Homemakers – Issued in 1964, for the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act

This stamp may appear to be another generic and stereotypical nod to women, especially given that nothing about its image reveals the reason that it was issued.

The 1914 Smith-Lever Act, in fact, arguably was the first appropriation of federal money that directly benefited women.  It is true that unmarried women could take advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act that greatly enriched Americans with free land, but it was largely men who availed themselves of its benefits.  Men, indeed, historically had been the beneficiaries of most governmental spending, dating from colonial colleges that excluded women to veterans’ benefits from a military that excluded women.

The Smith-Lever Act also included men, but for the first time, Congress recognized the validity of investing in education for women.  To be sure, that investment was strictly divided by gender:  the education of young men in agriculture was subsidized, while that of young women was funded if they studied home economics.  In 1917, a second piece of congressional legislation, the Smith-Hughes Act, extended these programs.

Passed near the end of the Progressive Era, these acts provided federal matching funds to states that promoted vocational education.  Eventually they resulted in a host of home economic agents who worked alongside agricultural agents in the county seats of rural areas.  Female agents taught farmwomen the new household skills they had to learn after the invention of electrical appliances, especially in canning food from vegetable gardens.  The agents also nurtured Home Demonstration Clubs, which often were the first non-church related organizations that such women joined.  Many learned to preside over meetings, kept notes, and so forth in HD Clubs.

Especially in the South, the Federal Household Arts Schools that developed under the Smith-Lever Act taught skills to African-American women whose employment opportunities usually were limited to domestic work.  By completing a federally subsidized course in home economics, a maid, laundress, or cook could command higher wages.  These acts and the funding they provided were adjusted many times during the twentieth century, but the gender basis of the appropriations rarely was questioned.



- home - next