Shuck the Patriarchy (Part 1/6)
Using oysters to discuss feminist movements in the U.S.
This year, I haven’t been able to write for myself as much as I had wanted to / hoped for. This has eaten at me during nights when I promised myself I would rest, and surfaced many ugly frustrations I’m still working through with my therapist. I want to say a heartfelt “I’m sorry” and “thank you” to all of you reading this, for supporting me despite receiving many a mixed signal on how much content you would be receiving for this newsletter.
As part of that unpleasant growth process, I did improve my intentionality when it came to things I did do with my limited bandwidth. While I would not recommend working full-time while attending school full-time, if you are to do it I would recommend asking your instructors to allow you to marry professional and educational projects.
This unedited excerpt is what I’ve been working on the last few weeks, and I wanted to share it with everyone here first. It’s part one (of six) of the sample chapter from my book proposal, tentatively titled Fueling Resistance: A History of U.S. Social Justice Movements Told Through Food & Drink.
A big thank you to my brilliant professor Gabriela Soto-Laveaga: for letting me submit this as my final paper. (She taught my absolute favorite class of the semester: Food, Science, and the Creation of Hunger. You can read my class notes here.)
Shuck the Patriarchy*
The Many Waves of Feminist Organizing (Part 1/6)
*Phrase courtesy of Amy Larson, founder of Overseasoned
“The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life…danger is everywhere for her, and extermination lurks. She is the prey of many enemies…not counting man who is the greatest, since he protects her from the others only to eat her himself.”
- M. K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster
The oyster may seem an unlikely heroine to begin our journey into women’s movements in the U.S. – until you recall its long, sensual history as an allusion to women’s bodies, desires, and pleasure. Dating back to at least the Roman age, oysters with their soft shape and lacy edges were used as artistic euphemisms for women and regarded as an aphrodisiac. In Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus (1480s), Venus graces us nude, ascending from the ocean atop an open, scalloped shell. In Girl Offering Oysters (1660) by Dutch artist Jan Steen, a young woman captures the viewer’s attention with the trace of a smile as she dusts a shucked oyster with salt, toying with its erotic connotation to sex work.
But oysters are far more than just feminine allegory, and their history in the U.S. fascinatingly subversive. Long before the “great oyster craze” that placed oysters as a prime ingredient across cookbooks, restaurants, and street vendors in the mid-to-late 1800s, oysters found along the coasts and the gulf provided an important food source for Indigenous nations. From the Calusa in now-Florida to the Powhatan in the Chesapeake Bay and Penobscot in now-Maine, oysters were harvested — and sustainably so — in massive quantities. Its flesh was consumed for its protein, vitamins, and minerals, or preserved as sustenance for barren months, and its shells used as material to build shell mounds (or middens) for community and ceremonial purposes. Gathering oysters were a low-risk affair women, children, and occasionally elders could partake in, and the designated harvest season – usually fall and winter – later transcribed into pop culture wisdom of only eating oysters in months with “r’s” (that is, September through April).
After the Civil War and Emancipation, oyster shucking – alongside other commercial seafood processing like canning and packing – became an important way for African American women to create a source of livelihood for themselves. African American men were employed as oyster harvesters, able to command a degree of autonomy over their work rare for the time, and soon came to dominate the trade. The impact of the oyster industry created whole new communities for free African Americans, such as Sandy Ground (Staten Island, NY) and Pointe à La Hache (Louisiana), and catapulted oyster restaurants – known as oyster cellars, oyster bars, or oyster saloons for their subterranean location and common pairing with alcohol – into mainstream city life.
From the beginning, the humble and (then) plentiful oyster has had embedded in it the presence and acumen of women in a society that often overlooked them. Even the shape of its carrying container, the oyster pail, hints at the dynamics of women changing America. Originally fashioned from wood, inventor Frederick Wilcox created a paper inspired-by version in 1894 that has subsequently become the basis of Chinese takeout containers to this day. And why was the Chinese restaurant industry, which quickly took hold of these paper oyster pails, poised to skyrocket in the early 1900s? In part because previously at-home white women were increasingly entering the workforce.
The First Wave Isn’t For Everyone
“Women Rule Amid Oysters – A Sight for Suffragists” boomed the headline of The Detroit Free Press in 1909. The feature was in reference to Cancale, a distinguished oyster destination along the west coast of France. In a place dominated by the seafood industry, men were out to sea for months at a time and often did not return home, giving rise to a village where official positions were “left as a mere matter of form to the men who [were] seldom there to fill them,” and instead run by the women.
