The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

2022 Conference Abstract | Embodying Normativity: Betty Crocker at Work

Elizabeth Blake, Clark University

As both a fictional character and the wildly prolific “author” of cookbooks, pamphlets, and magazine articles, Betty Crocker plays an unusual role in the history of women’s print culture in the twentieth century. Since her inception in 1921, Betty has been constructed as a figure who mirrored customers back to themselves, changing with the times and consistently offering a clear picture of the norms of middle-class femininity in any given historical moment. Part of a larger project that considers Betty’s role in the ongoing construction of norms of gender, taste, and domesticity, this paper traces the complexity of her engagement with the concept of domestic labor, focusing especially on the early cookbooks and the 1944 establishment of the “Betty Crocker American Home Legion.” 

While the “Home Legion” reified the gendered nature of domestic labor by equating women with homemakers, it did so without erasing the labor involved in homemaking. The “Homemakers’ Creed” distributed to all members described homemaking as both “a noble and challenging career,” and “an art requiring many different skills,” reflecting the organization’s commitment to revaluing women’s work by attesting to its difficulty and complexity. Ironically, this emphasis on the skilled labor involved in homemaking masked the professional status of the brains behind Betty, as male marketing professionals gave way to women trained in Home Economics. Considering these complexities in the context of Betty’s paradoxical status as author, authority, and fiction, I argue that Betty is best understood not as the embodiment of any given set of specific norms, but as the embodiment of the ongoing construction of normativity itself. 

For further reading related to her project, suggests Blake, dip into food writing legend M. F. K. Fisher's essay collection, How to Cook a Wolf (1942).

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor of English at Clark University. She is currently at work on a book entitled Edible Arrangements: Modernism’s Queer Forms. This project focuses on the ways representations of queer pleasure in early twentieth-century literature reshape existing literary forms. She is also interested in the relationship between modernism and popular forms of cultural production, including cookbooks, dinner theatre, genre fiction, and women’s middlebrow fiction. Recent work has appeared in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Feminist Modernist Studies, and The Journal of Lesbian Studies, and on the Modernism/modernity Print Plus platform.

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