Guest post: Writing Women into Culinary History

(Editor’s note: I’m so happy to welcome Kimberly Wilmot Voss back to the Feminist Kitchen. You’ll remember that she’s the Florida journalism professor who wrote a guest post about Phyllis Diller last month, and now she has a fascinating post about women in the newspaper industry, particularly those who wrote for the so-called “women’s pages.” Voss is in the middle of writing a book about newspaper food editors and will be presenting a paper about Jane Nickerson, pictured below, at the National Communication Association convention in November. You can find more of her pieces here and here.)

One of the great things about studying women’s history for the past twenty years is watching the increase in information about feminist leaders grow. The second wave of the women’s movement is no longer reduced to the tale of the 1968 bra burning at the Miss American pageant (where no undergarments were ever set ablaze) or only through the lives of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. There is now a richer understanding of the various events and men and women who brought about social change beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.

The stories of the women journalists who covered (or tried to cover) those times are also being told. Most recently, the wonderful book “The Good Girls Revolt,” was published. It tells the tale of the women of Newsweek and their class-action sex discrimination lawsuit that led to change at the news magazine and a growing awareness for news outlets everywhere. After the lawsuit was filed, similar sex discrimination lawsuits were also filed at The New York Times, the Associated Press and the Detroit News, among others.

What has not been written about enough is the stories of the women who chronicling food in those pre-liberation years. Prior to those class-action lawsuits, the place for most women at newspapers was the women’s pages where the reporting of the 4 Fs – family, fashion, food and furnishings – was done. And within that framework, many of these women made a difference from creating conversation to helping homemakers balance budgets.

After all, food is at the center of most of our lives – there are social, political and science at the heart of food reporting. Women have long connected with each other through recipe exchanges by requesting or sending recipes into newspapers – the original social media. While at the New York Herald Tribune, food writer Clementine Paddleford received more than 28,000 phone calls and letters in a single year.

Food stories were about feeding families of readers, and for some food reporters, it was personal as struggled to balance motherhood with a career in food. For example, Jeanne Voltz was the mother of two children and the 1950s food editor at the Miami Herald. After an early career in journalism, she had intended to stay home with her children. Instead, after a minor health scare her doctor declared that chasing children around all day would be too taxing and sent her back to the newsroom.  In an oral history conducted in 2004, longtime Associated Press food writer Cecily Brownstone remarked that is must now be easier to work outside the home and raise children. Writer Laura Shapiro responds that it is not.

One of the more glaring marginalization in female food reporting has been the lack of attention paid to the first food editor of The New York Times – Jane Nickerson.  In large part, she was overshadowed by Craig Claiborne who replaced her and made a name for himself. Nickerson spent from 1942 to 1957 at the legendary newspaper where she explained wartime rations, introduced new technologies that led to convenience food and translated new dishes for post-World War II appetites. A review of her work shows that she made a significant contribution. Yet, the New School deemed Claiborne the “inventor” of food journalism in 2009.

Giving Claiborne that kind of credit ignores the many women who worked in the food sections of newspapers. We need a more inclusive history that includes the voice of women and food. For many women journalists, it was one of the few places of authority.

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One response to “Guest post: Writing Women into Culinary History

  1. The food and style sections (what seems to be left of the traditional women’s pages in newspapers) are the few remaining sections of newspapers that are generating ad revenue. It’s sad that these women weren’t given more credit and recognition for their work by their publishers and now the history books about journalism. Certainly hard news has its place of study but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of or overshadow soft news.

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