Monday, June 28, 2010

Back to the kitchen

I submitted an abstract for the Women's Studies Association (NZ) conference in November which has just been accepted:

Back to the Kitchen: Middle class women’s role in a new social movement
Despite the second wave of feminism’s emphasis on freeing women from the confines of domesticity, a new generation of middle class women are now reclaiming the kitchen in an effort to take control of their lives and their health as well as the health of their families. Modern industrially processed food has reached the point where it has become a political issue in terms of its indigestibility, negative health affects and unethical production - unjustly harming communities, the land and animals. Not only are these middle class women empowering and educating themselves and changing their own lifestyles and diets, armed with PCs and the internet, they are sharing what they know through weblogs, producing information and networking to form online communities. This presentation will look at the transformation of the kitchen as a place of confinement to a place of empowerment, explore the role of middle class women in this new social movement and draw parallels to other historical social movements that middle class women have been influential in such as the anti-apartheid movement and the US civil rights movement.
While I was intending to be a bit controversial with the title, the person in charge of submissions had a few concerns:
While your abstract is accepted, I do feel I should warn you that you are likely to receive some interrogation of your argument.  A return to the kitchen on the bases you outline, while perhaps experienced by women as freely chosen and even 'empowering', could also be a response to new pressures on middle class women to be 'good' mothers who actively protect their families from external 'dangers' posed by processed food and other environmental contaminants - and thus is not dissimilar to 1950s moral panics about physical (and social) hygiene - 'dirt danger'. So middle class women are called upon to be more concerned than ever about their family's and children's health, diet, and wellbeing, as well as the planet's wellbeing, with a new set of expectations and disciplinary practices emerging to replace the old.  At the same time, such a choice fits with contemporary neo-liberal requirements in terms of taking full responsibility for the care of the self as a condition of citizenship.  So in these two senses, the return to the kitchen might not necessarily be progressive or emancipating, or at least has a dual aspect to it which may simultaneously entail hegemonic recuperation. You might also want to see this link:

This raises some interesting points about feminism and choice.  While many food bloggers probably wouldn't identify as feminists, from what I have read there is a sense of agency in their chosen lifestyles and the blogging process.  There is also recurring conflict that occurs between the second wave feminist emphasis on leaving behind traditionally female roles and, particularly on participating in skilled, full-time, paid employment.  This was a particularly moving blog post on this topic from the perspective of a food blogger:
(Note the religious overtone which is common in US based nourishing blogs)

I would agree that taking full responsibility is a typically neoliberal thing, which is probably why this movement is common in largely neoliberal countries - it is also an example of rebellion against the corporate domination of neoliberal countries. 

From my perspective, feminism  - or any human rights based movement is about freedom and choice.  It is possible that these women are still shackled by patriarchy or pressured by moral panic, perhaps some are more than others, and that is something worthy of investigation, but social pressure applied from the other side has the potential to be just as disempowering.  From my interpretations of the perspectives of these women, there is a sense of empowerment in knowing what is in their food, where it came from and that the processes involved in preparing it to make it more nourishing.   There is a creative outlet in cooking and a sense of sharing and community in blogging as well as the satisfaction of contributing to the growing body of alternative nutritional information available on the internet.  There is the sense of security in feeding their families and themselves safe, healthy food.


  1. I find it interesting how often religion becomes a factor in food companies... Quakers Oats in the US and our own Sanitarium are both examples of this... I wonder if it started with the idea of ensuring parishioners were well feed, became a source of income for the church and then went on to be a good way to talk to others about the Lord's work and convert every day people...

    I guess now it's just all about the money lol!

  2. I heard that Sanitarium was all about providing vegetarian options for the Seventh Day Adventists. It's kind of radical in a way. I find it interesting that a lot of the nourishing blogs in the US have conservative, religious overtones - right wing and not trusting the Govt. or corporations, whereas the NZ nourishing blogs tend to be a bit more left wing and alternative

  3. Great to come across your post, Isa! I'm a food writer in the US and have a blog that falls in line with the premise of your submission (, so I'm fascinated by the response you received. I need to do some more thinking on the argument that this return to the kitchen is just in response to another patriarchal pressure to be good mothers or good wives, but on the surface, I'm not convinced.

