SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: For her distinction of being the first woman of color to earn a PhD in home economics, Cornell University alumna Flemmiee P Kittrell is often regarded as an exceptional figure in histories of the discipline and in higher education for minorities. After completing her Cornell degree, Dr. Kittrell went on to become the Dean of Women and head of the Department of Home Economics at Hampton Institute, and then head of the Home Economics Department at the prestigious Howard University in Washington, DC.
At a March 2014 talk at Mann Library, Allison Horrocks, 2013 Dean's Fellowship recipient in the History and Home Economics in the College of Human Ecology, traces Kittrell's rise to prominence as an educator and nutrition expert, connecting her story to a diverse range of activists and academics working within the field. By looking closely at her work at home and abroad, she suggests new ways of thinking about the possibilities for women within the field of home economics.
ALAN MATHIOS: My name is Alan Mathios. I'm the Dean of the College of Human Ecology. And it's my great privilege to welcome you to the talk entitled To Encircle the World-- Flemmie Kittrell and the International Politics of Home Economics. We're really pleased-- and I had a sneak presentation-- a earlier presentation-- by Allison Horrocks. She did a wonderful job on this afternoon.
She's a PhD student at the University of Connecticut who has studied Flemmie Kittrell's work in international nutrition and home economics. Allison herself is focusing on examining home economics while integrating the broader histories of women's work and domesticity from the early 1900s to the 1970s, including contributions by Flemmie Kittrell herself. Allison has been able to further Kittrell's research with the approach of-- and I quote-- "at home and abroad in terms of expanding our knowledge and entertaining new ways of thinking about the possibilities for women within the field of home economics."
And I just wanted to backtrack a little bit. As we get close to starting our sesquicentennial celebration as a university, it's a time for the deans of the college and the President's Office to reflect on some of the major historical accomplishments and milestones. And Flemmie Kittrell is one of those. So Allison will be talking about this at length, I believe, but just as a reminder, she was the first African American to receive a PhD in nutrition in the country. And Cornell is very, very proud. And Human Ecology-- Home Economics in the past-- is very, very proud to be associated with that. And then what that led to in terms of her impact on the field you'll learn more about from Allison.
But it really is a milestone. And what I would say is to think back on what it was like to be a woman scholar earning her PhD in an environment where there weren't very many women getting PhDs in the first place and then to also be the first African American in the country to do this. That takes a lot of courage. And wow, it's quite impressive.
And then I learned today too that-- I didn't know this, but when Flemmie Kittrell was at the building opening of the north wing of MVR, which is no longer there-- and while she was at Howard University, she was responsible for actually building a new home economics building at Howard. And so having gone through building a new building for Home Economics or Human Ecology, I have this like soulmate in what it takes to pull that off. And the fact that she was at the inauguration of the building that we had to bring down to build my new building, it's sort of wow.
So just one more comment before I introduce and hand it over to Allison. So just so you know, the deans-- we have a committee in the college that helps select a scholar to study the history of home economics. And this is the Dean's Fellowship that gets awarded, again, in the history of home economics. And Allison was the recipient of one of these fellowships to really help support the work that she did. Some of the committee members are here today, so I want to thank them for helping in keeping the tradition and the history of home economics alive today.
When I talk about the College of Human Ecology today, I always get so excited about what we we're doing and talk about all the wonderful things that are going on now. But I also always reflect on the vision of taking people from different disciplines and putting them together in physical space to study themes-- nutrition, children-- and the power and innovation of that approach is something that's always been with the college. And what you learn by these lessons in history is how powerful that approach has been and continues to be. So there are strong, strong connections between what we do now and what we did 100 years ago-- coming close to it. So Human Ecology sort of came into its own in the 1920s, early 1930s. So we're getting close to the 100th celebration of that. So without further ado, I now turn it over to what I know is going to be an excellent presentation from Allison.
ALLISON HORROCKS: My project, which does its best to kind of examine the history of home economics from the '20s to the '70s, really uses Flemmie Kittrell's story as a kind of guidepost and a lens. And I really couldn't do this project without the access I was given to the special collections and to Mann Library here. I'm truly indebted to [? Eileen ?] [? Angst ?] and also to Margaret Rossiter, who were so generous with their time and their ideas.
But I really have the greatest of thanks for Eileen Keating, whose sent a very thoughtful response to what was a general undergraduate inquiry six years ago. I was writing my undergraduate thesis, and her response to me completely changed my research agenda and still really drives some of the questions I'm asking today. So thank you.
Throughout my talk, I'll be moving between some biographical details that sketch out Kittrell's life and some broader strokes that give us a sense of the background and the history. This echoes my larger project, which is trying to expand upon what we already know about Flemmie Kittrell, primarily that she was an exceptional Hampton student, that she was a first here at Cornell, an educator at Howard, a nationally renowned nutritionist, and finally a global activist. All of these superlatives are absolutely fitting, but they lack context, and that's what I'm hoping to give today.
In coming here to Cornell, I wanted to place Kittrell into a historical narrative, even if that meant marking her, again, as a kind of exception. In sharing my research today, I want to point to the ways in which she was and was not exceptional in the fields. Along the way, I hope to open up some new ways, discussing both the limits and the possibilities, for women of diverse backgrounds in the field.
