We’ll even eat your hate like love

The day after the n+1 feminism panel I had lunch with my friend L.  L is a student at Columbia, among other things, and so she lives up in the Columbia neck of the woods with two dude roommates.  They aren’t students, though, just recent-grad-types, I forget what they actually do, I think one of them works in P.R. and the other works in finance.  Just your basic mid-20s Manhattan-dwelling dudes.  According to L they are good roommates, very clean and considerate.  Anyway, I was telling her about the panel and she said, in a tone of bemusement, that they’d been scandalized to hear her casually call herself a “feminist.”   “But you wear a bra!” one of them had said.

I thought about Ariel Levy’s recent review of two books, one of them the new Gail Collins book about the history of feminism, which began by debunking the myth of bra-burning and went on to detail what Levy called a “false-memory syndrome” that has plagued the feminist movement — its habit of taking the gains of each previous generation for granted before the paint had even dried on them, to the point where high-powered executives like Cindy McCain and (former) elected officials like Sarah Palin can describe themselves as “traditional.”   The review also contained the shocking information that “thirty-seven per cent of women describe themselves as conservative, and three out of four women abjure the label ‘feminist.’”

Jesus, I thought.  How can we even start to talk about “the unfinished work of feminism” when college-educated professional men living in one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan cities in this country, like L’s roommates, are still genuinely confused about what the word “feminist” means?  “They thought it meant I was a radical who thought women were superior to men,” she told me.  “I told them it just means someone who thinks men and women should be equal.”

We were eating spinach crepes in a generic Midtown bistro, sitting in the window. L, in addition to being a college student, is a ballerina, and she looks like a little girl’s drawing of one, all defined neck muscles and high cheekbones and classic Gibson-girl features.   The waiters were being nicer to us than I am used to.

L told me about a moment late in high school when she had been encouraged to go to college (she wasn’t planning to right away, because of her dance career) by a respected male teacher who told her that it was important for her to get a higher education because college would be where she’d meet a smart man who’d enable her to have smart children.

I told L about how the panelists the night before had talked a lot about how beneficial a utopian socialist future would be for the aims of feminism — how if we all didn’t have to work as much and if the state interceded at times in our lives when we need care — babyhood, childhood, and old age — then the need for care at these times would no longer fall almost exclusively to unpaid women, and that this would make women’s lives better.  I told L that it had been nice to hear these thoughts articulated but that few of them had been unfamiliar; I’d wanted to hear more about the panel’s declared theme which was “The unfinished work of feminism is love.”

Why was this theme interesting to me?  Well, I am nosy about people’s “personal lives,” for one thing.  But I also think that love — which despite various efforts to do so can’t be controlled by public policy –  and the different ways women have historically structured their domestic lives around love, reconciling themselves to the pull towards it and the equally strong pull towards autonomy — well, this is a realm where the personal really is unquestionably, meaningfully political.  I’ve read tons of interesting writing around this theme lately, and I have felt inspired and intrigued and disappointed by all of it.

One thing L and I talked about that no one on the panel talked about and that people rarely say is that domestic power — like, being in charge in your household — is a very satisfying kind of power, one that I think women are loath to give up.  And it makes sense to me that women think they’d have to give up their control of the domestic sphere in order to take on more power in the larger world, and because of the way that world is structured, that seems like it would be a bad bargain for most women.  You have so much power over people when they depend on you for care!  This is kind of a dirty secret.  I think this — and not because they’re dumb, or amnesiac — is why women are so quick to disavow “feminism,” and to agree with the men, and some women, who theorize that women are intrinsically better suited for traditionally feminine domestic tasks like cooking, cleaning and childcare.  I mean, okay, I’ll give you “childcare” to some small extent, maybe, MAYBE, but “women” as a whole are not better cooks and let’s face it, no one is “better” at cleaning (I myself hugely suck at it.)

