Appropriation of Women’s Work

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

In 2002, the popular Food Network television station introduced the series Paula’s Home Cooking staring Paula Deen. Running until 2012, the show featured Deen at home preparing meals for her friends and family. The rags-to-riches story of a divorced, single-mother moving to Savannah, Georgia to pursue her culinary passions pulled at the heart strings of viewers. In the show, Deen focuses on preparing southern style cuisine: grits, fried chicken, and collard greens (to name a few). Her southern identity and charm define who she is in the vast Foot Network lineup.

The meals Deen typically prepares are known as “soul” food: a specific type of cuisine derived from African American culture in the South. Soul food is traditionally believed to have come from middle to lower class African Americans in the south; Deen embodies and appears as the complete opposite. If one tunes in to Paula’s Home Cooking, they find a white woman surrounded by luxurious décor, pricey appliances, and an exuberant amount of wealth. Her Southern cooking style relies entirely on the African American community of the South that she is not a part of. The fame she attained was based on her appropriation and capitalization of black people and black cultural practices.

Paula Deen undoubtedly owes her fame to the black community, but she is notably discriminatory and racist against black people. She has infamously posted photos of her son in brownface and used derogatory language aimed at African Americans. For a white woman to appropriate and capitalize off of the culture of black people in the South, one would assume she’d pay them some form of respect, but she does not.

Most people attribute Deen’s popularity to her comforting and nurturing nature on the cooking television program. When one begins to unpack her presence, and capitalizing off of black cultural cuisine, the thinly layered veil in her appearance of innocence is peeled back. What we find is that Paula Deen utilizes stereotypes of the “mammy” figure that is commonly used to designate a nurturing, matronly, and non-sexual black woman that cares for a household and/or family. It appears that she has become so knowledgeable on black women and black culture in the South that she has created a white version of the mammy figure, and capitalized off of it.

Black women have combated the stereotype and troupe of the mammy in every aspect of their representation, whether in film, television, or real life. When Deen capitalizes off of the problematic signifier of a specific black womanhood, she utilizes the struggles of black women to gain monetary profits and fame. Ultimately, she erases the long-standing activism of black women to resist such stereotypes and creates a white-centric view of the South through commodifying soul food for a white audience.

After Paula Deen was publicly exposed for her racism, the Food Network canceled her programs. Deen has lost her capital, but her appropriation of African American culture in the South remains problematic as reruns of Paula’s Home Cooking continue to be broadcasted. This holiday season, I urge you to turn off Deen’s show, and instead take note of the talented black women in the culinary world as you prepare your holiday dinners such as Barbara Smith and Pat and Gina Neely.

A Conversation Regarding Women’s Unpaid Household Labor: A Critique of the New York Times

By Katie Swartwood

Katie is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on the stress gap between working men and women. Even if men and women share equal responsibility on the job, women continue to be more stressed due to the amount of unpaid labor they are forced to bare. The New York Times concluded that housework and emotional labor are the main contributors to women’s stress. In the end, they offer three tips for “How Women Can Push Back.” These include self-care, knowing your triggers, and seeking validation. While all of these suggestions can be important for women’s mental and physical health, they’re not exactly what I would describe as pushing back.

Although, they do note that women’s household work can be more laborious than outside work, and that women can do up to three times the amount of unpaid labor as men, they compress women’s resources for pushing back against this sexism in one small section. Under the subheading “Seeking Validation,” the article advises women working outside the house to have a discussion with their partners in order to develop equal household work. However, this one sentence telling women to have a conversation with her partner ignores the sexist double standard for women that has been deeply imbedded within the fiber of American History, one that still clearly exists today.

For millenniums, women’s unpaid labor has allowed not only the family to prosper, but society as a whole. Historically, women have cooked the daily meals, routinely scrubbed the house clean, and educated children on morality, religion, speaking, writing, maths, etc. In some cases, women have even ruled in place of their male children if they were too young to take the throne. Women’s underappreciated and undervalued labor has allowed for their husbands and sons to cultivate successful lives, businesses, governments, and more. Failure to acknowledge the historical significance of women’s unpaid labor diminishes how vital it has been and continues to be.

So by the New York Times reducing the importance of this shared household labor to “seeking validation,” they are ignoring just how much work women have managed over the years. Additionally, they are establishing the idea that creating a fair and equal household falls under a woman’s need to be reassured even as they handle massive amounts of unrewarded labor. In this way, the New York Times fails to see the role that society and men play in diminishing the value of women’s domestic labor. Even more worrisome is the fact that women often do not realize the weight of their extra labor that others rely on because they view it as their responsibility. As a wife, as a mother, they often see it as their duty to wake up before the entire household to pack their families lunches and to get the kids ready for school. They stay up late to clean up the dinner they made, to clean up the house, and prepare the kids for work. And when they do all this work, there isn’t always appreciation because it’s expected that women will take a more active role in these duties.

