From Fast Food Feminism to Home Baked Equality

Fast Food Feminism

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:

After 2 million years of making the dinner women had had enough.

“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’.”

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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.

Kentucky Fried Chicken erected a billboard with the two word slogan’Women’s Liberation’.

“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.”

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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.

We have to see similar changes in men’s lives to the ones we have seen for women.

“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?

Men and women remain stubbornly resistant to entering professions dominated by the other sex.

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.

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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.”

We send a confusing message to men about the roles women want them to play.

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.

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—Photo credit: Flickr/chelseacharliwhite 

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About Glen Poole

Glen Poole is an international expert on men and boys and author of the book Equality For Men. He is Director of the consultancy Helping Men, UK co-ordinator for International Men Day and host of the National Conference for Men and Boys in Brighton and Hove. You can follow him on twitter @equality4menUK and at www.equality4men.com.

Comments

  1. So let’s see if I’ve got this right, selfish individualism will magically create a more equal set of gender roles? I don’t think so, mate.

    And, for the record, women HAVE absolutely been fighting to reverse gender roles. I can even point you to quotes from the likes of Gloria Steinem (yes, that’s right, Steinem) about it: “Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.” Freaking Steinem said that. Also, of course, is all the literature feminist writers have created specifically on the subject of men’s roles and the problems with them. (See subjects such as “toxic masculinity” and “hegemonic masculinity”). And then we have are the articles on feminist sites lamenting the fact that men seem so resistance and unwilling to move into professions and social roles traditionally held by women.

    But to the main subject matter, to put the change in eating habits at the foot of women who not longer cook at home is to greatly ignore the general social move toward packaged foods. Well before women were getting uppity and daring to move outside the kitchen, things like packaged foods and t.v. dinners were becoming popular. TECHNOLOGY, which allowed foods to be preserved for longer periods of time and provided more immediate forms of entertainment, has caused this. Well, technology alongside a consumer market and a capitalist system which promotes the cheapest way to do things.

    Speaking of cheap, this whole argument is highly classist. Assuming that a single-income family is even viable in today’s economy (let alone assuming it’s been viable throughout the past 2 million years), is absolutely ridiculous. A hell of a lot of people cannot afford the time or high quality food it would take to make a delicious dinner every night.

    And as for those past 2 million years…I’d say it’s absolutely ridiculous to assume that gender roles have been the same, even broadly, across those millennia and throughout the world. As if there’s never been a society in history in which women weren’t the primary cookers? Come on, now.

    • Melenas says:

      Doesn’t feminism claim that pretty much the entire world is, and throughout most of recorded history, has been patriarchal?
      And the “women not reversing gender roles” part is just that. Feminism fought (and still does fight) to give *choice* to women, right?. They can go out and be the breadwinners if they want to, or they can stay at home and raise children if they want to. Feminism isn’t trying to create a matriarchy where men are forced to be house-husbands, right?

      Finally, if feminists talk so much about how female-dominated professions are terrible and underpaid and women should rise up and become scientists and leaders and CEOs, why would anyone expect men to be chomping at the bit to get into those female-dominated places?
      As for social roles, there definitely seem to be a lot more stay at home dads and men actively participating in childcare in recent years.

    • Hi Heather
      I’m interested in how we transition from “conventional” gender roles to post-conventional gender roles
      The feminist movement led the charge on challenging women’s gender roles but didn’t fight for role reversal—role reversal being where men take on women’s conventional role and women take on men’s conventional role

      I have lived experience of being a man in a role reversal relationship—I can assure you that feminism hasn’t fought for this – nor am I saying that it should

      What has happened as women have pushed the boundaries of convention is that they have held on to some aspects of the conventional role (eg the privilege of being primary carer) and taken on some of the aspects of men’s conventional roles (eg greater earning power) to the point where now some people say women do two jobs and men still do one job

      Now what people are saying — Pollan and Reeves included — is that there’s a job to complete and men have to do their bit

      And I’m saying that women have fought (and continue to fight) to redefine their role on their terms and men need to do the same and we need to be prepared for the fact that when more men do fight to redefine their roles for themselves it may not go the way we want it to go

      However, that process, is more likely to provide a foundation for men and women to define our post-conventional roles together as equals—and when it comes to spending time considering ourselves and asking what we want our role to be, men aren’t equals as we haven’t been through that process of questioning our roles yet (in the way we want to, not the way anyone else says we should do—-by which I mean we need to be prepared for the fact that men might not do that from a feminist perspective)

      The left-wing feminist Laurie Penny recently said on the crisis of masculinity debate in the UK that the only solution many “offer is not giving men and boys more power over their own lives, but restoring their traditional power over women, as “breadwinners” and “male providers”. Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be ‘breadwinners’.”

      The idea of “giving men and boys more power over their own lives” is a challenging one for feminism I think – the very idea that men and boys need more power, well it’s great to hear a feminist use those words. You see, women have fought for more power over their own lives and men also need to fight for more power over their own lives

      And when you have a women with power over her own life and a man with power over his own life coming together in partnership, what a fantastic recipe for a powerful and equal relationship that could be — for the woman, for the man and for their children.

      That’s an ideal worth working towards

      Best

      Glen

    • It was packaged foods and other technologies coming on line that allowed the men in charge to start moving women out of the home and into the system and in the first place. The shift from the single income family income to the dual is less to do with feminism and more to do with technology creating a surplus of female friendly jobs and freeing up house work hours.

      They tried once before during the industrial revolution, but it failed.

