“The term ‘change’ has become the watch-word of our time. The recent explosion of knowledge has resulted in an acceleration of change that is difficult for many of us to comprehend. It is far easier to adopt new equipment, new textiles, and ready-to-serve food products than to change in our attitudes, our feelings, and our ways of approaching problems. Perhaps the greatest challenge that change presents to home economics today is in the realm of ideas.”
Helen LeBaron Hilton (Alumnus, Feb. 1961)
“While glacial speed is admittedly a bit harrowing for some in academe, not once in her 83 years was Helen LeBaron Hilton branded as averse to change.”
—Visions, Summer 1996
When Helen LeBaron was earning her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Vermont, she said that college women were encouraged to be either home economics teachers or dieticians. This was not a problem for the young student, who had known she wanted to become a home economics teacher since the 7th grade, thanks to a particularly kind and inspirational teacher. She received her Master’s in home economics education from Cornell in 1938, and her Ph.D. in the same field from the University of Chicago in 1946.
The world—and home economics—changed tremendously in the 30-year span between LeBaron’s 7th grade year and her appointment as Dean of Home Economics at Iowa State in 1952. The 23 years of her tenure would be some the most tumultuous and growth-filled in the history of America’s universities. It was during this time (1958) that Iowa State became a university and the home economics department became a college. LeBaron’s ability to adapt the program with the times began her reputation as “a woman of change.”
Considering the dean’s high-profile interests in political issues in the 1960s, it may seem surprising that the College of Home Economics was treated with such little respect when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited in 1959. Both Khrushchev and the national media mocked the content of the program and made cracks that the home economics co-eds were only there to study potential husbands.
The realities of LeBaron’s work in the 1950s, and her increasing political and social interests in the 1960s, would be a sharp contrast to the accusations of triviality during the Khrushchev visit. During the Eisenhower administration, she was a member of the National Committee for the White House Conference on Children and Youth, and during the Kennedy administration, she served on a panel that helped create the Vocational Education Act of 1963. Reflecting the times, LeBaron discussed the roles of the sexes often but focused much of her criticism on women. Like other feminists of the decade, the dean was disappointed that the first women’s rights movement had petered out after national suffrage was secured in 1920. She said that it was not men’s fault that “women have just been laggards.” She saw women, many times, as responsible for their backseat role in public affairs. In 1966, she ran for and won the position of Ames’ first female city council member, saying, “Women constitute more than half the adult population and they haven’t contributed their fair share in such service.”
LeBaron believed women needed to take an interest and get involved in policies that affected their lives:
“If a homemaker wishes to protect her family’s health, she must participate in decisions controlling the school lunch program, the quality of food in public institutions and restaurants; in laws governing sanitation and product safety; in the availability of doctors, nurses, hospitals, nursing homes; in traffic safety, in air and water quality. If she wishes to provide suitable recreation for her children, she must help control parks and playgrounds and youth organizations. If she wants adequate guidance for the total development of her children, she may need to help decide on the adequacy of child-care services such as those available in day-care centers and public schools. If she wishes to protect her children from crime, she must be in a position to influence street lighting, police protection, and the adequacy of justice.”
She also encouraged women to take stands on maternity leave, equal employment opportunities, equal pay for equal work and abortion.
Reflecting the home economist’s faith in the progressive, LeBaron believed that the new wave of feminism was “another unexpected result of our technological development.” In 1972, she wrote a guest editorial to the Des Moines Register, stating that, “Women now find it reasonable to dream of a new dimension in their lives when transportation to employment outside the neighborhood is readily available, when the processing and preparation of food can be done away from home, when household machines can reduce the time spent in housekeeping and in the care of clothing and household textiles; when the ill and the aged can be cared for away from home, when birth-control technology is readily accessible.” LeBaron also at times talked about some of the detriments of technology, including the increasing isolation it caused in solidifying the nuclear family at the expense of community.
On the whole, however, LeBaron believed these changes should lead to a “renewed emphasis on the family.” Now husbands and wives could both work away from home, both earning money for the family, and when at home, both could share equally in the duties of homemaking. Students must have been interested in the new direction of home economics. By 1970 there were 2,416 students, a 55% increase from LeBaron’s first year on the job, and in 1971, 121 of the students were male, compared to the three young men her first year.
It was also under Dean LeBaron that the Baroda India project was started. LeBaron believed it was important to teach family planning to women in foreign countries. She always had a warm relationship with her international students and even hosted the wedding of an Indian student in her own home.
For her 53rd birthday, LeBaron’s friend and colleague Margaret Warning, who was working on the Baroda project, got the dean an astrological reading, which she typed just as it was translated: “It is definite that you will marry. You probably have it in mind, i.e. you are thinking about it at present. You will marry before the end of your 55 year. Your husband will be a man in a very high position, probably in government service.”
The horoscope was five years early, but at age 60, LeBaron did marry retired Iowa State president James Hilton in 1970.
When asked by graduate students later in life, “What kind of husband would you suggest career oriented women need to look for? Or, should they even get married?” Hilton replied, “One who is interested in developing a career, if she is going to marry, needs someone who understands, accepts, and appreciates that point of view. I think that’s very important. For example a friend of mine who is a career woman recently married and she told me that this is the first time that she dated any man who is interested in her career as well as in his own. Which I thought was very interesting. Should they marry? I just don’t see that there is a yes or no to that because it depends on who they marry and when they marry, and so forth. Do you understand? You could be single or married and be career oriented—it depends upon the circumstances.”
After her own marriage commenced, Helen LeBaron Hilton continued to serve as dean for another five years, having the longest tenure in the position in the history of the department. After stepping down as dean, she became the university’s retirement counselor until her own retirement in 1980.
That year, the south wing of MacKay Hall was renamed Helen R. LeBaron Hall. Upon her death, LeBaron left the College of Home Economics nearly $1.5 million to be used to fund an endowed chair for the college, the largest endowed chair in the university history. LeBaron’s service, activism and generosity have ensured her legacy in the home economics story of Iowa State.
Thoughts of Helen LeBaron Hilton:
“Total liberation, when it arrives, will be difficult for women. As home economists we shall be able to help women adjust to it, if we are ready for it ourselves, if we have studied and taken positions on its controversial aspects along the way, and if we have adjusted our educational programs soon enough to help girls and women learn how to cope with this aspect of ‘future shock.’”—1971 speech “Women’s Changing Roles and Responsibilities of Liberation”
“The issue of family planning is so closely allied to opportunities for children, resource availability, ecology—just the total quality of life for all people—that home economists are going to be called on to play a part in the decision-making on this.” –From Outlook, Spring 1975, “Beyond 1984: Hilton predicts changes in home economics.”
“If the addition of many women to the work force results in shorter work hours and fewer days of employment for all workers, there may be an increase in the time and effort provided by both men and women in the home-making enterprise, and more do-it-yourself projects within and for the home.”—April 1976 speech “Future Directions in Family Life Patterns”