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Suffragists once used cookbooks to build political power

On the set of the movie Suffragette in London.
On the set of the movie Suffragette in London.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The kitchen has always been a fraught place when it comes to gender roles. Thanksgiving is a particularly stressful time for women, who tend to take on most of the work cooking and planning a feast while their male relatives watch football — yes, even in 2015.

But it's also worth remembering that women can use those gender roles to their advantage to win political power. As Nina Martyris wrote for NPR earlier this month, the American activists who fought for women's right to vote once "used cookbooks as a recipe for subversion." Martyris cited a fascinating lecture by culinary archivist Jan Longone at the University of Michigan that goes into the history of these cookbooks.

Special collections/Michigan State University libraries

The cookbooks contained recipes submitted by suffragists, interspersed with political messages and quotes in support of women's suffrage. Sometimes the recipes were satirical, such as a "Pie for a Suffragist's Doubting Husband" that called for "1 qt. milk human kindness." But most were real, ranging from French pie to turtle soup. And the political appeals were urgent, like Clara Barton's urging readers to "stand by me and mine" just as she stood for soldiers on the battlefield.

The cookbooks grew out of a tradition of charity cookbooks that raised money for churches and war victims after the Civil War. Suffragists had also been selling food at bazaars to raise money for their publications and their cause since the 1830s, and selling cookbooks became a natural extension of that.

In one sense, cookbooks played into the traditional gender roles that suffragists were trying to help women expand beyond. But on the other hand, they fought stereotypes of suffragists as unfeminine kitchen haters who abandoned their children for the sake of their political causes. The books were also a product of their time: "Women used what they knew, what they could to champion their causes," Longone said. "If that meant baking a cake or cooking a dinner or writing a cookbook, they did that."

And what they knew was also what other women knew. These sorts of common social ties helped build relationships, communities, and, ultimately, political power. Longone discussed the crucial role of "clubs" in developing the women's rights movement. Clubs helped women band together and raise money for political purposes, and those purposes shifted from more traditional issues like churches to more forward-looking ones like suffrage. Ultimately, cookbooks were an organizing tool.