Women's History at Iowa State


College of Home Economics (Family and Consumer Sciences)
By Tanya Zanish-Belcher

The History of Family and Consumer Sciences (formerly known as Home Economics)
at Iowa State University

The Ladies’ Course

Iowa State Agricultural College was co-educational from the beginning.  It is worthwhile to examine the words of Adonijah Strong Welch, the first president:

"We offer, then, to the young women from time to time, shall resort to this College, a scope for scientific progress and research as unlimited and free as that which we offer to the other sex."

Among his reasons:
1st-Because all the faculties of the human mind, have, without respect to gender, a natural, unquestionable right to discipline and development.
2nd-Because the duties of motherhood, to which God has appointed her, require, for their complete performance, a wide and cultivate intelligence
3rd-Because general intellectual and moral culture will sanctify, elevate and purify the influences of the home, and render it a genuine school for the training of the future citizen.
4th-Because we would enable her to make provision for her own self-support, by a special preparation to engage in the many suitable employments on a footing equal with man, both as to the skill and the remuneration of the worker.
(Board of Trustees minutes, 1869)

But although women were admitted to the first Iowa State Agricultural College class in 1869, no set curriculum was developed for them.  Mary Beaumont Welch, the wife of Iowa State's first president, Adonijah Welch, developed the "ladies course" that was presented to the Board of Trustees and approved in 1871.  The program consisted of the following:


Freshman Year: The Course is identical with the course in Agriculture


First Term:  General Chemistry; Inorganic Chemistry; Botany; Physics; Latin and French (Optional); English Literature (Optional); Music and Drawing (Optional)

Second Term:  General Chemistry; Inorganic and Organic Chemistry or Qualitative Analysis; Botany; Physics; Latin and French (Optional); Music and Drawing (Optional); English Literature (Optional)


First Term: Botany; Latin and French (Optional); Study of Words; Landscape Gardening with Topographical Drawing; Music and Drawing (Optional); History

Second Term: Domestic Economy; Study of Shakespeare; Physics (Optional); History; Music and Drawing (Optional)


First Term: Psychology; Comparative Anatomy and Physiology; Mineralogy and Geology; Formation of Soils; Political Economy; Constitutional History and Law; Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene; Meteorology

The National Home Economics Movement and Its Impact

The Progressive Period in U.S. history (ca. 1900-1920) marked an active period of development for the home economics movement.  The American Home Economics Association was established in 1909, and national legislative efforts such as the Smith-Lever Act (1914) which provided for the extension of college information to the farm woman in the home; and the Smith-Hughes Vocational Act (1917), that provided vociational training for a variety of areas, including home economics.  The declaration of World War I in 1917 also produced the need for the conservation of and nutritional information relating to food, as well as responding to health issues, such as the influenza epidemic.

The State of Iowa also supported the concept of Extension by passing the Agricultural Extension Act in 1906.  The Act provided that:

"The Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts is hereby authorized to undertake and maintain a system of Agricultural Extension work...The college authorities are authorized to give instruction in corn and stock judging at agricultural fairs, institutes, and clubs, and to aid in conducting short courses of instruction at suitable places throughout the state; to give lectures and demonstrations on the growing of crops and fruits, on stock raising, dairying, land drainage, and kindred subjects including domestic science..."

Finally, Iowa State reorganized in 1913, and a separate Division of Home Economics was created.  As later ISU President W. Robert Parks noted in 1970, it "gave home economics prestige, autonomy, and an opportunity to control its own destiny."   With this new reorganization, the College began a new emphasis on science and its role in the curriculum.

World War II and Research in Home Economics

Graduate work in Home Economics began in 1914, and the master's degree was authorized in 1920.  By 1925, the seven areas in the Division of Home Economics (Applied Art, Textiles and Clothing, Foods and Nutrition, Home Economics Vocational Education, Household Administration, Institutional Administration, and Physical Education) had developed graduate course work.  The first M.S. degree was awarded in 1915.   



Current Trends



This introduction is based on A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University: A Proud Past, A Lively Present, A Future Promise, by Ercel Sherman Eppright and Elizabeth Storms Ferguson.


Women's Physical Education, 1878-1941
By Becky Jordan

In the early years at Iowa State, the only organized physical activity for women had been the Ladies Militia.  This group was started because of student interest: G (for Girls) Company was established in 1878; a second company, L (for Ladies) Company was added in 1891.  The battalion was disbanded in 1897.

In 1899, the Department of Elocution and Oratory began offering a course for sophomore women in "Aesthetic Culture."  This consisted of "a series of lectures on the different phases of Aesthetics, physical drills, looking toward the best development of the body, for both health and expression."  (General Catalog, 1900).  It seems odd today that physical education would be part of what we think of as speech instruction.  However, at the turn of the century, gesture and physical control were considered an integral part of public speaking.  Part of the Elocution course description from the 1900 Catalog conveys this:  "The oration...carefully written and criticised, carefully drilled and rehearsed, gives a practice in thought and bodily control not to be found in any other line of work."

