Dorothy Dickins was a scientist, an author, and a leader of home demonstration efforts in Mississippi. First employed by the state in 1924, Dickins became Mississippi’s head of home economics research. She wrote her first publication in 1927 and continued to write about rural women until her 1964 retirement.
Born in Money in 1898, Dickins grew up in Greenwood and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Industrial Institute and College in Columbus. She then earned a master’s degree in nutrition at Columbia University and worked briefly in Jackson before taking a position in 1925 in Starkville, where she spent the rest of her professional life. She was the first woman to work as a scientist for the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station. Dickins earned a doctorate in 1933 at the University of Chicago, and she began to use the critical tools of professional social science in studying and trying to improve life for rural women.
Dickins was especially important as the author of dozens of reports on home economics. Her reports for the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station reflected her interests and approach as a professional social scientist. Early in her career, she joined her interest in social science to assumptions that rural life was superior to city life. To her, rigorous scientific study proved that farming people lived longer and with better health than people not living on farms. She began her numerous reports with questions she could test through empirical research and detailed her sources and methods. Her discussions of food habits, for example, analyzed calories, quantities, energy per person, and amounts of vitamins, iron, calcium, minerals, and protein. She categorized the subjects of her research by income; race; family size; status as owner, tenant, farmer, or nonfarmer; and type of soil in the area. Her first publication examined the food habits of farming families and urged more sophisticated planning and greater understanding of diet to retain the benefits of farm life. The diet and health of the typical child growing up amid the potential abundance of the southern farm, she wrote, should be “much better than the average urban child.”
During the depression, Dickins, like many southern leaders, came to challenge some earlier assumptions about the special virtues of farm life. She showed considerable subtlety and sensitivity in discussing the problems of tenant farmers. In an important 1937 report, “Occupations of Sons and Daughters of Mississippi Cotton Farmers,” Dickins showed her willingness to change. After studying farm people for a decade and living in a period of depression, rural out-migration, and governmental experimentation, Dickins began to question whether farm life was always best and whether her job was to teach the skills farm people needed to stay on the farm. She studied a large group of white young adults who had grown up on farms and found that few of them owned land, that cotton planting was producing wealth for a few people but poverty for the rest, and that those who had left the farm were doing better than those who stayed.
Dickins’s critique of 1930s farm life had a feminist side, and she gave voice to the grievances of rural women. Young farming women worked harder and benefited less than most farming men, and Dickins criticized situations that kept young women isolated and working too hard to notice better opportunities. “In these days of ‘equal rights,’ it is surprising how many out-of-school farm girls are found with a status similar to that of children of the family,” she wrote. Mississippi, Dickins urged with optimism, should develop more industries, especially for working women, to help them avoid the poor health and low wages so common in southern factories.
From the 1940s through the end of her career, Dickins tended to concentrate on issues of health. She wrote an important report, “Wanted: A Healthy South,” for the Southern Regional Council and worked to encourage local communities to store and market locally grown produce as a means of both helping farmers and improving consumers’ health. Dickins died in 1975, leaving a legacy of concern and inspired study of the lives of rural people, especially rural women.
- Dorothy Dickins, Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin (November 1927, August 1928, May 1937)
- Helen Sue Jolly, “Selected Leaders in Mississippi Home Economics: An Historical Inquiry” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1995)
- Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830–1998 (1999)
- Bob Ratliff, Mississippi Landmarks (Spring 2005)