The World's Food Supply and Woman's Obligation, May 3, 1918

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↑Given before The General Federation of Woman's Clubs↓


During the last three years every sympathetic man and woman in the United States has been at times horribly oppressed with the consciousness that widespread famine had once more returned to the world.

At moments there seemed to be no spot upon which to rest one's mind with a sense of well being.

One recalled [Serbia], where three-fourths of a million people out of the total population of three million, had perished miserably of typhus and other diseases superinduced by long continued privations; Armenia, where in spite of her heart-breaking history, famine and pestilence have never stalked so unchecked; Palestine, where the old horrors of the Siege of Jerusalem, as described by Josephus, have been revived; and perhaps the crowning horror of all, the "Way of the Cross" -- so called by the Russians because it is easily traced by the continuous crosses raised over the hastily dug graves -- beginning with the Galician thoroughfares, and stretching south and east for fourteen hundred miles, upon which a distracted peasantry ran breathlessly until stopped by the Caspian Sea, or crossed the Ural Mountains into Asia, only to come back again because there was no food there.

There is no doubt that many Americans experienced a great sense of relief therefore when Congress finally established a Department of Food Administration for the United States and when Mr. Hoover, who had spent two and a half years in Europe in intimate contact with the backwash of war, made his first appeal to his fellow countrymen in the name of the food shortage of the entire world, insisting that "the situation is more than war, it is a problem of humanity." We were relieved to know that there was something we could actually do about it, and we received the instructions for our intelligent action and guidance with gratitude. I firmly believe that thousands of people are striving [page 2] every day to carry out those instructions in a spirit of humility and cherish the hope that their efforts may prove to be of genuine human service.

Mr. Hoover tells us that the food of the helpless Belgians has now become entirely dependent upon the exertions of the American farmer, and through the destruction of men and ships, one hundred million more men, women, and children have come to depend largely for their daily bread upon what can be sent from America -- upon what the farmer may produce and what the women may save.

We may divide this hungry world into three groups:

First, -- The European Neutrals, who are all suffering. In Stockholm, for instance, food has increased in cost from 200 to 300 [percent], milk and flour cards have been in force for many months.

Second, -- The Central Powers, where in spite of governmental control in the distribution of supplies and the recently acquired grain fields in [Romania] and Asia Minor, food riots are becoming more frequent.

The third group is the Allied Powers, those nations with whom we have entered into obligations. Today each of the European Allies is ruled by a food controller and everyone is on limited rations.

The last harvest in France was less than forty percent of her pre-war harvests and is less than one fourth of what she needs to feed her own people. France has had the heaviest burden of wounded, sick and crippled men and in addition one thirtieth of her population are refugees from the war zone, their homes having been destroyed and their fields devastated. This million and a half people are of necessity crowded into the houses of their fellow countrymen and tuberculosis always high in France, -- the death rate in normal times being twice as high in Paris as in New York, -- has enormously increased because of overcrowding and lack of food. [page 3]

Parts of Italy are never able to produce enough food for all the population, even in normal times, which largely accounts for the enormous emigration every year to South America and to the United States. There has been little emigration since the war began and the shortage of food in the Southern provinces is heartbreaking. In addition they are caring for the half million refugees driven southward by the Austrian drive in October, 1917, thirty million of whom are found as far south as Sicily, again superimposed upon the normal population. The American Red Cross officials are constantly urged by responsible Italians to send food, which they consider more important than men or munitions, as quickly as possible, from the United States.

In [Romania] there has been an increase of fifty percent of population on the one third of the land that is left to them, while at the same time the crops there have decreased fifty [percent]. The suffering has been incredible, wounded soldiers in the very hospitals have died of starvation and have had their feet frozen in the hospital beds.

Although Russia is the land of modern famines -- they occurred in 1891, 1906, and in 1911, the latter effecting thirty million people -- she has never experienced such loss of life as this great war has brought her. Eight million of her people have actually perished and the myriad soldiers in the Russian army, never adequately equipped with munitions, food and clothing, have been reduced to the last extremity.

