Secret tool for suffrage: Cookbooks revealed women’s secret world

Cookbooks revealed women’s secret world

To put it bluntly, history too often tends to be gender-biased. Historians will focus on wars, battles, industries, or some other aspect of life of which women were largely excluded. History, like life, was gender-biased. Because of this, historical sources regarding the roles of women in 18th, 19th, and early 20th century society can sometimes be difficult to locate, and those available are sometimes overlooked. Without attempting to sound sexist or biased, one invaluable resource is actually cookbooks.

In times when gender roles were defined by sex, very few indeed were the men who would pick up a cookbook, let alone read it. The cookbook was, in fact, a gender-specific genre in which women could frankly and openly communicate with women, without fear of backlash from husbands. As such, they are an open, honest window through which to view the world of women that reflect opinions, thoughts, views, frustrations, and everyday life to which women were subject.

Sarah Elliot’s 1870 cookbook,“Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife: Containing Practical Receipts in Cookery,” contains a 12-page preface in which she discusses the changing role of, and views toward, women in the Southern states in the years after the Civil War. Written in 1869 and published a few months later, Elliot did not mention the war or its effects straight out.

“The change of times in the South,” she wrote, “indicates to woman there is a solemn duty.” On the next page, she explained the reason for writing the book: “I have prepared a work, original in its idea and novel in this progressive age.”

Women knew that cookbooks were excluded from the reading material of men, and in the 1880s, cookbooks became, as National Public Radio pointed out in a Nov. 5, 2015 online article, an invaluable means of communication deeper than how to bake a cake. Nina Martyris’ NPR article, titled, “How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion,” focuses on the first “The Woman Suffrage Cook Book,” published in 1886. While the book contained very good recipes, contributed by “regular” housewives, Marty wrote, they were “intersperspersed with pro-suffrage quotes by famous people such as British politician William Gladstone and abolitionist author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

Page 144 of the book began “Eminent Opinions on Woman Suffrage,” which comprised four pages of quotes from influential people of the time, the majority from men.

“Women have quite as much interest in good government as men,” comes the quote from George William Curtis on the bottom of Page 144, “and I have never heard any satisfactory reason for excluding them from the ballot box.”

Sarah Elliot’s 1870 cookbook reflected the cultural changes that came as a result of a region devastated by war and still in ruins. The Suffrage Cookbook captures a progressive time period in American history.


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