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 About.com 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.