In Search of Julia Child

An essay in the New York Times this past Sunday described the writer’s unwillingness as a high school student circa 1972 to man up and take shop, preferring the cooking classes his school saw as the exclusive terrain of girls. With the support of his parents he got his wish, embarking on a lifelong love of cooking instead of being forced into a gender-typed wielding of tools that held no interest for him.

The subject sends my thoughts and memories in a myriad of directions.

I recall impassioned arguments in my own high school days in which we girl feminists essentially declared to the boys: We’re as good as you are! And to which the boys’ ultimate rejoinder was always: We’re better at everything! Even the best chefs are men!

As teenagers, a complicated analysis of the culinary arts professions was beyond us all. The assertion caused consternation. Who were the best chefs? Best and worst, chefs did seem to be male, didn’t they? But that was because men were always hogging the top of the heap if there was power to be won there, and money to be made, wasn’t it? In any case the boys’ message was clear: We even win at your games.

I guess I have a bit of the reaction I had then – frustration, incredulity, rage – when I hear now that transwomen deserve consideration, support, and admiration for their heroism far more than women and girls who were born women and girls. That the obstacles they face are far worse, and more deserving of urgent, societal attention than the challenges of women and girls worldwide.

It was my naïve assumption as a teenager that mine would surely be the last generation to struggle against a cultural, professional divide by gender that was, even as we bickered, in the process of crumbling. Personality characteristics, pastimes, vocations would all be equal-access arenas for male and female alike. Right?

In 1972, a boy who preferred the uses of a spatula over a soldering iron might have said: You don’t have to wear a dress to like cooking. Could he say that now? In our politically enlightened times, such a boy would be welcomed into the kitchen and handed a spatula. He might also be offered a dress, hormone treatments, and sexual reassignment surgery.  

Reading this essay, I couldn’t help but recall the statements I’ve read by transwomen saying they knew they wanted to be girls when they realized they liked cooking. Our notions of gender have supposedly been blown wide open. And our notions of human characteristics, human endeavor? Maybe not as much as we’d like to think.

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