Trying to find a place for Kittrell in this history has brought me time and time again back to this photograph, which Kittrell posed for during a campus visit in 1968. It was just mentioned-- that opening of the north wing of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. By this time, Kittrell was a well established academic in the United States and well-known throughout the world as a nutrition expert.
I chose this image deliberately, knowing that it's already been widely circulated, even appears on her Wikipedia page. It's all over Cornell publications. And it was even used in the first Kittrell lecture nearly 20 years ago.
This image hints at two aspects of home economics history that I think have been largely understudied-- the roles of women of color in the fields and the international dimensions of the discipline. Even though the image seems to flout this common knowledge about home economics, it's not been seen as a real challenge to any other interpretations because as Kittrell stands, she can be regarded as just an exception. But I argue that there is an important tension here between her position as a kind of solitary model and the way that the lines behind her invite us to look at these other stories.
In that moment, of course, she was alone. But for most of her career, and presumably in the photo that was taken right afterward, she was connected to these very dense networks. Using this image as a kind of template, I want to show how the woman at the forefront, Kittrell, provides us a new way of understanding diversity and internationalism in the field. In many ways, each of these lines is an argument but also an affirmation of the fact that there were many students, academics, and researchers of different backgrounds who found a place, or they would say even a home, in world affairs through domestic science.
Many histories of home economics, however, assume that the field was only or entirely composed of white women of some means who gradually gravitated towards consumer concerns in the 1930s. With images of white home economists at the fore and very popular in the culture, these alternate histories of internationalism or possibly even diversity have become unthinkable. Kittrell was a first, but she certainly was not the last, and her story has led me to many others, including women from historically black institutions and foreign nations throughout the world.
Here, I just want to pause and show some images. We tend to think of this period as being very conservative in the field, but here are some other possibilities after 1945 and, as I'll argue, even earlier.
These stories challenge easy assumptions about the discipline's trajectory over the 20th century. Too many histories assume that these women were domestically oriented in a few senses and that the women were supposed to stay home or that they merely worked in other women's homes, also in the assumption that they never left the country-- so domestic in that sense. But my goal today isn't to just challenge that assumption, but to argue that these women's stories really have a lot to offer-- in terms of teaching us something about academic politics, the constraints on women's work, and visions of the United States' place in the world.
Kittrell's story requires that we stretch our idea of who a home economist was and what she aspired to do, but it also compels us to rethink some of the assumptions about even the field's origins. As early as 1945, home economists express desires for internationalism and an expansive reach to many peoples. Martha Van Rensselaer, in particular, urged women to encircle the world with their profession. This missionary-like zeal for expanding the field did more than encourage the exportation of home economics, however. Within the United States, it was creating new possibilities for women like Kittrell.
But home economics was not the exclusive domain of white women in the North. although the origin story usually told about home economics is situated here in New York at a progressive retreat run by the Deweys at Lake Placid, there are other compelling stories located in the South where women of color, such as Nannie Helen Burroughs and Lucy Craft Laney, who is featured in the second program, took an active role in shaping their own homemaking education programs. These women, though separated by race, shared common interests in female education as a means of community uplift.
Just as many parts of the North were remade by land grant schools, such as Cornell, the desire to spread higher education and different ways of respectability also marked the turn of the century North Carolina, where Kittrell is from. Within just her own hometown of Henderson, a school by the name of Kittrell College for industrial training was one of the many ways that reconstruction dreams for social advancement got mapped onto the landscape.
Because Kittrell has seemed to stand almost outside of history as this exceptional figure, it's been hard to imagine other connections between these two worlds. But her story really gives us a rare opportunity to think about the ways that women of diverse backgrounds gained various levels of access into state and international institutions.
But as much as this is a story about place and race, it's also about age. Lives like Kittrell's defy easy categorizations, and they show us the value of thinking longitudinally across a few different historical periods. Most of the women I'll be discussing today, Kittrell included, were influenced by progressive era training and born in the decade just after the turn of the century. These women grew up in institutions made by Van Rensselaers and Booker T. Washingtons and came of age in a time of increasing imperial ambition.
In the interwar period, these same women seized upon new opportunities to earn advanced degrees. In the coming decades, they were shaken but ultimately emboldened by the Depression and World War II. This cohort, I argue, was then responsible for further expanding their profession and becoming involved in Cold War politics. For all that would change for these women of a certain age and place, their passion for usefulness and education and a devotion to the family echoed a much earlier period, even through the 1970s.
Kittrell's story fits with and in many ways provides an ideal lens for thinking about this trajectory of a cohort. So I want to begin by examining her beginnings in Henderson, North Carolina. She was born on Christmas Day in 1904, the seventh of nine, to James and Alice Kittrell. She grew up surrounded by family, including many extended kin, and she was especially close to her grandmother.
This was the domestic life that she would often use to measure others throughout the world. Indeed, she would often claim that her mother, her first teacher, was the one who truly taught her that children were learning all the time.