But I am a good cook.  That is actually the one area that I feel completely comfortable in saying that I excel.  And when I have a boyfriend I delight in cooking all the time, for myself — I only cook things I like to eat — but also for him.  I can kind of justify this behavior to myself by acknowledging that it’s easier to cook for two than one, just in terms of the proportions and mechanics of cooking, and that it’s hard to justify making real multicourse meals for one, though of course I do so and I advocate doing so.  But none of this explains why I have been known to pack bag lunches, unbidden.  I see myself doing that kind of thing sometimes and feel strange.   Why am I trying to make another person rely on me for food?  Why am I sacrificing big swathes of time — which (in theory!) could be given over to some other kind of labor, something more meaningful or creative or at the very least remunerative — to shopping for and cooking good meals?   It has to do with loving to cook and eat, sure, but mostly for me at least it has to do with control.  I was talking to a woman recently, okay it was Amy Sohn, whose husband does all the cooking for their family, and I had the initial response of “Wow, that sounds great, what a dream,” but then I realized that my honest response is that I would never want to be with someone who could cook at all, because then I wouldn’t be in charge of cooking.  And while I can see how the charm of being in charge of cooking might wear thin when what you’re cooking is box mac’n'cheese for some little creature who demands it three times a day, somehow I still think I’d want to be in charge of that, too.

I guess the sort-of-crass term for what women are doing — well, what I am doing, and what I think at least some other women are doing — when we refuse to relinquish control of domestic tasks is “topping from the bottom.”  My big post-panel revelation is that possibly women need to ease out of these patterns of thinking and behavior if we ever want to stand a chance of topping from the top.

30 comments to We’ll even eat your hate like love

  • Lyse

    I get such a thrill when I see Emily Magazine all boldy bold in my Google reader. Such an insightful post. (PS Loath not loathe.)

  • The idea of the subservient woman – a slave in her own home, cooking simply to please others as her personal ambitions wither away – is very disturbing to me, but I am not at all bothered by the idea of a woman who retains control of her household because she enjoys it. Having the ability to do what you love and be with who you love on your own terms is, I believe, the role of love in feminism. If you love being the queen of the kitchen, I see no reason why you should relinquish that power. The phrase “topping from the bottom” is slightly problematic because it implies that domestic duties are on the bottom, which alienates stay-at-home moms. Submission puts one at the bottom, but a woman in control of her life direction, and satisfied with that direction, is at the top. I hope you keep cookin’ up a storm, Emily! Don’t feel guilty about your kitchen dictatorship, and thanks for another thought provoking post.

    (P.S. First!)

  • emily

    @ Lyse fixed!

    (Also: starstruck!)

  • emilyvotruba

    I missed the discussion, I’m sorry to say, and I was wondering…the promo description said “We’ve gained equal rights and the right to ‘choose our choice,’” which I found problematic, as the equal rights amendment was never passed, and abortion is hardly a freedom for most women (seeing as you can endanger your life trying to get one). Did the panel address this flawed premise at all, or discuss what equal rights for women would entail at this point?

  • As a former chef, I always figured I’d feel very territorial about the kitchen should I actually meet someone who enjoyed cooking as I did (my first 2 husbands were not cooks, so I didn’t have a way to test that theory). When my boyfriend and I moved in together, he ended up unemployed for several months and it was just natural that he had dinner started by the time I got home. He still does most of the cooking, especially at the beginning of the week when I’m working to finish that week’s comics, and I miss being in the kitchen as much but it also makes it more of a treat when I do get the chance.

    Then there are times like last night. We made a huge pot of turkey gumbo and by the time I got home with a few missing ingredients he had all the chopping and prep done–it was like having my own Sous Chef!

    And, more on topic, I’ve had that same weird reaction when I’ve mentioned that I consider myself feminist because I’m a conservative feminine type who adores high heels, etc. and that just doesn’t fit with the “radical” idea. But equality or, as I think of it, the choice to be whatever you want shouldn’t have a stereotype–it’s the antithesis of stereotype!

  • emily

    @emilyvotruba I didn’t take notes and will not be able to do the panelists’ remarks justice but they did address your concerns. Maybe some hardworking n+intern taped it?

  • That Cindy McCain reference in the Ariel Levy piece really annoyed me. Because as Ariel Levy surely knows, since she wrote a profile on Cindy McCain, Mrs. McCain didn’t do anything at an “executive” as her father’s beer distribution company. Her job was effectively Lindsay’s job at the Bluthe company: picking up checks.

    Sorry! There’s no way to comment on New Yorker articles, so this seemed as good of a place as any …

  • yellow checkers for the kitchen

    I like to control the kitchen because i want to eat exactly what i want to eat. And i take more care with the ingredients like they are special entities needing individual care.

