Dorothy Gavin remembers / Sheila Mammen looks ahead / Table of Contents / Home
I loved her face, the eyes set deep such a kind face with those classic features. She was tall, graceful, gracious, proper." The well-remembered face is that of Edna Lucy Skinner, founder of the study of home economics at UMass; the voice is that of Harriet Kelso Gilman, '43, who speaks of her mentor with the warmth that suffuses the recollections of all who knew "Miss Skinner."
A series of photographs help us imagine Edna Skinner. There is the poetic, soft-focus image, which we use as an emblem for this issue and in which a slender and youthful-looking Miss Skinner then about fifty is cloaked in an atmosphere of gentle melancholy. There is the stately portrait, taken in 1947, a year after she retired, when she was sixty-seven years old. The hair, waved to frame her face, is graying. A white blouse or scarf shows under a tailored dark collar; she wears two strands of pearls. She is the quintessential lady, but with a hint of star quality Rosalind Russell or Greer Garson, perhaps modest, surely, but not retiring.
Another picture, probably from the mid-'30s, shows her at a dinner table full of ladies and gentlemen in evening dress. All of the guests are looking at the camera, but one gaze catches your eye. Edna Skinner is looking at you, hoping, perhaps, to meet you, eager to find out what you have been doing and thinking about. Yet another photo, was taken at the1947 ground-breaking for Skinner Hall, new home of the School of Home Economics. A visibly elderly Skinner and a smiling student are standing in front of an earth-mover. Skinner is an understated but intense presence in her tweed winter coat, a silk scarf knotted at the neck, a hat worn at a slightly rakish angle. She does not smile, nor look at the camera, but focuses her attention on the student, whom she seems about to engage in significant conversation.
There is a compelling directness to Edna Skinner's gaze, a sense of purposefulness, of focused energy. Her life traced a similarly unwavering trajectory. Born in 1880 in Cooper, Michigan, a small town near Kalamazoo, she trained to be a teacher at Michigan State Normal College, then came east to take her master's, and briefly teach, at Columbia University Teachers College. She returned to the Midwest, where she spent six years as head of the department of household science at James Milikin University, then came east again as director of homemaking at Pine Manor College in Wellesley. In January, 1919, when she was thirty-nine years old, she was called to Massachusetts Agricultural College by President Kenyon Butterfield to form a home economics program. She lived in Amherst thirty-nine years, until her death in 1958.
Though nominally coeducational, Massachusetts' agricultural land-grant college had been slow to begin a serious effort to educate women. The universities of Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois, by contrast, had offered courses in home economics since the 1870s. In August, 1916, President Butterfield was mulling over the possibility of providing for "the women's work," and sent the following wide-ranging set of questions and observations to one of his colleagues:
"First, as to aim. Are there not other aims than training the home maker that we must keep in mind? It seems to me that a good many women will want agriculture, and that we ought to encourage it .... Furthermore, we do want to train ... what might be called rural social workers. I mean district nurses, Y.W.C.A. secretaries, etc. What are the opportunities here...?
"As to the name home economics. I suppose that is the accepted name, and perhaps we ought to use it, and yet it seems to me that it is not an inclusive name, any more than agricultural economics indicates the whole rural problem....."
Butterfield goes on to ponder the length of the course, location of a classroom building, housing, management, course of study. He feels it is crucial "... that we provide not simply facilities for women in the conventional way, as is done in most of our agricultural colleges, but that we lay the foundation for a school of rural home life or rather a school for service for women in rural communities.... Maybe I am merely dreaming a dream, and perhaps the practical, sensible thing is to provide the work for women and let it go at that....I'm just a little bit afraid that...we will do the small thing and not do it well."
A year and a half later, in February, 1918, Butterfield abandons his exploratory mode and comes right to the point. He writes to Dean Edward M. Lewis: "We want to get the right woman for Director of Woman's Work, or Dean of Women, whatever you may call her. By the way, what is the best title in your judgment?" The dean replies quickly, citing the "splendid qualifications" of a Miss Anna Clarke: her "spontaneity, good presence, good command of English, ideas, ideals, etc., and so far as I know her, a good level head." But, he says, she lacks a college degree. The person hired ought not only to have Miss Clarke's virtues, but to "have been through the college mill."
They soon found their candidate in the person of Edna Skinner, who clearly had the listed qualifications and then some. From the time she arrived on campus, Skinner devoted herself to pressing forward with what she had been hired to do there: advance the cause of women's education. In 1919 there were about thirty women students here, gamely holding their own in such programs as pomology and poultry culture. By 1925 there were nearly four times that many. In 1938, when plans were first floated for a "women's building" to house home economics, 44 per cent of the women students were majors in Miss Skinner's department. She was no revolutionary, but, like President Butterfield, she had a dream, and seemed always to find ways to make it a reality. She worked tirelessly from within a system she saw as basically benign, one in which the education of women would, at least for a good while, occupy a separate track from that of men.
