U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The strange gender politics of “natural” living

eden_foodsThe following is a guest post by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.

In the last few weeks, Eden Foods, the oldest organic and natural foods producer in the United States has come under fire from its base, a soy-milk swilling and quinoa-cooking clientele who was ostensibly drawn to Eden by the purity of its products and of its liberal politics. Founded as a co-op in the late 1960s in the university town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Eden passionately defends local farming, posts prodigious research on the perils of GMOs, and devotes substantial resources to minimizing the environmental impact of spreading its organic basil and whole-grain pasta to co-ops and Whole Foods from Brooklyn to the Bay Area.

The issue is Eden CEO Michael Potter’s assault on two of the left’s sacred cows: reproductive rights and an activist federal government. Potter has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that Eden cover the cost of contraception for its employees. Potter’s problem, he explained to Salon, which broke the story, is that these are “purely women’s issues” in which neither he nor the federal government has any business intervening.

The lawsuit (and basically every ensuing comment Potter has made) has been a public-relations disaster for Eden. The company’s Facebook “fan” page reads like a high school slam book, as former patrons from Austin to Vancouver publicize boycotts and decry this “massive betrayal” to women; the Twitter hashtag #edenfoods calls up even more outrage from the left (check out their Twitter handles if you think I presume too much about their politics):

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The press has jumped at the opportunity to expose Potter’s “quiet right-wing agenda” and to enlighten the public “in case you thought ‘organic’ means ‘progressive’…” as New York Times food critic Mark Bittman tweeted. In general, the reaction has alternated between outrage and incredulity at Potter’s supreme idiocy in being so tone-deaf to the politics of his clientele, not to mention failing to articulate any religious basis for his beliefs, making the legal foundation of the whole lawsuit questionable.

One Twitter user wrote:

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As unwise a business decision Potter’s move appears to be, there’s an ideological coherence to his worldview best understood by examining historically the very terrain on which this current battle is being fought: the realms of gender and motherhood. Little of the backlash has focused on a highly dispositive quote in the Eden court filing, regarding contraception:

“…these procedures almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices.” [emphasis added]

Let us take a step back to consider some context. The contemporary natural and organic foods movement that makes a career like Potter’s possible emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, building upon the core beliefs of other New Left social justice movements, of which it was unquestionably a part. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 raised health concerns about chemical food additives and helped birth modern environmentalism; antiwar and human rights activists excoriated American capitalism, exposing industrial food companies for producing poor-quality food and exploiting labor. Especially in the wake of the 1950s, the age that gave us frozen TV dinners, SPAM, and McDonald’s, eating “real food” became not just an “agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said, but a political act, an embrace of an authenticity that explicitly rejected these edible symbols of a distinctly suburban bourgeois ethos.

This embrace of the “natural” as connected to social justice has a more complicated relationship to that other major New Left movement, feminism. A core philosophy of many feminists in the late 1960s and 70s was a categorical rejection of nature, in contrast to earlier maternalists who had fought for equality based on the assumption that women are inherently different from men – more moral, other-directed, and compassionate – but that these “natural” distinctions need not be devalued. This rejection of essentialism in the 1960s and 70s was actually one tenet of second-wave feminism that served to unite diverse women in a movement otherwise deeply fractured by race and class. For obvious reasons, a poor black woman stereotyped as hypersexual and a white suburban housewife assumed to be inclined to traditional domesticity might share little else than a profound skepticism of such essentialist assumptions. These liberal feminists downplayed biological gender differences and the attendant defense of women’s “natural” roles, arguing that such perspectives were a root cause of gender inequality, which was socially constructed.

Dissatisfaction with the limits of liberal feminism inspired radical feminists, who sought to reclaim womanhood as source of power rather than degradation. Motherhood, perhaps the most obviously distinguishing biological experience between women and men, took center stage among these activists. Rejecting social conventions that hid or masked the experiences of womanhood as unladylike, these feminists rejected practices such as “twilight sleep,” which sedated women (who could afford it) during childbirth as well as formula feeding, which had been widely recommended by the largely male medical establishment to women (who could afford it). These radical feminists were responsible for the creation of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971), the foundational sex education text that brought women’s health and sexual identity to the center of the conversation and for publications like Mothering (1976), which celebrated practices such as breastfeeding and co-sleeping that had been assumed to be undesirable to anyone with the means to do otherwise. This rhetoric of this brand of feminism was absolutely of a piece with the celebration of natural living foundational to the countercultural food movement. It is easy to understand how the historical moment that inspired celebratory New Age menstruation rituals, modern midwifery, and unshaven legs and armpits also gave rise to the proliferation of food cooperatives and mainstream vegetarianism (as unappetizing a juxtaposition as that may be).

