This has been quite a year.
We’re still in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide and 330,000 people in the United States, where the federal government under the Trump Administration has downplayed the threat of the virus.
This failed response to COVID-19 has devastated the country. The buildings of schools and offices are closed, and restaurants and shops are going out of business. Millions of people have lost their jobs or been furloughed.
Government failures in this environment have also forced women to leave the workforce at four times the rate of men to handle the increased demands at home while child care centers and schools are closed.
This departure from the workforce is happening while we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote and sent the message that women have a place in public and political life. Of course, due to rampant racial discrimination, this right mostly applied to white women, even though there were many Black activists, as well as other people of color, involved in achieving this legal victory.
The 19th Amendment was the product of decades of activism using a variety of tactics, including marches, lobbying, publicity stunts, and public education campaigns. Between 1886 and 1920, suffragette associations published about a half dozen cookbooks to raise awareness about the women’s suffrage movement.
Cookbooks were a common fundraising tool for charity organizations in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It may seem like an odd choice for suffragists, who aimed to increase women’s role in public life through voting. The cookbooks reinforced gender norms associated with women as the center of home and family life, potentially recruiting people to the cause by making women’s suffrage seem less threatening to the traditional social order.
The Suffrage Cook Book, published by the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania in 1915, and available through Project Gutenberg, contains recipes as well as statements from prominent people, such as authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Jack London.
Some contributors tried to assuage the readers’ concerns about women’s suffrage.
For example, between a recipe for Norwegian Prune Pudding and Suet Pudding, Governor Alexander of Idaho, said:
The impression that Woman Suffrage inspires an ambition in women to seek and hold public office is altogether wrong. The contrary is true. The women of Idaho are not politicians, but they demand faithful and conscientious service from public officials and when this service is not rendered their disapproval is certain and unmistakable.
The cookbook reinforced the stereotype of women as homemakers, but it also celebrated that role and recognized the importance of this unpaid work.
Julia C. Lathrop, Director of the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, contributed a letter to the cookbook, saying:
Is it not strange how custom can stale our sense of the importance of everyday occurrences, of the ability required for the performance of homely, everyday services? Think of the power of organization required to prepare a meal and place it upon the table on time! No wonder a mere man said, “I can’t cook because of the awful simultaneousness of everything.”
At the same time, though, other contributors reminded the readers that not all women cook. Anna H. Shaw, a physician and women’s suffrage leader, said:
As for my effort in the culinary line—I have not made an effort in the culinary line for more than at least thirty years, except once to make a clam pie, which was pronounced by my friends as very good. But I cannot remember how I made it.
Still, the stereotypes of the time largely limited women to the home sphere, making a cookbook a reasonable outreach tool for the suffrage movement.
For the 100th Anniversary of the movement’s success, the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Nineteenth Amendment published The Nineteenth Amendment Centennial Cookbook: 100 Recipes for 100 Years. The ebook is available for free.
In the Introduction, Judge M. Margaret McKeown, the Chair of the ABA Commission on the Nineteenth Amendment, writes:
My hope is that this cookbook reminds us of the heroic efforts of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, along with the men who supported the cause and voted for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, but also inspires us to persist in our work towards a better, more equitable future.
Indeed, a hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the stereotypes the suffragists reinforced in the original cookbooks remain at play, limiting the role of women in society. Amid the pandemic, women are leaving the workforce to take on childcare responsibilities, perhaps nudged along by lower pay than men for comparable work. I also wonder how many women, particularly women of color, and pregnant people have been forced out by employers who have selected them to furlough or lay off first.
Some of the contributors to the Centennial Cookbook recognize in the introductions to their recipes that we still have work to do to achieve gender justice.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who contributed a chocolate chip cookie recipe, said:
It might not seem like there’s a clear connection between voting and a chocolate chip cookie recipe. But the women who have contributed recipes to make our lives a little sweeter know how much has changed for women in America—and how far we still have to go.
Neal Katyal, a lawyer who regularly argues before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of corporations, writes:
The original 1886 cookbook had a recipe for ‘Virginia Batter Bread’ by ‘Mrs. K.W. Barrett.’ Below is my modern take on this, in honor of Virginia being the thirty-eighth state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on January 15, 2020.
It remains to be seen whether the United States Archivist will certify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The proposed constitutional amendment, which states that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” has met the required 38-state ratification requirement, but on a later timeline than Congress set. There is litigation pending to compel certification of the amendment, arguing that ratification is a one-time event without a time limit.
The addition of the ERA to our Constitution would send an important message of gender equality,* and it may provide another legal tool to address sex discrimination perpetrated by public actors (who are bound by the Constitution). But is it necessary? Arguably, the Equal Protection Clause and the statutory antidiscrimination laws we have prohibiting sex discrimination should be enough, if only our courts would interpret them properly.
It is thanks to people like Neal Katyal that our laws are so ineffective at protecting us.
For example, among his many “wins” for corporations, is Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that employers may force employees to submit to individual arbitration of workplace-related claims, denying them their right to collective action under the National Labor Relations Act and their right to go to court individually. (Epic Systems Corp. Opinion, PDF).
Basically, this decision makes workplaces less fair by making it harder for employees to vindicate their rights.
The author of that opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, also submitted a recipe for the Centennial Cookbook. His Colorado Green Chile Stew looks like the comfort food we need as he and others in the legal system chip away at our rights. Don’t forget to have Katyal’s Virginia Brown Butter Cookies for dessert.
Why have enforceable rights when we can have recipes?
*The term “sex” is interpreted broadly include sexual orientation and gender identity.