If women’s liberation changed the way we eat, is this a problem that men can fix?
One of the pleasures of British life I most enjoy is listening to great talk radio, free from adverts, courtesy of the BBC.
It regularly brings me new views of the world from the most unexpected angles. This week it was the turn of the Food Programme to offer a new insight into gender equality, revealing how the fast food industry thrived by adopting the slogans of feminism in the sixties and seventies.
Presenter Sheila Dillon was talking with American food writer and activist Michael Pollan during a short UK tour promoting his new book Cooked: a natural history of transformation.
Pollan is a “liberal foodie intellectual” considered by Time Magazine to be amongst the one hundred most influential people in the world. He is concerned about the negative impact that women coming out of the kitchen has had on our diets and wants men and women to work together to find a solution.
The programme considered how we feed ourselves goes to the heart of how men and women have been doing gender for millennia. According to Richard Wrangham, a professor at Harvard university and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, women cooking is at the basis of our social structures, marriage and the division of labour along gender lines.
He explained how the discovery of cooking, thought to have happened around 2 million years ago, helped to define our gender roles as follows:
“Once you cook, no longer can you eat the food immediately you get it. Cooking enforces a delay while the food is being cooked and while the food is being cooked it’s vulnerable to being stolen by hungry men who’ve gone off and didn’t do anything by way of getting food. So it creates an ownership problem and our social division of labour in which a woman cooks for a man solves that problem. She says ‘I’ll cook for you’, he says ‘I’ll stop anyone else taking your food’.”
In the past 50 years, it seems, we have begun to dismantle that basic model of family life where women cook and care and men protect and provide. After 2 million years of making the dinner, women had had enough, said Rose Prince, author of Kitchenella: The Secrets of Women: Heroic, Simple, Nurturing Cookery—for everyone,
“A lot of people were very tired of baking and preparing the evening meal for their husband when they would like to go out and have the same careers as men,” she told Dillon.
“That would mean giving up certain household duties and cooking was one of the first things to go. They also left a door open for the food industry to replace that nurturing role and then what was lost was the verbal tradition; the hand-me-down knowledge that a mother would pass down to her child. Those secrets of practical and economical and often very creative cookery have generally been hard to replace.”
Michael Pollan agreed with this analysis, “Cooking was women’s sole responsibility for a very long time in many, many different cultures and in fact the decline in home cooking does parallel women entering the workforce,” he told the programme, “but it could have worked out differently.
“What happened in the sixties and seventies with feminist revolution and women entering the workforce was that it became necessary to renegotiate that division of labour in the household. It simply wasn’t fair to expect women to work, also do all the housework, cooking childcare.
“There was a very uncomfortable conversation that got started in the sixties and seventies, I know I was party to some of those conversations and it was very tense and not a happy thing and the food industry recognised there was an opportunity here and they stepped forward and they said ‘we’ve got you covered we’ll do the cooking, you don’t have to do it and you don’t have to argue about it anymore’.
“The symbol of this for me is this amazing billboard that Kentucky Fried Chicken erected in the seventies with a giant bucket of chicken underneath the two-word slogan ‘Women’s Liberation’. This isn’t to blame feminism for the collapse of home cooking, it’s to suggest the food industry used the rhetoric of feminism to get into the kitchen.
“There is another way it could have played out which is we complete this conversation, we renegotiate the division of labour and cooking becomes shared work in the household, especially if the children are brought in too and that I think is really key. If we have men and women and children all with responsibilities in the kitchen I think we can get the work done.”
As a big fan of home cooking myself, I fully support the aim of helping more people to feed themselves and their families rather than relying on the food industry to do it for us. Though I think the way some liberal thinkers frame the division of labour question is too simplistic.
Pollan’s comments reminded me of another liberal, Richard Reeves, who delivered a lecture on the symmetrical family to mark the 30th anniversary of the UK charity 4Children earlier this year.
According to Reeves, the old gender model of family life was balanced but unequal; whereas the new model tends to be more equal but less balanced. Reeves is a fan of the symmetrical family and says that the social revolution in women’s roles has created an imbalance in family life as it hasn’t been matched by a revolution in men’s roles.
“At every level of society.” says Reeves, “greater gender equality will underpin better family life. If, and it is a big if, men are up to it. We are half-way through a revolution in the interaction between gender roles and family life. We have to keep going, and see similar changes in men’s lives to the ones we have seen for women.”
The point that Reeves and Pollan seem to be making is that women have done their bit, now it’s time for men to step up. I have two issues with this analysis.
Firstly men, for the most part, have been doing their bit by continuing to do the majority of the providing and being more involved in parenting than any previous generation. Social scientists find that when you add up all the paid and unpaid work that men and women do, things tend to come out about even. So stories of heroic hard-working supermums and lazy deadbeat dads do men and women a great disservice.
Secondly, there seems to be a liberal assumption that the symmetrical family, where men and women share work roles and home roles equally, is the ideal that we should all aspire to. But what if that isn’t what men and women want?
Proponents of preference theory say that men are more likely to want to prioritise work while women are more likely to want to prioritise home life. The Norwegian paradox of vertical sex segregation tells us that even in the world’s most gender equal countries, men and women remain stubbornly resistant to entering professions dominated by the other sex like engineering and nursing. And anyone who works with separated fathers will know how fiercely women can hang on to the privilege of being the primary parent.
I’m not suggesting we should turn the clock back, I’m suggesting that we need to think more carefully about where we want to forward the clock to.
While I was contemplating this article I stumbled across one of the many comedy panel shows that BBC radio does so well. This particular programme was called Hearsay and the idea is that panellists challenge a popular assumption in an amusing fashion.
The chair, Victoria Coren Mitchell, posed a great question about whether or not women find funny men sexy as follows:
“Women love to laugh to the point where 88% of the audience believe that it’s sexy for men to be funny…but it has actually been found that laughter and erotic stimulation affect totally different parts of the brain in what scientists have described as their favourite day in the laboratory ever.”
After Coren Mitchell’s joke had sunk in, one of the panellists, a successful journalist and former political editor of a national newspaper, Julia Hartley-Brewer, challenged this notion saying:
“It is an absolute nonsense. It’s one of the biggest travesties in life this idea that women want men to be funny. We want you to be gorgeous and we want you to be rich and frankly we’re not even that bothered about the gorgeous bit. Women are very practical and no joke has ever paid a bill or a mortgage.”
Funny or not, comments like these send men a very confusing message about the role that women want them to play. But what if most men and women don’t want to share the roles of parenting and earning equally? Is that bad? Is it a sign of discrimination and oppression? Or is it a sign of choice?
Women didn’t fight to reverse the gender roles. They didn’t campaign to be the breadwinner while their partners stayed at home looking after children. Women fought to change women’s roles without really knowing what the positive and negative impacts would be. You could say it was a selfish but necessary act, an act that served women to explore and pioneer new ways of being a woman that paved the way for future generations of women to have more choices.
If men are to take a parallel journey it may only happen when men are similarly selfish and act in ways that predominantly serve men first by exploring and pioneering new ways of being a man that ultimately give men more choices in the process.
Just because the “men hunt women cook” model of relationships is dying doesn’t mean that its natural successor is “men and women hunt and cook in equal measure”.
In my imagination the functional, heterosexual family of the future will see men and women working together to jointly achieve their dreams. But this will only happen when more women consciously choose to be the women they want to be and more men consciously choose to be the men they want to be. Then we will have the foundation for couples to develop post-conventional relationships that are truly capable of serving the needs of the whole family—and if they decide that the family needs more home cooking then together they’ll find a way of doing that.
—Photo credit: Flickr/chelseacharliwhite