CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book from a University of Illinois labor historian who studies women’s labor education and consumer activism chronicles how working- and middle-class women used their identity as housewives to protest the high cost of food in mid-20th-century America.
The idea of the single breadwinner, the rising cost of meat and the power of the boycott to demand a more equitable standard of living is the focus of “Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America” by Emily E. LB. Twarog, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.
Published by Oxford University Press, the book is an examination of the ways in which women of the time wielded the identity of the housewife to gain political leverage.
“As a labor historian, we spend a lot of time talking about things like the fights to increase wages or the struggles to create a safe work environment,” said Twarog, also the director of the Regina V. Polk women’s labor leadership conference. “But we don’t talk about what happens after those wages are paid out. We don’t talk about what was happening with the cost of living – specifically, rent and food.”
The history of women's political involvement has focused heavily on electoral politics, but throughout the 20th century, women engaged in grassroots activism when they found it increasingly challenging to feed their families and balance their household ledgers. To that end, the book examines key moments when women embraced their role as housewife and used consumer actions to demand economic stability for their families and communities, including the Depression-era meat boycott of 1935, the consumer coalitions of the New Deal and the wave of consumer protests between 1966-73.
“It compelled me to look at labor history from a different perspective, making this argument that labor historians have been too siloed, too skewed toward just the workplace as a site of struggle,” Twarog said. “The home, it turns out, is an equally important site of struggle. And in the process, it helped women realize increased political power both at the state and national level. The book argues that women's involvement in labor politics needs to be seen not just in industry but also as consumer protest.”
During that time in U.S. history, women were considered the family manager of the budget, and meat was seen as “the barometer of the financial healthiness of your family budget,” Twarog said.
“From 1930-50, the average American ate a lot of meat,” Twarog said. “Unlike today, it was a staple food item. And if you were an immigrant, meat was an especially big thing. It was a sign of status.”
Back then, grocery shopping was a very public experience.
“For most of these people, you’re shopping at a butcher, and you’re going to the same butcher, who notices what you’re buying,” Twarog said. “If you’re demoted to eating hamburger, it means you clearly can’t afford steak or a roast. You may even have to feed your family on the foods you would’ve eaten before you immigrated – beans, bones, broth and the like – because you can’t afford a main staple item for the breadwinner, the husband, who needed to be strong enough to perform his work.”
That’s when women, in their role as household manager, got fed up with the high cost of meat and began organizing boycotts that went from local campaigns to national movements.
“There was a time when consumers believed that government had an obligation to regulate things like the high cost of food,” Twarog said. “When the government failed to do so, women stepped in and started organizing these boycotts that turned national. When you focus on food consumption rather than production, you can see the ways that food was used by women as a political tool.”
By engaging in domestic politics, housewives both challenged and embraced the social and economic order by crafting a unique political voice and building a consumer movement focused on the home, Twarog said.
“It really led to this political awakening,” she said. “These were women who were housewives, but they really used the idea of home as a means to forge a political identity.”
Throughout the book, Twarog introduces numerous other labor and consumer activists and their organizations in both urban and suburban areas of Chicago; Long Island, New York; and Los Angeles.
One of those women was Mary Zuk, a first-generation Polish immigrant from the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck who organized the 1935 meat boycott and ended up turning it into a national campaign.
“Zuk then becomes the first woman elected to the Hamtramck City Council, eventually earning a higher salary than her husband,” Twarog said.
Although Zuk and her husband would eventually divorce, which contributed to her being denied re-election, her story “really embodies the shift of women getting the vote to women becoming political,” Twarog said.
“She really sets up the narrative of a woman going from being an anonymous housewife to having a public life.”