The 19th Amendment, the one that gave (most) women the right to vote in the US was officially adopted ninety-nine years ago today. To celebrate the anniversary, my preschooler and I baked cakes (our usual method of celebration for most historical turning points). And while some people might moan that celebrating women’s achievements by baking sends us right back to where we started, I have to disagree. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but cakes don’t hurt women. Bad policies and systemic disenfranchisement does.
Like all mothers, I have a lot of personal growth mapped out for my children in my mind, but at the top of the list is cooking and learning how to feed themselves. So we bake, a lot. My daughter is really into sprinkles and adding little bowls of ingredients from a tray I fix up before calling her into the kitchen. Sometimes she pretends we’re baking for a party, other times we’re “doing science experiments,” and occasionally we are witches baking magic potions (admittedly my favorite interpretation). She started in her play kitchen, purposefully stationed in the dining room right next to the real kitchen, but quickly bargained her way into a permanent step stool at the counter. Aside from the occasional sugar high, I think baking is nothing but good for her. It will turn into baking alone, as all preschooler activities eventually do, and I’ll be relegated to dish duty or the sidelines entirely. Then it will transition to cooking other foods, dishes, dare I hope, meals. Baking teaches her about independence, problem-solving, and caring for others.
I had a mom-neighbor who swore she wouldn’t get her daughter a play kitchen (she eventually did) because she was worried about the gendered associations and expectations it might send. And while I understand the root of her fear, my research and work in food history has taught me that being afraid of food or cooking never ends well. Even the women who fought for suffrage understood the importance of food and their role in its production. In an era before federal regulation, food was still a major concern for the women and the people they were feeding, most importantly their children. This same unregulated food also served as an entryway into politics. The nation might have a hard time digesting “votes for women,” but the concept went down smoother knowing that those votes were focused on food-specific legislation. Thankfully, suffrage was all or nothing.
As I explained to my preschooler this weekend as she moaned about my color choices, 19th and early 20th century women campaigning for the vote wore yellow and purple sashes like the one piped in buttercream and sprinkles on this brownie cake. And they campaigned with cookbooks, too, like The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (Hattie A. Burr, Boston: Published in aid of the festival and bazaar, C.H. Simonds, Printers, 1886), printed specially for the cause and filled with recipes like Rebel Soup and diets aimed at women's health. A sister publication from Washington called The Original Washington Women's Cook Book (Linda Deziah Jennings, Seattle, WA: Trade Register Print, 1909), was deployed as political material on the 1910 Washington campaign trail. A column from the July 1, 1910 issue of The Colfax Gazette (Colfax, Washington) explains how the fight for equal suffrage was "being busily waged by a well-organized force of women here and all over the state" and each member was outfitted with a stack of cookbooks to pay their travel expenses.
Despite all their good intentions, the suffrage movement and its cookbooks really only had one focus and one real targeted audience: white women of privilege. Countless women were overlooked in the struggle for equality and, through the same efforts, were left out of these cookbooks. While voting rights and recipe credits clearly have very different impacts on women’s lives, we know that a lack of representation—seeing women that look and talk just like you—makes a profound impact on society as a whole.
So I wondered, if things had been different, what kinds of recipes might we have shared as a nation of women? And how would these recipes help us understand the range of intersectional issues many women faced and a few chose to ignore for the sake of progress. How could this cookbook be more feminist? Be more helpful? Help the individual woman and the whole community? How does food help change history, but specifically her story.
These are all major questions I wrestle with in my dissertation, but I think they speak to a broader contemporary nation of women as we continue to feel the disenchantment and the disillusionment with a society that fails to support ALL women. The women who campaigned over 100 years ago still deserve our thanks, thus the cake and meticulous sprinkle placement, but their work (including those cookbooks) needs to be followed up. It needs more context, more recipes, more voices, and made more inclusive for a nation of women of today. Which is why I want to make a new one.
We’ve covered suffrage. Now for all the other issues. And for all the women who didn’t get a say the first time. Recipes that have been passed down through generations of women (and you have permission to share), recipes that keep you and your family strong, recipes for women’s health during pregnancy, loss, age, and more, and recipes that fit in every version of US women’s lives.
I’m proposing this as a small digital part of my dissertation project and hope to house it on my dedicated website: foodherstory.com. Using feminist and digital humanities methodologies, here’s what I propose:
a collective, collaborative effort and contribution method (for now, a Google form)
digital and open access publication
eventually, a group of womxn to help moderate/edit for length
a set of basic tenants that bring us and our love/need of food and cooking together
This project is still very much in its infancy and will require lots of input and kind criticism from anyone who would like to help. The “cookbook” needs recipes, it needs feedback, and most of all it needs critical analysis to make sure we try our best to learn from the mistakes of the women who came before us. It will change and evolve, but hopefully grow, and if my preschooler has anything to say about it (which she definitely will) it will involve a lot more sprinkles.