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The Politics of the Plate

Last week, Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times that this year’s American presidential election may be the first time that the food movement enters mainstream politics. Pollan suggests that the debate around California’s Proposition 37, which would require all products containing genetically modified food to be labelled, is indicative of wider disenchantment with the American food industry:

What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. That system is being challenged on a great many fronts – indeed, seemingly everywhere but in Washington. Around the country, dozens of proposals to tax and regulate soda have put the beverage industry on the defensive, forcing it to play a very expensive (and thus far successful) game of Whac-A-Mole. The meat industry is getting it from all sides: animal rights advocates seeking to expose its brutality; public-health advocates campaigning against antibiotics in animal feed; environmentalists highlighting factory farming’s contribution to climate change.

This disillusionment with Big Food has produced an attempt at transparency by businesses like Monsanto and Nestle, whose recent advertising campaigns have gone out of their way to paint these organisations as purveyors of honest good food.

Pollan wonders, though, if this public scepticism of the industrialised food chain, coupled with the relatively recent interest in ‘whole’ and ‘real’ food sold at farmers’ markets, in vegetable box schemes, and at independent shops, will translate into anti-Big Food votes. In other words, will – largely – middle-class willingness to support small and local producers translate into a political movement?

But this certainly won’t be the first time that food has become a vehicle for political engagement. In fact, it was through food and drink that women all over the world first entered politics at the end of the nineteenth century.

When I went through the photographs I took on a recent trip to Australia, I realised that I’d taken pictures of coffee palaces in nearly every town and city I had visited – these are a couple of them:

Fremantle, Perth

Melbourne

These coffee palaces were established in Australia – and elsewhere – by the temperance movement which swept the globe during the nineteenth century. Coffee palaces, coffee shops, and other, similar, cafes and meeting places were meant to entice men away from pubs, saloons, and ‘canteens’, as they were called in South Africa.

Temperance was one of several causes – from single, working women to abused and neglected animals and children – associated with middle-class philanthropic organisations during the Victorian period. From the 1870s, though, temperance became increasingly associated with women.

The founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the US in 1874 was a pivotal moment – not only in the history of opposition to public drinking, but in the development of feminism. Jed Dannenbaum describes its origins:

On Sunday, December 23, 1873, Boston-based itinerant lecturer Dio Lewis visited the community of Hillsboro, Ohio. His topic for the evening was temperance reform. Lewis urged the women of the community to band together and pray in the local saloons in an attempt to close them. The next day, Christmas Eve, a group of Hillsboro women enacted Lewis’s plan. The Women’s Crusade had begun.

In the next four months over 32,000 women in more 300 Ohio communities participated in the Crusade. The movement spread throughout the country to several hundred other communities, and in many the crusades succeeded in closing, at least temporarily, all the local retail liquor outlets. The Women’s Crusade severely disrupted the liquor trade and forced out of business manufacturers and wholesalers as well as retailers. Within the year the Crusade had evolved into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organisation that was to help shape American history for many decades to come.

Although predated by local temperance organisations, a branch of the WCTU was established in the Cape Colony in 1889 after the visit of an American woman activist to the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington, a small town in the wheat- and wine-producing south-western Cape. Huguenot was modelled on Mount Holyoke Seminary in Connecticut and was staffed by American teachers, who invited representatives of the WCTU to tour the colony.

As in other parts of the world, the Cape WCTU campaigned against the sale of alcohol, promoted temperance by persuading teetotalers to sign pledges never to drink, and organised clubs and societies for children. The Myrtle Branch – run by the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Wellington – taught children about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, as the secretary noted of a meeting in 1896:

Mrs Fehr spoke to us, she told us that strong drink leads to anger, debt, despair, destruction, and death and showed us how it leads on from one to the other.

Why, then, the appeal of temperance work to so many middle-class women? All over the world, it was a movement to protect the family – specifically women and children – against the violence and erratic behaviour of alcoholic men. Pubs, saloons, and canteens were seen as places where family budgets were squandered on cheap drink, while wives and children waited at home, anxiously, for the return of drunken, and potentially violent, heads of households.

