While this may seem surprising, it is actually fairly typical, even in 2020. Many have interpreted Klobuchar’s “Hot Dish House Parties” and other female candidates’ cooking — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s heart-shaped cakes in remembrance of her mother and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s rolled chocolate cookies — as attempts at relatability. But the centuries-long history of women using cooking in politics shows us that something more is going on. When female activists and candidates pick up the mixing spoon, they are fighting America’s knee-jerk reaction to women who step up and run for office.
As female suffragists pushed for the vote more than a century ago, their opponents spread stereotypes that suffragists would abandon their homes, wailing children and hungry husbands. To counter this idea, suffragists tied on their aprons, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
In 1915 in Rochester, N.Y., activist Jane Thomson cooked chocolate cake and biscuits in a storefront window and passed out samples to hundreds of onlookers. One man reportedly ate a whole cake and 20 biscuits. As he tucked another cake under his arm to take home, he endorsed suffragists by telling a reporter: “They all can sure cook.” After Thomson clapped the flour from her hands, she delivered a speech that suffragists described as “proof that cookery and civics do not interfere with each other.”
Thomson was not the only woman who used her culinary skills in suffrage campaigns. Between 1886 and 1920, at least eight groups of white suffragists across the country published cookbooks to prove that women could vote and still care for their families.
Advocates for higher education for black women used similar tactics. At the turn of the 20th century, Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, fought the stereotype that college-educated women neglected their appearance, their homes and their stoves. Terrell resolved to become “a very good cook and put to shame women who had not graduated from college, just to prove that the foul aspersions cast upon their sisters who had were not justified by the facts.”
Decades later, female activists were still wielding rolling pins. In 1978, as the Oklahoma State Legislature debated whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, anti-ERA advocates set up tables at the state capitol laden with baked goods. For the conservative Eagle Forum, these treats represented the domesticity and femininity that women would lose if the law considered them fully equal with men.
As a counterstrike, pro-ERA feminists sent lawmakers pies with the note “Baked by Liberated Women.” ERA advocate Wanda Jo Peltier went further and challenged anti-ERA activists to a bake-off. No one stepped up. Instead, Peltier donned an apron emblazoned with the ERA logo and invited a man who supported the ERA to bake alongside her. Her apple pie was proclaimed the winner. “We thought we were challenging them on their own turf — the kitchen — but apparently they couldn’t handle the heat,” Peltier joked. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if ‘women’s libbers’ and men were more at home in the kitchen than the [anti-ERA] Eagle Forum, who seem to consider themselves such ‘total women?’”
Even the National Organization for Women engaged in these culinary politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, local and state NOW chapters created cookbooks. In 1998, the national office joined in with its own cookbook, “Don’t Assume I Don’t Cook.”
These cooks hoped to neutralize anti-feminists’ favorite arguments. When women pushed the envelope, they were portrayed as opportunistic, selfish man-haters — or too like men themselves — who despised children, cooking, cleaning and other obligations of the domestic sphere. Opponents of suffrage and other women’s rights cast them as betraying femininity, threatening the family and thus undermining the very foundation of American life.
Cakes, pies and, yes, hot dishes negate these arguments. By entering the political arena wielding baked goods to soothe public concerns for the family, female candidates entice us to focus instead on their political goals.
Peltier, the ERA baking champion, handed out index cards with a recipe for “Wanda Jo’s Hot Hominy” as she knocked on doors during her campaign for Oklahoma state representative in 1986. By sharing a recipe, Peltier signaled to potential constituents that she could manage the home front and engage in politics all the same. She won.
The most infamous use of cooking to calm the public’s fear of political women disrupting American life is Family Circle’s First Lady Cookie Contest. The contest, which still runs today (under the nongendered name of the Presidential Cookie Poll), started after a 1992 gaffe by Hillary Clinton. Frustrated by receiving pointed questions about her career (then a novelty for a first lady), Clinton said to a throng of reporters: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” Family Circle saw an opportunity, and Clinton sent in a chocolate chip cookie recipe in hopes of mitigating her public relations disaster and proving she wouldn’t wage war on the home. Her bake-off win may have smoothed the way to Bill Clinton’s election later that year.
Today, social media has amplified women’s political cooking demonstrations to a new level. Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s husband tweeted a photo of her mixing jerk chicken marinade in preparation for a Mothers’ Day meal. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gone live on Instagram as she cooked meals in her Instant Pot, bopped to Janelle Monáe and talked politics. Warren stands in her kitchen during many of her promotional videos. With social media, these women easily invite us into their homes to prove their culinary prowess and demonstrate that their political goals will not threaten more traditional ways of American life.
Men also include food in their campaigns, but they usually pose as eaters rather than cooks. Jill and Joe Biden submitted recipes to Food Network Magazine about 10 years ago, but as the former vice president has built up his 2020 presidential run, he has gone conspicuously quiet on the culinary front, preferring to rhapsodize about ice cream. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign endorsed a signature cocktail, the Bernie Paloma — but bartending is considered manlier than cooking. Unlike the women running for president, these men have no need to prove that they will preserve the American home and family.
But women frighten some Americans simply by entering the political arena, and so far, it seems they must tie on their aprons to prove us wrong and allay those fears. Klobuchar’s hot dish tells us less about her Midwestern roots than it does about the voting public — and the fact that we still haven’t grown out of our irrational fear of women who vie for power.