Some time before she came to Amherst, Skinner had been engaged to a young man who left to fight in the First World War. The young man died in the war, but Skinner always wore her diamond engagement ring in its beautiful Tiffany setting. Some of those who knew her thought they saw a sadness in the depths of her eyes. She never married, nor, evidently, even considered it again. She had made her choice, or it had been made for her. Her life, like that of a secular saint, became an object-lesson in simplicity, dignity, and purpose.
"Just imagine what it must have been like," says Patricia Warner, associate professor of consumer studies originally home economics and unofficial department historian. "You look at the pictures, and there's a roomful of men in suits, and just one woman, Edna Skinner the only woman having any say."
Helen Curtis Cole, who became dean of women in 1945, overlapped with Edna Skinner for one year. She remembers her as a friendly, cordial woman with "great breadth of vision." Her style was "gentle but firm," recalls Dean Cole. "She was never aggressive, always conciliatory. She'd slow them down and say, 'Let's talk about this.' She believed in talking things through to a solution."
The solutions that Edna Skinner sought over the years were not simple, but they were concrete and achievable: expanded enrollment for women; a full four-year course of study; a special program of physical education; the creation of suitable residence facilities; a building to house her department. She became an articulate advocate for these causes, marshalling support from four presidents and countless other administrators, and helping to organize the Advisory Council of Women, a committee of interested citizens who helped lobby support from the legislature and elsewhere. For her last goal, a departmental building, she surely needed a saint's patience: a full twenty-eight years passed between her arrival on campus and the ground-breaking for Skinner Hall.
The world into which Edna Skinner was born in 1880 was utterly transformed by the time she left it in 1958. She was firmly rooted in the values of the past: " probably in a way Victorian," says Harriet Gilman. Dorothy Gavin '43, who lived in Miss Skinner's Butterfield Terrace house, remembers her as a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union who forbade her Polish scientist housemate to keep wine in the refrigerator. But she was also thoroughly modern, a progressive in her belief that science, efficiency, and systematic living could improve the conditions under which most families live. Edna Skinner was a member of the Congregational Church and a number of civic and professional organizations, but Gavin cannot remember hearing her express any opinions about national politics. We can read her memos and other official work-related documents, but she seems to have left behind little in the way of personal writing. One can imagine her destroying any letters or diaries.
The only published book that bears her name is a 1932 textbook, revised in 1941, and titled The Family and its Relationships, co-authored with Ernest R. Groves and Sadie J. Swenson. The book exudes a hearty optimism about such matters as "Good Home Training": "Nothing outside the home can take the place of this training which develops habits of thrift, self-reliance, a spirit of cooperation, and readiness to adjust with other persons." As for the science of home economics, the authors claim nothing less than that it "gives the answers to most of the questions that arise in the home."
It is easy to smile at what seems the innocent earnestness of these formulations, at such a well-scrubbed, homogeneous, Norman Rockwell vision of our country. Yet Edna Skinner was no innocent. In one of her courses, says Gavin, she taught that family planning and contraception were important aspects of marriage, that all children should be wanted, and that this was the responsibility of both husband and wife. "She was a brave lady," says Gavin. "Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts, and it was an era when you just didn't talk about these things. Of course, we students were all ears."
The modern American woman, said Skinner in a 1934 interview with the Boston Herald, wields considerable power, and should be educated to make the best use of it. "It is the American woman and not the American man who sets the cultural level of family life. Whether she does or does not earn the family income, she determines whether it is to be spent wisely or foolishly.... From 85 to 90 per cent of all the enormous amount of money spent in the retail trade of this country passes through the hands of women." She goes on to say that there should be no great difference in "fundamental backgrounds" in the education of men and women, but that in "practical applications" a wide divergence was appropriate.
That was where home economics came in. In addition to their classroom work, majors spent a third of a year living in a "practice house," the Homestead (now the Faculty Club), where they carried out all the activities of home life: planning, preparing and serving meals, caring for the house, and managing household finances.
The '30s found the country in the depths of the Depression, and there was no question that many women would be working outside the home as well as in it. With this in mind, a placement service was established in 1933 to help students find work both during and after college. As Skinner put it, "Education for womanhood must recognize this necessity and prepare the girl to meet the economic competition she will encounter when she tries to make her own way in the world." And of course, she knew from experience what that meant.
Like Kenyon Butterfield in 1916, Dorothy Gavin has recently been worrying over Edna Skinner's title: Was she Director of Women's Work? Dean of the School of Home Economics? Advisor of Women? Dean of Women? From an intensive, but not fully conclusive, study of available documents, it appears that she may have, at various times simultaneously and in succession, held most of these titles, except for dean of women, a title officially given to Helen Curtis Cole. Edna Skinner was probably hired with the titles of professor, director of the new program and advisor of women. Then, in 1945, when the School of Home Economics was founded, she became its dean. Her obituary in the Daily Hampshire Gazette refers to her as dean emeritus of the school, "acting also," it says, "as dean of women."
Was this her official title? Probably not. Does it matter? Yes and no. A rose by any other name could hardly have been more admirable or estimable. But Dorothy Gavin holds her ground: "In my book she was the first dean of women in the university." If you look carefully, you can imagine Edna Skinner's classic features taking on a hint of a smile at this intense and enduring loyalty.