    When my live in bf cooks, he does weird things like put cheddar on pasta, butter on everything, etc.

    But i got waaaay too busy to do my work and keep control over the kitchen. The kitchen was curbed. But my bf really pulled it together and started cooking more along the lines of what i would prefer. He has this new insanely amazing tomato sauce recipe, that would never have happened otherwise.

    So i guess we are all different in our needs/wants and trying to figure out how to live meaningfully. I think this is where love comes in for all sexes.

  • Kathryn

    i was looking through the silver palate cookbook the other day and was reminded how much I love the Thomas Wolfe quote that says “there is no sight more appealing on earth than the sight of a woman making dinner for someone she loves.” I have always considered myself a “feeder” but your description puts a much finer (and more eloquent)point on why that is such an important role for me.

  • Man

    Oh, please! “Topping from the top!” How can someone who has had a feature piece in the NY Times Magazine and a 6-figure book deal be deprived of “topping from the top.” The only reason why you have so much free time on your hands to pursue your culinary/Russian interests is because…well, yeah.

    And did it ever occur to you that one of the main reasons people even take you seriously as a writer is because you are FEMALE, and a moderately attractive female also? I know plenty of male writers (like me, for instance) who would have to work 5X as hard to earn what you’ve earned mostly by your contour and soft voice alone. There is something mildly pornographic about sitting around and watching a cute girl pronounce big words like “autonomy” and “domestic.”

    You, Amy and Ariel are all as phony as Sarah Palin, that grating ditz with a private jet who thinks she’s a populist just because she skinned a dear once. I wonder what you women think the world owes you that it already hasn’t given you: 6-figures, a quiet brownstone existence, fame, respect, intelligence. It seems that being deprived of a husband (and a cock) somehow makes all the difference.

    By making out how painful it is changing diapers and raising kids all alone in this cruel modern world only proves how needy and selfish you females really are. That there is no man to lay musky kisses on your foreheads or adorn your wrists with pendants is truly sad. Pffffft! I think I’ll take up a donation for your cause, and in the process just forget about my own entitlement issues and what I’m lacking.

  • Amy

    For reals? ^^^^^

  • Girl

    You wrote that you’d read some cool stuff on this topic. Would you recommend any of it to us?

  • amber

    this post sucks.

  • Ruth

    @ Man: If you’re really wondering why you and your “peers” haven’t gained the respect you “deserve” from the literary establishment, I suggest you do no more than reread your own comment above. Dear = deer, for starters.

    I’m calling your assertion — which I hope (in vain, I suspect) was intended in jest — that watching an attractive woman pronounce “big words” is “mildly pornographic” straight-up sexist, misogynist hate speech. Unless you’re also endowed with the literary gifts of someone like Updike or Mailer, it’s pretty hard to get away with that.

    –Ruth Curry

  • emily

    @ Girl, Articles mostly but the books I would most recommend are Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe and Girl Power by Marisa Meltzer, out Feb. 2!

  • This seems relevant, although not something I’d pay money for.

    “Women everywhere will laugh out loud and completely relate to this sexy and smart Porn For Women book. Compiled by the clever ladies at Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative, this book is not only hilarious, but it challenges traditional ideas of pornography and what is sexy. With photos of strapping young men doing housework strewn across the pages and accompanied by quotes such as “Have another piece of cake. I don’t like you looking so thin” or “Want to snuggle?” this book is a fun gift for women everywhere – and will give the menfolk a little insight into what women really want.”

  • Lionel Mandrake

    Slightly OT…but here goes.

    When it comes to the rarefied world of “cuisine”, I’ll make a huge (and problematic) generalization and venture a theory. I think men sometimes cook more from the mind than the heart, and women more from the heart than the mind. I don’t know about you, but I think the latter would be a better plate of food than the former.

    Does anyone honestly think that a woman would have thought up anything as soulless and hermetic as Molecular Gastronomy? Or as I like to think of it, Nerd Food for Boys.

    In fact, to stretch my half-baked theory even further, I think all that Adrià inspired crap is really an unconsciously sexist reaction to the gains women have made in the professional cooking world in recent years. You know, “let’s make a cuisine that’s completely conceptual, because it’s something girls won’t want to do, and then we can keep our little kitchen He-Man Woman Haters Club Going a little while longer.”

