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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'

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tags: Cold War, gender, Soviet Union, Nixon, womens history, Khrushchev, kitchens



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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.

Read entire article at Time

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