The Cape’s WCTU – like sister unions in Britain and elsewhere – broadened its activities to campaign to protect women and children from ‘vice’, disease, and abuse. It ran a strong campaign against the re-introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act in the Cape in 1891 on the grounds that it was an ‘indignity to women’. In 1893, allied with organisations like the Citizen’s Law and Order League and the Women’s Purity Society, the WCTU campaigned for the raising of the age of consent for girls from twelve to fourteen years, and also for the better control, or eradication, of brothels and prostitution.

It made sense, then, that the WCTU in the Cape established a franchise department in 1895, on the grounds that women’s demands would only be taken more seriously if they could wield power via the ballot box. The collection of Women’s Enfranchisement Leagues established around South Africa between 1902 and 1910 – which were united as the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union in 1911 – owed their origins to the WCTU.

What the campaign against alcohol did was to allow women to enter the male-dominated public sphere. Women and children, they argued, bore the brunt of men’s alcoholism. Theirs was a campaign to maintain the sanctity of family life.

In the United States, a similar movement grew up around concerns about the safety of food processed in factories. A series of scandals drew attention to the ways in which manufacturers added a range of substances – from chalk to arsenic – either to make products go further, or to improve their colour and texture. The women-led campaign for pure food – which culminated in the passing of the Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Act in 1906 under Teddy Roosevelt – was also described as a movement to protect the family.

For all the controversy over the campaign for women’s suffrage around the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it’s worth noting that the food- and drink-based campaigns that gave rise to the franchise movement were often deeply conservative. Writing about the pure food campaigners in the 1880s and 1890s, Lorine Swainston Goodwin explains:

They had formed independent literary clubs, village improvement societies, women’s granges, mother’s circles, and a wide assortment of other groups dedicated to self-improvement and to the well-being of their families and neighbours. The altruistic nature, conservative facade, and vitality of the new organisations appealed to a wide cross-section of discreet women who saw the need to improve and protect their society by employing prudent means, such as circulating petitions, and using personal influence, expose, and court action to achieve effective methods of controlling food, drink, and drugs.

Temperance, too, was often a deeply conservative movement – and this extended to the franchise campaign. The WEAU in South Africa campaigned only for white women’s right to vote; Emmeline Pankhurst was a lifelong Tory; and it’s striking how many British suffragettes went on to be enthusiastic supporters of fascism. Early feminism was not necessarily on the political left.

Pollan’s appeal for the food movement to enter politics is part of a fairly long history of food-based political campaigning. And although it’s clear that he imagines that supporters of the anti-Big Food lobby will vote for Obama (and please do, lovely American readers – and you can donate to his campaign here), there are some lessons to be learned from the temperance and pure food movements of the late nineteenth century: people – women, in particular – became involved in them because they perceived drunkenness and adulterated food to be threats to everyday life. They also meshed with women’s dissatisfaction with being left out of the political process.

Unfortunately, many of the markers of Pollan’s food movement of the early twenty-first century – like farmers’ markets – are perceived as being out-of-reach of the average American. For the food movement to enter politics, it needs to make itself relevant to the lived experiences of ordinary people – and to connect to concerns, like unemployment or welfare, which they feel to be more important. It needs to shed its aura of elitism.

Further Reading

Jack S. Blocker, Jr., ‘Separate Paths: Suffragists and the Women’s Temperance Crusade,’ Signs, vol. 10, no. 3 (Spring, 1985), pp. 460-476.

Jed Dannenbaum, ‘The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter, 1981), pp. 235-252.

SE Duff, ‘onschuldig vermaak’: The Dutch Reformed Church and Children’s Leisure Time in the Cape Colony, 1860-1890,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 63, no. 4 (2011), pp. 495-513.

SE Duff, ‘Saving the Child to Save the Nation: Poverty, Whiteness, and Childhood in the Cape Colony, c.1870-1895,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 229-245.

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

Elizabeth van Heyningen, ‘The Social Evil in the Cape Colony 1868-1902: Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 170-197.

Cherryl Walker, ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Politics of Gender, Race and Class,’ in Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945, ed. Cherryl Walker (Cape Town: David Philip, 1990), pp. 313-345.

Cherryl Walker, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Africa (Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1979).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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