Martha Van Rensselaer

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Martha Van Rensselaer
Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose.jpg
Rensselaer and Flora Rose
Co-founder of the Cornell College of Human Ecology
Personal details
Born June 21, 1864
Randolph, New York, U.S.
Died May 26, 1932
Occupation Educator, School Commissioner, Director of Higher Education, Author, Editor

Martha Van Rensselaer (June 21, 1864 – May 26, 1932) was a founding co-director of Cornell University’s New York State College of Home Economics, now the New York State College of Human Ecology, and served as an educator and leading proponent of applying science to improve the quality of life in the home. She called this new field “domestic science,” using rigorous scientific research to understand and improve many key aspects of homemaking.

Early Life[edit]

Van Rensselaer was born and raised in Randolph, New York. After witnessing her mother’s strong participation in the women's suffrage and temperance movements, Van Rensselaer learned early on the potential of women to influence American society. She graduated from high school, became a teacher, and was elected as school commissioner of Cattaraugus County, New York, a position typically held by men, from 1893 to 1899.[1]

In 1900, Liberty Hyde Bailey invited Van Rensselaer to organize an extension education program for New York State women in rural areas. Under Van Rensselaer's leadership, the program enrolled more than 20,000 women members across the state in less than five years. The extension work helped women adopt new scientific strategies to ease the burden of daily tasks involved in farm life.[1]

The program’s success was noted by many, including Susan B. Anthony, who wrote a letter to Van Rensselaer in 1905, inquiring about her strategies used "in getting farmers' wives to talk."[2]

Co-founder of Cornell’s College of Human Ecology[edit]

Martha Van Rensselaer arrived at Cornell University in 1900 to organize a reading course for farmers’ wives.[3]

Cornell, a land-grant university, joined the extension efforts and offered full-time home economics courses in 1907. Two years later, Van Rensselaer received her A.B. from Cornell, and in 1911, she and Flora Rose were granted the first full professorships for women at Cornell.[3]

In 1912, Van Rensselaer and Rose were named co-directors of the fledgling Department of Home Economics in the College of Agriculture. Van Rensselaer and Rose acted as a team: Rose provided scientific background in nutrition, and Van Rensselaer the hands-on experience needed to experiment and expand the application of the department’s home economics curriculum.[3]

Van Rensselaer’s efforts in the department gained much attention from those in the women’s rights movement. In 1925, the high-profile women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt wrote to Van Rensselaer, "I regard your department as the most forward in the entire country."[4]

Van Rensselaer also shared the value of the home economics with close friends Ida Tarbell and Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt frequently visited Van Rensselaer at Cornell due to her interest in social reform for women, and to argue for the expanding concept of "home" to include one’s community, nation, and the world.[1]

Under Van Rensselaer, the Department of Home Economics became the School of Home Economics in 1919, and eventually the New York State College of Home Economics in 1925. Although Van Rensselaer died in 1932, her focus on community health and well-being, as well as public education and policy, set the framework for the College of Home Economics to become the College of Human Ecology in 1969.[3]

The College of Human Ecology is now housed in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and the Human Ecology Building on Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, NY.[1]

Additional Work[edit]

Faculty of the Cornell department of home economics in 1914. Martha Van Rensselaer is in the bottom row, second from the right.

During World War I, Van Rensselaer directed the Home Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration. From 1914 to 1916, she also served as president of the American Home Economics Association.[1]

In 1919, with Flora Rose and Helen Canon, Van Rensselaer co-wrote "A Manual of Home Making", a widely read text on home management. In the same year, her duties expanded when Cornell trustees authorized the establishment of a School of Home Economics.[1]

From 1920 to 1926, she was the home economics editor of the Delineator, a popular women's magazine that reached over two million readers. Van Rensselaer also wrote regularly for the Ladies Home Journal, Children's Magazine, and Boys and Girls.[1]

As a result of her significant national contributions, in 1923 the League of Women Voters recognized her as one of the twelve most important women in America.[3]

Van Rensselaer also had a professional relationship with Republican Herbert Hoover, who appointed her to key federal commissions over several years, and enlisted her help in international outreach initiatives. In 1923, then Secretary of Commerce and future president Herbert Hoover sent Van Rensselaer to Belgium - at that nation's request - to survey the nutrition of school children and the education needs of women there. In honor of her work, King Albert of Belgium decorated her with the Cross of Chevalier of the Order of the Crown.[1]

In 1930, she played a leadership role in the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which set a critical Progressive Era agenda for youth health, social policy, and education. There she contributed to the drafting the Children's Charter, a national declaration on child rearing. In 1931, she participated in the President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, and advocated for the plight of poverty-stricken urban workers.[1]

Death[edit]

Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.

When Van Rensselaer died in 1932, Herbert Hoover wrote in part, "Her passing will bring a sense of personal loss to thousands, from whom her quiet devotion to every cause, looking to the well being of children and to the enrichment of the life of women, had evoked their warm affection and their deep respect. The nation has lost a great citizen."[5]

When the Cornell building that bears her name was dedicated in 1932, shortly after her death, the college's co-director Flora Rose said, "Martha Van Rensselaer conceived of home economics education as a means by which women's mind could be trained, their capacities released, and their deepest desires satisfied through growth in understanding. As we lay the cornerstone of this great building, it is not its material expression in brick and stone and steel that I would have you consider. Rather it is to its significance as a symbol of new and vital forces arising to meet strenuous modern problems."

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Faculty Biographies: Martha Van Rensselaer" Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  2. ^ Anthony, Susan B. Personal Letter. Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Timeline of the New York State College of Home Economics, 1900-1969" Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  4. ^ Catt, Carrier Chapman. Personal Letter. Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  5. ^ Hoover, President Herbert. Personal Telegram. New York State College of Home Economics Records.

References[edit]

  • "Faculty Biographies: Martha Van Rensselaer" Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  • "Timeline of the New York State College of Home Economics, 1900-1969" Cornell University Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections.
  • Catt, Carrier Chapman. Personal Letter. New York State College of Home Economics Records. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Collection #23/2/749, Box 26, Folder 24. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library.
  • Hoover, President Herbert. Personal Telegram. New York State College of Home Economics Records. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Collection #23/2/749, Box 26, Folder 8. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library.
  • James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • New York State College of Home Economics Records. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Collection #23/2/749.
  • Rose, Flora, and Esther Stocks. A Growing College. New York: Cornell University, 1969.
  • Silverberg, Helene, ed. Gender and American Social Science. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Stage, Sarah, and Virginia B. Vincenti, eds. Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
  • Weber, Rose-Marie. “Even in the midst of work: Reading among turn-of-the-century farmers’ wives.” Reading Research Quarterly. 28/4/(1993): 293-302

External links[edit]