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.