But perhaps Kittrell credited this, quote, "good rearing" with her early achievements for still other reasons. The educational opportunities in her town at that time were not great. She would occasionally mention some of these early challenges in life but, as with most negative subjects, only to make light of them. To avoid delving into segregation or race politics, Kittrell often told the same story about her elementary school teacher who made her cry at the thought that she, quote, "didn't even know enough to teach the second grade," and then she'd promise she would be back again for third grade. And this story is often told in her memoirs.
But Kittrell's family was actually facing far greater challenges than these or other stories suggest. Over a period of just a few weeks, she lost her father to a hernia and her sister to a vitamin deficiency. Though she dedicated much of her life to nutrition research, she never mentioned these tragedies in interviews or personal papers. The tragic death of a brother just a few years later and the prevalence of infant death in her own family also went unnoted. We'll come back to that issue in just a bit.
The coming of age story that mattered most to her was her transition to the Hampton Institute, which she started attending in 1919. Student records show that she lives the Hampton ideal of improving her hands, head, and heart within the walls of the teacher's dining room, the laundry, and the tea room. She also received funds from a private donor, which is fortunate for us today, because this left behind a paper trail. She thanked this donor and noted that she was so anxious to come and to take up home economics work at Hampton.
Whatever her true feelings were about her training there, and however Hampton may have felt from home, she was still close to her family. Most of her work assignments were alongside her sister Rosa, and her brother Fred also walked with them to Hampton. Named the class [INAUDIBLE] and called a true Hamptonian, Kittrell was also seen at that time as a future homemaker. In the year book, they note, she had hopes of leaving the house of Kittrell. But she never married, and she stayed on for the college program instead, earning a four-year degree. Either way, so long as she became a full time teacher or wife, she would have met that Hampton ideal.
A contemporary publication from Hampton stressed that all female graduates should aspire to train others in morality, good citizenship, sanitation, and vocational work. Much like an extension worker or home demonstration agent, this training prepared her for a life that would blend domestic science, education, and missionary work of some kind. Yet even with this insistence on creating strong local leaders, this does not mean that the school was parochial. Quite the opposite, in fact, for Kittrell was receiving quite the education in internationalism.
In addition to the thousands of visitors who came to study at Hampton each year, her graduating class, quote, "came forth from 20 different states in the US, the far away continent of Africa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands." A zest for improvement and an expansive missionary impulse was really seen and felt all over campus. Whether walking past the extensive library exhibits on domestic art from Africa or the chapel, which contained a piece of coral in honor of the founder's missionary connections to Hawaii, the outside world would have seemed to seep into every hand laid brick on campus. In that same chapel, Kittrell would have heard from visiting missionaries and delegates. We can only speculate as to the kind of impact these visitors' words had on her as she sat in that elaborate chapel adorned with African art.
Hampton's missionary connections to various parts of the world would also be echoed throughout the nation, even at land grant schools, which were supposed to be dedicated mostly to local issues. Though this period of the '20s and the teens is usually regarded as one of isolationism for the US, throughout the nation and particularly in schools of agriculture and home economics, global affairs were increasingly intruding on domestic politics. At the end of World War I, home economists were especially keen on expanding the international dimensions of their field.
After telling them to encircle the world, Martha Van Rensselaer earlier lived up to her word and traveled to Belgium with Flora Rose to study children's nutritional needs. Other professional files from this time show faculty using the Near East Foundation and other religious networks to combine domestic science with missionary funds. Simply put, the field was rapidly changing in the '20s, in part because of an increased move toward professionalization but also because of this heightened interest in the outside world.
For Kittrell, this would have been an exciting and sometimes controversial time to enter the field. But it's important to note that these particular possibilities may have seemed quite distant to her, when her life still largely revolved around Hampton's classrooms and the [? Willow ?] Tree Tea Room which she ran with a friend. An active student on campus, she later describes her graduating class in the yearbook as, quote, "having a pulse, beating at the most alarming [? rate; ?] her nerves all on edge and her temperature now 130"-- referring to the number of graduates.
Given the rapid changes in Hampton throughout the '20s, that pulse would have only accelerated. During her next four years, enrollments increased by 300%. And by the late '20s, the curriculum had basically entirely changed too. It now included more courses in education, advanced food study, bacteriology, textiles, historic costume, and rural sociology.
Hampton also finalized plans for a practice home, which was built by trade students between 1923 and 1924. The director of the school and the program was quick to point out that students in the practice home were, quote, "neither exploited nor restricted to preparation for a trade." Here, the director refers to the assumption that Hampton was designed to train domestics.
But by the '20s, Kittrell's period, the work and academic ratio had been drastically changed. Even the classrooms had been altered to include elaborate clothing exhibits, new plates on international costumes, and there were new dining rooms and art centers as well. Simply put, this was not the stoic or static version of Hampton that many would have thought, and the one captured by Frances Benjamin Johnston in her famous Hampton photographs.
Yet for all the exciting changes during this period, it would be wrong to assume that Kittrell's interest was inevitable. She once told an interviewer that at that age she, quote, "did not like nutrition and thought the home was just so ordinary." She preferred political science instead. Though she was encouraged to continue with home economics, we could argue that she was never far from political science in what she did with nutrition anyway.
