Special Series on Cookbook Literature/Historiography #3: Postwar Sexism and Feminist Responses in Cookbooks
This post is the third in our new series providing a literature review of cookbook scholarship. Click here for the first post of the series: cookbooks as scholarly resources and here for the second post of the series: environmental countercultural cookbooks.
Postwar Sexism and Feminist Responses in Cookbooks
In the postwar period, when the culturally dominant values encouraged women to marry young and devote themselves to their cooking, cookbooks provided a how-to guide to perform their social roles. Apart from home-economics classes and lessons from family members, cookbooks and women’s magazines provided women with information about how to cook popular dishes of the period. During the post-war boom a larger demographic of Americans were marrying young, having babies, and enjoying the spoils of heightened national economic prosperity. Strict gender roles relegated white, middle class women to the home and the role of housewife and mother. Even if they wanted to, many women could not live up to this racialized, classed, and gendered cultural ideal; it was an ideal pushed forward alongside recipes for Pineapple Upside Down Cakes, pot roasts, and Baked Alaskas. The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbookwas first published in 1950 and spawned over 250 subsequent cookbooks from the company (Bettycrocker.com). This cookbook built on the popularity of the Betty Crocker brand identity, which first emerged in 1921 when the Washburn Crosby Company wanted to personalize responses to consumer inquiries about baking; however,it sold more than the recipe for dinner rolls, but gender roles. Feminists rebelled against these strict gender roles and produced cookbooks that responded to mainstream norms.
Fears about social acceptance, maintaining family stability, and personal identity kept women in the kitchen. In a culture that expected women to cook for their families, it did not matter whether or not they liked to do it. Household guides such as Heloise’s Hints for Working Women, published first in 1966, are proof of these expectations. This book, targeted towards busy women who may or may not have been working outside of the home, assures women that “it is entirely possible to run a satisfactory house, keep that hubby and the kiddies happy, and still have time for whatever outside interest you choose” (Heloise, 1). There was no questioning in that statement of a woman’s role in the house. This dynamic is also readily apparent in the I Hate to Cook Cookbookof 1960. As the title suggests, “to come right to the point- if you have a kitchen (Pullman or otherwise) in your home and are expected to cook in it, but HATE TO COOK- this book is for you” (Bracken 1960: 1). The idea of women having the option to choose not cook is not offered in this book. Instead even admitting to dislike cooking was something to be hidden. As the inside cover proudly proclaims: “It is such a clever book that no one need ever know how much you do hate to cook. The more than 180 recipes are quick, easy, and tested by other housewives who used to feel hostile to the kitchen.” In books such as the I Hate to Cook Cookbookwomen who did embody this perfect identity were respected but also feared as a threat. Great cooks were the unattainable ideal, which others had felt they must strive to become. However those who failed were to fake it, or else they would be punished. Although it was written in a joking way, there was a real fear that the women would lose their husbands and families if they did not continue to prepare satisfying meals. After complimenting the women who could cook well, the author stated, “we’ve little to say to them, really, except, ‘Invite us over often, please.’ And stay away from our husbands” (Bracken 1960: xi). This concern appeared again when Peg Bracken wrote, “some women can keep a leftover going like an eight day clock. Their Sunday’s roast becomes Monday’s hash, which becomes Tuesday’s stuffed peppers, which eventually turn up as Tamale Pie, and so on, until it disappears or Daddy does” (1960: 26). Not only were women failing at meeting social expectations, but also by not cooking well enough or even by daring not to cook, they feared losing their husbands, their security, and their respect. Feminist drew attention to the kinds of pressure being put on women and how publishers were producing books that played into that fear.
American feminists from the 1960s through the early 1980s responded to the cultural expectation of women’s domestic role and responsibility to cook. In order to challenge these expectations, feminists had to dispute the basic assumptions upon which they were built and attack cultural rhetoric. These challenges were made through various media including magazine articles, pamphlets, and flyers, as I have discussed in detail in earlier work (Ketchum 2016). Some of the most prominent examples of these pieces included the work of essayist Judy Syfers, journalist Pat Mainardi and Jane O’Reilly, who built upon the writings by the former head of the National Organization of Women, Betty Friedan. In 1971, Syfers wrote, “I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying.” Mainardi’s 1970 piece “The Politics of Housework” and Jane O’Reilly’s “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” (1971) similarly provided feminist critiques focused on the physical and emotional labor of cooking. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) is one of the most famous examples and her influence has been extensively documented (Freedman 2002 and Rosen 2013). Feminists during this period generated a multitude of articles criticizing the social expectation that women be the primary cooks and cleaners within their households. Newspaper articles, pieces in periodicals, and books are powerful but also traditional spaces in which to circulate political thought. That such kinds of political expressions are expected in these kinds of media artifacts means that the location of the pieces does not further challenge social expectations. Less attention has been given to how similar sentiments were shared within cookbooks and how the form of the cookbook influenced the way that these messages could be shared and received.
The producers of some cookbooks, sensing this rejection of cooking, capitalized on the work of the women’s movements. Rather than fully challenge gender roles, cookbooks such as the I Hate to Cook Cookbook and the Career Woman’s Cookbook (1979) acknowledged that cooking requires significant time for the “woman who runs both her home and a job outside the home” and thus her meals “must be attainable without encroaching too far on such precious free time as she may have. It is clear that time and energy available for the preparation of complicated dishes can occur only occasionally, even if her tastes run that way” (1979: 3). Even the Betty Crocker Company, oft associated with the constrictive gender norms of the postwar period, entered the fray with the Betty Crocker’s Working Woman’s Cookbook (1982) that offered recipes for quick meals for “working women” to cook. However, since those solutions evaded addressing actual labour and equity problems and instead reiterated the cultural expectations that told women that they must be the ones to cook, feminists created countercultural cookbooks.
While there was a subset of feminist ideology that rejected cooking as a gendered burden (evident in publications such as Eleanor Dienstag’s 1974, “The Dinner Hour”),there were countercultural cookbooks that embraced the potential of cookbooks to create change. The Schlesinger Library of Harvard University contains a collection of these cookbooks. Feminist organizations, such as local chapters of the National Organization of Women (NOW), sold cookbooks. The Lynchberg, Virginia chapter published the First Virginia Feminist Cookbook in 1983 and the chapter of Champaign, Illinois sold NOW We’re Cooking in 1979. In 1976, the Washington State Women's Political Caucus reprinted the Washington Women's Cook Bookoriginally published by the Washington Equal Suffrage Association Seattle, in 1909, as Pots and Politics: an Historical Cookbook from the Suffragists to the Equal Rights Amendment.These cookbooks included feminist philosophies in their introduction and their sales benefitted local feminist organizations. However, there was nothing about the recipes themselves that particularly reflected the political introductions of the cookbooks.
by Dr. Alex Ketchum