How Home Ec brought One Woman to India, Liberia, and Back Again

February 24, 2016

The story of Flemmie P. Kittrell (1904–80) shatters traditional assumptions about the field of home economics. Most notably, she applied home economics globally and became an international ambassador for her beloved chosen field. In addition to her home ec influences, she was also an AAUW member and pioneer in nutrition and child development.

Flemmie Kittrell

Image via AAUW archives

Born in Henderson, North Carolina, Kittrell attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and received her bachelor’s degree in 1928. She pursued graduate work at Cornell University, receiving her master’s in 1930 and her doctorate in 1935 and becoming the first black woman in the country to receive a doctorate in nutrition.

After school, she pursued a career in academia. From 1940 to 1944, she was dean of women and headed the home economics department at her alma mater, Hampton, and later served on the institute’s board of trustees. In 1944, she was offered the position of head of the home economics department at Howard University, where she spent most of her career.

One of Kittrell’s greatest contributions to her field was her research in Liberia on the effects of malnutrition. In 1947, she travelled to the African country to conduct a nutritional survey for the U.S. State Department. Building on her work in Africa, she coined the term “hidden hunger,” in which a person can be physically full and look healthy but still suffer from malnutrition.

Her work was recognized by the international community and used in future efforts to combat malnutrition in many developing countries. At Baroda University in India, she applied her Fulbright grant to assisting with the organization of a new home economics department. She also served as professor of food and nutrition there and organized programs that brought Indian women to the United States and other countries to study home economics instruction.

Apart from her international travels, Kittrell spent most of her life in Washington, D.C. In 1963, she oversaw the building and dedication of a Howard facility that eventually attracted national attention, becoming a pilot program for the country’s very first Head Start program. She retired from Howard in 1972 as professor emeritus of nutrition, but not before she launched the university’s School of Human Ecology.

To top it off, she was active in AAUW, both as a member of the AAUW Washington (D.C.) Branch and on the national AAUW Program Development Committee. She also authored articles for the AAUW Journal on the subjects of child development, family, and nutrition.

Traditionally, we think of home economics as a field that largely focused on the confines of the American home. Kittrell’s story challenges these assumptions by demonstrating how the field reaches communities around the world on real-life issues like diet, nutrition, and child development.


Kamala Sohonie, image via Facebook

The Science of Feeding the Hungry in India

AAUW International Fellow Kamala Sohonie conducts research on nutrition in India.

Home ec students learn to sew in 1961.

Feminism and Home Ec: An Unlikely Partnership?

AAUW Co-founder Ellen Swallow Richards is credited with establishing the field of home economics.

A series of illustrations of Betty Crocker from 1927 to 1996.

Have This with Your Cupcake: Betty Crocker Was a Feminist!

AAUW member, home economist, and marketing professional, Marjorie Child Husted was the brain behind General Mills’ Betty Crocker brand.

By:   |   February 24, 2016


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  25. Pauline Barrett says:

    I also have completed Graduate work in Nutrition coupled with Food Service Discrimination. I understand why the filed has broken into self-standing segments, but in my school (Oregon State University, 1964 and 1987) classwork was still unified. While nutrition is very important, knowing what fibers are best to wear in what seasons, and how to get along in small groups (psychology) andf larger groups (sociology) is also not be ignored. Outside of my BS, I do not have any more academic letters to end my name. But I’ve taken to same classes…not griping, just enjoying a possessing curious mind that keeps functioning even though I’m 73 and have a non-healing kind of cancer called Multiple Myeloma.

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