Feminists in the Kitchen

As culture goes, the apron follows

Charlotte Meyer. Photo by Amber Procaccini.

When my beloved Grandma Rose died in 2003 at the age of 89, it made sense that my eulogy at her memorial service opened this way:My grandmother is the smell of butter.

For she was. Even today when I smell onions browning in the stuff, or I get a bite of a homemade cookie baked with the real thing, not Crisco, I think of her. Grandma Rose was my first model of a 20th century housewife. She raised six kids, cooked and baked like a champ, sewed whatever needed sewing, gossiped with the neighborhood gals, and scrubbed everything in her path to a squeaky, sparkling clean. But as much as I adored her, I never wanted to do what she did for a living.

I saw other housewives in action on channel 9’s late-night rerun lineup: “I Love Lucy,” “Dick Van Dyke” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The shows’ respective housewives, Lucy Ricardo, Laura Petrie and Sue Ann Nivens (who adopted the moniker The Happy Homemaker despite being unhappily unmarried) were all completely nuts. In fact, one could watch the latter two shows and imagine the feminist trajectory of Mary Tyler Moore, as she dumped her boring kitchen in New Rochelle for the independence of paid work in Minneapolis. I sure did. I didn’t go to Carleton for my MRS degree, thank you very much.

But guess who ended up in Rose’s profession anyway? Me. I’m a housewife, too.

Modern SAHM
There are essential differences between us, however. Easy access to effective contraception limited my brood to two. I thaw most of our family’s meals, but my homemade banana bread is the envy of the neighborhood. My sewing is limited to replacing buttons. I adore gossip in all forms, but I do less of it over picket fences than I do online.

And online is a terrific place to argue the merits and limitations of the next generation of at-home caregivers, SAHMs (that’s Stay at Home Moms), and homemakers, happy or otherwise.

Where else can you angrily debate The Right Thing To Do? Whether Linda Hirshman, whose 2006 book orders women to “Get to Work … and Get a Life Before It’s Too Late,” is a prophet or a kook? (For the record, I’m in the latter category.)

Apron strings
Phony or no, the mommy wars are here to stay, due in no small part to the exalted place that the mother plays in American cultural mythology. When we think of that iconic mother, we don’t see her in a power suit. We see her in an apron.

My grandma Rose sewed her own. So does Charlot Meyer, a Woodbury-based graphic artist who sells her recreations of vintage aprons in the online marketplace Etsy. Said Meyer of her aprons, “I like the idea of [the apron] moving from a utilitarian garment to a fashion accessory. Women today are busier than ever at home and work. There’s no reason why we can’t have fun and be fashionable in our family life.” But one woman’s necessity (Rose needed to keep flour off her dress) is another woman’s ball and chain (legendary women’s libber Betty Friedan) is another woman’s fashion (Meyer’s customers today). How can a few pieces of fabric say so much?

Historian Glenna Matthews suggests in her book “‘Just a Housewife’: the Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America,” that the emotional loading of motherhood was a necessary byproduct of the new consumer culture of the early 20th century. Thanks to technological advances, basic household functions were now done by machines, not hands. Thus a great portion of the housewife’s justification for existence vanished. Matthews argues that women had to be newly convinced of their emotional utility to the American family. By 1920, any idiot could buy a machine-sewn apron from a retail store, and advertisers knew it.

In 1963, New Jersey housewife Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” sounded the alarm that domestic complacency was doing just that: turning women into idiots. You know what happened then. Friedan kick-started feminism’s second wave, and millions of women threw their emotionally loaded aprons into the trash.

Kitchen reclaimed
How fascinating, then, that the third wave of feminists, the women of Generation X and the Riot Grrrl movements of the 1990s, never met a womanly art they didn’t like. The quintessentially third wave magazine Bust, whose founder Debbie Stoller holds a Ph.D. in women’s psychology from Yale, has in her magazine hipster fashion spreads, celebrity interviews, and sex-toy ads sharing space with craft tips, apron patterns, and comfort food recipes from the staff’s mothers and grandmothers.

Many of the new wave of women stitchers and bakers see kitchen work as a reclamation of a lost culture that belonged only to women. The clothing follows suit: What a dashiki might be to a Black Panther, an apron might be to a feminist blogger of the 21st century.

I wish I could ask what my grandma Rose would think of all this, but I can’t. My sadness over losing this part of my “herstory” could explain why I find myself inexplicably drawn to aprons as lovely and familiar as Charlot Meyer’s.

“[My aprons] evoke memories of my grandmother, who never was seen without an apron,” Meyer said, “and my mother, who owned a sewing shop and made most of my clothes when I was young.”

And she cooks, too
One of my favorite cookbooks, “How it All Vegan,” was written by two Canadian women who pose on the cover in adorable vintage housedresses (full disclosure, neighborhood: this book is the source of my banana bread recipe). Co-author Sarah Kramer accentuates her with a double strand of pearls, several large tattoos, and a lip ring. The look is a conscious attempt to link the DIY ethos of the punk movement with the gotta do it yourself reality of the mid-century housewife. Ladies, we can have it all!

Veganism is something my Grandma Rose just couldn’t get. As I mentioned before, butter was the woman’s natural milieu; I think she probably dabbed it behind her ears. She was born in 1914, into a North Dakota farm family where home cooking wasn’t a lifestyle “choice.” The only choices she knew were to cook or starve. Rose left North Dakota during the Great Depression, when the latter option seemed increasingly likely.

Grandma Rose loved her family but we all knew that she hadn’t opted-out of paid work, like Hirshman tells you I did. Rose never had the opportunity to opt in. I often wonder if she’d be proud of me, or just really confused. With so many career options, she might wonder, why on earth would Shannon choose this one?

Home life
One part of my job involves taking my 3-year-old daughter, Miriam, to a park board dance class. I recently witnessed two moms put the staff through its paces about the amount of trans fats lurking in the park’s popcorn machine. Nowadays it is not enough to cook; one must cook properly. Their sons, Parker and Hunter, cannot be allowed to eat that kind of poison, no matter how much they crave it.

Grandma Rose made popcorn better than anyone. A huge iron pot soaked in vegetable oil popped the corn, then melted the stick of butter that she’d drizzle onto our bowls. She handed us terrycloth towels to wipe off our fingers. Yummy.

Cultural movements, like everything else, are cyclical. Rose was at the beck and call of her large family, making popcorn when they wanted it the only way she knew how. My working mom, a second-wave feminist, taught us to toss prepackaged bags into the microwave if we were hungry after school. Today those bags are known to be unhealthy at best and carcinogenic at worst. Hunter’s mom will cook him homemade popcorn, with organic everything. Which way is the Right Way To Do It? I don’t know. Friedan and Matthews suggest that our culture has a stake in keeping us doubtful of every choice we make, even going so far as to obscure whether or not we have one.

For as far as Friedan’s movement has taken us, statistics don’t lie. Women’s paychecks are still short 23 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Child care costs in Minnesota are estimated to be as high as $11,000 per year. Mathematics proves that our playing fields still aren’t level.

Yet I’m proud that I could put all my college writing skills to work eulogizing a woman who was one hell of a grandmother and housewife. In it, I noted a truth that would seem shocking if uttered about a mother of a different generation: I can’t remember Grandma Rose ever telling me she loved me. That stern North Dakota mien never left her. She showed me, though, in her amazing cooking. I returned her affection by eating.

To see more of Charlot Meyer’s Mia Sorella Aprons go to miasorellaaprons.etsy.com.