The History of Hungry Women in Power and Politics

Are women power hungry, or do they just need something to eat?

In the international political realm, there is a lack of female representation. Self-identified women often encounter more difficulties in running as elected officials in office, men are encouraged to be powerful and are seen as figures who should hold authority, and in recent and modern history, they overwhelmingly have. Women who choose to run in politics are upheld to higher and more critical standards than their male-identified counterparts and competitors, and this common phenomenon is something that has been developing over the past thousands of years, as examined and exemplified by some Aboriginal Australian communities in the form of performative power. In this paper, we will aim to identify some major food related cultural practices and events that have contributed to the lack of female-identified individuals in modern politics, to the ways in which we see male bodies as governing figures and women as passive victims or as domineering beings, and to dismantle and analyze the patriarchal structures that show young women and girls to strive to be anything but rulers.

To start, the history of food and its role in the formation of gender norms is widespread across cultures and communication kinds alike. Gender is, as many know, believe, and preach, a social construct. This social construct was formed through a long process that dates back to before the beginning of our modern society, that was mostly formed because of physical features and physical inequalities between the two biological sexes, as well as one significant belief of strict dichotomies by the best intellectuals of the time (Priya, 2015, sec. 9). As gender is socially constructed and as sex is biological, one is much more fluid than the other and has a greater ability to change the attached stereotypes according to the day and age of the modern population. The contrasting transformation and transition from the traditional preparation and cooking methods used by humans to the eating of modern, processed, and convenient already-prepared foods that took place throughout the 1910s until the 1950s dramatically changed the way that we eat and view food. Even so, with the huge change in the food preparation industry, the overused and deep-rooted typecast of “women as homemakers and men as breadwinners” (Parkin, 2007, p. 1) has contributed to enforcing strong and harmful identity-shaping stereotypes. This sexism, although very often passed by many as a dormant, unchangeable, and minor stereotype, creates a “trickle-down effect of a wider issue that betrays all of us” (Stasey, 2015).

Good Housekeeping Magazine cover. (1908). / via Wikipedia 

As Counihan and Kaplan (1998, p. 2) state, “Men’s and women’s ability to produce, provide, distribute, and consume food is a key measure of their power. This ability varies according to their culture, their class, and their family organization, and the overall economic structure of their society”, further emphasizing the need for intersectional ways of analyzing these institutionalized problems to find viable solutions.

This kind of wicked problem can be broken down and traced back to, for example, some Aboriginal Australian societies, wherein fire was a primary symbol of power. As shown in Michael Pollan’s documentary series ‘Cooked’ (Netflix, 2016), on a typical day, the men of the community prepare to hunt for the high-risk kills, while the women gather low-risk kills such as lizards to eat. Even though the diet of the community consists primarily of the low-risk kills such as lizards that the women kill and gather, the high-risk animals that men kill are thought of as more worthy and prized. The act of hunting high-risk kills such as kangaroos and Chital deer is seen as an act of proclaiming manhood, or a coming-of age for many young men. In this community, the person wielding the fire or the cooked food is the leader. Although the women cook their lizards by burying them under the fire, the cooking of a larger, high-risk kill is done over special ceremonial fires. The power politics of wielding fire are evident in examining the intervention of Caucasian missionaries on Aboriginal land. When Australia got colonized and unwillingly taken by Great Britain, and when Aboriginal women were chosen to be wives to Caucasian counterparts, the women of the tribes were apprehensive to give up their cooking practices because it symbolized some power in their community (Jolly, 1989, p. 10). Similarly, in Western culture, the cooking of food plays a role in the formation of gender stereotypes that contribute to modern political luck or fortune. For example, in many places today, it is more common to see male bodies wielding the barbeque over a fire to supply meat and food for the community than it is to see a woman wielding the fire, feeding into the idea that power, or wielding the fire, is an inherently masculine performance and behaviour. In many cases, this stereotype can result in acts of performative masculinity, or the over dramatizing of one’s masculinity to prove their place in society, and is often done while disregarding others in a stand of individuality to display power or dominance.

Still shot of Australian Aboriginal woman from Michael Pollan’s ‘Cooked’. (2016). / via SanFrancisco Chronicle

In connecting this phenomenon to the concept of “gender normativity”, defined as the reducing of women’s histories of resistance and political participation in movements to their experiences as passive victims, such as grieving mothers and as damsels in distress (MacManus, 2015, para. 3), we analyze the ways in which gender normativity has shaped the way that women participate in social and political movements, whether as community organizers or as elected officials. As much as the act of preparing, eating, serving, and sharing food plays a part in shaping gender roles, gender normativity has created a false dichotomy of women as either victims of horrific events or as witch-like perpetuators of these actions, despite women’s consistent and diverse involvement in all sectors of politics. Regardless of women’s history of active agency and contribution in the political realm, they are often “denied liberation”, as exemplified in numerous cases (Angeles, 2016).

