- Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America by Emily E. LB. Twarog
Emily E. LB. Twarog
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
xiv + 189 pp., $34.95 (cloth)
Emily E. LB. Twarog's book, Politics of the Pantry, examines women's consumer activism between the 1930s and the 1970s. In her analysis, Twarog focuses on what she calls "domestic politics," or housewives' organizing to protest high food prices and low-quality food on grocery store shelves. Although these protests often focused on bread-and-butter concerns and expressed class consciousness, Twarog argues that domestic politics represented "a distinctive form of activism" and "not simply the feminine version of labor activism" (2). Instead, domestic politics politicized women's traditional domestic roles in ways that made room for cross-class alliances and brought the home into the center of public policy from the New Deal to the 1970s.
The heroines of Twarog's story viewed the ability to feed their families high-quality food, with meat at dinner nightly, as a right of citizenship. Americans understood daily meat consumption, she says, not as a luxury but rather as the "attainment of an American standard of living" (15). These ideas connected the activism of Mary Zuk, a Polish immigrant living in Hamtramck, Michigan, in 1935 with Mickey Delorenzo, a working-class housewife in Levittown, New York, in 1969 and Ruth Yannatta Gold-way, a Santa Monica housewife on leave from graduate school in the early 1970s. Across time and space, these women all protested the high price of meat by leading boycotts that received national attention. Such activism was not limited to working-class housewives. In the 1960s, middle-class housewives like Jackie Kendall, Lynne Heidt, and Janice Schakowski, formed teams of so-called Code Breakers who wandered grocery chain aisles deciphering the codes that indicated when food was past its sell-by date. Other major middle-class and elite figures in Twarog's work include Esther Peterson, President Kennedy's director of the Women's Bureau and an assistant to President Johnson for consumer affairs; the New Dealer and historian Caroline Ware; and Eleanor Fowler, a labor journalist who wrote for the CIO News. In telling the story of housewives' consumer activism, Twarog calls attention to a remarkable continuity of domestic politics that crossed class lines.
These political outsiders soon became insiders as a result of their consumer activism. Zuk won a seat on Hamtramck's Common Council, and several housewife activists ran for political office in the 1970s. During World War II, the Office of Price Control mobilized working-class housewives in the Congress of Women's Auxiliaries, an umbrella organization of women's auxiliaries to the AFL and CIO, to help them enforce regulations on the quality and price of groceries. The relationship between housewives and the government was not always so symbiotic, however. During World War II, consumer activists criticized the failure of price controls to keep the cost of food down. Meanwhile, [End Page 130] Heidt and Kendall expressed excitement at a phone call from Peterson after they had announced the formation of the National Consumers' Union. To their disappointment, they learned that Peterson had called to tell them the name of their new organization was already taken. Thus as Twarog points out, despite housewives' power as an interest group, there was sometimes "a disconnect between Beltway politics and localized consumer movements" (91).
After World War II, women's auxiliaries lost members, and unions became the target of virulent anticommunism. In this environment, unions more or less abandoned their commitment to organizing working-class housewives. The United Auto Workers folded the auxiliaries into its Women's Department. The AFL-CIO also largely disengaged from auxiliaries, choosing to organize women through the Women's Department of its Committee on Political Education. Both of these decisions served to obscure the distinction between women workers and working-class housewives and between union politics and domestic politics. As labor's vision of class consciousness and working-class power narrowed to focus on collective bargaining, women's auxiliaries and domestic...