In the end, she would be encouraged by Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner, the first African-American male to earn a PhD in his field at Cornell. After graduating, Kittrell had taken a job as a teacher at Bennett College in North Carolina. But Turner urged her to continue with her own education.
She's also said to have been reluctant because she, quote, "would not know anyone up there." Whether she means New York or Cornell specifically, I'm not sure. Though there were precedents, the numbers of non-white students at land grants like Cornell had historically been small. What she could not have known was that she was part of a new trend toward increasing numbers of minority and foreign women in graduate education.
And when Kittrell arrived at Cornell between 1929 and 1930, her primary interests were in nutrition, rural education, and rural social education. Like one of her advisors, [? Cora Binsel, ?] Kittrell moved between the related but at that time not entirely connected fields, home economics and rural education. She took a variety of courses in each of these areas, but it's worth noting that her time on campus then was quite limited. She could only take courses in between her teaching load at Bennett.
Even in these fairly brief sessions, however, her fears of not knowing anyone must have been abated fairly quickly when she was joined by the fellow Hampton grad [? Felice ?] Watson Holmes. They actually ran the tea room together, which she doesn't mention, but can be found in Hampton records. Soon thereafter, women such as [? Benny ?] [? Weir, ?] [? Mamie ?] [? Powell, ?] and other women from Hampton, Tuskegee, and Howard, to name just a few, were coming to Cornell and other land grants for the advanced degree programs.
The student population was changing in still other ways. Erl Bates, a local physician and advocate for Native Americans, was continuing his work by bringing Onondaga farmers and young women to study home economics and agriculture in this same time. The college was also offering courses for missionaries on short leaves. And many faculty involved in that program would carry that through with other foreign students.
Meanwhile, there was really a missionary drive among students such as Charlotte Wiser, which led them to use their home economics training to complete studies abroad. Nationally, women such as Helen Atwater, who edited the Journal of Home Economics, were writing about the promise of the field in the Middle East. Dr. Hazel Stiebeling served as a nutrition consultant to the League of Nations also during this time. This international outlook even led to new scholarship programs designed to, quote, "extend the profession and to promote international understanding." This is just one of many lists that they generate of the students going to and from the US.
In this interwar period, the need to build positive relationships and train female leaders around the world was felt acutely at Cornell. Through open dialogues about agricultural and rural life, the women of Cornell and the associated country women of the world believed they could turn all foreigners into friends. And it was during the same time that the ACWW was brought to Cornell, which is a huge movement during the war time.
And the world was not just coming here. Two professors, for instance, undertook an extensive world tour in 1936 while on leave. After catching up with a former student in the Philippines and meeting new friends in India, they returned with a wonderfully rich collection of textiles and really truly a sense of wonder as to how large and yet well-connected the world felt for them, as home economists, traveling as the world was on the brink of mass warfare.
This increasingly broad view was also matched by a drive for physical expansion here on campus. The changing student population and the construction of the new Martha van Rensselaer Hall all happen as a backdrop to Kittrell's time here. Though she spent most of her time again in North Carolina, These changes still may have influenced her vision of the discipline.
By the time she completed her master's thesis "Home Economics Education in North Carolina," she wrote like a passionate advocate for the field. Upon completing this first degree, she temporarily stopped her rural education studies here and turned back to her rural roots at Bennett in North Carolina. But the lure of an advanced degree soon brought her back. After spending a summer taking courses at Columbia University, she was back at Cornell earning a PhD in home economics.
Within just a few years, Kittrell completed her coursework and her doctoral thesis. She studied the feeding habits among mothers and infants around Greensboro, North Carolina, under the supervision of Ethel Waring and Helen Monsch. With this degree, Kittrell was more deeply entrenched in the College of Home Economics and more focused on nutrition and child development.
In some ways, her work very closely resembles that of other graduates from the time, particularly with this emphasis on children's nutritional needs. But it's worth flagging the ways in which she was also quite distinctive. And she made two important interventions-- first, by focusing on average homes-- what she called average homes-- so not institutional records-- and by looking at conditions in African-American communities. Her research would show that in a state that already had very high infant mortality rates, the rates for blacks were twice as high and sometimes higher.
In traveling around Greensboro, she spent hours interviewing women about prenatal care, medical treatment, delivery, and how they planned to feed their children. Even with pages of charts, data, and a review of the literature, the real accomplishment here was the way that she was able to paint such a devastating portrait of people's needs during the Great Depression. The product is readable and sensitive, and the final pages present a really painful understatement. She writes, "Adequate standards for nutrition of infants have not yet been developed." In the long run, these words would be more of a prelude than an ending to her life's work.
With this complete, Kittrell was eagerly awaiting the final notice that she had completed all of her requirements in 1935. But controversy over a French translation exam delayed the conferral of the degree. Waring and Monsch eventually stepped in to clarify the issue. Kittrell would later recall that she, quote, "didn't want any special favors" during that time. Dismissively, she would also tell another interviewer, I did not have problems because I wouldn't allow myself to have problems.
These silences are really an important part of the story of race here at Cornell. Though clearly attentive to racial differences in her own thesis work, she rarely spoke about race or discrimination in her own life. This reluctance to speak so explicitly about power and race would, I think, in some ways come back to these women in the coming decades when younger people demanded a change in discourse.
