In the past, keeping the household budget was part of a woman's domestic chores. As home economics developed as a field of study, exactly how to keep a household budget on track became a part of that area of expertise, under the guidance of women like Ellen Swallow Richards. Personal finance, consumer economics and similar fields have evolved from there with the help of women like Suze Orman who popularized managing your finances. And as individuals are looking at what they can do with their personal finances, Elizabeth Warren has taken up the cause of consumer protection, which will impact how people handle their money for years to come.
Ellen Swallow Richards
Ellen Swallow Richards began her career as a chemist, testing the purity of water samples, as well as of food pushing for laws on factory and food inspections in Massachusetts, the first state in the country to adopt such laws. Her work evolved into creating a whole new field of study: home economics. In addition to teaching home economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richards founded the New England Kitchen and the Rumford Kitchen to teach the same concepts to working class families. While her specialties were home sanitation and the chemistry of food, Richards led the charge in all aspects of teaching home economics.
In 1899, she organized a conference to set the standards necessary for training and certifying teachers. The conference led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which elected Richards as president. She was also a member of the council of the National Education Association. Richards started the Journal of Home Economics and oversaw home economics education in public schools. Today, home economics or consumer economics, as the field is also known has become a standard part of the high school curriculum in the United States. These classes are often the first introductions to personal finance and related topics that students have.
With one giveaway, Suze Orman put her book on personal finance, "Women and Money," into the hands of 1 million readers. She gave the book away through "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and that credential alone has made her one of the leading experts on personal finances in this country. Orman has multiple television shows, columns and even PBS specials. Orman's mantras of checking your FICO score, paying down credit cards first and other similar advice has influenced millions of readers, television viewers and other followers. There are some negative views of Orman's approach, which include endorsing a variety of financial products (she's a top seller on the QVC Home Shopping network), but the bottom line is that Orman got millions of people thinking about personal finance that wouldn't normally before she popularized it.
Elizabeth Warren has become the face of the consumer protection movement, resulting from her involvement in bankruptcy law, the Trouble Asset Relief Program and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren's work on consumer protection began in the late 70s when she started working on bankruptcy reform, and found that the majority of those declaring bankruptcy were from middle class families. Since then, she's written eight books, both academic and personal finance books, for popular audiences. Now, Warren has her eyes on the Senate. She's running for the Democratic nomination in Massachusetts, on a platform of financial reform. Warren has only begun changing the way people handle their finances, from improving how credit card companies treat consumers to protecting bankruptcy laws.
The Bottom Line
These three women, and their counterparts, have changed how people think about money over the years. They've championed financial literacy, consumer protection and causes that make it easier for people to make the right decisions about their own money. This evolution isn't going to stop now, either: consumer protections are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the future of finances.