Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanksgiving: Women's work?

Inspiration for a post was failing me, but when I remembered that Thanksgiving is on the horizon, I started thinking about the traditional roles women play during the holiday. If your house is anything like mine, all the men sit in front of the television watching football while the women work in the kitchen preparing the meal. One blogger, whose family engages in the same ritual, tells an interesting story of her attempt to resist the practice in her own family, and her ultimate acceptance of it.

Dr. Sidney Mintz, an anthropologist from Johns Hopkins University, stated that the Thanksgiving meal "reawakens our attachment" to our early homes, and helps "define our cultural identity." But if that cultural identity is one of patriarchy and subjugation, maybe it isn’t one that we want to reawaken our attachment to. Thanksgiving might be the perfect time to challenge the gendered division of labor around the house, especially if the holiday brings your extended family together.

Dr. Mintz suspects that traditional gender roles are no more entrenched at Thanksgiving than at other times. My personal experience adheres to this notion in that my mother did nearly all the cooking in our home throughout the year, with the interesting exception of the barbeque, which my father handled exclusively. In an article, the creator of a website called “Men in Aprons” explains that barbequing turkey, rather than cooking it in the oven, can be a tool to entice men to take a more active role in the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. I suppose that without the use of the barbeque, there really wouldn’t be any other reason for a man to participate. The fact that barbequing is a “male” job is an interesting phenomenon in itself. It seems almost too easy to attribute it to some sort of vestigial connection to our hunter-gatherer past, but what else would explain it? Maybe the involvement of fire makes it a more dangerous activity, and therefore the province of men, but I won’t digress further.

The author of the same article tongue-in-cheekly offers a warning that reading about a man who actually helps in the kitchen may cause you to “swoon in envy.” Obviously the article is meant to be taken fairly light-heartedly, but it certainly touches upon some pretty sexist notions. Why is it taken for granted that men do not need to help around the house at any point during the year, let alone during a labor intensive holiday like Thanksgiving?

The answer to that question is debatable. Traditionally, women have been predominately socialized to fill the role of caretaker, but the causes of that process are complex. Regardless of whether the female-as-caretaker role is purely the product of patriarchal subjugation, biological sex differences, or a combination of the two, how should feminists respond? If your family Thanksgiving conforms to the fairly sexist tradition of women doing all the work, should you make a fuss, or go with the flow?

Ultimately, it would probably be best to try and calculate as closely as you can your chances of successfully persuading your family members to change their behavior. If your family is quite entrenched in their thinking and you are confident that any efforts to point out the sexism of the traditional Thanksgiving division of labor will simply engender ill will, maybe just letting it go is the more utilitarian choice. Some people’s attitudes will not be changed, and fighting them may ruin the holiday for everyone else. But if your family and friends are flexible enough to at least question their behavior, the argument may be worth it. Even though the majority of younger Americans believe in egalitarian relationships between men and women, traditional gender roles remain ingrained in practice and ideology.

Although arguing about who does the work on Thanksgiving may seem trivial, our behavior during the holidays places our everyday behavior in sharp relief. If men realize why it is unfair for the women in their family to do the work on Thanksgiving, maybe that understanding will spill out into their everyday lives. Women as caretakers might no longer be the default. That would be something we could all be thankful for.


Erin S. said...

My dad always cooks the turkey--in the oven, even! He does a fantastic job, too. However, it's definitely true that my mother does the great majority of the Thanksgiving cooking and preparation.

It's always interesting to me, too, how ever since I can remember, the women of the family (only two generations now, sadly) have gathered in the kitchen (no matter how small) to talk, cook, drink wine, and reconnect, while the men are consigned to the living room to drink gin martinis and discuss finance, sports, and politics. So very Victorian of us!

As for me, I generally rotate from one arena to the next during a holiday celebration, enjoying both spheres. I also volunteer to help with the cooking and bring dishes to share. I like to think that I do that because I enjoy cooking, baking, and feeding my loved ones. How much of that is socialization and how much of it is just who I am? It's hard to say, but I definitely don't do it out of a sense of gender duty.

AL said...
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AL said...

My partner and I will be attending two Thanksgiving celebrations. At his house, mom does all the cooking on Thanksgiving, while the 3 men in the house do various other activities in the living room (sometimes this includes football). When we were planning our holiday I asked Nicolas about his father's assertion that mom would be cooking on Thanksgiving, and he said, "well, she loves to cook." He knows me well enough to know that the laughter that followed was both condescending and quizzical. Enjoying cooking doesn't translate into a desire to be a slave in the kitchen while the rest of the family sits around enjoying each other's company. The question remains, however, am I brave enough to rock the boat at his family's house this year, and ask the boys why they don't get off their lazy butts to help mom in the kitchen?

Interestingly, at my sisters house, my brother-in-law does most of the cooking on Thanksgiving, from Turkey to potatoes to pies. He will cook non-stop for two days in preparation, and even though he loves football, he usually foregoes it in favor of cooking duties on Thanksgiving.

Personally, I enjoy both cooking and football, and so, like Erin, I find myself migrating back and forth between the two on Thanksgiving. This is much more fun for me, however, when the migrating is between cooking and football, not between "women's place" and "man's place".

Ruthann said...
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Ruthann said...

First, all the posting done by those smart and lucky enough to be in Feminist Legal Theory with Professor Pruitt last semester has been awesome. The links mush have been a lot of work! (Or perhaps this thought just comes from not being in quite the right generation to be blase about including links so appropriately in anything I write.)

Briefly: my mom hasn't really cooked in the kitchen since I was 5; my brother, sister, and I grew up on "take-out." When my mother remarried when I was 17, she briefly started to cook for my step-father. (My brother was jealous!) The brief foray back into the kitchen did not work out parents returned to "take-out," though of a considerably different quality than what we ate when we were young. (Chalk up the failure to an easily disgruntled step-father and a mother who doesn't put up well with criticism.)

Nevertheless, this is the story. When we have holidays, including Thanksgiving, there's always wrangling. My step-dad doesn't want anything too fancy - his first choice is to eat at home. My mom doesn't want to reheat, serve and clean, much less cook, which duty falls to her (and me) when we eat at home. This Thanksgiving we ate at a restaurant. X-mas? X-mas day, my step-father and mother split up the duties of picking up food. Reheating, serving and cleaning, for the most part, fall to me and my mom.

The reason my mom and I team up is that we are the most competent in the kitchen. My mom's one of those people who are pretty much good at whatever they attempt - I chalk that up to an insatiable drive to succeed - so that during those years between when she married my dad and I turned 5, she had built up a good skill kit in the kitchen. As for me, I am a foodie, and cooking is a hobby....

The interesting thing is that my mother is a career woman. But she said she wanted to cook for my step-dad when they first got married. She wanted to conform to this particular gender expectation. My take is that my mom wanted something that gender conformity had to give...then decided it still wasn't worth it!

On the other hand, my mother is a member of one of those exclusive social clubs that sprout up where there's self-satisfied wealth (her inclusion the product of 30 years of working and serving in the community). She will be the first Asian-American and woman to be President of this club, located in a upper-middle class community, next year. This year, for their retreat, all the officers' wives were to make two casseroles. My mom said, "I need a wife!" ...My step-dad bought all the ingredients, and he and my mom bumbled around the kitchen, eventually producing two very presentable casseroles.

For me it's just interesting to see how my mom and step-father, of a different generation than my own, handle traditionally gendered roles. It seems to be a mixture of "progress" and "regression" (or stagnation?)!