The political legacies of these forms of liberal and radical feminism might seem more or less correspond to their labels; if liberal feminism has given us corporate powerhouses Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, radical feminism has bequeathed us less mainstream models such as Ina May Gaskin and Peggy O’Mara, champions of “attachment parenting,” with its commitment to exclusive breastfeeding and baby carriers over strollers (more mother-child bonding). And yes, the latter most likely would see (or would have seen until recently) patronizing Eden Foods as consistent with their politics of “natural living.”

However, feminist social critics have pointed out how this “radical” commitment to “nature” can serve to uphold deeply conservative ideas about women and to circumscribe the equal opportunities ostensibly all feminists seek to secure for all women. The expansion of reproductive rights – the very topic incensing opponents to the Eden lawsuit – already half a century ago revealed tensions between a celebration of natural womanhood and the pursuit of self-determination for women. La Leche League, the preeminent breastfeeding-advocacy organization in the United States, was established in 1956 and grew rapidly through the 1960s, providing support for women who sought “to mother through breastfeeding” but who felt alienated by the overwhelmingly male medical profession. In 1971, the majority of the board urged LLL to speak out publicly against abortion – perhaps the major feminist initiative of the moment – as inconsistent with its commitment to natural motherhood. Ultimately, LLL leadership remained silent on abortion due to a resistance to “mix causes,” but these questions continued to fuel dissension in the movement. While many feminists were striving to make inroads for women in the workplace, LLL remained committed to the inseparability of mother and child in infancy and refused to accredit any LLL leaders who scheduled any separation from their child, an implicit affront to women who worked outside the home.

These issues persist. French feminist Elisabeth Badinter perhaps inaugurated the contemporary conversation with her 2010 salvo that modern progressive parenting was undermining the status of women precisely because of its embrace of “natural” approaches. Breastfeeding, cloth diapers, homemade baby food, no-thanks-on-that-epidural: the majority of these choices requires an extraordinary amount of labor only a woman can perform for her own children, thus limiting her from doing much else during these years, which tend to coincide with the most intense period of her career. In the United States, these fights (sometimes diminished as “mommy wars”) have grown especially heated over breastfeeding, as policies such as New York City’s “Latch On Initiative” and Michelle Obama’s celebration of breastfeeding proclaim “breast is best,” and social critics such as Hanna Rosin and Suzanne Barston defend the choice to stand as “fearless formula feeders” in the face of great cultural pressure to feed one’s child naturally.

Thus, it is plain to see that “natural living” has gained new currency with the mainstream demand for “sustainable products,” (Eden’s corporate success a case-in-point), and largely among the political left. Motherhood and women’s health, however, vividly reveal the tension between the progressive thrust of advocacy for a “natural” life and its potentially conservative implications. In this light, Potter’s life’s work in the natural foods trenches and his rejection of reproductive rights as “unnatural” actually cohere philosophically in a way many of his detractors overlook. Michael Pollan, the patron saint of the natural-foods movement and outspoken liberal, has surmised in The American Conservative that social conservatives should more readily embrace the food justice movement, for its celebration of small farming and creating community around the dinner table resonate with bedrock conservative values.

The intensity of the Eden backlash suggests Pollan is correct that Dreher’s “crunchy cons” are yet to become a true grassroots phenomenon, but it also sounds a cautionary note against making facile assumptions about someone’s politics based on the contents of their pantry. Especially if you haven’t peeked in their medicine cabinet.

23 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Natalia: Great post! Some thoughts and questions:

    (1) Who is Dreher?

    (2) This post explains my stepmother to a tee: social conservative, lover of “natural motherhood,” mixed politics, etc. This captures a large swath of Midwestern women, I think. Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve “seen” my stepmother at this blog. That is great.

    (3) I hope Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn weighs in here. This topic seems right up her alley.

    (4) Question: Where did Phyllis Schlafly come down on natural motherhood? She might be a figure that helps explain and tie together a few more political threads.

