James Madison once said, “Who holds the purse, holds power.” Never did this rhetoric play better than in the narrative of a domesticated housewife’s household. When bread-earning was still a dominant male-preserve, women were fulfilling the complimentary role of the “housewife”, a binary contrast to the “bread-winner”, traversed deep to create two separate spaces hardships of the external world vs. the warmth of home.
Thereafter, times have changed and not only have women revolted against the imposed garb of domesticity but have also ventured and taken charge of the bread-winning scheme. Yet, despite the progress, despite all that revolution, the picture of a housewife still presents before us a symbol of passivity. While we have come to (apparently) value her struggles, however, within the domestic confines (the domestic arena is supposed to be warm, easy and mushy after all?), we have hardly acknowledged the prowess of the domestic goddess. Yes, I am not merely talking about the housewife who runs the household machinery, not simply about her who passively slogs through the chores, but also the bread-buyer, who gathers the resources for the household with the bread-winner earns.
The bread-buyer is a power-rhetoric in herself, an influential consumer who wields a significant power at the economic apparatus and therefore influences and churns the great market forces. This stems from one less-emphasized aspect that while men had to venture out to win the bread it was the women who were responsible for buying the “bread” to feed their families…thrift and prudence ruled their economic decisions as the finance administrators of the household, carefully apportioning the money to different items of need. Yet in consistence with the post-war phenomenon, as the retail stores (one of the many junctures in the capitalistic chain) would inflate the prices, they had to face the brunt of the housewives, the bread-buyers who just wielded a power of that enormity in the economic sphere had to bow down before her.
Starting from the 19th century, Europe and several nations had experienced strikes and picketing, aggressive demonstrations led by men and women too, bearing Communist, Socialist, Democratic-Socialist and an “n” number of affiliations against Capitalist forces. They were endowed with a galvanizing ideology, stirring slogans and passionate poetry, and a mass appeal that have been perpetuated in history books yet the more subtle, and definitely one that has mostly escaped a pronounced mention by history is the one which has stood out as unquestionably successful- it was the battle of the housewives against the whole apparatus of inflation.
Some of the illustrations are:
- 1915: As the World War had just started, the food prices peaked, thereby bringing about several hardships. The bread retailers had to give in and bring down the prices. Yet, as the Chicago “Masters Baker’s Association” increased the already-inflated prices, the radical group, “Clean Food House” started a passive yet so radical a campaign- the women decided to bake their own bread either from rye, or corn or even potatoes and refused to relent before the prices.
- 1920s: At Baltimore, the bakers had inflated bread prices by two to three times. Thereafter, the women did not plunge into a passive mode of boycott, instead faced matters heads on as they decided to carry their march forward to the White House with the demand to reduce the price of bread by a cent.
Said the Organization’s President, “We are trying to get the price of bread down so all children may have plenty of it and be so well nourished and healthy they will not need hospital cure.”
- 1943: It was not only increased prices that drove the protests; fighting for quality products was another dimension to the woman’ s movements; they stood up to their belief that they deserved quality treatment. This time, however, as a way of controlling the war economy, the Government banned slice bread and instead proliferated the market with low-quality bread, too heavy to be sliced.
The ban on bread continued for about two months after which sliced bread began to be supplied in the market, once again. However, the efforts of the women were hardly acknowledged by the media.
- 1966: It was Ms. Paul West, as the headlines flashed on newspapers. She complained to the local grocer that the price of a jar of olives had risen exponentially in a week. The grocer retorted, “Keep to your kitchen and let us decide the prices”. She was not confined to the kitchen and instead organized a movement under Housewives for Lower Food Prices whereby they boycotted five supermarket chains! Ms.West’s story is however not an ordinary boycott-and-control game. It was a wave of disaffection she aroused. Soon it spread across Denver, the whole nation and even to the neighboring Canada. “I am only a housewife disgusted with food prices”, says one of the successful campaigners in history.
Of course the history of social movements does not bear testimony to these acts of socio-economic defiance and are often marginalized. Yet they stand as a successful example of the reality of the housewife’s capacity of injecting a boom or drop in the market forces. Indeed, time and again they have wielded their powers. Shun the image of docility aside, the female capacity for vetoing economic currents was and is an all too consuming a reality.