In the instance of seeing “women as a nation”, or as “in need of protection”, a “feminized nation” emerges (Angeles, 2016). This kind of personification and perceived “heightened femininity” often results in the sexual abuse and rape of women, in order to demoralize the state. When people see “women as a nation”, and when they attack the female bodies of a nation, they feel empowered. When a woman gains political power, and disrupts the traditionalist association of political power with male bodies exclusively, women face a different kind of abuse—they are front and centre in the public eye, and often experience verbal attacks and vilification based on appearance and other outward facing qualities in ways that male bodies do not. This kind of belittling and backlash positioned towards women leaders is, in a way, parallel to “rape as national demoralization”, but only because of where the act stems from (Angeles, 2016). And so, if we see the nation state as a separate entity and as a perpetuator of these ideas, when a self-identifying woman is in charge, masculinity and perceived power that matches is frighteningly taken away.

The combination, collection, and perpetuation of these practices and systems of oppression contribute to the cycle of female disempowerment especially for individuals with young female bodies. Young women and girls see very few representations of women as leaders, and if so, they are more often than not shown in the same kinds of ways—as passive victims or as domineering beings. On many varying scales, our society’s vison of women who serve their families is seen as a desirable and valiant thing to do. Women who are in power defy this stereotype, and as a result are seen somewhat singularly. An example of the ways in which young women and girls are pushed towards becoming disempowered and submissive beings can be seen in the kinds of toys that young girls are marketed and told to play with (for example, Easybake Ovens teach young girls to bake and serve). Similarly, the advertisements of many health magazines for adult women tell them to learn how to become good dinner party hosts or acquire alike qualities. Women who can monitor and nourish her family’s health are prized women, serving their roles as females, and aspiring to be good house wives (Parkin, 2007, p. 160). This kind of mentality transcribes itself into perpetuating the same kind of “women as homemakers and men as breadwinners” (Parkin, 2007, p. 1) ideal.

For example, in urban cities and towns, the people who serve customers who eat in restaurants are likely to be female, as 80% of people who work in the food service industry are (Wooton, 1997, p. 16). This unequal gender distribution in the service industry work force plays on the thought that women serve men, as typically portrayed in the kinds of power we associate different genders with. This can be translated to understand the ways in which we see women who govern. Furthermore, as heterosexual men factually get paid more than women, men have more money to spend on superfluous occasions to go out to eat food, and like to be served by someone of the opposite sex. This idea is taken to an extreme with the example of sex restaurants and hotels popularized in Japan, where men pay to be served and sexually aroused by women. In more recognizable but similarly intense ways, restaurants such as Hooters and Cactus Club Café have been labelled as ‘Breastaurants’. These restaurants specifically cater to the heterosexual male gaze, and add to the thought that women who serve men are more wanted, are more attractive, and are more fertile, as well as perpetuate the idea that women in power are out of place, or that they are overstepping their boundaries.

Hooters Restaurant Servers. (2015). / via Economix 101 Blog

These gender norms relay a harmful rhetoric towards women leaders and towards aspiring female leaders that they deserve to be valued based on what they can offer to appeal to the male bodies in the room, emphasized by the unequal distribution of male dominance in political power and social capital. Young women and girls are told to aspire to mediocrity in professional realms of their lives, and are told to stand by their male counterparts as supportive background partners, to catch low-risk food for their communities, to become anything but the domineering and powerful witch-like figure, and to instead settle for being a passive victim of events. When women try to acquire power, they encounter criticism unmatched by their male competitors, as a result of the negatively effective systems in place that unfairly bash women in the public eye for being any changed variation of the “housewife” norm. In our world, everything is political—from the food we eat, to the restaurants we eat at, to the toys we play with, and more. Our ability to de-couple the actions we take to impart our power on others – or in other words, ‘power play’ – with our perceived gender normativity is what defines us as a series of socially constructed nation states. In order to move in the direction of equity and progress, we must be able to delineate the power at play in the ways in which we see women as leaders.

Libby VanderPloeg Illustration. (2016). / via LVP Website


Works Cited

Angeles, L. (2016) Food, Gender, and Social Justice. University of British Columbia, Sept. 19.

Angeles, L. (2016). Power and Politics Lecture. University of British Columbia, Nov. 28.

Angeles, L. (2016). War and Conflict Related to Sexual Violence. University of British Columbia, Nov. 7.

Counihan, C., Kaplan, S. (1998). Food and Gender. The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group, 2-3.

Goodkind, E., Mandelbaum, L. (2015). Being “The Pretty Girl” Isn’t Always So Pretty In Hollywood: Caitlin Stasey. Style Like U – Youtube.

Parkin, K. (2007). Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1-30, 160.

Jolly, M. (1989). Family and Gender in the Pacific. Cambridge University Press, 10.

MacManus, V.B. (2013). We are not Victims, we are Protagonists of this History – Latin American Gender Violence and the Limits of Women’s Rights as Human Rights. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(1), 40-57

Pollan, M. (2016). Cooked. Netflix.

Priya, K. R., & Dalal, A. K. (2015). Qualitative Research on Illness, Wellbeing and Self-Growth: Contemporary Indian Perspectives. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, sec. 9.

Wooton, B. (1997). Gender differences in occupational employment. Monthly Labor Review120(4), 16.


Word Count: 2,001


Modules used:

Module 3: Food, Gender and Social Justice

Module 10: War & Conflict Related Sexual Violence

Module 13: Power and Politics


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