In addition Russia is suffering from a complete disorganization of her transportation facilities, so that whatever grain there may be in the South cannot possibly be shipped to Petrograd or Finland. There is something very touching in the belief revealed form time to time that if the situation could but be clearly stated in America, food would at once [page 4] be sent. A Commission came last January from the Murman Railway employees. Seven thousand men, women and children had wintered at the present termination of the railroad which was being built from Petrograd to Kola, the only open port on the Arctic Ocean. Their supplies were giving out and they could get no more, for every bit of food which reached Petrograd was requisitioned there. There was no doubt that the situation was desperate and although many Russians of Chicago donated their shoes, -- for which there was the greatest need all over Russia -- and their money, it was impossible to secure the food and the transportation necessary for their immediate relief.

It is possible to go on multiplying these tales many times but I am sure that these or similar ones are only too deeply burned into the consciousness of most of us.

We all know that practically every nation in Europe is living on rations, and is destined to suffer privation for a long time. Our best efforts will no more than relieve them.

The question is, can we, the United States, produce enough for ourselves and enough more to make up the most bitter deficiencies?

If we ask what has been done before when there seemed to be too little food in the world, we shall find that the deficiency has always been corrected by the application of human intelligence and human labor to the soil. The one thousand acres nearest to Paris is so carefully cultivated that if the population of France should be doubled, it could still be entirely fed from its own soil if it were all thus skillfully tilled. The soil about Paris is not exceptionally good. It is said that the real French gardener first starts with a piece of asphalt, for he says he then knows what he has for a foundation upon which to make a soil to suit his purpose. He heats his soil with steam pipes and accelerates the growth of his product with [page 5] electric light, and he finds it infinitely easier to grow two hundred thousand pounds of food from one acre than the same amount from ten acres.

In response to the demands made in the United States last spring, two million back yards and vacant lot gardens were established in 1917, and the first war crop of potatoes was 452 million bushels -- an increase of one hundred million bushels over the previous year. Since the war began, England has placed a million and a half acreage of hitherto idle land into the production of wheat and potatoes, and three hundred thousand women of the leisure class have gone into agricultural work.

The wages of these agricultural women are four dollars a week, they are housed and fed for three dollars and seventy-five cents a week under the protection and supervision of the Woman's War Agricultural Committees.

Of the eight million women engaged in gainful occupations in the United States less than two million are in agriculture. It is estimated that at least three hundred thousand more must take the places of the two hundred and fifty thousand men already drafted from the farms as a million women are quickly taking the places of the million men drafted from various industrial occupations.

Food, above every other production in the world, responds to individual attention. It is greatly benefited by being treated in small quantities, and quickly indicates the skill of the care-taker. It is quite possible that a more intensive method of American farming would actually produce more food; that we need "integration of function", as the economists say, and that if such a change ever takes place America will make an entirely new approach to the food situation, and be much benefited thereby -- another case perhaps of the results to be derived from casting bread upon the waters. [page 6]

Those of us who have lived among immigrants realize that there is highly developed among them a certain reverence for food. Food is the precious stuff men live by, that which is obtained only after long and toilsome labor; it is the cherished thing which the poor have seen come into their homes little by little and often not enough, since they were children, until to waste it has come to seem sinful and irreligious.

Much may be achieved by utilizing this reverence for food, and we may also help immigrant parents and their Americanized children to work happily and usefully together in food production.

At Hull-House on last Thanksgiving Day a very charming little girl stood in the doorway of my room holding between her firm little hands a bowl containing corn meal mush which she had made from corn she had helped her Italian mother to raise in a city garden plot and had later ground in a coffee mill. The detectable yellow mass was surrounded by syrup, also of their own growing, for in the same garden patch they had cultivated the sugar beets from which they had made this syrup. Apparently they had found much companionship and the use of all their faculties in these processes. Production might be enormously increased if the latent capacity in our immigrant colonies were utilized -- if intelligent women not only worked themselves but organized other women to work with them. Something of this is being done in the community gardens, organized by the Chicago Woman's Club and doubtless by many other clubs who are members of this Federation, but a great extension of it is urged.

Equally important with increased production is the necessity of saving food if we could "increase our exports to our allies to a point which will enable them to feed their own people."

