The 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):
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:
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.