The Kitchen is ‘good to think with’: power, resistance and uncertainty

Rachel Scicluna (PhD Candidate, The Open University)

This paper considers one aspect of my thesis which is largely looking at the meaning of the domestic kitchen in the lives of older lesbians residing in London. The subjects in this study group were of several nationalities and class origins - British, Irish, Swiss, Scottish, German-British, American, and Canadian. All are over 45 and up to 76 years. Historically, London is the home of many lesbian feminists who migrated during the 1970s and 1980s (Green 1997). Thus, this provided me with the possibility to do long term fieldwork. This paper is mainly concerned with the different flows of power within the domestic unit and outside, on an individual, collective and political level.

Despite the fact that recent debates have been reflecting especially on the meaning, and social significance of the home in contemporary societies, the kitchen has received little attention within such debates. In the late nineteenth century, it is clear that the kitchen was an important strand within feminism where political issues were raised to challenge certain characteristics of industrial capitalism, mainly those pertaining to the separation of household space from public space and divisions according to class. Such debates also addressed other issues such as gender equality, women’s rights and women’s oppression where female architects and material feminist theorists have even favoured a kitchenless home (Hayden 1985). Although, recently some scholars have given attention to routine (social) practices and the technologisation of kitchen-work, such research, according to Floyd (2004), has tended to “drain the kitchen of significance” when in practice this merely redefines the space.

Therefore this paper seeks to bring out the potential in using the kitchen as a logical tool or “empirical category” for conceptualising relationships between groups, kin or otherwise, but also relationships between individuals; different realms of life; and the rationale or logic that informants creatively engage in to make sense of the world (Levi-Strauss 1964). This specific interpretation is intimately linked to my experience in the field which led me to see how the kitchen came up in various contexts and was being used to pass on ‘political’ messages that went beyond the kitchen’s functional use as a workshop – e.g. political campaigning, media, food programmes, etc. It was somehow a central issue which was of cultural interest in the metropolis (Ortner 1973). Additionally, this complemented the kitchen stories that were told by older lesbians. Their subjective experiences brought out aspects of social inequalities mainly brought out by the hegemonic institution of heteronormativity. This understanding mirrors the different ideological and political dimensions that flow through the kitchen such as gender/sexual issues, family traditions, modernity, social contradiction, religion, class, feminism and economic background. Many had to confront the stigma of sexual identity with punitive legal and political consequences, risking even the loss of their children.

All such debates suggest that the kitchen is a complex place which is politically and culturally charged. They raise key issues which pertain to the complexity of human relations. Through its multifunctional character, the kitchen becomes a place where the power of the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday unfolds, and it is the place where all spheres of life inter-weave in the most taken-for-granted ways. This perspective complements my findings, where the kitchen stories narrated by older lesbians, emerged as a tangle of cultural norms, customs, duties, ideas and values that tells about the thinking process of a specific society or group of people. The domestic kitchen, ostensibly comfortingly neutral and a-political, emerges as a complex and multi-faceted place, where its meaning is temporal, relational and contextual. Hence, throughout I argue how the kitchen offers a cultural context for a deep understanding of society.