The women responsible for twenty-two millions of kitchens of the Nation are asked to give up certain old habits, to modify accustomed [page 7] ways, to make a technical study of resources at hand and of what a family may conscientiously use. They are also urged to evoke the interest of their households and a sense of participation in a patriotic undertaking. The effort centers about three general propositions. First, elimination of waste, which we have all learned from our mothers and grandmothers, although we too often forget to apply it. They made their own soap and candles from the fifty [percent] of fat produce which is otherwise wasted in every kitchen. Fats at this moment have become very scarce and in the domain of their recovery and utilization lies one of the largest opportunities of conservation. There is also actual proof that it can be done. In certain cities after a campaign of food conservation there has been a reduction of waste grease in total garbage collection of 29 [percent], of other food material of 12 [percent]. Second, an actual reduction of consumption. Perhaps this can best be illustrated from sugar. The pre-war consumption in this country was the highest in the world, very close to four ounces per day per capita. Much of it took place in the little shops, multiplied so rapidly during the last few years, which are devoted to the sale of sweets and soft drinks to juveniles and young people. If we reduced the per capita consumption of sugar one ounce per diem, this alone would set free for export over one million pounds of sugar per annum, and we would still be eating much more than the other nations do, eighty-five pounds per capita per year for us in contrast to nineteen pounds per capita per year in France. Third, the substitution of foods, which cannot be readily shipped, for those which ship to the greatest advantage, -- corn for wheat, poultry and fish for dressed meats, and the others with which you are all so familiar. [page 8]

The instructions as to the proper substitutes is one of the most important undertakings of the Department of Food Administration and also one of the most difficult. This is partly due to the fact that during the last twenty-five years women have been taught the relation of disease to improper feeding, with the happy result that [rickets] and other ills due to malnutrition are disappearing among children, but because of this instruction many women have become timid in regard to making changes. it is not necessary to tell an audience such as this that there is no necessity of underfeeding any child in America nor of menacing the health of any household, if only every mother and every housekeeper is made intelligent in regard to the changes required in her daily regimen.

People change their food habits very slowly, we all like best "what Mother used to make." Immigrants in America sometimes continue for years to import their accustomed foods. To make radical changes in our food habits requires a genuine incentive and a driving motive. It implies a struggle, none the less real, because it is concerned with domestic adjustments. The effort which is now being demanded from women is in a sense but part of that long struggle from the blindness of individuality to the consciousness of common ends -- almost an epitome of human progress itself. [page 9]

There are other things which women are doing in addition to careful administration of their kitchens. In Michigan for instance, last spring thousands of women tested the seed corn so that the crop might not be reduced through the planting of dead corn.

In Florida the women have found that quantities of vegetables raised in that state are shipped north to be canned and back again to be eaten, so that they pay freight both ways, a practice which they intend to change and are changing rapidly at this very moment.

In Idaho and in other states where the crop of potatoes last year exceeded the local demand and where there is insufficient transportation -- it is never really advantageous to ship potatoes for a long distance because they contain such a large percentage of water -- the women are agitating for dehydrating plants that the potatoes may either be shipped after the water has been extracted or made into potato flour.

Food conservation may mean many things, as has recently been pointed out in a circular issued by the Department of Educational Propaganda of the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense; it may mean direct purchasing through the parcels post, municipal markets, cooperative delivery, as the new agricultural movement in North Dakota and elsewhere includes road marking, storage, transportation, [cooperative] distribution and many other things.

Women taking the places of men need not carry on the activities in exactly the old lines, they may have an opportunity to improve at least some of the methods -- the distribution of milk for instance -- and they are certainly under obligations to maintain labor standards. It may be easier for them than it is for men to obtain some of these results, on the same principle that it is always easier to secure legislation limiting the hours of women in industry than it is to secure the same legislation for men. [page 10]

From the time we are little children we have all of us, at moments at least, cherished overwhelming desires to be of use in the great world, to play a conscious part in its progress. This difficulty has always been in attaching our vague purposes to the routine of our daily living, in making a synthesis between our ambitions to cure the ills of the world on the one hand and the need to conform to household requirements on the other.

It is a very significant part of the situation, therefore that at this world's crisis the two have become absolutely essential to each other. A great world purpose cannot be achieved without our participation founded upon an intelligent understanding -- and upon the widest sympathy, at the same time the demand can be met only if it is attached to our domestic routine, its very success depending upon a conscious change and modification of our daily habits.

It is no slight undertaking to make this synthesis, it is probably the most compelling challenge which has been made upon woman's constructive powers for centuries. They must exert all their human affection and all their clarity of mind in order to make the great moral adjustment which the situation demands.