    Thanks again for a provocative post. – TL

    • TIm,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Answers:
      1) Oops. I had a reference to Dreher in the preceding paragraph, since the Pollan comment in The American Conservative is from an interview with Rod Dreher. He wrote a book called Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or At Least the Republican Party). He is a conservative commentator and a voice for “granola conservatism,” which makes philosophical sense in the ways I point out (and others), but not so much in other ways, which is probably why it isn’t much of a “thing,” or at least not yet.
      2) so interesting. One of my favorite parts of doing recent history is understanding people I know through a wider lens.
      3) I would love to hear from ELQ as well. Big fan of her work.
      4) I am not sure about Schlafly. As you saw on one of the Facebook threads on this, I asked a Schlafly expert, Stacie Taranto… I have a feeling she would not have been a breastfeeding/natural mothering advocate as we imagine them today, because so much of the critique at that point was about challenging the male medical establishment. Anyway, let’s investigate…

  2. Very interesting post, Natalia! There’s also a long-standing connection between religious conservatives and the natural-foods movement. I remember Jon Krakauer saying something about Mormons (and “Mormon fundamentalists”) and natural foods in Under the Banner of Heaven. And one of the oldest and largest natural foods stores here in Norman is run by conservative Evangelical Protestants. Both of these groups are substantially larger, I think, than the mythical “crunchy cons.”

    • Ben – I think my reply posted as a separate comment? see below!

  3. Hi Ben,
    Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree with you that the “crunchy con” thing has yet to gain real legs, if it ever will. There’s obviously an anti-capitalist strand that would need to be worked out (though I guess the Goldwaterites managed to decouple Wall Street from individual entrepreneurialism quite well). I need to revisit the Krakauer book; I read it with such a different set of interests in mind that I don’t remember that part at all. I think the Mormon connection and your local-foods store makes sense- much of the championing of the “natural” today has a kind of hippie cast to it, but really that kind of golden-age nostalgia has a lot more resonance with a conservative worldview than a liberal one (to use broad generalities). Someone tweeted at me today an interesting piece on the Paleo diet trend, which also seems very “crunchy,” but which is conservative in its antimodernism. http://americanscience.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-curious-history-of-paleo-diet-and.html
    Full disclosure: I just ate lunch at a (delicious) Paleo restaurant underneath my office! Anyway, thanks for the generative comments.

    • Yah, liberal customers of Los Angeles’ Mormon-owned


      didn’t know whether to spit or go blind when ownership supported Prop 8 some years back. And as you see from some of the Yelp reviews above, some donkeys never forget.
      not to mention failing to articulate any religious basis for his beliefs

      The Salon job liked by Natalia does indicate a religious dimension to Eden Foods’ brief. And FTR, Irin Carmon’s factoid about “Catholic doctrine about sex being solely for procreation.” is, as we all know, highly inaccurate.

  4. Great post, Natalia. Love this line:

    Breastfeeding, cloth diapers, homemade baby food, no-thanks-on-that-epidural: the majority of these choices requires an extraordinary amount of labor only a woman can perform for her own children, thus limiting her from doing much else during these years, which tend to coincide with the most intense period of her career.

    As with utopian fantasies of urban gardening as the answer to malnutrition in America, this romanticization of the good old days before modern medicine, industrial agriculture and disposable diapers is not possible without an underestimation (and undervaluation) of female labor.

    Interestingly, among the “Christian crunchies,” one answer to the inescapable connection between “natural” living and manual labor is the glorification of female labor through the ideology of the “Proverbs 31 woman.” Unlike Victorian ideals of feminine fragility and near-ethereal physicality, the Proverbs 31 woman is all about physical endurance, craftsmanship, savvy, strength, sturdy good cheer — and round-the-clock labor. She gets up early, she goes to bed late, she works with her hands and earns enough money to buy a field, her husband praises her at the gates, yada yada yada — a true trophy wife, not as ornament but as grand champion workhorse.

    Earlier this semester my 20th century U.S. class read an excerpt from Hope in a Jar, about the growth of home-based cosmetics sales enterprises among African-American women. That led to an interesting discussion of various recent home-based businesses, and how and why women from different ethnic/cultural backgrounds participate in those. From my familiarity with the strange and marvelous habits of white middle-class evangelical women, I made the observation that most of the home-based business chains I have seen people take part in — from cosmetics distributors like Mary Kay and Beauticontrol, to “kitchen” companies like Tupperware and Pampered Chef, to “home-decor” companies like (now bankrupt) Home Interiors or Creative Memories — are really selling the idea of being a particular kind of woman.

    Is the “natural” movement any different, I wonder?