Indeed, finding any traces of explicit discussions about race prior to the '60s are very difficult in these archives. Where they appear most are in instructor's reports where faculty offered candid comments and feedback. Kittrell's are especially illuminating. They show, for instance, that Professor Hazel Hauck, who also trained missionaries for work abroad and supported women from Thailand, considered her a remarkable student because she was, quote, "less race conscious." And even though she had, quote, "a tremendous interest" in the particular nutritional problems of her race, she didn't talk about it essentially.
Likewise, Ethel Waring wrote that Kittrell, quote, "made a place for herself among the students. No feeling of difference is felt by them" even though she, quote, "very frankly speaks of her research and service for her people." She again makes the same kind of comment. Helen Monsch added that Kittrell was anxious to go back to improve the condition of her own race.
Her desire to study her people, in those words, and the faculty's idea that she was concerned with her own race show some of the slippages in this time and the overlapping boundaries between place and race. We can't know if when they were quoting Kittrell, if she meant a group of people in terms of a racial group or simply where she was from, though there was an obvious connection between the two. What we can know is that in the many years to come, these phrases were used over and over in describing foreign students' work here at Cornell. Students for abroad were especially encouraged to work for, quote, "one's own at home." By this, they did not mean a retreat to the household or tending to one's nuclear family but educating an entire community from which they had come.
For Kittrell's part, this meant returning to Bennett in North Carolina and then Hampton where she became Dean of Women in the early 1940s. This is an image from that time. After years of decreasing enrollments, deficits, and other struggles, Hampton finally had the finances to expand with World War I.
Years later, Kittrell called this, quote, "a very unusual period," for the campus was changed almost overnight into a training program. And this is a major understatement. It was basically militarized within a very short period of time.
Kittrell would continue teaching, but her primary responsibility as Dean of Women was looking out for her female students. Much like the faculty at Cornell, her academic agenda was changed also. Kittrell took to local papers-- and here we see her in a grocery store-- as a means of educating the public on parenting and nutrition during the war. Voluntary service during this time for the Office of Price Administration also earned her a mark of distinction from the US government.
All of this work would make Kittrell acutely aware of the possibilities generated by the massive influx of federal funding. The war would also awaken in her a fresh commitment to the field. By 1944, she was convinced that the nation would need more women in the discipline, professionals who would, quote, "be prepared for the big job ahead when the guns have ceased firing around the world," end quote.
That same year, Kittrell decided that she would do that big job elsewhere. By the end of the war, she had left Hampton for a new post at Howard University. As with most opportunities, Kittrell would later argue that she had to be convinced by a friend, and in this case a Cornell alumna, to move on. Kittrell's oral histories also stressed the way that the president at that time, Mordecai Johnson, promised her prestige and would argue that he considered home economics to be a most important field. Kittrell is said to have replied, your building doesn't show that you think that way. A new building would not come to fruition for several decades. But as it turns out, he did indeed value her work very much.
Over the next few years, though, she would be spending less time on campus politics and in these facilities anyway as her professional agenda was increasingly shaped with international and not campus affairs. In this way, she would be part of a much larger trend. Though she had rightly predicted the demand for more courses on family life would come for postwar adjustment, she simply could never have guessed how many opportunities for work abroad would emerge at the same time.
Almost immediately after those guns ceased firing, home economists were contracted through the Marshall Plan to conduct surveys of nutrition and home life in strategic areas such as Greece and Germany. For some women, like Alice Smith, a home economist, this kind of assignment was, quote, "an opportunity to help with misunderstandings," end quote. The next few decades, as Smith traveled to Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, and even South Vietnam, she would find ample opportunities to confront misunderstandings. The women who received these early contracts had usually already worked with the government, and many of them in extension. Helen Strow, for instance, used her position with the USDA as a platform to then get jobs teaching extension all over the world.
For her part, after her work with the OPA, Kittrell was hired by the State Department to study nutrition in Liberia from late 1946 through the summer of 1947. Working with the US Public Health Service, Kittrell would spend her time observing food intake patterns with a focus on identifying hidden hunger. She discovered disturbingly high malnutrition rates, but she was also quick in her report to point out that there were still millions and millions in America facing the same kinds of deficiencies.
Though discussions of food at this time were turning into the idea of food as a political weapon, Kittrell belonged to many organizations that directly denied that kind of characterization. She saw hunger and chose to see hunger as a scientific fact and an impetus to Christian action and social work. But even if she thought of this work as being outside of politics in some ways, it was this knowledge of nutrition that brought her into political arenas. Upon returning from Africa, Kittrell was asked by the press not only about her technical findings on food but also about the government there. In turn, she praised, quote, "the friendly aid of the US," which brought her to Liberia, and the progressive administration of President Tubman there.
Soon thereafter, Kittrell would acquire additional funds to travel into Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and French West Africa. On a report of a visit to a YWCA in Uganda, Kittrell really seems to revel in the level of access that she was able to gain to women's spaces and women's lives. Noting that many scholarly works of the time were based on stereotypes and cliche, she would stress repeatedly that she had been given access to so many more places all through nutrition research.
