Book Review: Politics of the Pantry by Emily E. LB. Twarog

Review by Emily J.H. Contois

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a housewife as “a married woman in charge of a household.” Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2017) questions this interpretation of housewives as tied to the home, conservative, traditional, and solely family-oriented. Politics of the Pantry is the first book from Emily E. LB. Twarog, Assistant Professor of Labor Studies and American History in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She examines how mostly white working class women utilized “housewife” as a political identity that recognized domestic expertise, fueled local activism, inspired national movements, and launched the political careers of multiple women. Arguing that “domestic politics as a political strategy highlights the inextricable links between labor, community, home, and the market” (2), Politics of the Pantry tracks the rise and fall of the citizen housewife, particularly through activism on issues of food price, quality, and safety.

35259276Twarog begins with the meat boycott of 1935. Throughout the twentieth century, consumers organized around meat more than any other food, as it strongly symbolized class status, American identity (particularly for immigrants), and masculinity. Politics of the Pantry next examines price controls during and after World War II, efforts led by women’s labor union auxiliaries, which leveraged a confluence of resources from organized labor and New Deal government agencies. Subsequent chapters address the postwar period (when many labor unions removed support for women-led consumer organizing) and the rise of the Cold War, a period during which women’s political activism faced strong opposition. Concluding with the consumer protests of the 1960s and 1970s, Twarog addresses the suburbanization of meat boycotts and how “housewife” was eventually rendered “a dirty word” (111) and an enemy of the feminist cause, resulting in a “set of lost allies” (8). She writes:

A marriage of domestic politics and the 1970s women’s movement…created an environment in which women were seen as more than housewives. The flip side of this progress, however, was the end of an era of the citizen housewife and collective action of behalf of domestic politics. This was particularly true as a wave of conservatism swept through the country giving way to a reframing of the housewife as an ambassador of conservatism and traditional family values (110-111).

In addition to challenging the accepted history of “housewife” as a sociopolitical identity, Politics of the Pantry asserts that the suburbs “were not bubbles of complacency and homogeneity” (80), nor were they full of inactive, fretful housewives trapped by “the problem that has no name.” Similarly, supermarkets were neither a housewife’s paradise nor a location of leisure, but rather a public space for socializing, protest, and testing women’s political voices (82).

As she mentions in a footnote, Politics of the Pantry synthesizes, builds upon, and converses with a set of texts examining gender, consumption (including food), citizenship, and labor activism, prominently including Tracey Deutsch’s Building A Housewives’ Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (2010), as well as Lawrence Glickman’s Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in American (2009); Dorothy Sue Cobble’s The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (2004); Meg Jacobs’s Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (2005); and Joanne Meyerwitz’s Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (1994). Drawing from archival research and interviews addressing both urban and suburban areas (Detroit, Chicago, Long Island, and Los Angeles), Politics of the Pantry also includes a number of photographs, which provide illustration, but could have been more provocative and effective if Twarog had closely read them, further integrating them into the text.

Politics of the Pantry shines its brightest when telling the stories of citizen housewives, ordinary women who became deeply involved in consumer activism. Mary Zuk, an unknown housewife from the Detroit suburbs, served as the national spokeswoman for the 1935 meat boycott, launching her into a brief career as an elected official. Esther Peterson, appointed as the first female Special Assistant to the President in 1963, represented the voices of housewives as a powerful consumer constituency, earning the scorn of the advertising industry along the way. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jackie Kendall and Lynne Heidt armed themselves with clipboards and organized efforts to break the complex coding system that once tracked product freshness. They printed and distributed 50,000 copies of a “codebook” (ironically enough with the help of a grant from the Playboy Foundation), efforts that eventually resulted in expiration dates on food packaging.  

While Twarog addresses some African American women’s activism, Politics of the Pantry most often considers white women, notably because of the text’s focus on housewives as political actors. Indeed, Twarog concedes from the start,

[T]he socially and culturally ascribed identity of the American housewife did and continues to describe a woman who is explicitly heterosexual, white, and financially secure. For women of color—especially African American women—efforts to achieve housewife status were often thwarted by economic and social restrictions despite campaigns to gain respectability. (4-5).  

Furthermore, Twarog writes, “Consumer activism was a highly segregated activity” (48). Despite these limitations, Twarog examines, for example, how the elected delegation of meat boycott leaders in 1935 included African American housewife Irene Thompson (22) and how African American women in Detroit further targeted their boycotts at white-owned businesses for price gouging (19). She discusses how African American women’s consumer organizing and domestic politics were woven into the Civil Rights Movement (62-63). She also argues that “the 1960s and 1970s boycotts were led by a more representative group of women than those of a generation earlier” (72-73). To such effect, she cites the “diversity of race, age, and marital status” among the leaders of the Washington [DC] Area Shoppers for Lower Prices: “Joyce Thomas and Shirley Gray, two young, married African American women, and Geraldine Sears, a single older white woman” (72). These numerous African American women’s stories remain to be told in the same engaging detail afforded Mary Zuk and Esther Peterson.

In a brief epilogue, Twarog argues that while domestic politics have faded, the fight for affordable food has not. She traces forward the influence of neoliberalism, deregulation, the decline of unions in America, and global trade agreements, which have made large-scale consumer food protests a rarity in the United States, shifting them overseas instead. Well-researched across multiple fields of history, effectively argued, a delight to read, and astonishingly concise (just 117 pages from the first page of the introduction to the last page of the epilogue), Politics of the Pantry will appeal to scholars of women’s, labor, and food history alike. It is also accessible to the undergraduate or general reader interested in these important topics.

Emily J.H. Contois (MPH, MLA, MA) is a scholar of food, the body, health, identities, and media. She will receive her PhD in American Studies at Brown University in May and begin as Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa in the fall.

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