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October 16, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

Why takeout is a feminist issue

First of all, I apologize for the headline. The internet has a few rules one has to play by in order to get people to click, one of which is naming an article or a blog post “Why [this thing] is [actually something else that’s counterintuitive].”  The other one, you may have noticed, is to title your story “[So and so’s] [something] problem.”  The former convention is not nearly as trendy or irritating to me as the latter.

Moving on to why takeout is, in my experience, quite the gendered issue, I’ll begin with a few data points, and follow up with how my own experience illustrates as much.

  • Women, on average, still earn less than men.  How much less?  Around 23% less, unless you’re a black woman, in which case you earn 38% less than the average white male, or a Hispanic woman, in which case you are taking home 54 cents for every dollar your white male colleague earns for doing substantially the same work, according to data from the Census Bureau and compiled by the National Women’s Law Center.
  • Men, on average, work longer hours than women.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that among full-time workers, men worked a longer day than women: 8.2 hours versus 7.8 hours.
  • The same BLS report noted  that “on an average day, 20% of men did housework- such as cleaning or doing laundry – compared with 49% of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68% of women.

Here’s the pattern I’m picking up: men work more, make more money, cook less.  Women work less, make less, cook more.  The more valuable someone’s time is, the bigger an opportunity cost it is for that person to spend it on non-revenue generating activities.  In other words, why cook when you make more than enough to pay someone to do it for you?   Getting takeout (or ordering delivery) is not the same as going to a restaurant, which is generally an event to be savored, an investment of time and resources in a meal with someone of some professional or personal significance.  No, takeout is what you get when you need to eat but you don’t have time to cook.

It was only recently that I started regularly ordering takeout.  Until a few months ago, I was a full-time freelance writer, a precarious, anxiety-inducing financial situation if there ever was one.  (I should add that I also tutored students in writing to make the financial situation slightly less precarious.] I had very little free time on my hands, but I had even less disposable income.  So I cooked most of my own food.  I don’t have a dishwasher, so I washed a lot of dishes.  And pots.  And pans.  In the end, I ate well (for which I owe a big shout out to my mom, a New York Times food writer and cookbook author and above all spectacular single mom, for teaching me how to cook and eat well).  But I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen — time I was not spending taking my career further along.

I’ve spoken to an older family friend about this, and she believes strongly that women and men should be obliged to take home economics courses.  More women, she thinks, should know basic finance and accounting principles, and men should know how to cook.  My closest male friend can barely brew himself a cup of tea — but he can make a fair amount of money (first as a day trader, and now working for an alternative energy company), call a deli, and have a cup of tea delivered to him.  It might cost $4 instead of 14 cents, but he gets his tea.  Spending $3.86 on someone else’s labor was worth it to him.

I wonder if these messages start early: boys, be sure and make lots ‘o’ money so you can always outsource the drudgery to someone else.  Women, make sure you know how to cook since you’ll always be paid 23% less than men.  That food – its growing, its preparation, and its consumption – is gendered is not a new insight; Harvard had a fantastic conference on the topic in 2007 that you can watch here. But I wonder how these ideas and expectations have changed and are changing.

My high school history teacher once told me that the tradition of Chinese takeout (and Chinese laundromats) took off during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, when a lot of men converged in California and needed someone – in this case, immigrants – to make them food and wash their clothes.  I don’t know how true this is, but it’s not far from the modern-day tradition of the wealthy paying others to do jobs they just don’t feel like doing: cleaning the house, walking the dog, keeping track of appointments. Parents outsource childrearing, in varying degrees, to baby nurses, nannies and tutors.

Now that my income is a little bit more steady, and I don’t always feel like I’m living on the precipice, getting takeout once a week – say, before or after a class that runs from 6 to 9 pm – is a relief, a welcome change from the obligation of cooking for myself, but most of all a privilege.  With the poverty rate among American women at a 17-year-high of 14.5%, finally having enough money to tip the scale in the direction of takeout is a luxury I don’t take lightly.

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3 Comments

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  1. Katha Pollitt / Oct 16 2011 8:45 am

    Hi Anna, I’m enjoying your blog. All the labor-saving domestic outsourcing services came first to men. Ready made clothes (women were supposed to sew their own), laundry and ironing and dry cleaning (men sent out their shirts), and of course housecleaning. Middleclass bachelors had landladies and housekeepers, like Sherlock Holmes.
    Thing about takeout is it’s not so healthy as a regular thing. And if your friend orders a cup of tea from the corner deli it probably won’t be very hot by the time it reaches him.

    • Anna Louie Sussman / Oct 16 2011 9:01 am

      Katha, thanks so much for reading. Absolutely on the “came first to men.” I was thinking of that when I mentioned the Gold Rush scenario but of course it goes further back. Would you like to suggest a book or two on this topic for myself and any readers of this blog, where we might find some historical insight/analysis/background about this dynamic, which of course has only accelerated as inequality grows?

      Re takeout: I alternate between delicious greasy Indian food and healthy Japanese takeout so my hope is they cancel each other out. And re the tea: I wonder if he’s ever tasted a not-ordered-from-the-deli cup of tea. Maybe he can’t tell that it’s not sufficiently hot and delicious.

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