Women in Food History

By Elizabeth Atia

Historically and culturally, women have taken responsibility for providing food for their families.

From performing the role of gatherers in ancient societies, to now, where we are taking a leading role in the harvest, shopping, preparation and even the nutrition of food.

From female shamans and medicine women to leading pioneers in food science, women have been and continue to play a key role in the daily global quest to put food on our plates. Our consumer habits, mainly done by women, dictate what food producers grow and supermarkets offer, while dieticians continue to educate us on how best to feed our children (and ourselves) for optimal health.

To celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March this year I wanted to share with you a few stories where women have gone beyond simply cooking for our families, where we have actively taken leading roles in shaping the future of agriculture, food and nutrition.

Women’s March on Versailles, 1789

On the 5th of October 1789, frustrated by the price and scarcity of bread in Parisian food markets, women ransacked the city of its weapons, taking their complaints to King Louis XVI in the Palace of Versailles.

By the time they reached the palace, they had gathered a mob numbering in the thousands. These numbers, and the desperation fuelling them, enabled the women to successfully besiege King Louis XVI and his family.

The King begrudgingly returned to Paris, where negotiations between the people and monarchy began. This was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution, spurred on by women trying to buy bread to feed their families.

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796)

The first known cookbook published by an American was written by Amelia Simmons. Published in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut, its full title is: American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.

This book is considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the “Books That Shaped America”.

Elsie Widdowson (1908 – 2000)

On the subject of bread, Elsie Widdowson was a British dietician and nutritionist who, during wartime rationing in Britain during World War II, oversaw the fortification of bread with calcium. Her work, along with her partner, paediatrician Dr. Robert McCance, significantly improved the diets of British people. Earlier this year the BBC included her in a collection of overlooked British women whose research has changed the world.

Dr. Vandana Shiva (1952-)

Dr. Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate.

She believes that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions who have come to dominate the global food system.

Dr. Shiva has contributed in fundamental ways to changing the practice of agriculture and food. Her and her team have successfully challenged the biopiracy of neem, basmati and wheat. They are also currently working on international campaigns on issues surrounding biotechnology and genetic engineering, including the debate about the controversial golden rice.

She has also initiated Diverse Women for Diversity, an international movement of women working for food and agriculture.

Celebrating Women’s Achievements

Women have always been at the front line of popular movements, and they will continue to be as long as they are responsible for family provisions. These stories are just a few examples of how a little food, a hefty appetite for change and the power of a woman can alter the course of history.

Elizabeth Atia

Mum, daydream adventurer, ex-pat Canadian & quite possibly Britain's most northerly award-winning food blogger. Calls Shetland home. https://www.elizabethskitchendiary.co.uk/

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