Cookbooks and Women’s Empowerment

Feminist epistemologists have for some time now called attention to the importance of modes of communication that aren’t always taken as seriously as they should be (e.g. letters, poems, songs as opposed to articles and reasoned arguments). But one that I’ve never before seen mentioned is cookbooks! And it seems this is overlooking something important. Cookbooks were an acceptable means for women to communicate with other women– and they knew it, and didn’t confine their writings to food. Thanks to Jender-Parents for directing me to this fascinating post by Kitchen Chick, a wonderful food blogger with amazing photographs and excellent recipes.

5 thoughts on “Cookbooks and Women’s Empowerment

  1. In the 17th century, the Mexican nun/philosopher Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz remarked that Aristotle would have been well-served by spending some time in the kitchen . . .

  2. I took an American history class in college in which the professor talked about cook books as an important source for women’s history.

    I have also been struck by the similarity between the protocols for running lab experiments and the instructions in cookbooks. Interestingly it is not the grand poobah scientists who follow these protocols, but often the techs and junior grad students. There is something to be said about power and recipes.

  3. When I was in grad school, I took a class in technical and professional communication. At the start of the semester, we read a couple of articles concerning a “scandal” in a technical communication competition. Basically, someone had *dared* to submit a cookbook as a form of technical communication. Of course, there was a big uproar, as many people felt that there was nothing “technical” about cooking. Technical writing concerned things like user’s manuals for power tools. You know, “manly” things. Cooking, being “feminine,” could not be technical. Nevermind that baking requires a great deal of precision and concentration – which is probably why I’m not very good at it . . .

    At one point, the professor asked us if we thought a cookbook was a form of technical writing. It was a very awkward discussion, I think because I was the only woman in the room. Even though the other students were all my friends, I think they were worried about offending me. And it was weird for me, because I wasn’t even identifying as a feminist at that point. I didn’t even see it as a feminist issue, because a cookbook fits the characteristics of technical writing. And my classmates agreed with me . . . but there was just something weird about that whole discussion.

  4. At the turn of the twentieth century, home economics as an intellectual discipline — complete with university departments and degree-granting programs — was developed as a way to accommodate the relatively large percentage of women interested in science, both professionally and as readers of popular science. (The percentage of academics and college-educated people who were female between Reconstruction and the Great Depression was actually not far off from the percentage during the ’60s and ’70s. The percentages fell as a result of vapid consumerism in the ’20s, economic depression in the ’30s, war in the ’40s, and cultural conservatism in the ’50s that impacted women harder than men.) It was sort of a combination of food chemistry and nutrition, albeit with more speculation than we would today expect of professional scientists. If I remember right, the modern cookbook — with precise measurements, detailed instructions and, often, nutritional information — is one of the primary legacies of home economists. It was the sort of somewhat technocratic project progressives of the era liked — putting the wisdom of experts in the hands of the common folk, etc.

    And with reference to the actual copy: as the suffrage movement started to gain popularity among women, advertisers threw in these sorts of bizarre references to women voting with all sorts of products.

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