    • Hi L.D.,
      Thanks for the kind words, and the reply. I did not know about the “Proverbs 31 Woman” as a type, but she strikes me particularly because she sounds a lot like the stereotypes of mannish/workhorse/unfeminine Communist women who were foils to white American women during the Cold War… I haven’t looked at the text of the Nixon/Khruschev Kitchen Debates closely for a long time, but there I recall this idea of the American woman supported by her suburban home-full-o’-labor-saving-devices as being especially pronounced.

      YES, I agree that the home-based women’s businesses have historically done exactly what you say. I do think there is an interesting essay to write on how the online world is affecting (challenging or bolstering?) that trend. Around the time of The Feminine Mystique anniversary, I was thinking about how the mommy blogosphere is *kind of* like a big, modern-day consciousness-raising group, but at the same time, its performativity accomplishes just what the CR groups meant to unmake. Though there are some oppositional types blogging in this space who deliberate defy some of these norms… Anyway, yes, I agree with you, thank you, and I want to know more about these Proverbs 31 women!

  5. Natalia,

    Within more conservative evangelical (sub)cultures, “the Proverbs 31 woman” is an immediately recognized and recognizable synonym for “the ideal wife,” as the passage itself makes clear:

    Prov. 31:10-31 (NIV)

    This is how the book of Proverbs ends, and for many (most?) evangelical women, this is the last word on what a woman should be and what should make her happy. In a patriarchal pastoral/agrarian economy, this might be the good life. Why people want to re-experience the 7th century B.C.E. in the 21st century C.E. is beyond me. It’s yet another nostalgic bourgie dream; I can’t tell you how common it is for people to point out that the Proverbs 31 woman does all this out of the goodness of her heart. “She’s not a drudge. See? She has servants.”

    But, yes, this is a huge trope in evangelical culture. Surely some of our readers/friends over at Religion in American History have done a history of the idea of the Prov. 31 woman in American culture. If not, there’s a dissertation for somebody right there.

    Which reminds me — I guess I should do a better job of capitalizing on my knowledge of American conservative evangelical subculture(s). But as the Good Book says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will come back to you.”

    So if you can make use of the Prov. 31 ideal in your writing, have at it. Just remember me when you come into your kingdom footnotes.

    • Looks like there’s a Book I need to re-read… and possibly some writing I need to do too. With you, obviously, in the footnotes.

  6. I think there’s an even more specific connection not just to evangelicals but to Pentecostals in particular. I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on here, but I think it has something to do with the close connections between body and spirit (in addition to some of the explanations above). Joseph Williams tells some of this history–including Oral Roberts’s interest in aerobics–in his new book Spirit Cure. I haven’t read Dreher’s book yet, but perhaps there’s more to find there.

    • Hi Charlie,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. The connection between wellness and spirituality AND religion is really interesting to me and a path I will certainly explore in my new project. I am looking forward to learning about Roberts’ aerobics interests, which I know nothing about (thank you); most recently the Christian Right has been in the news for opposing yoga, which I briefly wrote about a little bit (see link below!). It is clear that the politics of wellness confound our assumptions about left and right! Thanks again for your thoughts. http://iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org/2012/12/09/school-wellness-programs-the-latest-frontier-in-the-culture-wars/

  7. This is a wonderful post, it cuts through how naturism can function not only as a form of cultural capital, but also as a profoundly conservative discourse, specially in regards to women’s rights. Also, the rise in mainstream culture of the cult of “natural” motherhood goes hand in hand with what some see as the derailment of the women’s rights movement in the US, the progressive limits on abortion rights, the stagnation of women’s salaries, etc. (I am not of the kind who thinks that being represented in the government necessarily leads to more equality, as one can see in the African-American case).

    • Thanks, Kahlil, for commenting. I think you nail it with the use of the term “cult-” the issue with the natural motherhood movement as a feminist project as I see it (and I should say I am personally very much on board with many of the parenting practices advocated by this movement) is when it doesn’t allow room for women to pursue what I consider some of the core opportunities feminists have sought to secure… but this is an issue with any movement that demands a doctrinaire adherence!

  8. There is indeed a crunchy sort of food movement in certain and specific conservative groupings. Russell Kirk was a natural and organic kind of guy, although this side of his thinking hasn’t been fleshed out completely. The conservative groups that I associate this with tend to be a. homeschooling parents, b. bourgeois, and often (not exclusively) c. Catholic. I have witnessed a growing movement like this in many Protestant evangelical homeschooling circles also. You can find a few Protestants who really like what they find in Anabaptist theology.

