Women as Nutritionists
From the beginning, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service divided its work along gendered lines. Male farm agents taught farmers how to apply science to the fields, and female home demonstration agents taught farm women how to apply science to the home and to the diet.
The kind of work done by the Home Demonstration division of the North Carolina Extension Service was part of a nationwide effort spearheaded by the USDA’s Office of Home Economics to apply scientific principles to everyday living. The field of home economics gained real momentum at the turn of the twentieth century as ideas of efficiency, standardization, and progress took hold. If work done in factories could be transformed with scientific skill and new technologies, so could work done in the home.
When it came to cleaning house and raising children, home economists offered advice on the most efficient, the most sound, the most scientific method for doing so. As part of this effort, home economists also took new information about nutrition that was coming out of chemists’ laboratories and incorporated it into the advice they provided about cooking and meal planning. In this way, homemaking itself became a science.
At the USDA’s Office of Home Economics and within the Home Demonstration division of the North Carolina Extension Service, women played an integral role as nutritionists. At the Office of Home Economics, nutritionists gathered information about food and health, preparing guides for a national audience. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Extension Service’s Home Demonstration division, headed by Jane S. McKimmon, functioned as a headquarters of sorts for home demonstration agents living and working across the state. Here, a small team of nutritionists and home economists prepared circulars and lesson plans for home demonstration agents to use in their work. Since the beginnings of home demonstration work in the 1910s, many of these materials focused on food preservation and nutrition, applying scientific principles to cooking and meal planning.
Many nutritionists had been trained as chemists, and organizations such as the Home Demonstration division gave women the opportunity to pursue a career in science at a time when this kind of work was typically reserved for men. Many doors still remained closed for women in America at the turn of the twentieth century, but in the field of home economics, with its obvious connections to traditional roles for women as wives and mothers, women were the experts.