But what have the women's clubs done for us, of what worth is the comradeship and study carried on through so many years, if they cannot serve us in a great crisis like this? Through the earlier years of the Federated Club movement there was much abstract study of history, literature, science and the arts, as if both those women who had been deprived of the stimulus which collective intellectual effort brings and those women who had sadly missed their old college companionships, were equally determined to find it through the widely organized clubs. It was rather the fashion in those earlier days to make fun of this studious effort, it was called foolish and superficial and a woman was [page 11] sometimes told that it would be much better for her to study the art of darning her husbands stockings and the science of cooking his meals.

Nevertheless the women kept on with a sound instinct, perhaps, for what they needed most -- a common background and a mutual understanding, in short the very cultivation which has so wonderfully illumined and unified the practical affairs which they have undertaken during these later years. And because thousands of women made a sustained effort to comprehend the world in which we live, it may now be possible to summon to the aid of the club women everywhere an understanding of woman's traditional relation to food, of her old obligation to nurture the world. We may be able to thus lift the challenge of the present moment into its historic setting.

Back of history itself are innumerable myths dealing with the Spirits of the Corn who are always feminine and are usually represented by a Corn Mother and her daughter, vaguely corresponding to the Greek Demeter -- the always fostering Earth and her child Persephone -- the changing seasons.

In [Frazer's] "Golden Bough" two large volumes are given over to the history and interpretation of these Spirits of the Corn.

He tells us that relics of the Corn Mother and the Corn Maiden are found in nearly all the harvest fields of the world, with very curious old customs. In many countries the last sheaf is bound in the shape, and even put into the clothes of an old woman and is then taken to the threshing floor where everything is done to please her. She is offered all the food and drink of the harvest home supper, that there may be a full harvest next year. The Corn Mother is also found among [many] tribes of North American Indians and the Eastern world has its Rice Mother, for whom there are solemn ceremonies when the seed rice, believed to contain "soul stuff", is gathered. These deities are always feminine, as is [page 12] perhaps natural from the association with fecundity and growth.

Closely related to these old goddesses is much of the poetry and song which have gathered about the sowing of the grain and the gathering of the harvest, and those saddest plaints of all, expressing the sorrows of famine.

The Musical Clubs of this Federation doubtless know them, certainly the Irish ones, as the Graphic Arts Departments are familiar with the renaissance in beauty which came with the Barbizon School, when the artists seriously concerned themselves with the toiling [peasants] of France.

Perhaps those club women who cared most for history and the study of early social customs will be the first to realize that these myths centering about the Corn Mother but dimly foreshadowed what careful scientific researches have later verified and developed. Students of primitive society believe that women were the first agriculturists and were for a long time the only inventors and developers of its processes. The men of the tribe did little for cultivating the soil beyond clearing the space and sometimes surrounding it by a rough protection. The woman as consistently supplied all cereals and roots eaten by the tribe as the man brought in the game and fish, and in early picture writing the short hoe became as universally emblematic of the woman as the spear did of the hunter or the shield and battle axe of the [warrior]. In some tribes it became a fixed belief that seeds would not grow if planted by a man, and apparently all primitive peoples were convinced that seeds would grow much better if planted by women. In Central Africa to this day a woman may obtain a divorce from her husband and return to her father's tribe, if the former fails to provide her with a garden and a hoe.

Those club women who persistently kept up a study class in such stiff subjects as Comparative Religions and Philosophy, know how often a [page 13] wide spread myth has its counterpart in the world of morals. This was certainly true of the belief in the "fostering Mother". Students in the origin of social customs contend that the gradual change from the wasteful manner of nomadic life to a settled and much more economic mode of existence may be fairly attributed to these primitive agricultural women. We can easily imagine that when the hunting was poor or when the flocks needed a new pasture, that the men of the [tribe] would be for moving on, but that the women might insist that they could not possibly go until the crops were garnered; and that if the tribe were induced to remain in the same caves or huts until after harvest the woman might even timidly hope that they could use the same fields next year, and thus avert the loss of their children sure to result from the alternation of gorging when the hunt was good and of starving when it was poor. The desire to grow food for her children led to a fixed abode and a real home from which our domestic morality and customs are supposed to have originated. With such an historic background, it is perhaps not surprising that peasant women all over the world are still doing a large part of the work connected with the growing and preparation of foods. One sees them in the fields in every country of Europe; by every roadside in Palestine they are grinding at the hand mills; in Egypt they are forever carrying the water of the Nile that the growing corn may not perish. American women -- even the wives of ill-paid working men and the pioneer women on remote ranches have been relieved of much of this primitive drudgery, if only through the invention of plumbing and of farm machinery.