    Back on topic. I was a professional cook for years, and although that was a long time ago, when my wife and I moved in together I really had to learn to cede my territory. But, it was a bargain, as her food is often better than mine (that heart/mind thing I mentioned earlier). Except meat, I cook meat way better than she does.

  • Man

    @ Ruth – haha, that was a lame comeback. Why should I know how to spell “deer”, I don’t hunt or eat venison. You must think all us men are hunters and taxidermists. Again, you fail. If you moved out of your rural Oklahoma separatist colony and mingled with some real men, you might realize that some of us (many of us) are smart, caring, funny, sensitive, sophisticated and cultured. The kind of men you would probably want as boyfriends and husbands. Did somebody hurt you that you think all men are murdering rapists?

  • Ahh, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A lot a lot. I like to cook. I am good at it and I am particular. But sometimes I am also deadline, or feeling excited about a project or whatever, and then suddenly there’s that wretched tradeoff between Important Things and Kitchen Things, because my boyfriend is woefully inexperienced with Kitchen Things and rarely thinks of them unless prompted.

    I’ve concluded that to some extent this has to do with parenting. My boyfriend’s mom is lovely, and an excellent cook, yet (or “so”) he was never, ever allowed to help with dinner, or fix his own bag lunch, or bake cookies for just the hell of it. I’m sure no one thought twice about this, but many years later here we are, and only one of us knows what to do with that eggplant.

    Anyway dinner tonight is leftovers (again).

  • ow a paper cut

    You enjoy cooking, you’re good at it and it creates no conflict within your home. Why not just have fun making Kahlua-chocolate pecan pie and let others worry about the political implications?

  • A. Reader

    Somewhat yes, but no

    For professional women, and for men, the world is still structured such that if you want a family you either delay it or outsource it.

    90-hour weeks are incompatible with family life. Typically, men have wives who either don’t work or have a lesser career or choose to step back from what could have been as large a career.

    Until there is a big change in the professional world, women (and the few men in this role) who choose to step back for family will sharlpy limit their careers by doing so

  • Rebecca A.

    A Reader, I completely agree with you.

    I got my advanced degree at the usual age, and married my husband the winter after I graduated.

    I decided to have children right away. I had my two beautiful children, working as an adjunct professor the whole time (well, almost the whole time).

    Then I began interviewing for full time work. I had actually published during my 8+ years of part time work and motherhood, planning for the big return. I personally think my circumstances made me a great catch, but it was hard getting a job. People seemed doubtful about my choices, and about my quality as a scholar, having made such an unscholarly decision.

    Even though I live in a state with an obscene number of colleges and universities, the fact that I was now tied to a location (with a husband whose career was not that mobile at that point) was also not great for my career.

    In the end, I got a job. I like it, but it is certainly not as prestigious as the one I would have gotten right out of college. And of course, while my graduate school friends are all very established, I am still an Assistant Professor, applying for tenure only this year.

    But what should I have done? Should I have waited until NOW, age 41, to have a baby? I am very happy with my choice. I had to make one, I did, and I am content with my life.

    By the way, I am the cook in my family, but my husband cleans! I definitely think I have the best end of THAT bargain!

  • natalie

    I love your writing, Emily, but sometimes I just don’t get you.

    Living where you do and in the time that we do, how can you be so concerned about giving up power in a relationship by allowing your SO to cook?

    Maybe i shouldn’t be so harsh if you are in fact easing out of this way of thinking, but posts like this one catch me by surprise.

    I recently lost a playful kitchen battle with my husband because of your oxtail soup post on your other blog. That particular meal had been on my DO NOT WANT list for years. It sounds like a huge mess, really. HE was sitting next to me while I clicked through links and recipes. Then, he asked if he could make it if he took on all responsibility for cleaning and left the kitchen spotless. I conceded and we will have it next weekend.

    This leaves me with one free space on my will not eat list and a clean kitchen. He gets to make a meal he has been wanting to have plus a Jamie Oliver tip that sounds brilliant.

    Who is the bottom here? The top?

    I think you are far too smart to stereotype or to speak for all women/feminists. When you do so, you sound a bit too much like your friend (?), Julia Allison.

