November 2, 2012 6:33 pm

The history cook: NFRW Republican Woman’s Holiday Cookbook

As America’s political wives campaigned from their kitchens, an ideological battle simmered
Members of the National Federation of Republican Women decorate a campaign bus in Washington, D.C., 1954©Corbis

Members of the National Federation of Republican Women decorate a campaign bus in Washington, D.C., 1954

NFRW Republican Woman’s Holiday Cookbook
NFRW, Alabama, 1971

There are some things that the British may never understand about Americans. One is their capacity for organised enthusiasm. Another is the combination of jelly with mayonnaise in so-called salads. These two aspects of American life, jelly and enthusiasm, feature prominently in the 1971 NFRW Republican Woman’s Holiday Cookbook, a fundraising tool for the National Federation of Republican Women.

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The NFRW was set up, in 1938, to train future women leaders and to support the Republican party through fundraising and voter recruitment. By the 1950s its emphasis on training had dwindled and the organisation was primarily committed to the “housework of government”: those aspects of political life – cake sales, election dinners and voter drives – deemed too tedious for men. Focused on 16 markers of celebration, such as New Year’s eve, Lincoln’s Birthday and Halloween, the Holiday Cookbook encourages the faithful to show their support by throwing a good party. “Republican women” the book declares, “are active women. They work hard on behalf of their party’s candidates and take part in getting out the vote. And, of course, they are involved in fundraising projects. Many of these projects are focused on cooking for lots of people... a meeting to plan a strategy campaign... a supper party for block workers... or, best of all, a victory celebration!”

Cover of the NFRW Republican Woman’s Holiday Cookbook©Adam Ryzman

Each chapter includes menu suggestions, hints for table decorations and recipes donated by NFRW members. For instance, to create a buzz at a New Year’s eve party, “the traditional time motif is always fun to use – a clock face cake would make a nice centerpiece”; or, “here’s a particularly elegant touch. Put a drop of perfume on each lightbulb... (be sure the bulbs are turned off when you put on the perfume, as liquid on a hot lightbulb may make it explode!).” To impress guests at a buffet, Mrs Glenn Flynn of Omaha, Nebraska, a woman who possibly had a lot of time on her hands, offers a recipe for Shrimp Christmas Tree – a 2.5ft styrofoam cone covered with endive lettuce and pinned with a spiral of shrimp.

Exploding lightbulbs and towers of crustaceans aside, the contents of the cookbook are relatively unadventurous in culinary terms. Spices, garlic and fresh herbs are hardly mentioned, there’s little ethnic influence and much reliance on manufactured goods. Of the nine ingredients listed for Sweet Potato Surprise the only fresh ingredient is a teaspoon of orange peel. For Elegant Chicken, a dish made of chicken breasts, peaches, cherries and bottled sweet-and-sour dressing, everything aside from the meat comes from a can or a packet. Despite fancy decorations and time-consuming presentation, this is the food of middle America – familiar, comforting and bland.

Patricia Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Agnew are photographed next to their recipes: Sesame Cheese Ball, Mamie’s Million Dollar Fudge and Lemon Log Cookies respectively©Adam Ryzman

Patricia Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Agnew are photographed next to their recipes: Sesame Cheese Ball, Mamie’s Million Dollar Fudge and Lemon Log Cookies respectively

The cookbook was published during a period of relative political optimism for the Republican party: Nixon was in his first term as president, his vice-president Spiro Agnew hadn’t yet resigned and the Watergate scandal was still to hit. But the party’s poor showing in the 1970 congressional elections demonstrated the need for Republican wives to do their work if Nixon was to be re-elected in 1972 against a backdrop of civil unrest at home and an unpopular Indochina war. In the first pages of the book, the party’s metaphorical mothers, Patricia Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Agnew, are photographed next to the recipes they have supplied: Sesame Cheese Ball, Mamie’s Million Dollar Fudge and Lemon Log Cookies, respectively.

The hundreds of other women who donated their recipes to the Holiday Cookbook project are identified either by their affiliation to a particular Republican Women’s Club or, more often, by mention of their husbands. A recipe for Chicken Divan, for example, is donated by “Mrs William P. Rogers, wife of the Secretary of State, Washington, D.C.”; Company Casserole comes from the “Wife of the Governor of Vermont”. No matter that the early 1970s were a time of sexual and cultural upheaval: this cookbook harks back to a postwar domestic ideal where men engaged in the political arena while their wives stocked up on cheese crackers.

On the first page of the book, a photograph of Mrs J. Lloyd O’Donnell, president of the NFRW, confirms this impression. Sporting a beaming smile, pearl necklace and a neatly buttoned jacket, O’Donnell looks the model conventional Republican. But appearances can be deceptive: not only was she an accomplished pilot who trained fighter pilots during the second world war, she was also instrumental in determining the direction of the NFRW at a time of considerable difficulty. In the age of the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism, some Republican women were no longer content with their roles as housekeepers and wanted more of a say in party affairs. Opinion was divided: moderates identified with aspects of the feminist agenda, but socially conservative Republican women were unhappy with the party’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which guaranteed equal rights for women. The seemingly uncomplicated and unified purpose of the Holiday Cookbook masked a simmering ideological battle within the NFRW that would ultimately reconfigure women’s role in the Republican party and the country as a whole.

. . .

O’Donnell was elected president of the NFRW in 1967, and set out with the aim of ensuring the federation played a neutral, party-supporting role, vowing to “accommodate everyone – conservative, moderate and liberal”. The woman she had defeated for the position, Phyllis Schlafly, left the organisation to lead women’s opposition to social reform. She denounced feminism and the ERA, and set up the Eagle Forum to campaign on “pro-family” issues such as abortion. Schlafly’s social conservatism and her vigorous campaigning prefigured the rise of Republican women as key players in American elections today. Schlafly and O’Donnell came to represent two versions of how Republican women could engage with politics: working behind the scenes to support the mechanics of the party or seeking to influence policy directly via campaign and protest.

Today, Republican women, typified by Ann Romney, continue to raise funds, drum up votes, run households and support their husbands in much the same way as the contributors to the NFRW Republican Woman’s Holiday Cookbook did 40 years ago. But there is a difference. Republican women are no longer political passengers: they are the shapers of the new political landscape and will play a decisive role in determining the outcome of the forthcoming election. And they no longer need to make jelly and mayonnaise salads for buffet tables across the land.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library

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