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Posts tagged ‘Emmeline Pankhurst’

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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On 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson, a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. She slashed it with an axe in protest of the British establishment’s hypocrisy for prosecuting – or ‘destroying’, in her words – Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes for demanding the right to vote, while admiring nudes and other idealised women in art galleries.

Although not my favourite feminist heroine, given her future role as the head of the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists, Richardson was the first of a long line of feminists to destroy or vandalise symbols of discrimination against women. The famous (non)burning of bras, curlers, and tights by the New York Radical Women at their anti-Miss America protest in 1968 signalled their refusal to buy into the stultifying middle-class feminine ideal – the ‘feminine mystique’ identified five years previously by Betty Friedan.

So what would women burn or chop today?

In a pleasing coincidence, I began teaching second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s on International Women’s Day on Thursday. What struck – and depressed – me as I wrote these lectures is the extent to which the contemporary feminist movement is still fighting for the same things – equal pay, maternity leave, childcare – as women were during the 1960s and 1970s.

Even if sexism and gender inequality are now widely accepted as measures of injustice, the fact that the collection of nitwits running for the Republican candidateship feel that free access to contraception is an issue even worth debating, demonstrates that feminism still has some pretty basic battles to fight.

So when I suggest that many women would probably choose to burn women’s magazines, I do realise that women all over the world have to contend with considerably worse threats to their freedom. When Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown accused women’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s of promoting an old-fashioned, limiting definition of femininity – one which confined women to the domestic space and which judged those women who chose alternative ways of living, as sluttish and improper – they did so in the belief that publications like Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest contributed to the maintenance of patriarchy.

They bought into the view – told to Friedan by an advertising executive – that ‘properly manipulated…American housewives can be given that sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realisation, even the sexual joy they lack – by the buying of things.’

I gave up reading women’s magazines when I moved to the UK for my PhD. I had to think more carefully about how to spend my money and decided on Waitrose Food Illustrated and Private Eye (I like to think of myself as well-rounded). I felt all the better for not having my various ‘imperfections’ pointed out to me monthly by the eternally chipper editorial staff of Marie Claire.

And that’s the invidious thing about women’s magazines: for all their guff about being aimed at ‘spirited‘ and ‘fearless’ women, these magazines peddle a deeply conservative vision of femininity: in their articles about balancing relationships with work, embracing physical ‘imperfections’ and ‘flaws’, eating ‘healthily’ (or not at all), and conforming to whatever’s fashionable that season, their implication is that the majority of their readers are not actually succeeding as women – that having a well-paying job is abnormal, that being fat (or even just not stick thin) is wrong, that women shouldn’t really enjoy sex, and not wearing or owning what’s fashionable is reprehensible. This is why women need to read Elle, Glamour, and, Lord help us, Cosmopolitan in order to become ‘normal’.

Doing research for this post this morning – thank you Melissa’s in Kloof Street for having such an excellent selection of magazines – I choked on my muesli as I read an article in Glamour advising its readers how to be ‘good at sex’, complete with a ‘confession’ from a reader who was, apparently, ‘bad’ as sex. How? How is it possible to be ‘bad’ at sex? Did the wrong bit end up in the wrong hole? Or what?

But what gets to me the most about these magazines is the nonsense they write about food and nutrition under the guise of promoting ‘healthy’ lifestyles. As the writer Hillary Rosner recounts of her experiences of writing for women’s magazines in the US, factual accuracy seems to be the last thing which interests magazine editors:

I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, ‘Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?’ These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

The Glamour website for South Africa lists a range of tips for healthy eating, most of which are not based on any firm, scientific evidence. For instance, a section on ‘detox’ perpetuates the myth that it’s necessary – and possible – to ‘detoxify’ one’s body after a particularly bad bout of unhealthy eating and drinking. This is not true. There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that going on ‘detox’ diets do our bodies any good. We don’t carry around in us ‘toxins’ and ‘impurities’ which need, somehow, to be flushed out of our systems.

So what do they suggest for detox – particularly when hung over? They begin with water and fruit juice, which are fine. But their suggestions of tuna, brown rice, and quinoa, while good to eat, won’t end a hangover. And, no, peppermint tea isn’t ‘known to speed up the detoxification process’, nor will eating gherkins. They suggest that there’s something wrong about eating carbohydrates (there isn’t) and that drinking milk will in some way ‘prevent alcoholic damage’ to your body (it won’t).

An even more preposterous post lists the ‘junk foods’ which are supposed to make readers lose weight. They suggest, wrongly, that the calcium in ice cream, milkshakes, and cheese will curb appetites and help to ‘break down fat’. And since when were popcorn and potatoes ‘junk food’? The long list of foods which, apparently, fight cellulite – from apples and celery to oats and popcorn (wait, wasn’t that supposed to be junk food?) – are all part of a healthy diet, but won’t specifically reduce one’s cellulite. There is no miracle cure for cellulite.

For a magazine which seeks, apparently, to promote healthy body images, it has a strange obsession with weight loss – and with foods which, apparently, limit one’s appetite. In a single post about ‘Post-Holiday Body Blues’ (no, me neither), yogurt, eggs, and beef are all credited for making one feel ‘fuller for longer’ and for combating ‘food cravings’.

Aren’t women supposed to eat? Or, if they are, they are not supposed to show any enjoyment of it. A post on puddings begins:

If we weren’t afraid of looking greedy, we’d admit that we don’t care much for mains, that starters are quite dull and that what makes restaurant trips so toe-tinglingly exciting is the prospect of gooey chocolate and burnt sugar.

There is nothing greedy, sinful, indulgent, or decadent – all favourite women’s mag terms for sweet things – about eating pudding. It is greedy to accept a bonus of a couple of million pounds; sinful to murder someone; indulgent to spoil a child; and decadent to play stringed instruments while Rome burns. These adjectives do not apply to the eating of cake.

We know stunningly little about the science of nutrition. The most common result on the databases I was using to research the relative benefits of gherkins, ice cream, and popcorn as proposed by Glamour, was ‘no items found’. For all that women’s magazines insist that ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ (never defined and never properly referenced) have proven the claims on which their advice is based, we only know that a healthy diet is high in fruit and vegetables, and relatively low in sugar and saturated fat. Everything else is pure speculation.

And this is a boon to women’s magazines. Their agenda is to discourage women from eating at all, and if they can marshal ‘science’ and facts pulled from the air – or, more likely, dodgy nutrition websites – to support this view, then so much the better.

Given the wide readership of these magazines, this is extraordinarily irresponsible journalism. But it also demonstrates the extent to which women’s magazines are complicit in the promotion of a femininity predicated on body shape: being ultra-thin is, in the eyes of these magazines, a signifier of success and, most importantly, of being in control.

I think that this is best exemplified by the conclusion of an article about dieting in this month’s Cosmopolitan:

And if you have friends who eat healthily and exercise regularly, don’t tempt them to have the dressing or the cheesecake they resolutely resist, or to skip gym or a run…. Be supportive or mind your own business – ‘many lie about their true diet simply because others are judgemental, and you may presume them into deception.’

If this is the only control allowed to women, then feminism still has a long way to go.

Further reading

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl (New York: B. Geis Associated, 1962).

Mark H. Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era, from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Nora L. Magid, ‘The Heart, the Mind, the Pickled Okra: Women’s Magazines in the Sixties,’ The North American Review, vol. 255, no. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 20-29.

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1978).

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