    Your cat is adorbs, I’m loving Cooking the Books and really have enjoyed your writing for many years.

  • an.expat ;)

    Speaking of utopian, state-sponsored care:

    “The legislation, which came into force three years ago, is complicated. It says mothers who look after each other’s children are generally exempt from the requirement to register as childminders if they provide the service for less than two hours a day or 14 days a year. If one mother, Mrs A, goes to the house of another, Mrs B, to look after Mrs B’s child, she is also exempt because it is considered home care. But if Mrs A took Mrs B’s child to her own home, it would be deemed to be offering a childcare service.”

    Which means, if there’s a ‘reward’, the state has to get involved as regulators of quality of care. That’s a good thing, right? Right????
    So if I drop my child at my mother’s house for the day it’s ok, but if I drop it/him/her at a neighbor (regularly), it’s illegal. Which means I have to look after the child 24/7 (since my mother lives across the ocean) or I have to pay extortionate prices for government-regulated child minders, instead of exchanging favors with my neighbor.
    I’m all for care being recognized as a real job, an economically important job, but it has to also be feasible. I don’t know if I trust the state to do that part.

  • ...

    “You have so much power over people when they depend on you for care!”

    – The codependent’s anthem!

    “My big post-panel revelation is that possibly women need to ease out of these patterns of thinking and behavior if we ever want to stand a chance of topping from the top.”

    – Take care of yourself; allow others to take care of themselves; then take care of the “partnership” together. Codependency often masquerades as “partnership” but it is quite the opposite.

  • KM

    I don’t know about “giving up power”by not cooking. I tend to see it more as trying to carve out or “grasp” at any fingerhold that let’s a woman control how she’s perceived, or really just control SOMETHING, anything really. There is so much that we, as women, are forced to contend with as an image that’s being put out there by people like the bimbonic Paris Hilton’s of this world, or the many,many mistresses of Tiger Woods, who’s message seems to be “my only worth is in being used by a man for sex, so I can make some money off him by humiliating myself in a tabloid”. I can’t control this. Nor can I control the resultant jokes the men in my office now make about women in general. Most revolving around 2 current themes: we’re all just clueless, doormat Elins or slutty cocktail waitresses looking to make a buck off married men. Ha ha! Sooo funny! And if I don’t laugh, I’m a feminist, lesbian bitch. So, I guess its not that shocking if you want to control the one thing that makes you or your man happy by doing doing it simply becuase it gives you pure unadulterated joy: cooking. Which ironically kind of sucks since its such a traditionally female thing to do. Oh, the angst! Maybe someday we can get the same kind of happiness and control from something “female”, like cooking, without having to put up with all this bullshit.

  • Michael Pihach

    Great post! (and great insights on the ups and downs of keeping an online diary on CBC radio today!)

  • Scum

    It seems like what feminists are against is the traditional expectation that, as females, they should marry a man who is a few years older than they are, stands a few inches taller, and has a couple extra years (or more) of schooling than they do. But the problem with the feminazis is that they have this black & white/all-or-nothing notion that, since they don’t want to be stuck in an old-fashioned marriage with a man who brings home the bacon when he’s not golfing, they will just remain single and butch for their entire lives as a sort of protest.

    Did the thought never occur to them that they can just ride the train up to Yonkers, find some desperate working class stiff who everybody will say they’re too good for, marry him in a big lavish wedding, and then get to be the queen of their castles for the rest of their lives? Sheesh!

  • Dave

    I’m confused. Liking to cook and clean isn’t feminist? If a women enjoys feeding her boyfriend/husband/lovers/brothers/friends does that automatically make her ’subservient’?

    Does this mean any kind of division of labor (he cooks, she does dishes/she cleans, he pays rent/i make cookies, you lick the spoon) automatically makes us enemies of feminism?

    Maybe i’m not metropolitan enough, but i tend to think this ’struggle’ you perceive yourself taking part in may not be quite as all-encompassing as you think it is. But, like i said, i’m a bit of a country bumpkin. And my wife even likes to cook.

  • emily

    Dave, maybe just reread — I didn’t at all say that “liking to cook and clean isn’t feminist.” I said that some women refuse to cede control of household tasks — and that there is a logical explanation for why they do this — and that this is part of what explains their rejection of feminism.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>