    Good luck and I can't wait to read more about your research!

  4. Hi Addie. Your blog looks great - I'm sure it will be very helpful for this section of my thesis. I'm tempted to label you a third wave feminist - does that sit right with you? I'm also tempted to link you blog to the woman who wrote the response to see what she thinks.

    It is an interesting debate - I suppose it could be reduced down to a determinism/free will type philosophical debate - whether we are all just responding to social pressures or whether we are self-empowered and self determined, and it's probably both. Most of these new food movements are anti-corporate, but they can have a strong emphasis on tradition (particularly WAPF which I'm focussing on) and tradition can be tied in with patriarchy easily enough.

    The two women who started the WAPF - Sally Fallon (activist) and Mary Enig (bio chemist), seem very self-empowered, although many of the bloggers have very strong emphasis on religion and family which comes across as patriarchal sometimes. Assuming that feminism has given these women the freedom to choose their own destinies - is it not a bit hypocritical to then criticize their choices?

  5. On the sidebar of my blog, I have links to around 20+ NZ food bloggers - they are all run by women. The only time I've encountered men talking about food online is on hunting/fishing sites or (very rarely) wine/beverage sites; no bloggers (as yet). There are a few male professional chefs with blogs, but they tend to be based abroad & are very commercially-oriented (a means of shifting product, whether it be kitchen equipment, books, food or as a promotional vehicle for their restaurants). Could you posit a reason for the lack of male food bloggers? Is it a case of traditional roles manifesting themselves in a new form? This is quite intriguing.

  6. Nigel,
    That's a very good question. Why are there so few male food bloggers? Perhaps there is less social credit involved in food blogging for men - What are most male-run blogs focussed on? Politics? Technology? Perhaps it is related to the community/culture of the blogs, and seeing women involved in blogs encourages more women to start them.

    I became interested in food blogs after finding them while looking for recipes on the internet - is this something women are more likely to do? I wonder what the gender balance of chefs is in NZ - perhaps men interested in food are more focussed on professional recognition than blogging? These are all just guesses - I have no idea. I have come across a few traditional food blogs run or co-run by men, but most of them are based in the US. It could be related to the blokey culture in NZ, a man starting a food blog might get laughed at by his mates? None of these seem like adequate reasons. I wonder how much of the cooking in this country is done by men/women.

    There is always the point that middle class women tend to have more time...

  7. "There is always the point that middle class women tend to have more time... "

    Scratch that - I don't think it's true in NZ. Lots of our female food bloggers also work full-time, unlike many of the US ones who are stay-at-home. Hmmm, perhaps we just make more time for food and get a lot of satisfaction out of taking pictures of it and putting it on the internet?

  8. Hi Isa


    This is a fascinating post and I'm very keen to respond, but need to check all the links and have a good think before I can do so sensibly.

    Off the top of my head, and from a personal point of view, I have mixed feelings about all this!!

    I identify as a feminist and I see a return to natural, traditional foods as a feminist act - because I see escape from industrial consumption of any sort as being heavily intertwined with feminist ideals.

    But I confess to a niggling and ever so slowly growing level of discomfort with the growing number of women's homemaker blogs around (even though I guess I have one), which generally either focus on food or craft or both. I can't quite articulate my discomfort properly yet, but I think it is both a gender and class thing.

    Re class - yes, us middle class women are busy, but you still have to have a certain amount of privilege in terms of leisure time, access to hardware and software, and education in order to blog - and to join the networks of women blogging about such things.

    You also have to have a certain amount of privilege to lead the kind of lives we are blogging about living.

