I grew up in a traditional home. By traditional, I mean that we were ultra-conservative Christians, homeschooled, wore skirts and—for one hilarious stretch of years—skin-tight leggings (because the zippers on jeans were meant to help men pee and so were considered male garb), and oversized t-shirts to cover our behinds. My mother was a homemaker, and my father the breadwinner. My mother cooked, and my father ate.
I confess, even as a child, this troubled me. I was the pesky sort who demanded to know why in Western movies the cowboys were always helping the ladies out of the wagons—couldn’t ladies jump down on their own? I was also always the child who found her Bible troubling; so many of the things taught to me didn’t seem consistent, especially when it came to my role in life. I didn’t like to close my legs when I sat in a skirt; I didn’t want to wear dresses or play with dolls; I wanted to run outside with the boys and build a tree house.
In other words, I was just the sort of daughter to give my traditional mother no end of headaches.
By the time I entered college, I knew one thing: I was a feminist. But I didn’t know what this meant. Most confusing of all, I had an abundance of knowledge from my mother about how to cook in the kitchen. And, even worse, I loved using that knowledge. I loved the kitchen. I hid with shame many of these skills for the first years I attended college; I didn’t want people to consider me a “bad feminist.” And to be honest, I didn’t know that I could ever use those skills and my passion for them in a way that would ultimately help others.
Not until I dug into Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and started to consider what feminism had really set out to accomplish for women did I realize that the kitchen is not a place of shame for a woman. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
The key word here is community. Women have a long history with each other in the kitchen. The vast majority of that history occurred in oppression. But the kitchen, across many cultures, was often the one place where women might speak with relative freedom. The kitchen was a space of community. And also a place to build a sense of belonging: mothers take the recipes handed down to them from their mothers and pass them along to daughters, and each of these recipes has a story, a lesson of endurance. The world might tell us that this community is without value, or that we’ve moved past it, but can we really ignore the lessons learned from millennia of suffering and sharing?
No, I realized. I would no sooner give up my knowledge and love of the kitchen than I would my freedom to vote.
I came to terms with the fact that women can embrace the spaces of their former oppression and reform them, all while enriching themselves and others with the history of community shared there. Many other things fell into place for me as a result. I realized that I might want to stay at home with my future children and homeschool them. I realized that I could get married someday and even enjoy the arrangement. I also realized that I might never have children, and that was okay too. I might never get married, and I could learn to live with that. In short, I learned that I could do anything I pleased, howsoever I pleased, but in all cases, embrace it. It should be inclusive and free from shame.
In short, feminism became more than a series of principles to me; it became a lifestyle choice to actively embrace the spaces around me and look for how those spaces might enrich my life. And it all started in the kitchen.
Flash forward several years, and I’m married and cooking for my husband every night (well, most nights—sometimes I just want a pizza, dammit!). And not just for him, but for his family and my family, and for friends and their family. I bake all my own bread from scratch. I even make my own vegetable and meat broths! But I find that my kitchen isn’t a place I enjoy because someone told me once that I belong here. I enjoy my kitchen because I see it as a way to participate in the community of women who came before me; I see it as a way to teach my sons and daughters another way to care for themselves and others; I see it as an active declaration of my autonomy as a woman.
So yes, it’s okay to be a feminist and cook in your kitchen, especially if you’re skilled and enjoy the art (my husband does not, else he might be in here more often with me). But it’s also okay to be a feminist and not cook in your kitchen. What matters is that you embrace and reform your spaces, wherever they may be, and refuse to let others inflict the oppression of shame upon you. That’s freedom; that’s feminism.
This article first appeared in Persephone Magazine on July 26, 2011.