The Women Who Used Food to Fight Historical Stereotypes

Cooking has often been a tool for protest and resistance, even when it resulted in gross meals served at the White House.

A woman in a chef's uniform stirs a pot containing an orange paste.
David J. Phillip / AP

From The Flintstones to Focus on the Family, the stereotype has long been that men hunt and provide, while women just stir the pot. Thankfully, today many women—and men—reject both that biological essentialism and the resulting division of labor. But what can science tell us about the role our earliest female ancestors played in providing food for themselves and their communities? Meanwhile, given the fact that women have been confined to the kitchen for much of recent Western history, how have they used food as a tool of power and protest, escape, and resistance? Just in time for the holiday season, this episode we dive into two books that take on the science and history of women’s relationship with food. First, science journalist Angela Saini helps us upend conventional wisdom on “women’s work” and biological differences between the sexes; then food historian Laura Shapiro reveals an entirely new side to six well-known women through their culinary biographies. Join us this episode as we hunt, gather, and cook with women throughout history, from feral pigs to shrimp wiggle.

The idea that men and women are fundamentally different—that women are physically weaker, less rational, and equipped with smaller brains—was accepted as fact by scientists and enforced by culture for centuries. Charles Darwin himself claimed that women were at a lower stage of evolution. One widely believed argument for male superiority was that early men were the hunters—and that, through hunting, they not only provided food for their families, they also invented the first tools and the earliest forms of language, and thus, by extrapolation, everything that made humans distinctively human. In her new book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, Saini exposes the flaws in that hypothesis to offer an inspiring revision of gender equality among early humans.

For the heroines of the culinary historian Shapiro’s newest book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, food has also proved itself an instrument of power, if not exactly equality. In this episode, Shapiro helps us explore how the disgusting food served in the Roosevelt White House—widely regarded as the worst in American history—offers a new perspective on the tensions that underlay Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage. And she tells us how the delightful novels of British author Barbara Pym use food to explore gender, class, and character—but also help rehabilitate the appalling reputation of English cuisine. Together, these books reinforce the power of food to reshape the stories we tell about ourselves. Listen in this holiday season, then read—and then eat!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast cohosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.