European visitors never cease to marvel at the leisure of American women, of the very sort from whom club women are largely drawn. The American woman is not, however, relieved of her responsibilities and it is well if she has so utilized her unprecedented leisure that at this moment in response to a great crisis she is able to extend her sympathies [page 14] and to enlarge her conception of duty in such wise that the consciousness of the world's needs becomes the actual impulse of her daily activities.

A generous response to this situation may afford an opportunity to lay over again the foundations for a wider morality, as woman's concern for feeding her children made the beginning of an orderly domestic life. We are told that when the crops of grain and roots so painstakingly produced by primitive women began to have a commercial value that their production and exchange was taken over by men, as they later took over the manufacturing of pottery and other of woman's early industries. Such a history, of course, but illustrates that the present situation may be woman's opportunity if only because foods at this moment are no longer being regarded from their money-making value but from the point of view of their human use.

In these dark years, so destructive of the old codes, the nations forced back to their tribal function of producing and conserving food, are developing a new concern for the feeding of their peoples. All food supplies have long been collected and distributed through the utilization of the commercial motive. When it was commercially valuable to a man, to a firm or a nation, food was shipped; when it was not commercially valuable, food was upheld or even destroyed. At the present moment, however, just as the British government has undertaken the responsibility of providing the British Isles with imported food, so other belligerent and neutral nations have been obliged to pursue the same course in order to avert starvation. Commercial competition has been suppressed, not in response to any theory, but because it could not be trusted to feed the feeble and helpless. There is no doubt that even after Peace is declared the results of starvation arising from the world's shortage of food, will compel these governments to [page 15] continue and even extend their purchasing in other lands. But such a state of affairs will itself indicate a new order -- the substitution of the social utility motive for that of commercial gain -- The nations in their official relations to each other totally lack that modification which has come in their internal politics by the increasing care of the poor, the concern for the man at the bottom, which has [led] to all sorts of ameliorative legislation, including the protection and education of children. In international affairs the nations have still dealt almost exclusively with political and commercial affairs considered as matters of "rights" consequently they have never been humanized in their relations to each other as they have been in their internal affairs.

It is quite understandable that there was no place for woman and her possible contribution in these international relationships, they were indeed not "woman's sphere." But is it not quite possible that as women entered into city politics when clean milk and sanitary housing became matters for municipal legislation as they have consulted state officials when the premature labor of children and the tuberculosis [death rate] became factors in the political campaign, so they may be concerned with international affairs when these are dealing with such human and poignant matters as food for the starving and the rescue of woman and children from annihilation.

There are unexpected turnings in the paths of moral evolution and it would not be without precedent if, when the producing and shipping of food was no longer a commercial enterprise but had been gradually shifted to a desire to feed the hungry, that a new and powerful force in international affairs would have to be reckoned with.

The instinct to feed those with whom we have made alliances certainly bears an analogy to those first interchanges between tribe [page 16] and tribe, when a shortage of food became the humble beginning of exchange. At the present moment the Allied Nations are collecting and conserving a common food supply and each nation is facing the necessity of making certain concessions to the common good that the threat of famine for all may be averted. A new internationalism is being established day by day; the making of a more reasonable world order, so cogently urged by the President of the United States, is to some extent already under way the war itself forming its matrix. An English economist has recently pointed out that in Europe generally the war has thus far thrown the custom tariffs flat.

Are they, perhaps, disappearing under this onslaught of energized pity for [worldwide needs]? And is a motive power, new in the relations between nations being evolved in response to hunger and love, as the earlier domestic ethics had been? Under this new standard of measurement, preferential tariffs inevitably disappear because the nation denied the open door must suffer in its food supplies; the control of strategic waterways or interstate railroad lines by any one nation who might be tempted to consider only the interest of its own commerce, becomes unthinkable.

It is possible that the more sophisticated question of national grouping and territorial control will gradually adjust themselves if the paramount human question of food for the hungry be fearlessly and drastically treated upon an international basis. The League of Nations, destined to end wars, upon which the whole world led by President Wilson, is fastening its hopes, may be founded not upon broken bits of international law, but upon ministrations to primitive human needs. The League would then be organized de facto as all the really stable political institutions in the world have been.

In this great undertaking women may bear a valiant part if they but stretch their minds to comprehend what it means in this world crisis to produce food more abundantly and to conserve it with wisdom.