Women & Food: Panel at Barnard College

By Caroline Thirkill

Isis, ancient Egyptian
goddess of fertility

On Tuesday November 1st, several Barnard professors hosted a panel lecture about food, which focused on how food is symbolized, its relation to women, and its social and cultural impact. Professor Kim Hall from the English department spoke about the Anglo-Caribbean sugar trade, Professor Paige West discussed the importation of coffee from Papa New Guinea, Professor Deborah Valenze of the History Department gave facts from her new book Milk: A Local and Global History and Professor Hillary Calahan spoke about how research in genetics affects today’s food industry.

Kim Hall spoke about how of the sugar trade in the 1700s was primarily controlled by the aristocrats, associated with the privileges of royalty and the wealthiest class. Along with this privilege came the political implication of empiricism, since those who could afford sugar were also the ones who could afford slaves and exotic products. Often aristocratic women were in command of the creations of sugar products, from fruity cordials to vast feasts of sugary confections. This gave women a certain unacknowledged status. Since they were so heavily involved in the use of such a major and valuable import like sugar, they possessed a certain dominion over the production and trading of the import itself.

“How have women shaped the past, and how are they changing the future of the food industry?”

The export of coffee is the basis of approximately half of Papa New Guinea’s economy, involving nearly 3 million people. For the people there, the coffee trade is their connection to the “modern world.” Yet, still for women associated with the production of coffee, wages are often as low as 15 cents per hour. Professor Paige West gave us a detailed view of what she has learned from her work in Papa New Guinea, and how it has changed her perception of the coffee trade.


Michelle Obama

Professor Valenze’s speech was filled with examples of how the production of milk has long been a female-dominated economy. Some of the earliest images in human history are representative of the importance of women and milk in society; for example, Ancient Egyptian totems show Isis (the goddess of fertility and childbirth) breastfeeding her child Horus. During the Enlightenment, milk was often used as a medicine for ailments of the stomach, and, similar to the “Raw Milk” (milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized) fad of today, milk has long been thought of as a way to reconnect with nature and disengage with the uglier trappings of civilization. Milk throughout history has been a political issue as well, such as in the early 1900s, when a woman named Elizabeth Putnam led the “Pure Milk” campaign, a political movement requiring the pasteurization of milk to prevent the spread of disease.

Women, Food and Science
Professor Hillary Calahan contributed a more scientific approach to the discussion, focusing on how genetics and hormone research in the food industry are changing our lifestyle and our economy. She asked us to consider not only how food affects our bodies, but also its effect on our environment and the health of the world around us. Just because we can produce more from genetically modified stock than natural stock, does that necessarily mean we should use it? In political activism in America, some of the biggest advocates for discussing the effects of science on food are women. Michelle Obama, for example, promotes education programs on science in the food industry and how the subsequent changes to our diet have twisted into an obsession with “healthy food” and body image.

All of these lecturers asked questions that challenged the audience to think about food in our life and society: How have women shaped the past and how are they changing the future of the food industry and our economy? How are the lives of women around the world affected by food and the complications inherent in discussing it? And, possibly the most important question, what responsibilities do we as the next generation have in improving the way we think about food?

Of the many students who attended the lecture, Karoline Lake (BC ’13) agreed with the problems brought up in Professor Calahan’s and Professor West’s speeches. She noted that, “It is important to know where our food comes from, not only the biology of it, but also who produces it.” Julia Marrs (BC ’12) commented on how the problems were presented as a global matter, since it is not just our economy and society affected by these issues. “This is something we have to care about; it is our future, so we should start thinking about it now.”

Caroline is a sophomore at Barnard, and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Photos courtesy of Positive Birth Stories and Chicago Tribune.


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