As the Press commented, the women were “a law unto themselves;” in addition to handling the economics of the seafood business – from harvesting the oyster beds to packaging, selling, and transporting the product – they oversaw law enforcement, sanitary codes, and the education system. Not only did the women frequently out-earn their male counterparts, the writer was quick to note the women were also beautiful: “good looks are one of the commodities of the town…the great French painter Feyen-Perrin came here…and found models for his famous [painting] that hangs in the Luxemborg at Paris.”
Despite being based in a locale far away from Detroit, the coverage was exceedingly relevant for its time. Just the year prior, the Michigan Committee on Elections and Elective Franchise held a hearing in the Representatives Hall on the subject of women’s right to vote. One speaker, lawyer, and suffragist Catherine Waugh McCulloch, emphasized a point similar to that of the Press: women’s ability to work — and do so well. The fact that the Michigan Constitution was written in 1850, at a time with “no women ministers, no women doctors or dentists or lawyers…no women notaries…school inspectors, or bankers or brokers…no wom[en] in store, office or factory” showed how obviously it needed an update. In the present day of 1908, she declared, “the men of fifty-eight years ago would be amazed…[to] discover the wonderful advance[s] made by women.”
For as progressive of a stance as women’s enfranchisement was for the time, white suffragists still tempered their message by reaffirming the woman’s place in relation to men – that is, tending to the home. Just as the “feminine business acumen” of women in Cancale necessitated a discussion of the male gaze, white suffragist materials were full of reassurances that their legion of to-be voters would still be capable housewives, mothers, and caretakers.
No place was this juxtaposition more prominent than the series of pro-suffrage cookbooks published between 1886 and 1920. The same movement that bragged that its recipe contributors of The Woman Suffrage Cook Book (1886) held “prominent professions” such as “teachers, lecturers, physicians, ministers, and authors” also cheerfully inscribed taglines like, “The Best Cooks Are Suffragists” on other works. This aforementioned cookbook, The Suffrage Cook Book (1915), featured cover art with a silhouetted Uncle Sam with one hand holding a balanced scale of men and women, the other on a wheel bearing the names of 12 states (and Alaska) positioned to offer women’s suffrage.
Cookbooks were an important tool for the women’s suffrage movement to gain traction in mainstream conversation, eventually turning the tides of public opinion in its favor. For the suffragists contributing to or editing each publication, cookbooks functioned as both a community-minded and entrepreneurial venture. Published by regional and state associations for women’s suffrage, they created bridges across otherwise distant groups, connected activists with well-known women of the time, and brought in dollars to fund the movement. (Some of these funds were used to create and distribute additional promotional materials, like pins, postcards, and paper fans – New York suffragists distributed more than a million buttons ahead of the November 1915 election.)
Cookbooks were also a way to display several axes of women’s abilities, composed of recipes, household tips, and short essays that proved inspiring for many to support the cause. The personalities shown on its pages told a story of women that were outpacing the confines they were arbitrarily and unfairly assigned, with sly recipes titles like the infamous “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband” that included the ingredients “child labor,” “poisonous water,” and “impure food,” all of which became ancillary causes supported by women’s movements during the Progressive Era (1890s – 1910s).
But within suffragist cookbooks was also the message of exclusion. Viewed through its oyster recipes, common across cookbooks of the time given its widespread popularity and high quantities, these collections quietly delineated who the suffrage movement was for, and how suffragists believed their ultimate goal should be achieved. To fully understand how oysters intertwined with women’s movements, from harvesting fields to well-stocked kitchens, in dimly lit saloons and within the pages of its popular cookbooks, we’ll have to rewind a few decades before the publication of its first copy.
On a fall day in September of 1832, writer and orator Maria Stewart – the first American-born woman recorded to speak publicly in front of both men and women – began what would become one of her most famous speeches with a challenge to the audience:
“Why sit ye here and die?”
For many of those watching, the mere presence of her, a Black woman from Hartford, Connecticut, in front of a crowd, was radical even if her position – abolition – was becoming more accepted. This was Boston, Massachusetts; the state had declared slavery illegal decades prior, and Franklin Hall was the regular meeting place of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded by William Lloyd Garrison — the same man who had invited her to stage. Stewart pronounced to the crowd, “whites have so long and so loudly proclaimed the theme of equal rights and privileges, that our souls have caught the flame also... As far as our merit deserves, we feel a common desire to rise above the condition of servants and drudges.”
