Betty Friedan Did Not Kill Home Cooking

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Lots of factors contributed to families abandoning from-scratch meals , but feminism isn't one of them.

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As this Campbell's soup ad from the 1940s shows, the rise of processed, ready-to-eat meals far predates the women's movement (Campbell's Soup Company)

In the current zeal to reform food culture, some gourmets have begun to look to the culinary past with rose-tinted glasses. Restaurant menus drip with words like "old-fashioned" and "traditional." Food writers wax romantic about reviving the nearly-lost "foodways" of rural America. "Don't eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," is Michael Pollan's oft-quoted battle cry.

Food—good, wholesome, authentic food—is not just for pleasure these days, either. It's increasingly seen as a solution for a wide variety of social ills, from obesity to global warming to broken communities.

But what happened to our great-great grandmothers' good, wholesome, authentic food culture in the first place? Where did it go wrong? Disturbingly, the blame has lately seemed to settle on an all-too-convenient target: Betty Friedan and co.

Here's Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine: "[The Feminine Mystique was] the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression."

Here's Mireille Guiliano, author of the New York Times number-one bestseller French Women Don't Get Fat: "[Women] don't know how to deal with stress, and they eat when they're not hungry and get fat. They don't know how to cook, because feminism taught us that cooking was pooh-pooh."

Here's Rose Prince, the British celebrity cookbook author: "Yes, it's feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity."

Yes, that's right. Feminism killed home cooking. Feminism destroyed family dinner. Feminism made us fat. These attitudes are troubling. And they're flat-out wrong. If Friedan convinced women that cooking was drudgery, then cooking must have been considered fun and fulfilling before 1963. Right? Wrong.

While today's middle-class locavore may exult in the pleasures of pie-making and pea-shucking, cooking has not been a huge source of enjoyment, historically speaking. Of the many chores of pre-industrial women, cooking was "particularly burdensome...both repetitive and difficult to do well," writes Gail Collins in America's Women, noting that kitchen chores were often farmed out to servants or slaves.

Utopian thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries envisioned a future where cooking was professionalized and citizens could grab dinner at healthy public kitchens (sort of like a socialized Whole Foods hot bar, perhaps?). Two of the 20th century's best-selling anti-cooking cookbooks—Poppy Cannon's "The Can-Opener Cookbook" (1951) and Peg Bracken's "The I Hate to Cook Book" (1960) were published years before The Feminine Mystique supposedly convinced women to hate making dinner.

The mid-century transition from scratch-cooking to using prepared foods had nothing to do with Betty Friedan and everything to do with industrialization. In the years following World War II, corporations began trying to market wartime advances in canned and frozen food technologies to the domestic market. To do so, they aggressively courted housewives with pitches about "quick skillet suppers" of Spam and "ready to serve" Swanson chicken in a can. They sold these foods as more modern, more nutritious, easier, and just plain better than old-fashioned from-scratch cooking.

Many women were initially suspicious about these new foodstuffs, but plenty were happy for a chance to spend less time in the kitchen. And not because they were busy racing to their jobs or consciousness-raising groups, either. Full-time homemakers were just as likely to use convenience foods as women with outside jobs.

This onslaught of processed foods almost certainly contributed to the obesity epidemic, as did the increase in fast-cooking technologies like the microwave, a decrease in smoking, lack of sleep, rising TV use, and growing economic inequality, among many other factors. But feminism? Not on the list.

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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