    I believe you addressed this in a way; the terms “organic” “natural” etc., for better or worse, are political terms now. Even on the right, using these terms can mark ones level of sophistication towards a proper “conservatism.”

    Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. I think you point out a really important dimension, which is that both denominational affiliation, and I think most interestingly, class, play an important part in this celebration of natural living. There does seem to be a sensibility across political cultures that “natural living” reflects a certain cultural sophistication, as you point out, although the similarities of these cultures may end there.

  9. This is interesting; natural/simple living has always appealed to something that cannot be neatly categorized as conservative or liberal. But, frankly it strikes a bit of a sour note with me personally. As a gauge of where I’m at, my wife and I don’t buy Eden, or packaged soy milk of any brand – we make our own almond milk. You could say we’ve drunk the kool-aid, but of course, we’d never touch that stuff.

    Breastfeeding, cloth diapers, homemade baby food, no-thanks-on-that-epidural: the majority of these choices requires an extraordinary amount of labor only a woman can perform for her own children, thus limiting her from doing much else during these years, which tend to coincide with the most intense period of her career.

    Granted I was no help when it came to breastfeeding (though along with many other husbands I attended the La Leche meetings for new moms), but I’ve blended a lot of organic peas, changed a lot of diapers, and had my own baby carrier. In patriarchal families this approach could create a tremendous amount of work for a mother (though surely trying to juggle a full-time job and motherhood is no picnic), but many who take this approach start with the desire to share parenting duties. Even among the more patriarchal types I’ve known, one of the assumptions is that patriarchy means challenging rigidly gendered public/private space (they wouldn’t use that language, of course), and that fathers need to be involved in all stages of a child’s growth. When searching recently for an online bulk herb store, I found one operated by the (adult) daughter of one of the more extreme patriarchal homeschooling authors (she also sold her father’s books – I purchased elsewhere).

    I’m also not sure how saying no to the epidural inhibits later career development. I’ll ask my wife if it’s been an issue for her.

    • Russ, In case you didn’t see my reply- it is below. Thank you, Natalia

  10. Thank you, Russ, for reading and commenting. It sounds like you and your family stand as an excellent example of how “natural” living need not have the conservative implications I describe above. I think your example is important because it points up how much an entire reframing of patriarchy is necessary if the commitment to “natural motherhood” is not to be disproportionately limiting to women. I think the radical feminists who conceived of these approaches had in mind exactly the kind of challenge to patriarchy writ large that you describe. My commentary is not to doubt these intentions of the philosophy, or the fact that it can indeed be enacted in profoundly radical ways like the one you describe, but rather to comment on how if it is NOT part of such a larger deliberate challenge to patriarchy (as I think is increasingly the case with the popularization of “natural living”), then the implications can be quite conservative. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. Thanks again for your insights.

  11. Thanks for such an interesting read! I hadn’t yet heard about the Eden Organic “scandal,” but followed with interest the challenges to the conflation of “organic” and “progressive” posed by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s conservatism. Though it sounds like Michael Potter has a bit more to parse out before tackling a press conference again, but I have to say I appreciate the coherency that *may* mark his philosophy. Eden’s marketing presence concerns itself greatly with small scale agriculture and anti-Monsanto/GMO activism, and to me its entirely consistent to also be concerned with Big Pharma and the ecological impact of birth control pills. I do think we’re looking at a significant, if sporadic and “independent,” rise in the number of women considering natural forms of birth control as they negotiate the incompatibilities between specific “feminist” choices and “environmental” or “natural” stances. But I think this is largely a quiet, private subset of women, and the same issues being raised by male CEOs makes for sensation and angry tweeting rather than nuanced debate. Thanks again!

  12. Just came across this. You know, OBOS has always supported abortion and contraceptive rights; it wasn’t an O’Mara sort of “measles are natural” outfit, nor was it about homestead life; Laurel’s Kitchen it wasn’t. Aggressively matter-of-fact about women’s bodies and sexuality, yes, but anti-medicine and anti-career, no. Quite the contrary. I think your notion of 1970s radical feminism might be a little off.

    There has always been a strong streak of consumerism in the anticonsumerist back-to-nature feminist movements, by the way; even Laurel coveted that giant bread bowl and wanted to shop in the bulk bins. Being off-grid in those worlds generally involves a whole lotta kit. The natural-foods business is no different; one is buying purity, not committing to a life of untrammelled procreativity, neither of one’s body nor one’s bacteria.

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