Why you should care
Because it’s not just the turkeys that can get deeply fried on Thanksgiving.
A confession: In nearly four decades of enjoying turkeys and the savory delights of countless Thanksgivings, the sum total of my culinary contribution to the festivities probably amounts to a few dozen bread rolls, one botched batch of mashed potatoes and warming up some premade pies. And like millions of American men, I have tried to hide my feeble contribution behind some uninspired dish washing — OK, drying — and the rationalization that we are merely leaving the work where it rightfully belongs: with the professionals. And, of course, by professionals, we mean women.
Men may have made some strides in recent decades in closing the gap between the sexes in many domestic responsibilities, including cooking meals at home. But once Thanksgiving and the holiday season rolls around, all of a sudden it’s 1955 again, and it’s time for the ladies to don the aprons and the guys to hit the couch. Just imagine how it all must look from the vantage point of a visiting alien anthropologist, or just a Scandinavian: a festival day centered around female-dominated labor activities and male-dominated leisure activities, in which one sex of the species slaves while the other slumbers. It’s no wonder women experience so much more holiday stress.
Let’s face it: Even in the 21st century, the great holy day of America’s civil religion remains a resoundingly lopsided affair, even if the women in your life are too polite to tell you about it. We wouldn’t let this sort of egregious gender disparity persist without comment or critique in other domains. So why do we let Thanksgiving, and its millions of male beneficiaries, off the hook and into the La-Z-Boy so easily?
The First Thanksgiving, or How I Learned to Survive the Winter and Cook for 150 Men
Backbreaking female labor was baked into the U.S. holiday tradition from the start. First, a few factoids that don’t usually make it into the inspiring story of the First Thanksgiving told to millions of American schoolchildren. Of the 18 female Pilgrims who made the trip aboard the Mayflower, which landed in Plymouth in 1620, only four survived their first year in America, and for good reason: For several months after landing, the women remained aboard the cramped, filthy quarters of the ship, a breeding ground for disease and pneumonia in that first terrible winter, while the men built settlements in the open air.
The surviving women’s fortitude was rewarded with a larger share of the labor, including the first Thanksgiving itself, held in the following autumn to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest. Assisted by a few girls, the four remaining Englishwomen prepared enough food for a three-day feast for nearly 150 Plymouth colonists and members of the Wampanoag tribe — a feat that puts some of our modern Thanksgiving labors in some perspective. Meanwhile, it is believed that the men and boys engaged in games and leisure activities such as, yes, football — in this case, soccer (they were English) — with a deerskin ball stuffed with deer hair.
For the next two and a half centuries, various days of thanksgiving were celebrated in some colonies and states, but it was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln — after a 36-year campaign by a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale (of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fame) — declared a national Thanksgiving Day be celebrated each November. The new holiday grew in popularity and importance over the next century, and as more rolls went into the oven, the gender roles seemed only to harden. “While the man of the house, with carving knife in hand, affirmed the father’s role as provider and head of household,” historian Elizabeth H. Pleck writes in Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals, “the apron-clad mother created and organized Thanksgiving.”
Thanks to canned, packaged, premade and frozen foods, by the 1960s and ’70s, preparing a bounteous Thanksgiving feast had become somewhat simpler. Still, for most families, and particularly for the women in them, today’s Thanksgiving meal remains a major ordeal, and, as Pleck tells OZY, a growing number of celebrants “do not want to undertake the kind of cooking needed for the home-prepared feast.” It’s a lesson that many women have learned the hard way.
Heaping On the Extra Helpings of Holiday Stress
“Stress city” is how Meghan Blair-Valero, an entrepreneur from Nantucket, Massachusetts, describes many of the Thanksgivings in her life. “Thanksgiving Day turkey martyrdom is all too common in American homes, and we were no exception,” she says of the women in her family. There were early-morning starts; hours of chopping, sautéing and roasting; the polishing of the silver used only once or twice per year. And, of course, the cleaning up afterward.
Even outside the holidays, the home-cooked meal has become a hallmark of a healthy family in American culture, and many mothers, as one recent study found, are struggling under the weight of having to juggle such lofty meal expectations alongside work and other obligations. And while men are sharing more of the burden — more than half participate in meal preparation — there is a long way to go. “Gender differences in meal preparation and food-shopping responsibilities have been declining over time,” says Julie Locher, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but the primary responsibility for those activities still falls largely on women.
