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Is Capitalism or Communism Better for Women? How the Kitchen Debate Gave a New Meaning to the Cold War ‘Home Front’

7 minute read

The Cold War wasn’t just fought in the White House and the Kremlin. In American and Soviet homes, the capitalism-communism divide was a topic of conversation at many a kitchen table — and, most famously, in one model kitchen.

On July 24, 1959 — 60 years ago Wednesday — U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev brought the Cold War home. In what’s since been famously dubbed “the kitchen debate,” the world leaders debated the merits of American-style capitalist consumerism and Soviet-style communism against the backdrop of an American exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Cold War historian Brian Dooley says it was a “monumental moment in the battle of ideas in the Cold War, exposing the publics on either side of the Iron Curtain to a discussion based on ideology rather than military strength.”

One of the key areas in which they competed was the promise of their respective systems to design a kitchen and produce labor-saving appliances that could liberate women. But, in allowing the two sides to face off over technology, the debate also exposed the issues facing both American and Soviet women.

The kitchen race

Both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., following a bilateral Cultural Agreement adopted in 1958, organized exhibits showcasing the industrial achievements of their respective systems: one in Moscow and one in New York City. The aim was to develop better mutual understanding and friendlier relations between people in the East and West. The American National Exhibition, which displayed cars, television sets, fashion styles and, most importantly, the Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen, attracted an estimated 2.7 million Soviet citizens over the course of six weeks. But the event was about more than just showing off shiny new goods.

Susan Reid, Professor of Slavonic Studies at Sheffield University, wrote in Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users that the family home and kitchen were “in the vanguard” of America’s Cold War effort to “discredit the communist project in the eyes of Soviet citizens” by raising demand for products that the Soviet economy of shortage couldn’t deliver.

“The effect on the consciousness of ordinary Soviet citizens — whether it stimulated an appetite for consumerism — preoccupied the American authorities,” says David Crowley, a professor at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin.

It was already clear that the U.S. was winning the Cold War in terms of consumer production: although the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in rocket technology at the time, the U.S. was in the lead for commodities. So Khrushchev decided to “enter into a competition” with the U.S. on that side of things too. The quality of citizen’s homes became central to his goal of “catch up and overtake America,” which he had declared in May 1957. After the exhibition, the Soviet output of products like fridges and vacuums increased, and the number of households with fridges grew rapidly, rising from 4% in 1960 to 11% in 1965 and 65% by 1975.

The ‘gilded cage’

But, much as he wanted to out-produce his rival, Khrushchev was not sold on the ideology behind the American home. As the politicians toured the American model kitchen, Nixon pointed at a dishwasher and said, “In America, we like to make life easier for women.” Khrushchev retorted, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.”

The Soviet leader implied that “these machines were only trapping women in the home,” says food historian Bee Wilson.

If the exhibition’s visitor books are anything to go by, the American kitchen did not “triumphantly win the hearts of Soviet citizens, even as an aspiration,” wrote Reid. Visitors wrote that they considered it too spacious with too many appliances, according to Reid. In August 1959, Marietta Shaginian, a Soviet journalist from the Russian newspaper Izvestiia, wrote that the ideal kitchen was nothing more than a “gilded cage.” She called it “ideologically inappropriate” because it was designed not to help the working woman achieve self-realization but to compensate the middle-class ‘‘professional housewife’’ for her lack of a place in the public arena.

And it was true that the “professional housewife” represented an American ideal for women in those post-war years. “She raised the family, made nutritious meals and educated her children as an educated woman,” says Diane Koenker, a Soviet history professor at University College London. If she did work outside the home, a limited number of jobs were an option: Thirty-eight percent of American women were employed in 1960, mostly working “pink collar” jobs as a teacher, nurse or secretary. Meanwhile, women accounted for just six percent of doctors, three percent of lawyers, and less than one percent of engineers, explains Gail Collins in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

In the U.S., appliances were presented in a “glamorous” light and associated with leisure, with advertisements showing women dancing around their spacious kitchens, says Koenker. “A woman would use all the latest technology so that she had more time for her bridge club and tennis club,” she adds.

Meanwhile, in the USSR, scientific progress — not glamor — framed images of this kind of domestic advance. Housewives wearing housecoats appeared beside images of women who operated pneumatic drills as a “personification of Soviet modernity,” Reid wrote. Domestic appliances “were rockets for housewives,” who too would have their share of the Space Age, she explains. (Whether women themselves actually felt they were participating in the Space Race when they cleaned their homes was “debatable,” adds Crowley.)

Under the Soviet system, everyone participated in the labor force regardless of gender, says Koenker. In 1967, women made up 41% of engineers there, compared to 2% in the years following the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917. In Khrushchev’s view, a fancy kitchen and new appliances were only useful if they freed women up to spend more time at work outside the home.

The labor-saving lie

The question of what the modern kitchen could do for the modern woman, and for society, wasn’t limited to the Soviet side.

Many feminists in the U.S. were also noticing that so-called labor-saving devices were not lightening burdens but only adding to them. The American writer Betty Freidan challenged the idea that fulfillment for women was found in the home as a wife and mother in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. “Even with all the new labor-saving appliances,” Friedan pointed out, “the modern American housewife probably spends more time on housework than her grandmother [did]”.

“There’s another part of the story,” says Wilson, who points to the fact that many American women who could afford it relied on a domestic worker. In her essay Labor Saving, in the upcoming book Women On Food, she explains that for well-off families what spared them from domestic labor was not an appliance but rather a human being. The people who did those jobs, most often African American women, worked long hours without employee protections. Across the U.S. in 1960, almost 40% of working African American women were domestic help; in the South it was up to 90%.

In the Soviet Union, housework as paid employment was virtually non-existent. No one entered this industry, thanks to the availability of widespread paid employment and the fact that women had the education to qualify.

But Soviet claims to women’s liberation have also been contested. Many Historians, such as Gail Lapidus, have described Soviet women as carrying a “double burden.” While working full-time they were also responsible for their home and children, leaving men relatively free to pursue leisure activities.

One thing held true on both sides of the divide: In both American and Soviet kitchen a man would rarely be found cooking and cleaning. The home was still seen as the woman’s domain.

Although the images of a woman vacuuming in the U.S. and the USSR looked very different, the position of American and Soviet women was much more similar than the Cold Warriors would have had the world believe.

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