(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s Thanksgiving, the day when the domestic divas rule the roost.
Thank heavens, some of us may say, that this is not the case everyday.
Yes, yes . . . cooking for and nourishing others is wonderful, anyone will admit. And sure the holing up with a stack of Gourmet magazines can be fun.
But it can be hard to shake the idea of oppression when we think of cooking. The sight of pots and pans (All Clad or not) bring a sense of drudgery; a sense that real life will be going on elsewhere while we are shackled to the stove.
It wasn’t always so.
Feminists today still do a lot of housework and cooking. But there was a time when two were more obviously intertwined, when cooking entailed plenty of drudgery but was also considered a source of strength. Indeed, cooking and feminism are not really enemies, but more like estranged cousins on a limb of the same family tree.
Form of Female Subversion
Case in point: The suffrage cookbook, a long forgotten genre of female subversion.
Suffrage cookbooks were polite (and sometimes not-so polite) household manuals published at the turn of the last century for the express purpose of raising funds for the cause of gaining the right to vote. Put together by women in suffrage organizations, these compendiums of recipes and opinions not only helped raise money but also gave women business experience as they collected recipes from community members, sold advertising, dealt with printers and most likely sold them at community events and fairs. Usually, these books contained not only recipes, but beauty tips and all kinds of household advice.
Not everything in these pages sounds particularly quaint. Consider, for instance, a recipe for "Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband," from "The Suffrage Cookbook of 1915," five years before women won the vote. Ingredients began with "1 qt milk of human kindness," and were followed by "8 Reasons: War, White Slavery, Child Labor, 800,000 Working Women, Bad Roads, Poisonous Water, Impure Food."
All of those issues have plenty of resonance today, as does the advice about good manners: "Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly."
They also spread memorable mantras. "Give us a vote and we will cook, the better for a wide outlook," went one.
Surprising? Not terribly. During the 19th century educated middle class women discovered the cookbook as a much-needed way to express and exchange political and social views–networking, as we would say now.
Tirades and Gingerbread
Mixed in with recipes for gingerbread and currant wine, you might find instructions for birth control, tirades against intemperance, health food rants, Christian moralizing, and, most common of all, pleas for female education.
"There is no subject so much connected with individual happiness and national prosperity as the education of daughters," wrote Lydia Maria Child in her "Frugal Housewife" in 1829.
Perhaps the greatest theme of the most popular mass produced cookbooks of the 19th century was the need for female education. Most of the leading food writers called for women to be educated–ultimately laying the ground work for the home economics movement, which provided women some of their first opportunities for formal schooling.
Perhaps the leading cause of women’s activism during the nineteenth century was the fight against alcoholism, known then as "intemperance." Thousands of women joined temperance leagues all over the country. And so we have their culinary works as well. "The Massachusetts Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Cuisine," published in 1892, puts forth a dramatic and passionate cry preceding the recipes. "What is our work? . . . We are working to combat a terrible calamity, or call it as some are pleased to, a disease. Whatever name it takes, whatever disguise it assumes, it is a terrible power in our land, this demon, Intemperance."
Compared to causes like education and temperance, suffrage cookbooks were most radical of all. They are essentially "charitable" or "community" cookbooks–a genre that was born shortly after the Civil War, when women launched into what is now known by historians the Progressive Era, 1880 to 1920. Following the Civil War women had few political rights but great hopes of improving the world by organizing themselves to do charitable and political work. Ladies’ leagues and moral reform societies set about all sorts of causes from conservative to progressive, orphanages, libraries, Christian missions, settlement houses, labor unions, and yes, pursuit of the right to vote.
But to do all this good work, women needed money. What better way to raise the necessary cash than through a cookbook?
During the late 19th century the suffrage cookbook explicitly strove to soothe and reassure. Yes suffragists wanted the vote, but they wanted to make it clear that they still wanted to be women. Dressing the wolf in sheep’s clothing, they devoted themselves to that most traditional of female pursuits: the kitchen.
In 1886, a polite approach made perfect sense to the book’s editor, Mrs. Hattie A. Burr, editor of "The Woman Suffrage Cook Book," probably the first one of its kind. In the preface, Burr calls for "the elevation and enfranchisement of woman." But she quickly gets on to tasty recipes for bread, tea cakes, fish, oysters, puddings and pies.
Only tucked in at the end of the book do we find a small chapter, Eminent Opinions on Woman Suffrage, which features a brief collection of inspirational words on equality from philosophers such as Plato and Abraham Lincoln.
Tone Turns Authoritative
As the years went on, the tone of suffrage cookbooks became more authoritative and even celebratory.
In 1909, the "Washington Women’s Cook Book" was published by the state’s Washington Equal Suffrage Association. It was dedicated "to the first woman who realized that half of the human race were not getting a square deal."
By 1915, the "Suffrage Cookbook," published by the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania, was easily stirring unabashed calls for equality, world peace and all sorts of good causes into its pages. Leading public figures, such as governors, judges, doctors, even literary figures such as Jack London, are pictured endorsing the cause.
Amid all this comes a recipe for faux quince contributed by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A few pages away, Jane Addams–the pioneer of community service and social reform who founded Hull House–encourages the four key campaign states and the "crusade" for the vote. She follows this with a recipe for salt mackerel.
In 1920, the war was won. American women finally won the federal right and got their place at the table, their piece of the pie. Along the way, they reminded us that for so many women, the issues of equality and justice are inseparable from our daily lives and work, both inside the home and out.
Laura Schenone is the author of "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances," (Paperback, W.W. Norton, 2004), which won a James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in 2004.
For more information:
The Michigan State University, The Historic American
Cookbook Project’s Feeding America–
"The Washington Women’s Cook Book" and
the Woman Suffrage Cookbook online:
University of Georgia Libraries, Hargrett Rare Book collection–
"The Suffrage Cookbook" can be viewed online
Laura Schenone, "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances":
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