As a paper called "Why Have Americans Become More Obese?" in the Journal of Economic Perspectives points out, two of the major gains of feminism—more equality in the workforce and access to education—are actually protective against obesity in and of themselves.
"Obesity for women is strongly negatively associated with education," says the paper; the same negative association holds true for obesity and income.
Furthermore, the authors of the paper—two Harvard economics professors and a PhD candidate—write, "We also reject a theory of obesity that the increased numbers of women at work have increased the demand for eating out—and for eating less healthy food...increased female labor force participation does not appear linked to rising obesity."
Lastly, the idea that feminists convinced women that cooking was oppression is utterly silly, a modern day rendering of the hoary old "man-hating bra-burners" stereotype. There were feminists who hated all housework, there were crunchy feminists who baked whole-grain bread and crocheted sweaters all day, and there were feminists (the majority, no doubt) who simply felt that women shouldn't have to be the ones who did all the housework. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, "a baked potato is not as big as the world" to point out that keeping women in the kitchen all day long shrank their horizons. It was not a diss on potatoes, nor those who bake them.
So why does this idea of "feminism killed home cooking" keep staggering around, zombie-like, infecting new and otherwise intelligent audiences?
Twenty-first century foodies like Pollan and his followers have an understandably hard time seeing cooking as anything but enjoyable. In the post-industrial middle- and upper-middle class America of the 21st century, cooking, stripped of necessity, has been reimagined as a hobby or a vocation. Many of us spend our days in front of computers, disconnected from the kind of tactile labor that produces tangible results. Baking bread, digging up watermelon radishes in your backyard garden, or stirring a big pot of earthy mushroom risotto fulfills a very common urge to work with your hands and enjoy the end product. But stirring pots and digging in the dirt is not necessarily fun when you have to do it. And we ought to remember that.
As I researched my new book, on women and modern domesticity, I interviewed dozens upon dozens of otherwise progressive young people who echoed some variation of Pollan's claim: "Feminism was really important, but it kind of destroyed traditional domestic life, and now we're suffering the consequences, with the obesity epidemic and everything," they say.
A 32-year-old writer and mother-of-two in Los Angeles recently complained to me about the pressures of competitive domesticity in her educated, ostensibly progressive community:
I am not into canning and I don't have chickens and most of my food comes from Trader Joe's already cooked. But I have a vigorous inner life and I've maintained my involvement in the culture and in intellectualism . . . But nobody sees that as noble. The noble thing is to cook your food from stuff you've grown yourself, not to cook your food from Trader Joe's so you can work on another article.
The Feminine Mystique is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Let's celebrate it, not as the book that taught women to hate cooking, but as a book that helped give women choices beyond the stove.