By Giulia Nicolini
The departure of the women’s movement from leftist student politics in West Germany is often traced back to 1968, when, at a conference of the Socialists German Students’ League (SDS), a disgruntled woman member of the audience threw a tomato at her male colleagues for smirking at a female speaker.
The role of food on this occasion – the ‘tomato-throwing incident’ as it has come to be known – is mostly trivial, although throwing items of food as a form of political protest has a long history. In the case of women’s movements and feminism, more often food has been an end of protest (rather than the means). This article will explore some of the ways in which food has been significant in women’s and feminist movements, both historical and contemporary. This article will briefly examine a select number of cases where women’s concerns or feminist goals have intersected with the politics of food, mainly from a consumer perspective.
Protests about food are always also about other things: politics, economics, ethics and religion, to name a few. In the same way, gender struggles are always also underpinned by, and intertwined with, other aspects of identity, including race, class, and religion. However, it is not my intention to conflate women and feminism, and indeed in many cases ‘feminism’ was likely not on the agenda of the actors involved.
As Cairns and Johnston point out, there is a ‘striking degree of historical and cross-cultural consistency, especially in modern times’ in the connections between women and what they term ‘foodwork’. Women’s relationship with food has been shaped by normative gender roles which assigned men to the public sphere of work, and women to the private sphere of care and domesticity. Women’s domestic responsibilities likely explain their involvement in food riots during the 17th century onwards. For example, in October 1789 thousands of women marched from Paris and stormed the palace of Versailles, demanding that the monarchy release the stocks of bread they had been hoarding. The women’s march is thought to have sparked the French Revolution.
Although it may have been the most catalytic food riot, the women’s march on Versailles was far from an anomaly at the time. Between 1776 and 1779, at least thirty food riots broke out in a handful of northern American states – then British colonies. Women protested against extortionate prices, and merchants’ practices of hoarding basic foodstuffs to drive up prices. Barbara Clark Smith, a political historian, has suggested that women orchestrated as many as one third of these protests, and that these events provided the chance for women who were ‘politically disabled by their dependent status’ to participate in the political sphere of public life. Interestingly however, she argues that the women acted not as ‘republican wives or mothers’ but as socio-economic members of their households and communities.
Food riots would appear to be a thing of the past for Europeans and North Americans today. Under current neoliberal regimes, dissatisfaction with the food supply chain is more likely to be expressed through consumer boycotts. Although the strategy of ‘voting with one’s purse’ risks marginalising those who cannot afford to have their voices heard in this way, consumer boycotts might be seen as a twenty first century take on food riots, albeit in a more privatised form.
In Japan, a strong gendered division of labour both within and outside the home has persisted to a greater extent than in Europe and North America. This is reflected in formal politics, where women are severely underrepresented. Traditionally, in the post-war era Japanese women have been assigned the role of the ‘housewife’, however, this role comes with considerable status. In many cases, including the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is this status that legitimizes women’s participation in informal politics, such as consumer boycotts, petitioning, protests and self-help groups.
Following the 2011 disaster, mothers’ concerns about radiation, and the action they took as a result, were widely reported on. Mothers in and around Fukushima formed networks to help one another in the provision of safe and uncontaminated food for their children. Mothers bought Geiger counters to test their food and shared the results online. Others also protested publically against the complacency of the government and the energy company at the centre of the nuclear meltdown, TEPCO. There are clearly broader issues at play here concerning trust, governance and concern for the environment. But at the core of what has driven these protests is mothers’ concern for their children’s health and wellbeing, expressed through a demand for safe and uncontaminated food.
Certainly, the rejection – both symbolic and literal – of food and foodwork has been central in feminist history. As the suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote at the turn of the twentieth century, they resorted to increasingly radical forms of protest. Between 1909 and 1914, hundreds of suffragettes went on hunger strike while in prison, most often in protest at not being recognised as political prisoners by the authorities. Through this powerful form of non-violent, embodied protest, women used their bodies as political statements, in the face of injustices committed against their sex.
In The sexual politics of meat, Carol J. Adams exposes the connections between male dominance and meat eating, and therefore between feminism and vegetarianism. Her contention is that the oppression of animals and women is interdependent, and that there are ‘gender issues embedded in the eating of animals’. Again, food consumption – or the refusal of particular foods – here functions as a form of embodied protest, an enactment of feminist ideals and theory through the practice of vegetarianism and veganism.
From the Victorian period onwards the association between food and femininity became a growing source of oppression. It was this domestic drudgery which second wave feminists sought to liberate themselves from in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist protests in Northern America and Europe focused on the domestic sphere and the family, including cooking as a form of unpaid labour. In many ways, struggles concerning food and foodwork are emblematic of the feminist slogan at the time, the idea that ‘the personal is political’.
Cooking remains politically charged among this generation’s feminists, some of whom may feel ambivalent about women’s continued leadership in the fight for safe, ethical, and sustainable food. Indeed, it may seem ironic that so many women today appear to be re-embracing cooking and foodwork. However, as Cairns and Johnston argue, ‘it is important to emphasize that feminism did not cause the demise of women’s “from-scratch” cooking, nor did it push women into the workplace’. Women ‘disliked cooking long before feminism’; however, the latter did ‘[offer] women a language’ through which to critique and undermine inequitable gender relations.
It is important to note that for many women in non-Western societies, whose lives have been untouched by white, middle-class feminism, foodwork may have never stopped being an obligation. It is crucial to highlight the class and race dynamics underlying these protests – protests whose narratives are often, and falsely, presented as universal. The freedom to abandon the stove was mainly granted to white, affluent women, and it was a freedom which in many cases was premised on the labour of non-white women.
So it is clear to see how the close yet problematic relationship between food and femininity is intermingled with the history of female uprising. And, writing at a time when women’s fundamental rights are once more being attacked, in the country that has historically led these movements, it is perhaps important for governments at large to take food – this basic yet essential, powerful thing – more seriously. What could be more radical than that?
 Cairns and Johnston, Food and Femininities, 2014, p.6.
 Barbara Clark Smith, ‘Food Rioters and the American Revolution’, 1994.
 For further analysis of the suffragette hunger strikes, see Hunger: a Modern History (2007)
 Food and Femininities, p.8.
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