Monday, December 5, 2011

Food, Gender Roles, and the Feminist Ideal

I have something important to say: I like food.  As in, REALLY like food!  I like farmers markets and getting free food and going to restaurants (though I can rarely afford to do so).  When I travel, some of my highlights often include meals at friends houses, all of us crowded around a table talking and eating.  Few things make me feel more happy and satisfied.

And you know what I really, really like?  Cooking.  I love creating delicious food, love cooking with new ingredients, love the challenge of cooking at someone else's house with their selection of ingredients, and love sharing the food I make with others.

You know that old saying?  Something about it being good to keep women pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen?  People often say that derisively when they deem someone to be obviously, over-the-top sexist.  And my mother made a similar comment, once.  Something involving barefeet and kitchens, in a rather derisive way, and I was rather insulted.  Really, mom?  I'm usually barefoot (as soon as it's warm enough in the spring that I won't freeze, and until I start freezing in the autumn) and in the kitchen (aforementioned love of creating with food), and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that (or the pregnant bit).

My friends had to practically drag me out of the prize veggie barn at a country fair we went to.

As long, of course, as those choices are made freely.

I was thinking the other day that I'd like to start a food blog at some point.  Not right now, as I've just started writing this blog with my sister, have been feeling guilty about how much I've been neglecting my unschooling blog, and have also been feeling guilty about having not finished the first draft of my unschooling book that I'd planned to finish the back in November.  But sometime when I had a bit more time, maybe this coming summer or next fall.  It would be great if I could call it Barefoot in the Kitchen, I thought, with some catchy and clever sub-title that made it very clear I was someone who was very happy being barefoot in the kitchen, but also a cool radical person who was using that title to be clever.

I searched it though, and it's already taken, by a homemaker who identifies as a Mormon, so somehow I think she meant it less tongue-in-cheek than I would have, though I could be wrong.

I'd think it would be obvious, and accepted by the vast majority of feminists, that choice, made freely and with all the options that should be available to every person, was the important thing, but somehow it often seems like that isn't the case.  It seems like many feminists have some idea of The Perfect Feminist, though because feminism isn't a secret club with an entry exam different feminists have a very different idea of what the feminist ideal is.

Yet there seems to be a disturbing commonality with what many self-described feminists seem to consider that ideal to be.  Most glaringly this ideal is extremely white, middle class, "well educated" (a university education is a must), able-bodied, and childless.  And if  that's the ideal feminist, what they're also saying is that that is the ideal woman.

I'm quite sure that this is largely subconscious, but it's come about precisely because so many feminists have remained unwilling to examine their own privileges and prejudices, and to think long and hard about how their privilege affects their feminism.

This seems like a very good time to acknowledge my own very substantial set of social privileges, and to recognize that I most definitely fuck up sometimes (quite possibly often).  I just feel it's important, as a person with a lot of privilege, that I confront and address other very privileged people when they're refusing to acknowledge or think about their privilege and how that privilege is expressed and affects other people.

I've mentioned the most obvious and seriously problematic aspects of what's often held up as the feminist ideal, and there are so many more things about it that I could discuss (mostly and especially quotes from and resources by people who experience marginalization in those above ways that feminists often don't discuss).  But in sticking with the topic of food and my own penchant for hanging out in kitchens, what I want to talk about now is the issue of feminism creating it's own gender roles.

Sometimes, it feels like someone took a list of all the things expected of women: all the things women are supposed to do, and like, and ways they're supposed to feel, according to the dominant culture, and then decided that feminists should do and be the exact opposite of everything on that list.
(Of course, they didn't do all that good a job, since they kept key oppressive things in there like talking about white women as if they're the default, same as the dominant culture does, but you get the idea).

Women shouldn't want or have kids, and if they do have them, they certainly shouldn't want to spend too much time with them, or heaven forbid, become the primary caregiver and/or become a stay at home mother.  Women should want to have a "good career," regardless of whether they're much happier being a homemaker, or unworking, or one of any other non-career things you could do.  Suddenly, it starts to seem less like a fight for equality and more like an attempt to gain "equality" with men by taking on the gender roles traditionally considered male, instead of challenging the existence of gender roles entirely.  Trying to be more like men (are supposed to be), instead of wondering why men couldn't be more like women (are supposed to be), and wondering where in this binary mess people who don't identify as either men or women are supposed to fit.

I see this especially with more old school feminists, but I also see a slightly more subtle form of this with feminists from my generation.  Especially when it comes to having and raising children, the feminist movement as a whole is rife with child and mother hatred (those things almost always go hand in hand).

But with other things, too.  Like being barefoot in the kitchen.

Maybe it seems strange that I'd choose, for one of the very first posts on what is basically a feminist blog, to criticize feminism, but I really wanted to talk about food, and when I think about my love of food and feminism combined, I think of one of the many problems found within feminism.

Because feminism is supposed to be about equality, about choice, about recognizing, challenging, and dismantling systems of oppression.

You know what it isn't supposed to be about?  Following the "right" rules to be a part of the feminist club.