Often with the backing of the State Department, she would make several more trips throughout Africa. She was usually commissioned to do research and to provide lectures to women's groups during these visits. At a time when many other prominent intellectuals and particularly African-American activists were having their passports revoked, Kittrell easily moved through many different contentious parts of the world, always discussing the needs of families. She was obviously political, but in a quiet way, in a way that was so quiet that these exceptional acts didn't even seem radical.
And so her work would continue, this time with a focus on India. Starting with a Fulbright grant in 1950 through '51, Kittrell made several trips to establish a faculty of home science program at Baroda University. In a Christmas letter she wrote from 1951, she would praise the alert and world-minded students and educators there. She also hoped, in that letter, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that she would be given more money to return, this time from the [? 0.4 ?] program. Within a year, she was back lecturing and developing more coursework.
She also was part of a pilot program to train 22 women in a specialized extension course, traveling through India, Japan, and Hawaii. A sign of her growing prestige, this trip was financed not only by the State Department but the Ford Foundation as well. To friends and colleagues, Kittrell would often stress India's new freedom, which she considered precarious at a time when the world is unsettled and we are engaged in a Cold War. In developing organic models for Indian women's education, she would often stress, perhaps to the surprise of some, the limits of American expertise, hers included. She would often add that there is much we need to learn from India in terms of spiritual life.
Amidst these travels, Kittrell often promoted her work at events such as the Hampton Women's Day luncheon in 1952. Arriving wearing a dress of Indian silk, she spoke of her hopes for peace and understanding, arguing that America should use its resources for the welfare of the world. The establishment a few years later of a Flemmie Kittrell Homemaking Club, which often hosted dress exhibits on international clothing, fashion shows, UN celebrations, and many more, really only hint at the impact she may have had to those who listened to her.
Meanwhile, at other institutions, particularly land grants, others were following Kittrell's lead. The University of Tennessee program and the Iowa State programs in India are really just two examples of the kinds of collaborations that were happening in this period. Here at Cornell, over the next state decade, Cornell faculty such as Hazel Hauck would go to Thailand, the Philippines, Ghana, and Liberia, to name just a few, to establish or further develop home economics programs.
The Ghana program in particular is a great example of the kind of back and forth relationships that Kittrell was pointing to. And here I'll just take a minute to show some images. In September of 1961, a group of women from Ghana and other nations arrived at Cornell through an exchange program sponsored by the Agency for International Development. This would generate further interest in establishing a program back in Ghana the next year. Within a few months, Cornell faculty were making their way to the country, and this included recent graduate Dr. Gwen Newkirk. She had followed Kittrell's lead at Cornell, earned a doctorate, and later became the first African-American president of the American Home Economics Association. For her part, she lauded the two-way value of these efforts, suggesting that they were an ideal way to minimize cultural differences.
Here, I just want to show a few more images. This is some of the women socializing. And they would often say that their greatest honor in coming to Cornell was that they felt at home here. And that kind of language pops up quite frequently. This is the Cornell and Ghana program. And these are some of the faculty I mentioned. And some of these women then came back as students here earning advanced degrees.
In reality, these programs were not only two-way, but multi-directional. Many faculty who bounced through different Cornell satellite programs would then encounter their former students who left these countries to come and study at Cornell. Some faculty, such as Mary Wood, for instance, continued to work in Africa after going to Ghana through various Fulbright grants and assignments in the years to come.
Clearly, the lines to and from Cornell were not always so neat or linear. For Kittrell's part, her paths from the '50s into the early '70s would move between Hampton, where she became a trustee; to Cornell, where she was on the advisory council; to Howard, where she was department head, and also advising on the Cornell and Ghana and Cornell and Liberia programs.
In addition to all of this work in America, Kittrell was also continuing her work abroad. After she completed with the Fulbrights in India, she traveled to the USSR, the Congo, as it was known then, and back to Liberia. She even made a special tour through various cities, including Monrovia, Nairobi, Kampala, Lagos, and Accra. Throughout these travels, she gathered valuable information on food habits, family patterns, and the educational prospects for women.
In many ways, these opportunities for her arose out of a perceived need to challenge Soviet claims about American racism. Because race relations were considered America's Achilles heel, ambassadors like Kittrell were sent out to present alternative possibilities. Knowledgeable audiences would sometimes question Kittrell and other speakers on this issue, pressing for more information on the truth about inequality in America. At one talk in 1958, Kittrell was pressed and pointedly asked about what they called the Little Rock incident where they were trying to desegregate the school. Her calm and even answer on the need for pragmatism received glowing reviews in State Department files. To her, she was more than just an adept nutritionist. She was a great ambassador who could seemingly tackle amazingly political issues while only talking about families and food.
Other contemporary home economists such as Patsy Graves of Howard and Queen Jones of Tuskegee were also using their training to do work abroad. There are hundreds of other examples that I've tracked that I could provide-- women of various backgrounds-- but it should suffice to say that home economists were really finding ways to thrive in this period. But for all of their successes and particularly Kittrell's, I don't mean to suggest that all opportunities were equal. In some private correspondence, and truly only in the private correspondence, Kittrell would note that even with higher numbers of women of color working in the Bureau of Home Economics, in human nutrition, and all over the world, there were still unfortunate barriers.