Aesthetic (changed to Physical in 1902) Culture for Women remained part of Elocution until 1915, when it was transferred to the Division of Home Economics.  Ercel Eppright and Elizabeth Storms Ferguson, in A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University, suggest that the move was made because 80% of women students were enrolled in the Home Economics Division and also because Margaret Hall, which housed the Physical Education facilities was identified with Home economics.  Both a food and a sewing lab were located in the building.

By the 1901-1902 school year, Physical Culture has been expanded to a requirement, 45 minutes, twice a week  through the junior year.  (This was dropped down to 2 years in 1907).  Sadie Hook, Class of 1898, was hired in 1901 as Instructor in Physical Culture and Assistant in Elocution and Oratory at a salary of $400 per year.  She remained on the staff for three years.  In 1904, Winifred Richards Tilden, an Ames native and a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, was hired to replace Sadie Hooks.  Miss Tilden directed women's physical education at Iowa State for 29 years.

With the coming of Winifred Tilden, Physical Education for Women was expanded, both in the required course, and through extracurricular activities, which were under the auspices of the Women's Athletic Association.  Outdoor fields on Central Campus were provided for field hockey, basketball, and tennie.  In-class work was described in the 1909 General Catalog:

"The Swedish System of gymnastics, including marching tactics, calisthenics, and apparatus work is taught.  The highest ideals are kept constantly before the mind, not only in health and strength but ease, grace, and refinement in manner and carriage of the body."

"Gymnastics" in the early part of the century referred to organized systems of group exercises.  The Swedish System was originally developed by A.O. Lindfors and Per Henrik Ling in Sweden in the early 1800s.  Ling (who was also Poet Laureate of Sweden) based the system on his studies of anatomy and physiology.  They were sometimes referred to as "corrective" or "remedial" and consisted mostly of group exercises performed in unison.  The goal was improvement in bodily functions (circulation, respiration, and digestion) as well as a physiological benefit from the muscular self-control required to execute the exercises.

As time went on, folk dancing was added to the curriculum, as well as swimming, once the Margaret Hall pool was completed in 1917.  A swimming test was listed in the Catalog as a graduation requirement until 1938, when Margaret Hall burned.  In the twenties, there was a shift on the national level from the "gymnastic" type of physical education to a games-oriented approach:

Outdoor Opportunities:  During the freshman year, one of the three required hours per week is devoted to sports.  Hockey, archery, golf, horse shoe pitching, tennis, soccer, hand ball, and swimming are offered during the year.  (1924/1925 General Catalog) 

Because Iowa State had already moved in this direction, both in the course work and with the intramural activities available through the Women's Athletic Association, this new trend found easy acceptance here.

Courses in teaching methods and playground supervision had also been added and Physical Education for Women was available as a major from 1924/1925 through 1932/1933.  After 1933, a minor sequence was developed for students wishing to teach both home economics and physical education.  The major was not re-established until 1960.

The thirties were years of making do for Physical Education.  Course offerings were less varied after the major was dropped (and even less so after Margaret Hall burned down).  Miss Tilden wrote in 1935:

"Thus from one source or another, with an attic here and an annex there, the women in physical education have acquired their present housing facilities, consisting of rooms in three buildings which are widely separated and inadequately equipped-- 1) Margaret Hall, 2) Botany Hall (now Catt Hall), and 3) Field House."

Regarding Margaret Hall's basement:

"Overcrowding!  Much confusion!"

Physical Education was indeed scattered all over campus.  Margaret Hall was located where LeBaron Hall is today, Botany/Catt Hall still exists, and the Field House (later used for the Manhattan Project) was south of Hamilton Hall.  The playing fields, formerly on Central Campus, then the site of the Library, were now east of Barton Hall.  The College began asking for funding for a new women's gym in 1928, and continued to do so each biennium thereafter, but it was not until after the Margaret Hall fired (April 9, 1938) that money was at last made available.  In August of 1939, Tinsley, McBroom, and Higgins, a Des Moines architectural firm, was selected to draw up plans for the building.  Construction was begun in January of 1940 and completed in January 1941.  Iowa State had advanced a long way from the Physical Culture class in an upstairs classroom in Margaret Hall. The new building, in combination with the outdoor recreation facilities of the campus, placed the Iowa State facilities in the top ten nationally among state institutions:

"The Iowa State College with its new physical education building for women affords unusual opportunity for the development of recreational activities through this department.  Besides the indoor facilities found in the new plant, such as gymnasia with dressing rooms and showers, dance studio, individual activity room, swimming pool, and indoor golf and archery ranges, extensive out-of-door facilities are provided.  Tennis courts, archery range, athletic fields, and an eighteen hole golf course are available for instructional, intramural, and club programs.  (1941 General Catalog)


Women in the Botany Department

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Twentieth Century Women of Iowa State University
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