At OSU there is a building called Milam Hall. It sits across the quad from the Memorial Union and houses many departments, including the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, where our guest this week, History and Philosophy of Science M.A. student Kathleen McHugh is housed. The building is certainly showing its age, with a perpetually leaky roof and well worn stairwells. But despite this, embedded in some of its classrooms, are hints of its former glory. It was once the location of the School of Home Economics, and was posthumously named after its longstanding dean, Ava B. Milam. While no books have been written about Milam, aside from her own autobiography, her story is one worth telling, and McHugh is doing just that with her M.A. thesis where she explores Milam’s deliberate actions to make home economics a legitimate scientific field.
During Milam’s tenure, home economics was a place where women could get an education and, most importantly, where they would not interfere with men’s scientific pursuits. It necessarily othered women and excluded them from science. But McHugh argues that Milam actively tried to shape home economics so that it was perceived as a legitimate science rather than a field of educational placation. And, as McHugh demonstrates through her research, in part due to Milam’s work, women are able to study science today without prejudice (well, for the most part. Obviously there is still a long way to go before there is full equality).
But exactly how Milam legitimized a field that–let’s be honest, probably immediately gives readers flashbacks of baking a cake in middle school or learning how to darn a sock –is exactly what McHugh explores in her thesis. Through meticulous archival research, and despite COVID hurdles, McHugh has created a compelling and persuasive narrative of Milam’s efforts to transform home economics into a science.
Listen this week and learn how a cafe at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair and a house near campus that ran a nearly 50 year adoption service relate to Milam and her pioneering work. If you missed the live show, listen to this episode wherever you get your podcasts.