When Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in September of 1959, one of his stops was Iowa. The Russian Premier came to the state to see his friend Roswell Garst’s corn farm in Coon Rapids. The next day he visited Iowa State University to see what American students were learning.
Khrushchev’s visit to the College of Home Economics did not go as Dean Helen LeBaron had hoped. While Khrushchev’s wife, Nina, took time to observe the students’ work, her husband spent most of his tour shaking hands and making jokes with the students and reporters.
“One would think that he was running for office and was trying to win the young people to his side,” LeBaron wrote to Mildred Horton, Executive Secretary of the American Home Economics Association. “Certainly he showed no real interest in anything the students were doing … At one point he asked me how a boy, if he were going to marry one of these girls could check on her efficiency; to which I replied if she were a graduate of Iowa State University he did not need to check on her efficiency.”
From the department’s perspective, even worse than the Soviet leader’s reaction was the reporting done about the event. LeBaron had prepared briefings for the reporters, explaining what the students were learning in each of the four rooms Khrushchev visited. The reporters either did not read the briefs or were not interested in the lessons being taught. The Newsweek story about the tour, “Coeds in the Kitchen,” trivialized the value of home economics programs in light of more grandiose scientific pursuits, like the burgeoning space race. One letter to the editor criticized the department for picking lessons that were too mundane and didn’t highlight the more important work of home economics.
Dean LeBaron corresponded with colleagues and Newsweek a great deal about the issue. Below is her letter to the Newsweek editor, which arrived too late for publication:
It is disillusioning to discover that a reputable national news magazine would exhibit irresponsibility in reporting the visit of Chairman Khrushchev to the Iowa State University campus.
The visitor did not sniff the ‘unmistakable odor of burning pancakes’ for there was no food present in any classroom or laboratory.
‘In an age when man is reaching toward the cosmos’ it should be reassuring to the public that a substantial number of young people are interested in preparing themselves to enter a profession dedicated to the health and welfare of man himself and the strengthening of family life in this country.
The professional home economist is so much in demand for positions in industries that serve the home, in health and welfare agencies, in journalism, and education, that each graduate from Iowa State University has from three to seven opportunities for employment. This is the reason that young women enroll in the College of Home Economics in such large numbers.
Girls attracted by ‘the ratio’ of men to women would enroll in the College of Engineering.
Helen R. LeBaron
Although the dean decided it was best to forget about the incident, in the next years, the college of home economics made a decided shift towards addressing issues like hunger, poverty, family planning and population growth that were more global in scale and of undeniable consequence.
Newsweek Oct. 5, 1959:
“Co-eds in the Kitchen
A good many native critics of U.S. education nodded understanding heads last week when Premier Khrushchev made a discovery that startled him: A dozen Iowa State University co-eds demonstrating a model kitchen with all the earnestness of apprentice Betty Furnesses. ‘We don’t have such schools,’ the Russian told the girls at Ames, Iowa. ‘Our mothers have to teach that.
By ‘that’ he meant home economics, academic dialect for, among other thing, cooking and changing diapers.
‘Suppose a man marries one of these girls,’ Khrushchev wondered (as has many another man), how can he check her knowledge and efficiency?’
‘If she graduates from Iowa State, she is bound to be efficient,’ replied Dr. Helen R. LeBaron, dean of the College of Home Economics. Khrushchev was not to be put off. ‘Suppose she is a graduate and doesn’t know how to cook pancakes?’ he asked, sniffing the unmistakable odor of burning pancakes. ‘I think,’ he added, turning to the girls, ‘when you get married you’ll settle that question better with your husband without the help of the dean.’
The girls giggled at this sally, but Khrushchev had poked his thumb into a tender spot. The truth is that many of the 1,338 Iowa State home-ec girls are lured to Ames not so much by the challenge of getting straight A’s in advanced wifemanship as by what is known locally as ‘The Ratio’: Four men to a girl. The further fact remains that, in an age when man is reaching toward the cosmos, half of the American institutions that admit women offer home-ec courses. In fact, they confer about 3,500 bachelor degrees each year on girls for mastering along with chemistry and American history, the tecniques of keeping house.”
Picture from Washington Post –C16—Thursday, September 24, 1959