Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose at a meeting of the League of Women Voters at the home of Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park in the 1920s
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journal article / culture

The Turn-of-the-Century Lesbians Who Founded The Field of Home Ec

Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer lived in an open lesbian relationship and helped found the field of home economics.
When you imagine lesbianism during the early twentieth century, it’s easy to envision closeted relationships and whispered conversations. But examples from the past challenge those stereotypes. Take Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer—not only did they live in an open and acknowledged lesbian relationship, writes Megan Elias, but they helped found the field of home economics, a subject not always associated with same-sex love.

Rose and Van Rensselaer’s relationship was so well-known, writes Elias, that they were often referred to as “Miss Van Rose.” During a partnership that spanned nearly a quarter-century, they helped define domesticity while living out a seemingly unorthodox domestic story of their own.

At the turn of the century, home economics wasn’t the province of high-school girls or 1950s housewives. Rather, it was a budding discipline that embodied the Progressive ideals of some of the first women to become professional academics. Van Renssealer helped create the concept of home ec, developing courses in domestic life that she furthered as a real science. Assisted by Rose, she advocated for domestic science courses throughout the nation, emphasizing the importance of the work women did at home. The relationship of Rose and Van Rensselaer came to embody those ideals.

Though neither woman referred to themselves as “lesbians”—the term wasn’t commonly used then—their same-sex relationship was undoubtedly romantic. As graduates of women’s colleges, both women would have come of age in an environment that encouraged strong, often romantic same-sex bonds and the “Boston marriages” that sometimes developed as a result.
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