But as always and even that same letter, she would remain buoyed by these gradual increases and the support she received from the Africa desk at the State Department. These and other examples I've accumulated on different kinds of exchange programs show that even if her level of access to the world was extraordinary, in her mind she did not stand alone in these networks. But these stories have been largely muted in favors of other form of engagement with state based and international politics. The few women of color who have been written about in connection with Cold War politics have been defined as artists or activists through other means. Likewise, histories of higher education in this period simply can't account for why minority women would work within this profession or why it may have been a means for political advancement.
By taking our focus away from this presumed domestic orientation of home economics, it's clear that this field did not set a rigid path to domestic service or housewifery. As these women spoke of the family in the postwar period, they were really imagining a very broad canvas and a broader need than most historians have imagined. As it turns out with their work, they did not reify but mobilized rhetoric about the need for what some have called Cold War domestic containment. Indeed, I argue that instead of being homeward bound, these women were granted access to the world in a way that other academics simply were not. By the late 1960s, the archives are nearly bursting with stories of assignments with various agencies, mission boards, and university programs. And these were generated by the American Home Economics Association to give you a very small sample of just the reach of these kinds of programs.
By the 1960s, Dean [INAUDIBLE] here at Cornell could note that there were, quote, "six times as many requests as there are graduates for work here and overseas," and that was at Cornell alone. For those trained in the field, she continued, jobs abound the world around. But perhaps the home economist Peggy Walton put it best with her article title, "Be a Home Economist and See The World."
With all of these encounters, home economists often created networks that would be nearly impossible to actually represent in a to-and-from style map. To cite just one example, Kittrell's initial invitation to [INAUDIBLE] where she then established programs to bring women back to the US actually came from a woman named Hansa Mehta, who is not only a UN representative, but the mother of a junior in the College of Home Economics in the '40s.
Indeed, some of these connections were so dense and so many that they can be difficult to actually follow. In terms of quantity, a little more than a decade after these exchanges began, nearly half of the students in child development and family relationships here alone were from overseas. Similar patterns were emerging at Iowa State and Michigan State where home economists were active not only in foreign assignments but student recruitment. Elsewhere, nearly 600 leaders from 30 different nations were coming for short-term training through the USDA and other federal agencies each year.
By the 1960s, faculty such as Dr. Catherine Personius could easily argue that, quote, "state colleges in fulfilling their responsibilities to the people of New York state find themselves concerned for people around the world." By the 1960s, it was practically common sense among home economists that these programs were creating possibilities for sharing knowledge, experience, and even international understanding. And even though they had a keen eye towards the forums of variety and diversity among countries, communities, and individuals, they were really interested in finding the universal elements common to all people. This tension between finding universal needs and culturally-specific practices drove many of the Cornell forums in the college from the '50s through the '70s. Some faculty were especially cautious after working abroad, warning others of the dangers of misunderstandings and the need to, quote, "respect differences in beliefs, values, and practices between cultures."
One expert speaking at a forum would put this a bit more bluntly-- the trap is our blythe assumption that everybody wants to live like we do. Although many experts, such as Helen Strow of the USDA, would work to create appropriate materials for home economists abroad, cultural collisions, of course, could not be avoided entirely. One woman would recount with great frustration her visit to a Greek village where there was a USDA film strip on food preservation. These women were watching images of American kitchens and equipment and even women driving to a quick freeze plant. This woman called this particular film fantasy, like a trip to Mars. She asked the USDA for more support and more films which would be more useful.
Throughout these records, and even embedded within that criticism, is this assumption that home economists only needed more-- more funding, more students, and more resources-- to solve these problems. In this way, their work could fit neatly with existing assumptions about Cold War politics and the expansion of the state in this time. But I think it would be too simple to categorize this work as a simple manifestation of imperial ambition. Kittrell and other women's personal papers really revealed the debates, doubts, and even tensions that framed a lot of this work. Particularly because so many of these women were also active in peace organizations, it's worth pausing to consider how much of their work was funded by the military industrial complex. But most of these women were absolutely convinced that this was the best means of promoting understanding and a higher quality of life.
And though most of these specialists would use government funding, many, such as Urie Bronfenbrenner, released findings that certainly wouldn't have pleased anyone looking for simple arguments about non-democratic systems. In his scholarship on families in China, Israel, and the USSR, Bronfenbrenner would highlight superior practices in these countries. In one report, he noted that his peers should, quote, "be willing to look at Soviet society and even learn from it."
These experts' involvement with the state were further complicated by the fact that they often took on assignments with other groups at the same time, including the YWCA or international religious missions. Private letters, such as this one from Hazel Hauck, and alumni notices from faculty, such as Ethel Waring, give us a sense of the ease with which these women moved through the world and through different kinds of networks. This is truly one of my favorite finds in the archives because it's so personal and it really gives you a great insight into the way in which these women moved around the world. Hazel has just been doing work in Nigeria at that time, and here she's talking about a trip that she took where she simply ran into people she knew everywhere. These women were almost never concerned with housing because they always found someone they knew to stay with through extension.
