Eating for Victory

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Amy Bentley. Eating For Victory: Food Rationing And The Politics of Domesticity. Illinois: University of Illinois. 1998. 238p. $22.00. Paperback: ISBN 0252067274.



This book begins with the statement printed inside World War II Ration Stamp books, “This is your Government’s guarantee of your fair share of goods made scarce by war.” (1) Obtaining the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers required the wholehearted support of the American people, an undertaking which could only be accomplished by enlisting the cooperation of women.(1) Amy Bentley’s “history of wartime food rationing explores the cultural connections between black and white American women and food, with a focus on the segregated communities in Baltimore, Maryland.”(2)

Bentley focuses on the ways in which American women defined themselves based upon varying ideas of “public and private obligation and sacrifice…”.(5) The primary focus of this study is on the accepted ideology regarding the private sphere of women. Traditionally the women’s sphere encompassed the domestic or private space which included kitchen and garden.(5) She presents this focus by combining several areas of study including “the cultural and social history of food…the relationship between food and gender;” and women and World War II.(2) She accomplishes this by building on the works of previous scholars, including Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Marjorie DeVault who “examined the socially constructed gendering of food and its implications for individuals and society.”(2)

The Wartime Homemaker and Rosie the Riveter were symbols of the feminized home front or the war at home. The Wartime Homemaker became the symbol of white, middle class domesticity and did not challenge traditional gender roles.(31 & 49) The image of the Wartime Homemaker excluded women of color, white working class and poor women and served to conceal issues of race and class.(47) During the post-war period this image did not pose a threat to men seeking to regain their pre-war jobs because the Wartime Homemaker’s role encompassed the traditional domestic sphere or cult of domesticity. In contrast, Rosie the Riveter symbolized women working for the war effort outside of the traditional domestic sphere. This image was more symbolic of women of color and poor women who previously worked at lower paying domestic jobs during the pre-war period.(48-49)

Other “symbols of home front sacrifice and patriotism during WWII” included victory gardening and canning.(115) These too were considered part of the feminized home front because traditionally the kitchen garden, food preparation and canning were part of the domestic sphere of women.(125 & 132) Bentley utilized the term, “swords into plowshares” as a metaphor for peace replacing the soldier’s weapons with the gardener’s tools because “gardening was a way that women, children and especially men could fight the enemy at home”.(128)

During the post war period famine relief became another fight undertaken by women because “feeding children is woman’s natural concern” specifically referring to the starving children in Europe.(158) Bentley discusses briefly the Marshall Plan utilized in Europe for relief which “had a tremendous effect not only economically but culturally as well, helping to usher in the dominance of American culture worldwide.”(170)

The legacy of iconographic images remains – Aunt Jemima recently lost her red kerchief in favor of a gentle perm; Betty Crocker has changed over the years and currently has a more ethnic look. Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima are controversial figures. Betty is “an outdated symbol of a woman” and Aunt Jemima is “a remnant of earlier oppressive times”. (174-175) “The Wartime Homemaker still exists today, although she is allowed more nondomestic interests and her husband increasingly takes on the burdens (and pleasures) of domestic duties”.(175) However, Rosie the Riveter is absent from modern society.(175)


Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Historically, during time of war women have stepped outside of their socially accepted role within the domestic sphere to temporarily take over men’s jobs. They have also contributed to the war effort through their traditional roles as wives and mothers who were viewed as keepers of civic virtue. The ideology of the Republican Mother first appeared following the American Revolution with the expectation that mothers would “raise civic-minded sons and willingly send them off along with their fathers to war”. (2) This earlier ideology provides an explanation for the creation of the WWII symbol of the Wartime Homemaker whose duties mirrored those of women during earlier wars.

