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College of Human Ecology
Cornell University
Faculty Biographies


Although Martha Van Rensselaer (1864 - 1932) grew up in modest circumstances in Randolph, New York, her mother's active involvement in the suffrage and temperance movements convinced her that women could effect change in American life. After completing her high school education, Van Rensselaer held a variety of teaching positions before she was elected school commissioner of Cattaraugus County, New York, a position usually held by men, which she held from 1893 until 1899. In this role, Van Rensselaer was introduced to Cornell's small agricultural extension program, designed to educate farmers in the latest scientific advances. Although she supported the program's aims, Van Rensselaer recognized that there was no equivalent instruction for the farm wife.

In 1900, Liberty Hyde Bailey invited Van Rensselaer to organize an extension program for New York State's rural women. Under Van Rensselaer's leadership, the fledgling extension program blossomed. She believed that only by adopting new scientific strategies to their daily tasks could women ease the burdens of daily tasks involved in farm life. In less than five years, the program enrolled more than 20,000 women members across New York State.

Due to the success of female extension work, in l908 Cornell decided to offer full-time home economics courses. Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose were invited to head the fledgling Department of Home Economics. Van Rensselaer and Rose acted as a team: Rose's sophisticated scientific background in nutrition gave the department academic credibility; Van Rensselaer's hands-on experience, creative vision, and capable leadership allowed the department to experiment, expand the scope of its curriculum, and make linkages to others in the new profession. From l914 to l916, Van Rensselaer served as president of the American Home Economics Association. In 1919, her duties expanded when the Cornell trustees authorized the establishment of a School of Home Economics. Van Rensselaer and Rose were not only professional partners: they lived together as companions until Martha's death in 1932. One colleague even wrote to them as "Miss Van Rose."

Van Rensselaer was regarded as a leading authority on issues affecting women and families, and she used mass media to disseminate her views. In 1919, with Flora Rose and Helen Canon, she co-wrote A Manual of Home Making, a widely read text on home management. From 1920 to 1926, she was the home economics editor of the Delineator, a popular women's magazine that reached over two million readers. Van Rensselaer also wrote regularly for the Ladies Home Journal, Children's Magazine, and Boys and Girls.

Van Rensselaer played a prominent national role in setting social policy that affected families and children. During World War I, she directed the Home Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration. She also participated in the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which set a critical Progressive Era agenda for youth health, social policy, and education. There Van Rensselaer was instrumental in drafting the Children's Charter, a national declaration on child rearing. In 1931, she participated in the President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, which advocated moving poverty-stricken urban workers out of the cities into smaller, allegedly healthier rural communities. As a result of her significant national contributions, in 1923 the League of Women Voters recognized her as one of the twelve most important women in America.



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