Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

Social Reform in the United States

In the antebellum period women's culture was held in high esteem. From the platform of "home" and its inextricable connection to religion and morality women were able to mold public opinion (Matthews 1987). Included among these women were a few celebrated cookbook authors of the day who were also reformers, and who, along with other activists, championed movements such as child welfare, temperance, abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, eradication of poverty, and reforms in medicine, labor, and prisons.

The cookbook writers--Catherine Beecher and Marion Harland, among others--and cooking school teachers such as Mary Lincoln and Maria Parloa used women's journals, novels, and household manuals, as well as lecture tours, to broaden their debates on food, diet, and health to encompass larger societal issues. Because women were expected to care for children, the sick, and the poor, and to engage in charitable activity, women's domain was extended beyond "home" to include so-called public affairs. Likewise, the education of young citizens combined concerns about extra-domestic institutions such as schools and churches with women's education, status, and rights.

Cookbook literature, which expressed a range of perspectives--from conservative to progressive--reached millions of homes and offered women support for their opinions and dissenting voices. Its authors argued about women's rights and sought to improve the working and living conditions of women both in and out of the home. Some cookbook authors also founded academic and cooking schools to improve the economic position of working women or to educate ladies. In doing so, they created curricula which were published and disseminated to a wider public. Cooking schools brought women together, and, along with the popular literature of the day, informed them of their duties, obligations, and rights.

Cookbook writers were often celebrated personalities. They were "respectable" women who did not flagrantly defy the norms of society, and who forged an image of femininity around which other women could safely rally. In fact, by first codifying domestic life and the moral influence of the home, the writers cloaked themselves in personae of respectability, which permitted them to speak out about other social issues, though granted not in one voice. Indeed, reformers such as Catherine Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, disagreed about women's suffrage. Beecher opposed the vote; Beecher Stowe supported it. A nineteenth-century vision of sexual equality, though it embraced several different perspectives, engendered a community of activists who articulated their views in their literary and domestic writings. Through these well-known authors, other women found an opportunity to contribute to social reform with its manifold consequences.

Supporters of universal suffrage had won for African-American men the right to vote. Yet women--including those who had struggled for the abolition of slavery and the right of all people to vote--were excluded from suffrage until 1920. What they had accomplished for others they were themselves denied.

Although cookbook authors and the power of domesticity had played a part in the attempt to advance women's status in a number of areas, the reformers did not realize that the creation of "home economics" would backfire. When women's work received academic recognition with the new discipline, women believed that the long-awaited fight for educational advancement had been won. Ironically, in the coming years, the trivialization of this academic subject would once again devalue women's work and lead to unequal and nearly segregated spheres of influence. Women's careers were most often limited to clerical or secretarial work, nursing, and teaching and as often subordinated to men's roles in the same field. If not at work in these jobs, women remained at home, but the authority which they had once enjoyed was now taken from them: the world of "home" lost power, prestige, and excitement. Not much skill was required of the housewife by the 1930s. Instead, her role had been diminished: to listen to the advice of expert "scientific" practitioners and to submit her will to the needs of her family.

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