    • Your argument is flawed on so many levels it’s not even funny…
      First, there is nothing inherently classist about women cooking. If anything, lower and middle class women are probably more likely to cook than their upper middle class and rich counterparts since regular dining out is a fairly expensive endeavor. The men work/women cook dynamic is simply a reflection of a natural human desire to specialize in tasks in which we have a comparative advantage over others. Even if I was a better cook than my wife, it wouldn’t make sense for me to invest much time cooking if I could go out into the world and make 3x what she could make working. The same would be true if it were women making that type of money, but comparatively fewer women have an interest in going out into the world and focus on making money to the exclusion of other activities that they enjoy more.
      On the “2 million years of making dinner” thing: the author didn’t say that himself. He was quoting food writer Rosa Prince. And even if you disagree with the assertion about women cooking, there is no doubt that job/role specialization of the sexes has been the predominant theme throughout history. It hasn’t been until fairly recently that people of either sex have been able to have/do it all, as technology has dramatically shortened the time investment required to do many of the things that might have been expected of either sex in the past.
      Anyway, despite how you might personally feel about the subject, it is certainly fair to challenge the assumption that a symmetrical family is inherently good. On just the cooking thing alone, the rate of severe obesity in adults has quadrupled over the past 25 years. While you can’t attribute all of that gain to less cooking the home, there is no question that restaurant prepared food is less healthy and more calorically dense than home-cooked meals.
      Ultimately, the author’s main point is completely valid: Women’s lib has been a disruptive force in our society — that’s kind of the whole point. But that doesn’t mean it was universally good. If women want men to be more supportive of feminism, they have to step back and have a critical look at feminism and where our blind push for the nebulous concept of equality has done more harm than good.

  2. KC Krupp says:

    While I appreciate what you’re doing here Glen, I’m going to have to agree for the most part with Heather on this. While there certainly was an effort from companies swooping in to say “hey don’t feel guilty about not having time to cook, we’ve got you covered” there was also a lot of effort to portray packaged, restaurant, and fast food as being “high class,” “space age,” and, “novel” and something “special” for families to do together. The rise of fast food and restaurants was also heavily influenced with the rise of disposable incomes.

    While true, generally in most cultures where we have a documented history women did tend to be the cookers in the home, there is a lot of evidence that it was not uncommon for men to cook and that the level of responsibility varied greatly between cultures and classes. If cooking had always been purely “woman’s work” then why were most head cooks and chefs in the homes of elites generally male and why are so many restaurant kitchens today still dominated by men?

    • Hi KC

      I’m doing two things here, one is simply reporting a really interesting conversation involving some fascinating experts who are obsessed with food —- and it so happens their obsession overlaps with my obsession here which is gender roles and the way gender roles change over time

      You are of course right about men cooking but it’s not about the content (eg the act of cooking) it’s about the context. A woman cooking for a man because it’s her expected gender role is very different from a man cooking for a living to fulfil his gender role as provider

      Still today when men and women looks after their children the content of their actions may be the same – eg dressing the child, feeding the child, taking the child to school etc – but the social, political and legal context is very different.

      And that context shapes our experience of being a man and being a woman — and we are far less aware of how that context shapes men’s experience of being a man and that fascinates me — and I want more people (men in particular) to get interested in how their experience of being a man is shaped by the different contexts within which we live

      Best

      Glen

  3. Mostly_123 says:

    HeatherN, just on a side note- I must say believe one of the greatest temptations in any rhetorical discussion is the urge to give into the sin of hyperbole {hyperbole is just the worst thing ever!} so I’m really glad you pointed it out with the last paragraph when you noted: “And as for those past 2 million years…I’d say it’s absolutely ridiculous to assume that gender roles have been the same, even broadly, across those millennia and throughout the world. As if there’s never been a society in history in which women weren’t the primary cookers? Come on, now.” Indeed- glad someone said it. Disagree or agree with the original article, it’s hard to ignore historical overreach, so thanks.

  4. Mostly_123 says:

    “So let’s see if I’ve got this right, selfish individualism will magically create a more equal set of gender roles? I don’t think so, mate.”

    “selfish individualism” … I must say that does sound much worse than something else, like say, ‘enlightened self-interest’ or coinciding/concurrent interests. No one talks ‘symbiotic’ anymore…

    • From a idealistic perspective a world that really works would be filled with people doing what they love in service of others an act that you could define as “enlightened self interest” it seems inevitable to me that a stepping stone to this “enlightened self interest” will be “unenlightened self interest” which is probably selfish and self-serving but then maybe we can’t learn to be of great service to others until we first learn to serve our selves

      I’m suggesting that if we want men and boys to play an active role in redefining their gender roles in service of the whole, it will require men and boys to be selfish, to go through a phase of “unenlightened self interest” as a a stepping stone to “enlightened self interest”

      I’d love to live in a world where all people (including men and boys) are doing what they love in service of others and I think it’s going to take a bit of selfishness for us to get there

  5. Mr Supertypo says:

    interesting…

  6. One of the things that have helped women move out of the home is the advent of technology. So while Heather can say technology is what lead to people eating ready-made meals, it is also what has granted and allowed women to move out of the home. Washing machines did away with sloshing away at a washboard. Dishwashers (wish I had one of those) allowed for setting and forgetting. Microwaves made for speedier cooking (and easier cooking of those TV dinners that were mentioned).

    If we go back Glen’s proverbial 2 million years, it was the technology of farming that lead to women taking care of the homestead. Men labored in the fields, women labored in the home. Technology has helped move women out of their roles, but it has not created a need for men to fill them. Technology is replacing men (and women) in many of their fields, but that is not freeing them to pursue other interests, as it has for women, it takes away from their ability to provide for themselves or their family.

    Technology is definitely just as interesting avenue to go down in regards to food and gender issues.

  7. Salvice says:

    So in other words, be honest about what you want, especially with yourself; seek a partner that has home and labor preferences that compliment your own; It doesn’t matter what other people think – build the family structure that you and your partner find suitable for each other.

    Nice

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