But Stewart did not stop at just emancipation. Her provocative speech advocated for a path to equality that also necessitated women’s rights, especially women’s education, to extricate them from a life of servitude: “Why are you wretched and miserable? I reply, look at many of the most worthy and interesting of us [Black girls and women] doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens…such is the powerful force of prejudice.”
A solid 16 years before the Seneca Falls Convention (1848) that history books often use to mark the beginning of women’s rights in the U.S., Stewart’s advocacy hinted at fissures that would later set the course for “first wave” feminism as we know it today. Her direct appeal to white women –
“O, ye fairer sisters, whose hands are never soiled, whose nerves and muscles are never strained, go learn by experience! Had we had the opportunity that you have had to improve our moral and mental faculties, what would have hindered our intellects from being as bright, and our manners from being as dignified, as yours?”
– spoke not just of racial inequality, but the cascading effects of sexism on African American women who could not access education, job opportunities, or even control of their bodies.
Much of this language would be echoed in the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention, albeit to decry women’s subordination by men. Held on July 19, 1848, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, a roster of 300-some women and men alike came for a two-day convention specifically on women’s rights. The opening speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton riffed off the Declaration of Independence, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” and detailed a “long train of abuses and usurpations” by which men “has withheld from her rights [including those] given to the most ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners.”
Stanton went on to propose 11 resolutions to rectify these injustices, written by herself and the other meeting organizers: Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. These included broad sweeping measures that would do away with “all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of a man.” Notably, the removal of a barrier to women “secur[ing] themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” or voting, became the only one hotly contested at the event itself, narrowly passing favor upon impassioned speeches by Stanton and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Neither Stanton nor Douglass knew it at the time, but enfranchisement would soon cause an irreparable rift between women’s rights activists – who soon corralled around efforts on suffrage, taking on the moniker “suffragists” – and the larger civil rights movement. While in the years before the conclusion of the Civil War (1865), philosophical tensions between abolition and women’s rights still appeared occasionally (like in the above passage from Declaration of Sentiments), the inclusion of the word “male” in the proposed 15th Amendment – which would grant Black men voting rights before all women – became a suffragist rallying cry for the government to reverse course. As famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.”
Despite efforts by Stewart as well as other Black women activists like Sojourner Truth – who all but predicted the impending divide in her 1867 speech, saying, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights but not a word about colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women get theirs, there will be a bad time about it.” – race became a clear and early concession in the initial wave of women’s rights movements.
By the time of the first suffragist cookbook in 1886, the priorities and positionalities of suffragists were clear. Centuries before intersectionality became common lingo, Truth put it plainly:
“I suppose I am about the only colored woman that goes about to speak for the rights of the colored woman.”
Indeed, the writers and editors of these cookbooks, of which there were six total (or eight if you include two pamphlets), intuitively understood that those reading were not just consuming recipes, cleaning tips, or even straightforward pro-suffrage propaganda. Even in places with sparse language, suffragists were selling the idea of who a woman should be, what her household should look like, and perhaps most importantly, how those two things would be in relationship with one another. As Hattie A. Burr, editor of the first cookbook, wrote in her opening, “this little volume is sent out with an important mission.”
Recipes of A Certain Class
It turns out that spices are not meant to be a common sight in suffragist kitchens. Besides the occasional addition of paprika, pimentos, and warming spices for baking, suffrage cookbooks were firmly planted in post-Medieval European traditions of the more affluent. They emphasized dairy products like milk, cream, and butter as a symbolic rejection of faraway spices, now deemed too plebian due to increased availability in consumer markets.
Oysters, the ever-present ingredient for cookbooks of the era given its supply, provide a timely lens into the imagined households championed by suffragists. A course of Oyster Cocktail is presented in Washington Women’s Cook Book’s menu for an “informal winter luncheon,” alongside celery soup with croutons, broiled veal cutlets, pineapple salad, and more; while Eastern Oysters on the Half Shell appears in the book’s listing for “A Christmas Dinner.” (The stylish, expensive, and still-operating Delmonico’s Steakhouse in New York City is credited with starting the trend of raw oysters served in-shell.) In the Pittsburgh version, French Oyster Soup calls for a “white sauce” (béchamel) of milk, flour, butter, and egg yolks flavored with blades of mace – a pricey concoction, also requiring a certain threshold of cooking experience and familiarity with European cuisine.
