Emily Contois Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Emily Contois

Helen Atwater

By: Emily Contois, Chapman Assistant Professor of Media Studies


Black and white photograph of Helen Atwater wearing a dark dress, glasses and a scarf loosely tied around her neck
Helen Atwater (copyright American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, Cornell University Library)

I’m fascinated by what health and nutrition mean in American culture and how media circulate these meanings. When I was researching the history of American food guides, I came across “How to Select Foods,” published in 1917 by Hunt and Atwater. I assumed that this Atwater was Wilbur Olin Atwater, the man so often heralded as “The Father of American Nutrition.”

I was wrong.

It was Helen Atwater and a little digging revealed that she was Wilbur Atwater’s daughter, who had grown up alongside his research and, as much as possible given the gender politics of her day, followed in his footsteps.

As is too often the case with histories of male-dominated fields, Helen Woodard Atwater’s name, story, and contributions are relatively absent from accounts of the early days of American nutrition science, though they’ve been slowly recovered.[1] In many ways, Helen Atwater is the first lady of American nutrition, who made her own mark on the world of food, though few know her name.

A World War 1 poster that reads "Help your boy at the front. Use less wheat and meat. Send more to him." Includes a large United States flag.
World War I poster

Despite her interest in nutrition, Helen did not pursue its study in college, as it was a rarity for women to attend university in the late nineteenth century, let alone study science. One of the most esteemed leaders of the domestic science movement, Ellen Richards, was the first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She gained entrance in 1870 as a “special student,” a status that demarcated and demoted her within the classroom for her sex/gender. In fact, when Helen pursued higher education in the 1890s at Smith College, only 2.2% of U.S. women aged 18 to 21 years attended college.[2]

After graduation, Helen Atwater worked as an editorial and research assistant with her father in his laboratory. She assisted him in preparing “Principles of Nutrition and the Nutritive Value of Food,” published in 1902 in the USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 142, a landmark publication. On her own, she also wrote “Bread and the Principles of Bread Making” in 1900 and “Poultry As Food” in 1903.

When she was in her late twenties, Helen’s father died from a stroke. She then took charge of her father’s papers and later joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Home Economics as a writer and editor. With Caroline Hunt she published the guide I mentioned in my opening sentences, “How to Select Foods,” which was one of the first official American food guides that greatly influenced early federal nutrition policy. Atwater also worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.”

woman with short hair, smiling, wearing a dark blue blouse and standing in front of a green shrub
Emily Contois

She published, edited and oversaw countless newsletters, articles, pamphlets and guides. Throughout her career, Atwater sought to inform the public on nutrition science and how it could influence everyday life. She died in 1947 at the age of 71.

Of the many resources Helen Atwater published, one of my favorites is “Honey and Its Uses in the Home” from 1915. It covers everything you’d ever want to know about honey. It also included dozens of recipes, which offer “extraculinary” meaning.[3]

Reading between the lines of the clearly worded “Yellow Honey Cake” recipe tells the story of home economists who boldly occupied an ambivalent position between the perceivably feminine and masculine, private and public, domestic and professional, as they carved out their own space and played significant roles in the history of nutrition.

 

A longer version of this essay originally appeared on Nursing Clio, May 3, 2017. It is republished with permission by the author and the editors.

[1] Melissa J. Wilmarth and Sharon Y. Nickols, “Helen Woodard Atwater: A Leader of Leaders,” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 41: 3 (2013): 314–324.

[2] Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1985).

[3] Gayle R. Davis, “Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. By Janet Theophano, “The Journal of American History 90: 2 (2003): 617-618.


Does the shaping of lives and society by race, gender, sexuality, class and other factors fascinate you? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out TU’s welcoming and vibrant Women’s and Gender Studies program today.

 

Students explore the culture and politics of anti-fandom

woman seated in front of a screen with the words Welcome to Anti-Fan Popcon
Emily Contois

Politics, culture and the rest of it feels more divisive than ever, but what can we learn from the way we love to hate certain shows, celebrities and public figures? University of Tulsa students found out this semester in the course Media and Popular Culture.

Teaching through the fourth semester of a pandemic may have slowed or dimmed the teaching energies of many faculty and students around the country, but not so for Chapman Assistant Professor of Media Studies Emily Contois. “After all we’ve been through, this was the right moment to try creative approaches, especially as we returned to the classroom together after a year online,” she said. “It’s one thing to read, learn and discuss a theoretical concept. It’s another to experience and embody it, to see yourself in it.”

Learning from what we love to hate

cartoon-style book cover featuring a woman in a green top and the title Anti-FandomBuoyed by leading scholarship on anti-fandom and cultural analysis, students addressed a number of complicated questions:

  • How and why does hating on a show, celebrity or public figure produce pleasure and drive cultural exchange?
  • How does it define and reinforce community boundaries and drive other insights into our media environment in often contradictory ways?
  • When is the work of being an anti-fan healthy and when is it corrosive?

“I had written briefly on Guy Fieri anti-fandom in my book Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture and was excited to explore this field of scholarship with my students,” Contois remarked. “Most of them immediately recognized the behaviors of hate-watching and bitter tweeting that blend pleasure and pain, love and hate, in our media practices. Now, they have the tools to critically evaluate them.”

Putting theory into practice

Then came the creative part.

For their final project, student groups recorded energetic and conversational podcasts on the targets of their anti-fandom: TV shows, such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Riverdale; polarizing celebrities, such as Elon Musk and Tom Brady; and even the British royal family.

Some of the groups recorded podcasts on their laptops and smartphones, while others used TUTV Media Lab’s Studio 151, a new student-led podcast studio, under the leadership of Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Film Studies Justin Rawlins.

five students seated in front of a screen
Students left to right: Rory Seidel, Sara Nasreldin, Mary Allison Norris, Julianne Tran, Caiton Beesley

“Our anti-fan podcasts were a fun and challenging way to put our anti-fandom knowledge to practice,” said Julianne Tran, a political science major who is minoring in media studies and Spanish. “As a podcast-lover myself, I especially enjoyed being on the other end and putting together a podcast with my group. This entertaining and worthwhile assignment was definitely a highlight of my semester!”

As a playful conclusion to the semester, Contois hosted Anti-Fan Pop-Con in the style of Comic-Con. “Even from behind COVID-19 face masks, you could feel students’ enthusiasm for their podcasts and their personal anti-fandom, which is something we always strive for as professors: To truly engage our students in concepts that will be meaningful not just in the classroom, but in how they view the world in their everyday lives,” she said.

Anti-Fan Pop-Con caught the eye of Associate Professor of Anthropology Danielle Macdonald, the director of the Henneke Center for Academic Fulfillment. “Courses like Professor Contois’ highlight the creativity of TU faculty in the classroom. Her use of novel assignments like podcasts, and using popular (or unpopular) culture, engages students in critical analysis of the world around them and is a wonderful example of teaching excellence at TU,” Macdonald said.


Emily Contois’ podcast grading rubric is available here. You can also follow the TUTV Media Lab online at @TUTVnews.