Amidst hectic family lives, it is tempting to recall the days of “Ozzie and Harriet” families, where Dad returned home from work each day to sit down to dinner with Mom in a dress and pearls and 2.3 kids. But a study by an N.C. State University faculty member shows that the nostalgic family of television fame was not the norm of American society that we believe today.
Dr. Kimberly Allen, family and consumer sciences Cooperative Extension specialist and assistant professor, conducted a literature review of American families of the past 100 years. Her research, published recently in the Journal of Extension, found that women in American families contributed financially to their families’ income throughout the 20th century.
The Journal of Extension article was co-authored by Dr. Carolyn Dunn, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor and associate state program leader for family and consumer sciences, and Dr. Sandy Zaslow, department head emeritus and associate director for FCS at N.C. State.
The article was done in recognition of N.C. Cooperative Extension’s celebration of 100 years of the program now known as family and consumer sciences. North Carolina’s home demonstration program was started in 1911 by Jane S. McKimmon as a way to bring research-based information on food and nutrition to rural women.
During the early 1900s and into the 1950s, Allen found that women worked long hours in the home, and many were isolated, especially in rural areas. Home demonstration clubs, started as girls’ Tomato Clubs, provided women the chance to learn how to safely preserve fresh food for their families.
Early home demonstration agents – called family and consumer sciences agents today – also encouraged women to earn “butter and egg money” by selling extra produce and homemade products through curb markets, precursors to today’s farmers’ markets. The money they earned helped provide their families with shoes and clothing and support for their children’s education, Allen said.
During World War II in the 1940s, many women entered the workforce to replace men who were at war overseas. In the 1950s, many married women continued to work, Allen said, particularly middle class women. “It was a prosperous time – that’s what you saw in the media,” she said.
Manufacturing in Europe was halted by the war, providing more manufacturing opportunities for the United States. And the generation that fought WWII took advantage of the chance for a college education provided by the GI Bill. “Many were the first generation of their families to attend college, and that started a cycle of prosperity,” Allen said.
In the 1960s and ’70s, women became more independent and more likely to earn a living working outside the home. FCS Extension agents supported families by orienting their training toward “changing families.”
Today’s families come in many demographic variations. Single-parent families are more common, as much as 30 to 80 percent, depending on demographic group. “Families are more diverse. Those who can really use (Cooperative Extension’s) help come in all forms, sizes, shapes and colors,” she said.
For the first 50 years of FCS, Extension agents were focused on rural families, helping them with food, business opportunities through market sales, home safety and human development. In the most recent 50 years, FCS agents reached out more to urban clients, expanding their focus to include parenting, financial management and job preparedness.
Allen said one of the biggest surprises of her research was discovering how instrumental women were to their families’ financial success throughout the 20th century. All along, “Extension agents were really out there making life better for their families,” she said.
The lingering recession has provided new challenges that FCS agents and specialists have stepped up to meet. To help families cope, Extension offers education related to job preparedness, financial resource management and helping families and children deal with emotional stress of economic woes. In 2009, FCS professionals developed a set of fact sheets called “Take Control” on different aspects of dealing with family economic crisis.
In the future, FCS will have to rely more on technology – blogs, social media and other tools to reach families.
“We have to be open to what families look like, and we’ll do our jobs better. Not all families look like Ozzie and Harriet,” Allen said.
– Natalie Hampton