girls’ empowerment campaign to which Betty Crocker donated $100,000.


It all sounds worthy. Who doesn’t want girls to succeed in STEM? Who doesn’t think baking is scientific and creative? Who doesn’t like cake?

But there’s something about the BettyLab that doesn’t land. For one thing, a box cake mix, though tasty, removes some of the real magic and therefore science of baking; this is not science, it’s following directions. For another thing, it seems to imply that girls wouldn’t be interested in STEM if it wasn’t served to them redolent of fake strawberries with frosting on top. But what really makes me uncomfortable about the BettyLab isn’t just the pink cake. It’s that the BettyLab is rooted in the very place that the women’s movement wanted to leave — the kitchen.


Betty Crocker’s brand experience manager, Stephanie Lensing, said in a statement that the BettyLab is meant to encourage “people of all genders to see the kitchen as a place where everyone is welcome . . . where families come together, where cooks and bakers are made, where learning and celebrations happen.” I just can’t help wondering why “people of all genders” aren’t represented on the BettyLab site.

The BettyLab — especially as a brand of Betty Crocker — is the inheritor of a complicated legacy: home economics, which comes with a lot of baggage, both scientific and social.

Home economics emerged at the end of the 19th century as a progressive movement that married science to social justice for women with the intention of valuing and improving unpaid domestic work.

“The original idea was not necessarily to put home economics on the same footing as other sciences but in fact to use the world of science to understand everyday life,” says Megan Elias, a historian and gastronomist at Boston University and author of “Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture,” one of the few books on the history of the movement. “The field was invented by women who did have access to science but wanted to apply it to the quotidian.”

Home economists were people like Ellen Richards, a chemist who was the first woman to graduate from MIT. Richards, who later taught at MIT’s Women’s Laboratory, saw what had long been considered “women’s work” — raising children, running a household, cooking, cleaning, budgeting — as difficult and complex. She sought to use science — chemistry, bacteriology, physics, biology, sociology, psychology, economic theory — to investigate and improve the domestic sphere and, through that, to make life better for everyone.


In 1899, Richards and a group of like-minded colleagues — nine women and one man — met at Lake Placid, N.Y., to hash out the boundaries and tenets of this new discipline. Within a decade, universities and colleges were offering courses and degrees in home economics. Many of these provided general educations in science, the idea being that women who knew, for example, exactly what kind of bacteria were colonizing their dish cloths would keep them cleaner. In the short term, home economics created new paid professional opportunities for women in academia, industry, nutrition, sanitation, and teaching.

Socially, however, home economics tended to be viewed as teaching girls and women how to become better wives and mothers, a compliment and a criticism. A 1910 New York Times spread on the new field lauded it for raising domesticity to efficient perfection and training young women to be “scientific housewives.” Feminists and educators, meanwhile, lamented the idea that home economics implied that this was all women could hope to achieve. Both ignored the important work that women in home economics were doing.

Home economists “saw that women could and should do more, but the way to get people to accept them was to do it in the domestic sphere,” says Rima Apple, historian at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology. “What the home economists did was they took this sphere and they pushed it and pushed it out of the private and into the public,” she explains. “There were many leaders of the movement who thought this was a way to open a larger world for women but realized the social limitations and thought they could only do so much in one generation.”


Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, home economics retained its focus on educating women in science to professionalize domestic work. And canny consumer products corporations saw this as an opportunity — which is where Betty Crocker comes in. Betty Crocker was not an actual person but rather the 1921 creation of Washburn-Crosby, the flour company that later became General Mills. Depicted in print and on radio shows and television as neither a wife nor a mother, Betty was the personification of the professional scientist of the home. Behind the Betty persona was Marjorie Child Husted, a home economist who oversaw the staff of the Betty Crocker Homemaking Service, the brand’s test kitchen, beginning in 1929. According to Husted, women needed a champion: “They needed someone to remind them that they had value.”

The problem became that this was pretty much the only sphere where women had value, and women who wanted careers in science were finding themselves funneled into home economics. In the post-World War II years, the social impulse to push women out of the workforce to make way for returning male veterans further entrenched the idea that home economics, especially at the high school level, was there to make women the best homemakers they could be. The unsubtle subtext was that home was where they belonged. At the same time, the science parts of domestic science — everything from textile manufacturing and sanitation to child psychology and nursing — were being siphoned off into other disciplines.


By the 1960s, the original vision of home economics had become diluted and its image more rigidly prescriptive of gender roles. Advice from the 1961 edition of “Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book” suggested putting on make-up before breakfast, thinking “pleasant thoughts,” and cultivating a hobby to “be interesting.” As feminism sought to dismantle the structures that kept women out of the workplace and decision-making spheres, home ec became a suitable target. American feminist Robin Morgan told the 1972 convention of the American Home Economics Association, “I am here addressing the enemy.”

“Because women’s lives were so restricted to domestic stuff, it seemed like an easy way to build feminism around getting out of the kitchen: If we free ourselves from doing that stuff, then we’ll be equal,” says Elias at BU. By the 1990s, schools that once taught home economics had rebranded the courses as “life skills” or cut the programs completely, in the face of both criticism and tightening budgets.

But the result wasn’t as liberating as it should have been. “Women themselves were devaluing women’s work, work that had so much skill, so much art and knowledge,” Elias says. “All of those skills were devalued in that getting out of the kitchen. And it hasn’t really come back yet.”

So in some ways, the BettyLab, for all its good intentions, is a solution to a problem — just not the one that they’ve identified. BettyLab wants to use baking as a tool to show girls that science is cool; home economics has already demonstrated that doesn’t quite work. The problem isn’t that baking cakes is unscientific. (Well, let’s qualify that: It is scientific when you’re actually finding out why baking soda acts as a leavening agent and what happens when you add too much or too little, for example.) The problem isn’t that it’s a bad idea to encourage girls to see the kitchen as a space of experimentation and creativity. It’s that we still perceive domestic work as less valuable than other work, perhaps because we still seem to believe that this work is the natural responsibility of women and only women.

There are more women in the workforce and in positions of power than ever before, and yet studies consistently demonstrate that American women perform the majority of household tasks, including cooking and cleaning, caring for children, and planning family activities. This gets reinforced early: A 2018 survey found that where girls did 45 minutes of chores each day, boys only did 30.

Even in homes where women earn more than their partners or where their partner is unemployed, they do more housework. Before the pandemic, women across the world did three times as much unpaid domestic work and caregiving as men; throughout the pandemic, that share has increased. And as women’s unpaid domestic work has increased, their work outside the home has decreased. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, last month 55.8 percent of American women were participating in the labor force, a level last seen in 1987.

Home economics was intended to value women’s work by understanding it through science, but it couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of restrictive gender roles. The BettyLab’s focus is less clear, but it risks falling back into the same orbit. At best, the BettyLab is a well-intentioned though mushy effort to get girls baking under the banner of STEM. At worst, it ignores deeply entrenched inequalities and signals that the best place for women to do science is in the kitchen, a space that remains socially devalued.

So maybe the answer isn’t showing girls how cool science is by coloring it pink, making it taste like strawberries, and throwing on some piped-frosting electrons. Maybe, instead, BettyLab should demonstrate that skills in the home kitchen are so valuable, everyone should have them. Even boys.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American writer based in London. Follow her on Twitter @LinRod.