How 'Citizen Housewives' Made Food Cheaper and Safer

A new book examines the legacy of the women-led consumer protests of the mid-20th century.

Women in New York protest meat prices in 1945.
Women in New York protest meat prices in 1945. (Bettmann / Getty)

Today’s shoppers take many features of the modern supermarket for granted: Ground beef is sealed with see-through plastic, prices are clearly labeled on the shelves and known before checkout, and expiration dates are clearly indicated on packaging. But without grassroots organizing by women throughout the 20th century against rotting ingredients, high food prices, and indecipherable freshness codes, buying food in America would look very different than it does.

Emily E. LB. Twarog, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied how “citizen housewives” pushed for such changes using the power they held over household spending. In Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America, Twarog focuses on the female activists who defined the consumer-advocacy movement, from the appointment in 1964 of Esther Peterson, the U.S. government’s first-ever special assistant to the president for consumer affairs, to the women’s groups that ran strike kitchens and pushed for family-friendly policy changes in manufacturing strongholds like Detroit. Many consequential protests—ones that registered even with big companies—started locally, with groups of women picketing outside, say, local butcher shops over high prices.

I recently spoke to Twarog about how housewives shaped American shopping culture and the current state of consumer advocacy. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite: When housewives started boycotts, how did businesses respond?

Emily E. LB. Twarog: Opposition was always coming from business. In the ‘30s and ‘40s it was from groups like the National Association of Manufacturers. In the 1960s, there was even more backlash, from advertisers. Advertisers were really frustrated and angry by the idea of having a consumer advocate in the White House like Esther Peterson. They felt like it was a lopsided relationship, even though her role as a special assistant to the president was to listen equally to consumers, advertisers, and industry.

In the book, I tell the story of Mickey DeLorenzo, a housewife in Long Island, who got really engaged in organizing the meat boycotts there in 1969. She was asked to testify in Washington, D.C., about food prices, wrote a speech, and then was given an entirely different speech to read because the senators were being pressured by big business. Similarly, in the 1970s, when women in Chicago protested the coding system on grocery-store items, businesses hired major law firms to call their husbands, saying, “Do you know what your wife is doing?”

Aggarwal-Schifellite: You write about how housewives’ protest movements were sometimes perceived differently based on women’s class and race. What dynamics were at play there?

Twarog: I qualify, in the book, that it’s a lot harder to find archival material on African American women than white women, specifically around the meat boycotts. But what I did find was that there was consistently a response around the high cost of foods among African American women. For black women, “Don’t buy where you can’t shop” campaigns, the sit-in movement in the soda shops in the South, and the fact that white owners would open up overpriced stores in black neighborhoods were all issues that black communities were having to deal with time and again in a way that white communities were not.

The expectations for women based on race really complicated their images as citizen housewives. When a black woman who stayed at home would say the price of food is too high, white people might say that she was being lazy and that she should work so she could afford it. Whereas when a white woman stayed home, she was seen as fulfilling her duty as a mother, and when she says food costs too much, there’d probably be a response like, “Let’s listen to what she has to say.” There was more willingness from the white public to listen to white women. By the ‘60s and ‘70s, in some communities there was more cross-racial organizing. Predominantly, though, the consumer movement was seen as a white movement, even if that wasn’t the case.

Aggarwal-Schifellite: Meat comes up a lot in your book. What made it so central to the history of women’s consumer activism?

Twarog: Meat, for citizen housewives and their family members, became kind of a barometer of people’s standard of living, especially for immigrants. There was an idea of the United States as a land of plenty for immigrants, that they were going to be able to eat meat all the time. Of course, immigrants came here and realized that certainly wasn’t the case. While there may have been ample meat around, they didn’t necessarily have jobs that would allow them to afford that meat.

At the same time, it was a necessity of many men’s jobs to be able to eat meat, so they had enough energy to work a 12- or 15-hour day in a very physically demanding job. Without meat, they were somehow going to be lesser workers. That reflected poorly on not just the man as a worker, but also on his wife for not being able to supply that food for the family, whether by seeking bargains out on the street with the butcher or managing money smartly. It became a whole family activity to be able to put meat on the table on a regular basis.

Aggarwal-Schifellite: Does the citizen housewife still exist?

Twarog: From the working poor to the upper middle class, the U.S. doesn’t have family-friendly public policy. I think that’s where you see a resurgence of the citizen housewife—it’s just been retooled for the 21st century. It’s kind of an exciting time to be thinking about issues like family leave, but I don’t think many of the women who have chosen to opt out and stay home with their kids would necessarily call themselves housewives. And people pick and choose what their key interests are—we’ve also seen a push among people towards better, healthier food in different communities. So, as has always been the case, there isn’t one organization that’s spearheading a new citizen-housewife movement, which makes it difficult to look at it as a comprehensive movement.

Aggarwal-Schifellite: What does consumer advocacy more broadly look like today, compared to in the past?

Twarog: The consumer movement has changed a lot since the 1930s. If you look at wages and earnings, spending power, and purchasing power, there was a small window of time, after World War II, where that was somewhat balanced out across the board. We have much lower rates of union membership now, we no longer have the same kind of banking regulations we had in the past, and we virtually completely deregulated our economic system.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, working-class people really thought that the state was obligated to intervene in issues of prices and supply of food, and that companies should be held accountable for their actions. Now, the perception is usually that if someone’s struggling financially, it’s the problem of that individual worker. Certainly under Ronald Reagan there was a real shift towards talking about the public as individual taxpayers, versus a body of consumers. That has had, over time, a great impact on the psyche of the American public, since they’re no longer being referred to as a collective by the mainstream media.

Esther Peterson wanted to revamp the Department of Labor, to better address the needs of all working people. She foresaw that we needed to think about work much more holistically, by incorporating not just the work site, but also family life, which included the cost of living. Over the past 50-odd years, there’s also been this push to have a federal department of consumer affairs, but we don’t have one yet. I think that shows that business is still very resistant to this idea of consumers organizing. It makes them very nervous, because that’s one thing that ties everybody together: We all consume.