Teaching our kids how to cook vs. Princeton mom

Right now, I’m reading the landmark feminist manifesto/outcry against the male-dominated power structure, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. It just so happens that everything I’m coming across on the internet these days seems to coincide with or spurs me to mull over feminist thoughts and the role of the modern woman, family and the role of ‘home.’ 

First, there was this great interview with my favorite food writer and sustainability advocate, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), who spoke with NPR about his newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. During the interview, he speaks on how cooking left the kitchen sometime during the mid-20th century, as corporations began churning out processed, frozen meals for busier and busier families.

There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got you covered. We’ll do the cooking.’ And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan, ‘Women’s Liberation.’

This was during the 1970’s, Pollan says, when women were emerging from the relative “dark ages” of Friedan’s 1950’s and 1960’s, when being a woman was all about being in the kitchen (and being happy with it). Now, so many of us are moving back and embracing “hearth and home”; and not just women, but men as well. But this is less a movement dominated by cultural expectations and sexism (though that still exists), but one defined by a desire for sustainability, affordability and control over a world made up of processed meals, artificial ingredients and waste. I think this note by Pollan is particularly important:

I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook.

Now, let’s compare this with the noise coming from Susan A. Patton, otherwise known as the Princeton Mom who in fit of regressive retro fever, wrote to the Daily Princetonian, telling all the smart ladies who managed to get into Princeton that they’re pretty much doomed if they don’t find the man they’re going to marry by their freshman year.

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Yeah… Poor Friedan is rolling over in her grave right now. I mean, seriously, paging 1950? This is the exact same message girls were being bombarded with 50 years ago, with everyone from sociologists to advertisers to their college professors telling girls they’re basically only fit for marriage and child-rearing. Flash forward to 2013 and here’s this loony society dame rehashing the same old sexist crap. Yay for progress!

And let’s not forget another comment from Ms. Patton, at another speech on the Princeton campus last week:

[Female college students] are receiving so much information about career planning, and they don’t need to hear any more of it.

Also from that speech: women in their 30’s are desperate and feminist are bullies who force poor housewife-wannabes into – dun, dun dun! – careers. Please.

While reading The Feminine Mystique, I have to remind myself that Friedan is responding to a totally different era and a totally different set of cultural biases. 2013 is not the world of The Feminist Mystique. Lucky young women such as myself have been given the freedom to pursue whatever passions or careers we want in life. In fact, girls are now doing better than boys in school. Personally, I was pushed to succeed as much as possible if only to fulfill what I was told was a limitless potential. The girls smart enough to get into Princeton are likely made up of the next generation of cancer researchers, diplomats, engineers and perhaps a president or two.

And so to hear comments like Patton’s while I’m reading Friedan, I sometimes get cultural whiplash: what year is this again? At the same time, I firmly believe that Pollan’s philosophies are completely separate from the June Cleaver-esque aspirations of Susan Patton. The idea of homemaking as espoused by Pollan – as part of his urging to return to the kitchen and simpler, healthier way of eating – is not about latent sexism or recreating the cultural norms of the 1950’s.  It’s about being mindful of who we are, taking care of ourselves, being better to the environment, and enjoying food that is not only better for you but tastes better too. Just because the processed food movement “liberated” women from housewifery and allowed them to have careers in the 1970’s and 1980’s, that doesn’t necessarily mean that processed food is good.

Patton, meanwhile, is basically telling girls to turn the clock back 60 years and just ignore all the amazing things women are capable of when they’re not husband-hunting. Also an important note: Pollan says everyone should return to the kitchen – not just women, but men and children as well. Patton’s message, meanwhile, is only for the ladies. No boys, go ahead and pursue your ambitious degrees at Princeton. It’s just the girls who need to concern themselves with matrimony.

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