Come Thanksgiving — with more dishes, more guests and the attendant pressures to re-create the perfect meal of holidays past — the burdens mount. And the men disappear. According to one report on holiday stress for the American Psychological Association, women were nearly twice as likely to report cooking on Thanksgiving (66 percent of women versus 35 percent of men), and also more likely to shop for food (52 percent versus 32 percent) and wash dishes (70 percent versus 41 percent). Unsurprisingly, women also experience more holiday stress in the mad rush to get everything done.
Still, it’s an ordeal that countless women willingly, sometimes exuberantly, undertake. “Women own the holidays,” says Margaret J. King, director of Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia. “And part of the reward is the labor that they put into it.” If holidays are burdensome to women, she says, they also get the most out of them, because they see their family together and interacting. King likens the tacit cultural bargain underlying Thanksgiving to a “silent contract.”
With King, cultural analysis is a family affair, and her husband, Jamie O’Boyle, a senior analyst at the same think tank, also helps put Thanksgiving’s cultural significance into a broader perspective. Other social primates, unlike humans, don’t eat group meals, he says, and even humans are solitary grazers by nature. Nevertheless, “the social meaning of food is huge to women,” he notes, and Thanksgiving for many women is just “a ceremonial extension of the dinner table,” not to mention of the primordial campfire around which the first humans gathered.
So it makes sense that, if shouldering the burden of family meals and holidays is truly a labor of love, the labor might vanish in the absence of such love. Another recent study by Locher finds that widows who considered meal preparation a chore during their marriage tend to ditch it once their spouse dies. And when it comes to Thanksgiving, sometimes a simple lack of appreciation for the occasion can be enough to blunt one’s appetite for cooking. O’Boyle tells the story of his own mother — a perfectionist and consummate Thanksgiving cook — once emerging from the kitchen to ask the guys assembled around the television what time they would like to eat.
“Half time,” one of the men responded. O’Boyle remembers the look on his mother’s face. Never again did Mrs. O’Boyle cook Thanksgiving dinner.
Time to Boycott the Bird?
Is it time for more women to take such a stand when it comes to Turkey Day? After all, such a lopsided sexual division of labor is becoming anathema to modern family life. Indeed, in some ways, holidays like Thanksgiving act as a cultural time machine in which we continue to perpetuate the inequalities of the past under the guise of tradition and celebration. Sure, many women enjoy Thanksgiving — but wouldn’t they enjoy it more if they had more help?
Blair-Valero was rescued from her holiday prison by circumstance. After she got divorced, she decided she didn’t need to play hostess any longer — and she also made some friends in the restaurant industry. “Now, most holiday meals are prepared by my male friends who are chefs,” she observes. “I just arrive and nap on Thanksgiving!” She and her mom still can’t believe how much more enjoyable the holiday is now.
So what about the millions of women who may not have male foodie friends? Are more drastic measures called for? Perhaps a Lysistrata-style boycott in which American women hang up their aprons and refuse to put out on Turkey Day, or maybe some online activism around a hashtag like #ThanksMisgivings? Thanksgiving has been the site of protest before, from the “National Day of Mourning” once held by Native Americans in Massachusetts to the longtime avoidance of the holiday table by LGBT Americans. Such an assault on the gender inequalities perpetuated by Thanksgiving seems unlikely, though, given how popular the holiday is with most Americans, including women.
The good news is that although we may be a long way from a holiday with yard work for the fellas and romantic-comedy marathons in lieu of Dallas Cowboys games, the celebration of Thanksgiving is slowly changing. Families who lack the time or inclination to embark on the holiday hardship are relying more and more on supermarkets for ready-made food options. And, according to the National Restaurant Association, some 15 million celebrants now choose to eat out at a restaurant for their day of thanks. Furthermore, because gender differences in food preparation are more pronounced among older and less educated Americans, says Locher, we can expect that such disparities will decline across the board as the population ages and becomes better educated.
For those looking for a more immediate solution to involving more men, however, O’Boyle suggests injecting the following: technology and/or competition. Ladies, is it time to visit Williams-Sonoma and buy your man a stainless-steel rotisserie turkey fryer and have him invite his friends and fellow “Lords of the Grill” to see who can be this year’s Master of the Bird?
There are numerous other solutions for lending your Thanksgiving a bit more balance, from potlucks to simply closing the kitchen entirely and having the whole family volunteer at a local charity. But perhaps the simplest thing you can do for now, and most befitting the season, is just offering your thanks — and not only for the harvest or for the delicious food before you, but to the women in your life who are responsible, year after year, for putting that bounty on your table.