So what about men? We praise them when they step in to make dinner that night, or decide to take the family out to dinner. We congratulate women whose husbands offer to “babysit” the kids for a night. A man “helping out” with his kids doesn’t deserve accolade when women have been the unsung heroes for far too long. This is not to say that some husband’s don’t pull their weight around the house or that women are wrong for finding value in being primary domestic worker in her household. Feminism is about having the opportunity to choose. What I am saying is that women should understand that just because they are wives and mothers does not mean that they need to place too much responsibility upon themselves because society and religion have historically placed it there. Men are no longer the only outside workers in their household, thus women should not be the only partner laboring within it. And if a man does help, he should not receive any more praise than a woman gives herself or others give her.

Should women be having open and conscious conversations with their partners about sharing household duties? Yes! But it’s also important that men be more open to beginning these conversations as well. The New York Times places the responsibility of these conversations on women, once again adding to her stress. Instead of advising women to notice stress markers and contemplating ways to solve them, men should be able to recognize the unfair standard in the household and offer solution for their partners, so that they can share the burden. It is not always women’s job to solve problems, instead men should stand up against outdated gender expectations and their own ignorance so that they can begin to support the women in their lives in a fair and equal manner.


See the New York Times article here:

Calling for Self-defense in Punk Rock: “Go Home” and the Home Alive Collective

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Content warning: The following post contains mentions of rape, violence towards women, self-defense, and the work of women in punk rock in creating organizations that seek to keep women safe from violence.

The night of July 7, 1993, Mia Zapata of the Gits was walking home from the Seattle, Washington bar the Comet Tavern, where she had frequently held performances and lived a short distance from, when she was brutally raped and murdered. Her death largely impacted the growing Riot Grrrl movement and feminist punk culture in Seattle and its surrounding areas. Feeling compelled by the death of Zapata, Valerie Agnew of Seven-Year Bitch, amongst other artists, formed the Home Alive collective. The organization is dedicated to keeping women safe by providing affordable workshops on self-defense, anger management, and weaponry training. Punk feminist icons Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) wrote “Go Home” as their own response, and similarly to Agnew, used their platform to advocate women to take the necessary actions for their protection against threats of violence.

Women of punk demanded that their worth as humans and as women should be recognized, working tirelessly to ensure that they would not lose someone else to the violence women potentially faced, and continue to face on a day-to-day basis. The considerable effort put forth by Agnew in assisting in the formation of the Home Alive collective in 1993 reflects the necessity to encourage the creation of safe spaces for women, and to destigmatize fighting back against an assailant. They formed the collective in the hopes of not only providing supportive and crucial self-defense training to their community, but also to women with lower incomes, and those that were homeless. In 2018, the collective continues to provide the resources previously mentioned for everyone and anyone that needs them. Their website features visual aids that show women the ways that they can defend themselves against a variety of violent acts such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and gender-based violence. With the assistance of mainstream punk women icons such as Hanna and Jett, Home Alive grew exponentially and opened up a larger conversation socially and culturally on the lack of protection women have against harm that continues to this day.

The music video Jett and Hanna created for their song “Go Home” is a call to arms for women who do not feel safe. A punk rock anthem for self-defense, the video features Jett defending herself against a potential assailant. As the protagonist grows increasingly aware that the man on the public transportation system has the intent to harm her, she fights back as he attempts to assault her; the video ends as the woman walks home, safe from harm. The video expresses to the viewer that any woman can be a victim of these heinous crimes, and addresses the importance of knowing how to defend oneself in order to get home safely.

These are only a few of the ways that women in the punk rock industry have worked towards creating a safer environment for themselves, their fans, and women as a whole. As I reflect on my time spent amongst people of the same mentality in the music scene, I noticed that their tireless work oftentimes is overlooked. By recognizing the efforts that women continue to put forth in bettering the spaces they navigate for themselves and their community, it leads to larger conversations on violence that women face, and the work that they must do, and that they have to do to keep themselves and other women safe.

This post is dedicated to Mia Zapata, as well as the countless individuals who have lost their lives to violence and the survivors of violence. Please find below a short list of numbers that may assist you or someone you know, as well as the link for the Home Alive Collective’s website.

The Rape Crisis Hotline: 210-349-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673

U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 

The Home Alive Collective Website: