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IWD 2019: Celebrating women in the food industry


Today we raise a glass to all the strong, brave and wonderful women in this world. Here's to you!

Women are an integral element of each and every community. They bear and raise children, run businesses, and excel in their respective industries and activities. They are sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and granddaughters of women who fought - and continue to fight - for complete gender equality. Even in the face of adversity. 

The history of the food and agriculture industry revolves around what women have brought to the table (literally and metaphorically) - and continue to bring to it. 

In honour of IWD 2019’s theme of #BalanceforBetter, La Española is taking a look at how far women in food have come - and how far we still have to go. 

Ancient culinary beginnings

The historical roots of women in food gathering, production and preparation cannot be understated

Since ancient times, women have been synonymous with being the heart of the home, preparing food that nurtures and nourishes their family. While men were responsible for the hunter/gatherer duties, women were the ones that worked their magic in the kitchen. While the men of the household were responsible for hunting large animals, women often found themselves in charge of smaller, home-based food production, such as raising chickens.

For the thousands of years before the discovery of electricity, women were extremely resourceful in the running of their households and the preparation of food. To say these women were tough would be an understatement and a great disservice to them. The Mediterranean diet - still the healthiest diet choice today - made up a daily food intake. Women ground grain into flour to make bread. Meat and fish men brought home was prepared and cooked by women, often over a fire. Beans, olives, onions, cabbage and peas were the most common vegetables Europeans grew, which women harvested and turned into meals for those around them. Women picked fruit from wild trees, and the only sweetener available at the time was honey - a dangerous product to collect! The Romans pioneered cheese making, a process that took serious strength and patience - often completed by women whose arms were already exhausted from daily household chores including hand washing of clothing. 

Life was tough for everyone, but nevertheless... women persisted.

By the Middle Ages, little had improved on the food front

The upper class, who enjoyed the luxury of having servants gather and prepare their food for them, was made up of a tiny fraction of the global population. Most people belonged to the lower classes or peasant population, and the role of women and men of the household was very much the same as in ancient times. The closest a woman could get to working in the food industry was working for an upper class family was as a poorly paid and treated servant, maid or cook - and this continued well into the 19th century. 

The role of women in food grows

By the 20th century, gender equality had evolved very little from hundreds of years before. While the global suffragette movement was formed in 1903 and white women in Australia won the right to vote around the same time, to outsiders it would appear that little was changing in the traditional household structure. 

Men went to work and made money, and most women were tasked with the upkeep of the household. Women were trained in home economics, emphasis was put on keeping their husband and children clean, fed and happy and very little opportunity was available in kitchens outside of their own home. 

Women were mostly patrons of restaurants and eateries - not chefs or owners. Although you may be surprised to learn that women in America had been running food establishments since the early 1800’s - just on a very small scale - as it was considered “indecent” for women to be incorporated into the food industry as workers. The Boston Hospitality Review found that the 1910 U.S Census stated that there was one female “restaurant keeper” for every five male owners.

However, the onset of World War II actually had a positive effect on women’s opportunities in the food industry. With masses of men away fighting at the frontlines, women took over their vacant role in all industries - including food. And as expected, they excelled at it. 

However, flash forward three decades to 1971, and only 6.3% of food establishments in the U.S were owned by women

More work to be done

We’re now in 2019, and one thing is for sure. From ancient times to now, life has changed immensely for both women in general and in the production of food - thankfully!

However, many women from all echelons of society within the food industry attest to the fact that there continues to be major gender inequality in the sector, and are working to rectify this. 

Of course, women are now free to work in whichever area of the food industry they are drawn to. Agriculturally, women work in abattoirs, farming and harvesting. In food establishments, women are chefs, cooks, kitchen hands and waitresses. Online, women are food critics, influencers, stylists and photographers. However in the home, where women have many more rights than they once did, the stereotype is still very much that of the woman keeping the home and preparing the meals to nourish their family. On top of their million other daily tasks. 

Famous female chefs are household names both in Australia and abroad. Julia Child. Nigella Lawson. Donna Hay. Maggie Beer. However, male representation in the “celebrity chef” sphere more often than not casts a shadow over their female counterparts achievements. 

The history of women in the food industry is complex and detailed, and we have only touched on the broad strokes here today

The role of - and respect of - women in the food industry and beyond still has a long way to go, and we will continue to cheer for women who carve out a name for themselves in any pocket of our always-evolving industry. 

To all of our loyal lady readers, happy International Women’s Day. We raise a glass to you.