15 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 1

Barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen... and feminist
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen... the iconic image of a woman in need of feminism. Interesting to me that we say “in the kitchen.” “Barefoot” is self-evident, as is “pregnant.” “In the kitchen” is oddly coy. What is she doing in there? Well, she could be doing a lot of things, just as I do: washing dishes, paying bills, chatting with a friend. Doing a science experiment with a child. Heck, she could be sitting at the counter with The New York Times and a cup of coffee. 

But we know that’s not what she’s doing. We know she’s cooking. 

Recently, three sociologists at North Carolina State University published a study entitled The Joy of Cooking? pushing back against the narrative that a home-cooked meal is an essential part of familial harmony and a key step in reforming the food system. “The message that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” This ideal, they argue, serves only to push working women back into the kitchen, where they find cooking unfulfilling. Moreover, their efforts are often met by family members with disinterest or complaints. Cooking, they assert, only continues to oppress women. 

A few writers picked this up, including Amanda Marcotte in Slate and Anna North in The New York Times. Predictably, a conservative in “The Federalist” responded: “It’s I guess what you can expect from feminists—sniping that the stress for women of at-home cooking isn’t worth the benefits.” 

So is cooking anti-feminist? 

I have certainly had my share of family meals where I have labored over the actual cooking—never mind the shopping beforehand—for at least an hour, only to have my efforts rebuffed by my kids. I have certainly experienced my share of anger and frustration over it, seasoned with the peculiar bitterness that comes from the ingratitude of children. I actively dislike cooking with my kids, because it takes twice as long, and the resulting mess is twice as big. I am a work-at-home mother, which means that my work hours end when school does, and shopping and food prep, tasks I accomplish faster and more easily without offspring, take a bite out of my precious work day. 

Yet I am not ready to concede the kitchen. 

What makes cooking oppressive? The authors detail the challenges facing the women they interviewed: unpredictable work hours, long commutes, difficulties procuring fresh foods and using them before they spoil. Cooking, they argue, is an unnecessary stressor in these women’s already-overburdened lives, so why not just taking cooking out of the equation? 

The irony is that at least two of the women, Wanda and Leanne, work in fast food, as does Wanda’s husband, while another, Greely, has her own catering company. They can’t cook at home because, between work hours and commuting, they are too busy providing food for other people—perhaps some of them overburdened parents like themselves without time to cook. 

The line between domestic work and wage work is highly charged for women, and is further tangled up in class and race. A century and more ago, upper-class women, usually white, were expected to eschew all forms of work. “Housekeeping” for these women meant managing the servants, who performed all the actual labor of domestic tasks. In contrast, middle-class women handled much or all of their own domestic work. Their exemption from wage work delineated their difference from lower-class women. For women of the lower classes, of all races, domestic work was wage work. One glaring exception, pre-Civil War, was enslaved women, who received no wages at all for the tasks they performed, either in the house or in the fields. African-American women who were freed still performed domestic tasks, but freedom made the difference in doing the work for nothing versus doing the work for pay. 

During the first and second waves of feminism, many white women agitated for the right to work; many women of color, on the other hand, wanted the right to leisure. Since then, women have gained the right to wage work—if not to pay equity with men—but the right to leisure remains elusive for many in the United States, women and men. 

Is cooking work or leisure? It can be hard to say. For a cook at McDonald’s, providing food is her job. When she comes home, the pressures that spill over from her wage work—time constraints, financial limits, physical exhaustion—make cooking stressful and anything but leisurely. 

What about a stay-at-home mother? For her, cooking might be a leisure activity and a pleasure, a domestic task she chooses to do. Alternatively, maybe she works—and cooks—at home because child care costs more than she would earn out of the house, and so economic necessity makes the choice for her. Either way, she does it and receives no compensation, even though the annual value of a stay-at-home mother’s labor is calculated to be $112,962

When parents work outside the home, the family often outsources those jobs and pays for them. Restaurant workers (likely immigrants of both genders) prep and cook the food. Day care workers or nannies (usually women) care for the children. Maids (women again) clean the house. When these jobs are paid, they count as part of the GDP

But to reduce cooking to labor is to collapse it into a singular, capitalistic dimension. Food and cooking have larger resonances than simply economics, however, as the study authors acknowledge when they discuss the ideological values placed on “the family meal.” Yet even this analysis is reductive and ignores the many other possible emotional and cultural dimensions of food, cooking, and the struggle for gender equity. 

In Part 2, I unpack the relationships between cooking and gender by recollecting my own experiences with cooking, food, and family from childhood.

In Part 3, I respond to the authors argument point by point. 

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