Suffrage in the Kitchen

Feminism is no passing fad. I am sure that has been established, but just in case, do indulge me by letting it ring loud and clear. Fire up the ovens, bring out the saucepans, and bust out with the measuring cups. Feminism is raging again in the form of cupcakes, phyllo pastry and perfectly done steaks.

Over the past fifty years, appliance manufacturers have created new ways to make a woman’s work easier. I am sure we have all seen through the gender-biased guise by now. Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and anything else Kenmore can make electric have been touted as time saving and labor reducing and marketed towards women as illustrious machines that will ensure they can “do it all.”

Now, instead of spending hours doing laundry and raising children, a woman can easily do laundry, raise children, have a full time job, and still put the required effort in for her husband when he gets home.

Sounds quite awful, doesn’t it? Truth is, some families do indeed still operate this way and many people see this as a way of life. Does this mean these women are not feminists? Does this mean these women are degrading the very ideal of equality amongst all? Some would say yes. Some would say that by donning a pencil skirt, a pair of heels, and an apron, a woman is giving in to subservient lifestyle expected of her after generations of patriarchy.

I just don’t know if I agree.

This twenty something generation, the “Z’ers” as we are called, have had the great fortune to be raised by women who fought hard for their right to be called equals, even so far as to be the bread winner in the family. Great strides have been made: there is now maternity leave for fathers, open acceptance of day cares for working families, universities ensuring that child services are available for student mothers and fathers, and a greater encouragement for the “man of the household” to take a larger role in the domestic duties.

This is still not enough, as we all know. Misogyny is still commonplace in our society and women are much more at risk for domestic violence, marginalization. They battle inequity daily in the workplace and the grocery store. Women are still not paid as much as men in many industries and despite projects to encourage women to participate in trades, the culture is not nearly as accepting as the government funding.

This constant struggle to assert independence from the hearth has created an unfortunate backlash; making women who enjoy cooking, baking, staying at home with their children and yes, even getting married, feel inferior or like bad feminists. A woman proud of her skills on a gas stove, or her ability to make a perfect piecrust is often scoffed at. Women just do not cook anymore.

This is absurd. Do you truly think that while your grandmother was off bra burning she was also letting that pork roast go to pot? No. She was bra burning and then creating a meal with her own two hands because one can be as empowering as another. Cooking, baking, and cleaning, these are not things done because men need them to be done. Single women everywhere do these things, for themselves, because one has to eat, one has to eat delicious foods, and one should clean occasionally to ensure that the rustling noises are the cat and not the cat eating mice.

The Tyee’s writer, Vanessa Richards wrote, “In short, men come across as evolved, sexy and creative when they mix things up in the kitchen. But women seem stuck in Leave-it-to-Beaver-land when they step in front of the stove: domestic suckers who aren’t paying enough attention to their ambition or their libidos.” Yes, stepping away from the domestic duties and pushing for an equal responsibility in completing these tasks was necessary. Everyday I thank my foremothers for their actions. Attending a university, where men and women are treated equal – in an institutional sense – is not something I take lightly. I value the advances women before me made on my behalf and couldn’t imagine what my twenties would have been spent doing if I had been born seventy years earlier.

The strongest feminist I know, my grandmother, still cooks thanksgiving dinner every year. She taught me how to bake, and cook. She is no Julia Child, but she recognized the value of knowing how to make sourdough starter, and what a perfect cheese sauce can do in covering overcooked broccoli.

Michael Pollan, worldwide foodie superstar, said a brilliant thing when he came out with seven simple words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Cooking isn’t about women’s liberation, cooking is about feeding oneself. It is sexy when a man can cook, is it not the same for a woman?

I have recently conquered my own fear of the kitchen, and after years of defending my right to sit in the living room and talk politics while my aunts and cousins would make a lavish meal, I realize that I am missing out. Proving myself to be as argumentative as my male relatives was not nearly as satisfying as reclaiming the grill from my Uncle and serving up some vegetarian delights. Hosting dinners for my friends is as satisfying some days as defending neo-liberal institutionalism to a small “c” conservative realist.

There is great honour in being able to provide for oneself. There is nothing un-feminist about loving to cook or bake. Women’s liberation should not be threatened by a home cooked meal. Women’s rights are threatened by a lack of strong representation in our governments, by the continued battle for equal pay, and by the fight against the right for a woman to choose. Those are the battles we should still be fighting, but the battle of the kitchen should be an easy draw. Partnership’s work on respect and like any battleground, territory is hard fought for but once its won, it seems less important that it did before.

Yes, supermarkets have a bevy of pre-cooked, ready to heat and serve options at anyone’s disposal, but that is not how women were liberated. Those cheap and easy options are unhealthy and antisocial. Sharing and learning takes place through doing. How does a child learn how to cook if they only see pizza boxes and sushi take-out? My grandmother is as feminist as they come, the examples are many, but one thing she insisted on was family dinners: dinners that she cooked. We spent many hours in the kitchen helping, hindering, but most importantly learning. Stories were shared and wisdom was imparted to our young minds and I would say all four of her grandchildren are better off for it.

We can all create meals that are the envy of others. We all enjoy cooking and baking and feel no shame in coming home from our jobs, our classes, or our dates and rifling through the recipe box, looking for a way to relax and create something enjoyable.

Denying something so fundamental to life is not liberating, it is shackling. Who doesn’t enjoy eating? Why would a woman, or anyone, not acknowledge the simple goodness of home cooked food. It is healthier, is cheaper, most importantly, it is a simple way to regain an iota of control in this crazy, mixed-up world.

I would rather spend my time learning from, than fighting with a partner over who is going to cook that night’s dinner. I have no shame in bringing freshly baked muffins to a meeting, because it was done out of a desire for community, not a sense of expectancy.

Not everyone likes to cook, and thankfully the options to skate around that task are many, but for those who do, relish in your hobby. Women and men, if Nigella Lawson’s piecrust recipe is better than porn for you – and believe me, it is – then kick off those Birkenstocks, slip on an apron and make something fattening. It is more liberating than you think.

Originally published in The Meliorist. Volume 43, Issue 06, October 8th, 2009.

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