There are departures from the blandness that dominate the cookbooks, perhaps based on recalls of other cuisines afforded to married women who can travel. Delicious Mexican Dish, in the Pittsburgh copy, combines sweetbreads, oysters, and the gravy of roast beef with butter and cream. (It remains unclear what part of the recipe is ‘Mexican.’) The same volume also contains Virginia Fried Oysters, a take on the deep-fried oysters popular in Chesapeake Bay, then the nation’s top oyster-producing area. While A Domestic Cook Book (1866, the first cookbook known to be authored by an African American woman, Malinda Russell) calls for a straightforward batter of “eggs, milk, and flour” in its fried oysters, the suffragist version version dictated “sifted flour, one tablespoon of olive oil or melted butter, two well-beaten whites of eggs.” True to form, other recipes similarly required a range of techniques and equipment, from a “quick oven” to a pancake turner and a Dover egg beater.
Gone were the days of attempting to divorce domesticity from the woman’s image. Anti-suffrage messaging, touting “suffragettes” (a demeaning version of “suffragists”) as negligent mothers and hapless cooks, had successfully cornered the movement’s leaders to reinscribing women at the center of the household. Especially upon the 1890 merger of the National Woman Suffrage Association (led by Stanton and Anthony) and the American Woman Suffrage Association into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), convincing the voting public of suffrage became a challenge to address at a local, state, and federal level – and requiring of more mainstream appeals.
Suffragists as generous caretakers and faithful wives fit that mold well. This time around, however, suffragists made a point to uplift the woman’s home duties to parallel that of businessmen and politicians. In Washington Women’s Cook Book, the writers describe politics as “housekeeping on a big scale”. They argue that the “muddle” of the government could be attributed to men “trying to do the housekeeping without the women.”
In another pamphlet from 1917, those for the enfranchisement of women are described as noble folks interested in reducing their “high cost of living” by empowering women to manage the household budget, plan meals, and reduce waste. The back of the pamphlet reads, “The price of food is a woman’s business. Give her the vote so she can attend to it.” At suffragist-run restaurants, like Suffrage Cafeteria in New York City, this juxtaposition was particularly prominent: dishes were enticingly priced below market to bring “in men and women who might not otherwise be interested [in suffrage],” as the San Francisco Chronicle reported – and to show just how extraordinary a well-run kitchen (and home) could be with suffragist treatment.
Against the backdrop of the domestic reform movement, where women were increasingly applying a more “scientific” eye to what will eventually be termed “home economics,” each cookbook’s recipes served the dual purpose of showcasing a professionalizing workforce. The exacting measurements of Oyster Poulette (from Washington Women’s Cook Book) required “four tablespoonfuls butter…three tablespoonfuls flour, and one cup oyster juice” to be cooked with “one cup of cream…one pint of oysters till their edges curl.”
Other recipes were less specific, but still orderly – suitable for an organized and efficient home. The Pittsburgh cookbook featured an entire section of “savories,” or small toasts topped with the likes of oysters, tomato, and ham; the fanciful Escalloped Oysters, from The Woman Suffrage Cook Book (shown at the start of this section), layered cracker-crumbs, oysters seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, butter, and oyster liquor in a tidy pudding-dish. Scientific household management aimed to transition the home sphere into a place of serious business, and suffrage cookbooks played well into its ideas that a woman’s skills in the household were also relevant elsewhere.
Part 2.1: Temperance, Morality, and the Red Balloon — Alcohol & the Suffrage Movement
Part 2.2: Toxic Oysters, Poisoned Children, Dirty Water — Food, Water, and Child Labor Are Also Feminist Issues
This Week’s Meme Roundup
Personal Things From This Week
Listening to: 8D Lofi Mix
Watching: This Is A Robbery so I can explore the Isabella Gardner museum after!
Reading: Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies by John Kingdon. SCINTILLATING stuff for class (lol).
Eating: Feast & Fettle as I’ve been far too tired to cook
Drinking: My wine club shipment from King restaurant
Nice thing I did for myself this week: Pushed my alarm clock back 1 hour to 8am!