Ellen Swallow Richards, The Original Superwoman

The Original Home Economics Superwoman

Ellen Swallow Richards

Pioneer, prophet and philosopher


compiled by Joyce B. Miles CFCS Retired

In mid 19thCentury, in the northern farm country of rural Massachusetts, Ellen Swallow was born to parents Fanny and Peter Swallow.  She grew up as an only child, home schooled by both her parents who were teachers.  She thrived on the clean outdoor environment and nearly became a tomboy were it not for her mother’s influences otherwise.  She learned at an early age to accomplish all the domestic chores in the home since her mother enjoyed poor health during much of Ellen’s early years. She was an accomplished cook, as well as housekeeper, seamstress and gardener.  She was an avid reader and often had a book in her hand, even while navigating the stairway.  She was astute in math as well as organization skills and was a great help to her father as he operated various merchantile establishments throughout northern Massachussetts.

She attended Westford Academy and successfully taught school for a short time.  However, she languished in a severe time of depression as she realized her life was not fulfilled. She desired greater educational challenges and felt thwarted that none were open to women in New England at the time.  When she learned about a new Women’s College called Vassar opening in New York, she turned from her depression and started saving money to attend.  She entered as a third year student and thrived with the rigorous study opportunities.  She was interested in astronomy, but could see no practial applications, so turned to chemistry.  In the field of chemistry she could envision solutions to many problems of the day including poor air quality, poor water quality, poor sanitation and inadequate nutritional diets.

After her Vassar days, she felt once again the doors were closed to women for further scientific study.  She applied to MIT and was eventually admitted as a special student. The officials wanted no complaints about a woman in class, hence the special student status.  Her early years at MIT provided her with the scientific study she desired, and she eventually became an expert in water quality and was sought after as a consultant throughout the world.  She became the first ever woman instructor at MIT where she continued for the rest of her life.  She opened the doors for women in science and walked where no woman had walked before.

While she wasn’t content with just getting herself admitted to MIT, she vigorously campaigned for more women to be admitted and eventually completed a Women’s Laboratory for women in science.  She worked tirelessly for more educational opportunities for women in education including co-founding with Marion Talbot the organization we know today as AAUW. She provided correspondence courses for women who wanted to teach science. (keep in mind this was long before the internet) She orchestrated the first “take out” meals in the New England Kitchen and went on to organize the school lunch program which still exists today.  Through her efforts in this arena, she became interested in the science of nutrition and championed  nutrition education for the masses in order to encourage people to select a more healthy diet and ultimately a better quality of life.  She was solely responsible for designing the Rumford Kitchen exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where this tiny little kitchen served nutritious meals to thousands of fairgoers, along with a healthy dose of nutrition education. She shunned an invitation to participate in the Women’s Building as she said none of her research was just women’s work, but rather information for all.

Ellen traveled extensively to the far reaches of the country and even abroad in an effort to reach others with her scientific information.  She lectured and published extensively and kept a dizzying schedule that could derail even the most energetic person.  Late in the 19thCentury, she convened a group of contemporaries to discuss the essence of domestic science and how the elements of this discipline would ultimately improve the quality of life for many individuals and families. They met at pristine Lake Placid, New York at the invitation of Melvil Dewey.  Over the course of the next 10 years, these educators worked tirelessly to elevate the discipline, which was to become home economics, to a legitimate profession.  Ellen wanted to call this oekology or the science of right living.  Euthenics, the science of controllable environment, was also a name of her choice, but home economics was finally selected.  She was the visionary leader who could see how all things work together, and by  1909, the American Home Economics Association was a reality.

Ellen died before giving birth to and solidifying her real love, the oekology movement as an intricate link to science, the environment and the human interaction.  However, her legacy lives today in many, many venues.   

(Original article appeared in Twin Cities HEIB Newsletter  December 2007.)

                             It’s not just how far a woman can go in life;

                                     It’s how far a woman’s life can go.




November 2017
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