    Regarding the gender issue around these blogs ... I don't know. How much political and societal power do we have these days as home-makers who are thrifting, crafting, cooking food from scratch? How powerful is it really to be doing this? And is it distracting us from other political actions we could take - that would perhaps make more impact?

    Those questions seem to recur through the decades, and I still don't know the answers to them.


  9. An afterthought - was just wondering - do you read Sandra's blog at


    Her blog blends talk about food and nourishment with a lot of overt political discussion.

  10. (And I should clarify, her actions are political in the public sphere as well the domestic sphere.)

  11. Hi Isa
    I was very very interested, thrilled indeed, to find your blog (thanks Johanna) and I've begun a response here:
    I look forward to reading more of your blog and wish you strength for your MA (I loved doing mine, but it was like a looong pregnancy with a difficult labour at times).

  12. Johanna - you make some great points. The social movement away from corporate/industrialised foods is something I consider to be very important and blogging is one way that someone, otherwise isolated in an individualist society, can protest, offer alternatives and add to these social movements. I see it as a kind of activism (I'm not talking about all domestic blogs here).

    It's true that the kind of lifestyles people blog about are generally under the privilege of the middle class - I also think this is important because the educated middle class have the time and the consumer power to have a huge influence on society if they are so inspired. Blogs can help to inform other people and convert them to the religion of real food.

    I'm probably a blind optimist, but I see things like 'local food', sustainability organic and so on as important stepping stones - hopefully resulting in positive changes for the whole world (not just the middle class). That is why I want to link the role of middle class women in this movement to other historical movements where they (well, some of them) also had the time, resources and social conscience to get involved.

    Thanks for your response - it's great! You blog looks very interesting. I look forward to reading it. Unfortunately, my Masters requires much more thought than pregnancy, but at least when it's finished I won't have all the sleepless nights and screaming to deal with (I hope).

  13. Hey!
    Enjoyed your paper yesterday, my friend here (Kathy Kudo) at Vic is looking at Sociology of food for her thesis as well
    All the best for your research (and really enjoyed your paper - Kim

  14. Hi Kim
    I'm glad you enjoyed my paper. I felt a bit frantic there! - so much material to get through. Kathy's thesis looks very interesting and it probably relates to mine in some ways :) Your thesis looks very interesting as well - My friend who is a doctor says that breast cancer is the 'fashionable cancer' - as opposed to say, colon etc - there are pamper packs and special wards for patients and celebrities speaking out about it. Very interesting, sociologically!

    All the stress from being in the final stages of my thesis is making me a bit crazy!

    Thanks for commenting :)

  15. Hi Isa!
    Yeah I was at the SAANZ one last year too! It's cool your grandma presented at the WSA conference.
    Yeah I was interested initially with my thesis looking at pink washing (with all of the products profiting off the breast cancer) but I moved onto look at public versus private (my anger with the pink washing was initially also that the companies were not giving enough of their money to the breast cancer patients that needed it, instead spending it on "research." What's interesting this year is that the Cancer Care Council here in New Zealand has a focus on bowel cancer (finally!! it is the most common form of cancer in NZ).
    My friends and I LOVED your presentation, my friend Holl asked you a question. I wanted to talk to you afterwards coz I found it really interesting.
    It was almost like being young was a really negative thing at the WSC? Weird?
    It's cool how the comments have made you think more about your research though - it sounds like you have a lot of people interested and behind you - and to be honest looking at these blogs is just such an interesting thing to study (and a free resource). It's cool hearing about how you came to the topic as well - with the concern around baby formula (it is a massive concern, specially with what happened over in China)
    I'm supposed to finish my thesis at the end of March - I've done my interviews and transcribed them and I'm currently analysing and writing stuff up!
    All the best - going to keep reading your blog now and if you are ever in Welly I would be so keen to have a chat to you!

  16. From the perspective of women, there is nothing much about feminism. But, from other people, feminism can be a great threat to them. It was good that you posted a sample thesis abstract for us to see what you were working on. I just wish a lot of people would have a chance to read it and understand everything.