, Volume 33, Issue 3, pp 21-57

Ellen Swallow Richards: “Humanistic Oekologist,” “Applied Sociologist,” and the founding of sociology

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Abstract

Best known as the first woman graduate from MIT, and the founder of Home Economics, Ellen Swallow Richards was a Progressive Era reformer who applied social science research techniques to problems of concern to early sociologists. As a mentor to many women who joined the “Cultural” and “Pragmatic” feminists of Hull House, her secular theories of “Oekology” and “Euthenics” challenged many of the models of social change prevalent in the Cambridge and Chicago academic communities. Her most radical contribution as a feminist was her assertion that women’s unpaid labor in the home played a vital economic role in maintaining capitalism and was the ultimate source of their second-class citizenship. She shared a belief in democracy and education as a feminist “Pragmatist,” and laid the groundwork for the contemporary “Ecofeminist” movement. Although she was a biochemist by training, she engaged several genera-tions of women in the application of scientific methods to the solution of contemporary social problems. As a political organizer, much of her legacy is reflected in the accomplishments of the reform organizations she was instrumental in founding.