So now, I think I'm going to take my feminist self to the kitchen, where I'm going to cook supper.  Yesterday I made pita bread, falafel, and hummus, and I still have some leftover dough, so I might just make some more pitas and maybe some lentil dahl to go with it...


  1. I totally dig the message, because I come across this a lot on the topic of feminism and birth. It's not about blind rebellion ad defiance, it's about having the right to choose and hopefully loving and respecting yourself/who you are.

    Now, I don't know your mom, but I wouldn't take what she said personally. I'm often barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen :) but it's not 'cause I have to be, because it's expected of me, or because any man put me there--- it's because I choose to be there, feel at home there in my maternal skin, and honor the nature within me that pulls me to be there. It may be a stereotype, but that's not why I chose it... I chose it to be happy. :) That said, I use the "barefoot and pregnant..." imagery in my speech when referring to oppressed female roles, too, because that phrase was made in direct reference to women who *knew their place*... So, I don't think it's about me or you, and that's why I don't take it personally. (And believe me, I'm great at taking things personally... lol!)

    Hope I didn't miss the point or derail too much. I was digging so much of what you said, and I related. Peace, sister.

  2. Yay, thank you for making the very first comment on this blog!! :-D

    Oh, it's okay, I'm close to my mother and know she didn't mean it badly or personally at all! It just momentarily annoyed me, and seemed a relevant anecdote for this post. :-)

    Not derailing or missing the point at all, thank you for your comment, I appreciated hearing (reading) what you had to say!! :-)

  3. Love your blog and eagerly await your continued thoughts. I'm all for cooking, the virtues of being with one's children and not being wedded to traditional ideas of jobs. But as possibly an old school feminist, I should point out that one motive behind feminist women's interest in having careers was to not have to depend on the support of a man and the baggage in the relationship that accompanies that dependent role. I know that there are many problems that adhere to women's focusing on work in this way and yet still trying to have a meaningful, not overly constrained lifestyle. However, one way this fell short of what was hoped is that men's roles within the family didn't change. Also, the structure of work hasn't changed to accommodate women with families. And with the rare exception, women who work have to shoulder everything which doesn't seem particularly enviable, or much of a step forward.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrea!

    I do have a tendency to focus very much on the present situation and attitudes, and sometimes I don't think enough about what history and attitudes lead to how things are now. So thanks for reminding me of where that push for women getting careers came from!

    I do see how the original goals of making it possible for women to have careers were aiming for more change than is seen now, where even when working outside the home, women still shoulder most of a burden of work at home. And within this current system, it's important to fight for as much equality in whatever way people can, which I also think I sometimes don't appreciate enough. I'm very glad your comment reminded me of that, and got me thinking...

    I still have a big problem with the idea that the path to women's liberation is through a good career, though, in that I'm coming from a very anti-capitalist/anti-corporate/anti-state perspective, so when I hear "get a good career" what I think is "take your place in the higher echelons of an economic system that fucks lots of people (especially women) over." I see feminism/the fight against gender-based oppression as just one facet of a struggle to dismantle the current system, to make way for building something better. In what I see as a revolutionary movement, trying to simply change things so (mostly middle class, white) women can better play the current game seems to fall short of what the feminist movement could be striving for, somehow...

    I also often get annoyed with how heterocentric and monogamouscentric (is that even a word?) that idea of women's liberation is. It seems to present things as an either be a homemaker while your male partner has a career OR have a career as well as your male partner/have a career just on your own. Which discounts the fact a woman can be partnered with another woman or someone genderqueer, or with multiple other people in a polyamorous relationship... There's a lot of possibility for complexity and differences in how a family looks and functions beyond just stay-at-home vs work in a heterosexual monogamous relationship.

    But yeah, I think this is becoming too long now. Thank you very much for sharing your perspective, I really appreciated hearing (seeing) what you have to say! I'm so excited that this blog is up now and conversations are happening. :-)

  5. Idzie, I can hardly express how awesome I think this post is. I've been a fan of yes-i-can-write for quite a while (my 15-yo daughter is unschooled at present), and it's great to have your views on issues other than unschooling.

    Some feminists might say something along the lines of, "You only THINK you like cooking/barefootness/etc because you've been socialized that way." I like to think of it like Article 13 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which I just looked up so I could comment here without looking like a doofus): "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." We all get socialized in whatever way happens, it's kind of inevitable. But, as long as we have the chance to transgress our boundaries, without penalty, then... it seems OK to stay or to go. Or come back.

    I hope the two of you can keep the momentum going here, it looks like this will be a great blog!

  6. @JK: Thanks so much, love your comment, and I'm so glad you like this post!

    I really hope we can keep the momentum going, to. I have so many ideas for posts on here, but have been writing education related stuff instead this last little while. Emi has a half-written post for this blog, so hopefully that will be done and published soon!! And I'll work on actually getting all the ideas bouncing around in my head into post format. :)

  7. I uncharacteristically love domestic things, too and I have had similar thoughts : ]


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