The Ideology of American Home Economists in China between the 1920s and the 1940s: Interactions between Orientalism and Ideals of Domestic Science

Nancy Morgan Mason


This work is building on recent scholarship that shows how home economics was an important area of professional development for American women. This paper will compare the Orientalist opinion circulating in America during the 1920s and the 1940s to the impressions of a small group of four American home economists who worked in China during that time. I have based my discussions of American Orientalism on the works of Karen Leong, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Mari Yoshihara, Wang Ning, Warren I. Cohen, and T. Christopher Jespersen. The motivations and views of different American Orientalist discourses were a mixed lot that underwent many shifts and transitions, but, despite their differences, they all primarily rested on ideas of American superiority in which the west was scientifically superior to the east. The home economists were writing during a brand of Orientalism favoring an “Americanizing” China with the caveat that China’s favor came from its American qualities, not its Chinese qualities. Megan Elias has shown that home economists found authority and influence through the field and used their scientific ideals to critique American society. Helen Schneider has shown how American home economists travelling to China through the 1920s and the 1940s also saw their field as a progressive and scientific movement and believed they could develop women’s roles in society by modernizing the domestic sphere. Unlike the majority of America, home economists saw domestic science, not American culture, as the ideal. By reading the letters and memoirs of four home economists living in China during this time (Ava Milam, Camilla Mills-Biggerstaff, Mabel Wood, and Martha Kramer), I compared their collective opinion to American Orientalist attitude more broadly in order to show how home economists were unique in their expressions of American Orientalist culture. Home Economists who moved to China between the 1920s and 1940s maintained elements of Orientalist exoticism in their ideologies, but they diverged from the norm by prioritizing science over both Chinese and American societies. They criticized both societies and sometimes even elevated Chinese culture over Western culture based on its level of congruence with scientific principles. Some of the home economists even returned home to advocate the adoption of some Chinese traditions in the western world based on scientific reasoning. In this way, the home economists were an early example of a group of women who began to challenge the Orientalist norm of their time by looking toward ideals of science, not ideals of American society, for direction.


(Orientalism, China, Home Economics, America, Chinese American Relations)

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