At one point in an alumni letter, Waring, for her part, even ranked the number of time each of her students spent abroad. A similar kind of pride can be found in Kittrell's descriptions of her own students. She was particularly proud of hosting department teas where foreign students could share their stories about home lives with their peers. At one event in 1953, she highlighted a Pakistan student's work with the State Department's exchange program.
She may have modeled this on other similar events held at Martha Van Rensselaer hall, where Cornell students gathered for alumni teas and also had special exhibits on the lives of foreign students. At one event, students heard from women representing countries such as Canada, Puerto Rico-- sorry, I'm a different country-- Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and China. As if echoing the to-and-from Cornell image, women at these events were often asked to use a world map and point where their home countries were located.
By the 1960s, many women in the fields were indeed deeply invested in exploring the universality of human experiences and sharing these experiences with another. In a way, however, this outward gaze created a disconnect and in some ways a lack of attention to the issues within the institutions that employed them. Even as Kittrell and others worked to expand programs in urban extension and Head Start, among others, international travel and foreign relations was what really drove many of the most prominent professionals' agendas. I contend that this, as much as other challenges, particularly from women's groups in the late '60s, should be an important part of the home economics story.
Just a few years after the completion of the new home economics building at Howard, which was widely celebrated at the time-- you can see that even Margaret Mead has come to give the dedication. She's third from the left. Within just a few years, that building would be occupied as part of a mass campus takeover in 1968. And as I speak today marks one of the anniversaries of that event at Howard University.
A few hundred miles away, amidst their own protests and occupations, Hampton students circulated a flyer suggesting that if Dr. Kittrell were there, he would be fired because faculty were so disrespected. They assumed that she was a he. This probably tempered the dedication of a building named in Kittrell's honor on the centennial quad. Though the official photographs show glowing smiles, growing tensions and low enrollments among minorities in home economics here at Cornell may have also dimmed the dedication of the north wing in 1968. This is an interior shot of that Kittrell building which still stands. And to me the juxtaposition of what was happening and what was about to happen over the next few years is just really jarring when we think about these images in a broader context.
In celebrating these new structures, many home economists, most of whom would be retired within the next few years, were celebrating the accomplishments of pioneers and often firsts. Incidentally, these efforts may have seemed to privilege the past over the needs of a rapidly changing future. Even though many home economists had great pride in their home institutions, the fact is many would spend great portions of their careers abroad. And by the 1970s, more explicit conversations about race, class, and gender on campuses would have involved far more controversial and explicit claims about power and difference. Home economists' sincere desires for understanding, communication, and frank exchange still may have seemed insufficient by comparison.
Here's just one example. This has been written about quite a bit in terms of being a huge moment for debates about women's work, women's education on campus. But the archives really show that this intersession program was as much about race and racism on campus as anything else.
Kittrell would be retired just a few years after these protests, as did many other women in the field. They would continue traveling, however, and that's recorded gloriously in their private records. But again, this was with a gaze increasingly on the outside world.
To celebrate her retirement and to try to increase minority enrollments in the AHEA, they created a fellowship to honor Kittrell in 1973. This fellowship would further reinforce her dual legacy at home and abroad by offering it, quote, "exclusively to members of minorities in the United States and developing countries." Kittrell told one colleague that, quote, "they have this brochure out to tell what I've been doing, which I suppose it's something like internationalism."
She continued to do something like internationalism and take an interest in American minorities at the same time all through her final years. In her mid 70s, Kittrell even returned to Cornell as a visiting professor and to work on a synthetic piece considering child development and parental involvement in the US, India, and Zaire. After the nation's centennial, Kittrell returned to her retirement home in the South but then continued traveling, first to China, then the Philippines, and even back to India one last time. Her death came suddenly in the fall of 1980 on October 1 during a visit to the Howard campus.
In her will, Kittrell had made plans to divide the proceeds from her personal home between Hampton, Howard, and Cornell for women studying home economics. This final act is a fitting one for a life that always troubled easy distinctions between being at home and abroad. Unlike the lines in the image we began with, those in her domestic life, academic work, and activism were blurred and constantly intersecting. After all, Kittrell considered her first childhood home her first laboratory. Her private home in Greensboro near Bennett became the school's practice house. And finally at Howard, she built a department that many considered to be the best representation of an African house in this country.
Her life was full of these kinds of elegant collisions between life and work. And she had a way of seeing and knowing the world that I think really confounds traditional separations of the domestic and the foreign. In the end, when asked to make a final comment at Cornell on the institution that she had traveled to so many times, she noted that even though she, quote, "had some suggestions to make, she had always felt quite at home at Cornell." Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University. On the web at cornell.edu.
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For her distinction of being the first woman of color to earn a Ph.D. in Home Economics, Cornell University alumna Flemmie P. Kittrell is often regarded as an exceptional figure in histories of the discipline and in higher education for minorities.
At a March 2014 talk at Mann Library, Allison Horrocks, 2013 Dean's Fellowship recipient in the History of Home Economics in the College of Human Ecology, traces Kittrell's rise to prominence as an educator and nutrition expert, connecting her story to a diverse range of activists and academics working within the field. By looking closely at her work "at home" and abroad, she suggests new ways of thinking about the possibilities for women within the field of home economics.