Social upheaval was a result of increased numbers of women and African American workers replacing men in wartime jobs. Between 1940 and 1943 the number of migrants moving to northern cities from the south in search of wartime jobs increased. For many women and African Americans these changes instilled a renewed hope for permanent equality during the post-war period. (9-12) These were the Rosie the Riveters who were mobilized into war work to free men to fight, however equality was not a post war privilege, instead these women were expected to give up their war jobs and return to their pre-war domestic roles. While some women willingly acquiesced “others felt the pain of the ‘problem that has no name,’ as Betty Friedan described middle-class white women’s sense of malaise, leading eventually to the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies”. (83)

Amy Bentley’s study encompassed not only the cultural and social history of food but also the cultural and social history of women during the WWII period, including issues of race and class. She describes in detail the symbolism and ads utilized to inspire women to fight for their country on the home front battlefield, both in traditional and non-traditional roles. --Blclark 05:09, 9 September 2008 (UTC)

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Amy Bentley considers the role of food during wartime America as a means to enhance cultural messages of gender roles, social stability, racial hierarchy, domestic abundance, and patriotism. Bentley recalls World War I decisions to promote voluntary reduction in consumption of meat and grains proved not as effective against competing interests of 1940s businessmen versus private consumers, so government rationing systems for valued commodities like red meat and sugar came into effect as early as 1941. Government messages stressed patriotism, fairness in distribution, and communal support of the war effort on the home front to enlist American support of food rationing measures. Bentley surveys a broad range of newspaper, government surveys, and cookbooks of the era to show the types of messages that roused public support. She also discovers the trope of the “ordered meal” that equated family meals with continued social order and the lack of family meals with a rise in juvenile delinquency and social unrest. Norman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom From Want portrait of the family dinner embodied these messages of “place” at the family table. This message of “place at the table” and “portioned shares” could be expanded metaphorically to describe a global table as well with America serving Allies, former Axis countries, and countries in need after the war.

Bentley also expands on this trope to identify gendered divisions of labor (men fighting the war and women fighting in the kitchen to maintain the health of the family) and the division of food resources with men receiving more protein and women using sugar as a substitute energy source. Gendered language of government propaganda encouraging home canning identified this task as a feminine domain with terms such as “housewife,” ”her part,” and “the mothers of America” denoting responsibility for tasks (133).

Another tension occurring in the kitchen during the war developed as African American domestic servants opted to take on higher paying defense jobs, leaving their white employers without domestic staff. Bentley argues this sudden lack of kitchen staff caused a shift in home structures for women unaccustomed to cooking and fearful of changes in the white/black female social hierarchy. One way that government propaganda helped restore fears about wartime social unrest was to heighten the prestige of kitchen work. These messages of the kitchen as the home front valorized kitchen work for middle class women while creating additional pressures on working mothers to create home-made meals and baked goods for the “ordered meal” and as symbols of nurturing motherhood.

Bentley’s research into government documents highlights the work of social scientists to better understand the cultural role of food in American society, especially to determine the relative values of certain food items for assigning point values. Early lessons learned included a lack of knowledge of Southern African American foods like chitterlings led to inaccurate ration point assessments and hesitation with unfamiliar foods such as soybeans or organ meats necessitated new cookbooks to encourage nutritional substitutions. A positive outcome of the Committee on Food Habits was the work of social scientists and nutritionists to develop nutritional guides, food groups, and public education on vitamins.

While Bentley’s research makes excellent use of government documents, newspaper resources, and wartime cookbooks, there are some aspects that could be enhanced. A major focus of the book is food rationing, yet there is no clear discussion of the actual process of using ration books or ration calendars. There also lacks examples of the types of meals that one could produce in a typical week to give the modern reader a sense of how rationing would change shopping habits or be different from today’s consumerism. Bentley’s dedication to the historiography of the culture of food and the meaning of culture and consumption is admirable and provides a lot of in-depth discussion, but the extended quotations from secondary sources detracts from her salient points at times. The strongest discussion Bentley presents is the chapter on Victory gardens because she focuses on her stated preference for the Baltimore area. Throughout the rest of the book it is unclear whether she is focusing on Baltimore, on a specific region, or just making broad generalizations about the nation as a whole. Considering the vast diversity in America’s urban and rural regions and its ethnic composition, more specific attention to geographical areas like her focus on the foodways of the South would enhance the arguments of how food rationing affected a broader range of Americans, not just the white, middle class population who seem to be her primary targets, and whether groups were affected the same or differently. It is unclear whether this focus was by design or whether the sources interviewed primarily this cohort during government surveys steered the discussion towards a middle class focus. Still, the main themes of wartime consumption, perceptions of abundance, gendered food roles, and cultural foodways make this selection worth considering as a cultural study of wartime American society.

Sheri A. Huerta-- 16:15, 3 October 2012 (UTC)

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