Creating Learned Helplessness, One Potluck at a Time

by Melanie Springer Mock
(with responses by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kendra Weddle)

Late last month, I made a huge breakthrough in my life: I did not cook anything for my husband to take to his department potluck (like me, he is a faculty member at George Fox University). For years, I’d been schlepping food to Ron’s history and political science gatherings, aware that his colleagues’ wives were also bringing food, and that should his offering be a bag of Cheetos, the probability of my being judged—and not him—was fairly high.

But this August, I had too much of my own beginning-of-school planning to care about potential judgment, and so I let him know he’d be on his own. Okay, so I also helped him come up with a plan (buying sub sandwiches), and advised him as he cut the sandwiches into accessible pieces, but he was mostly on his own. This, for us, is progress.

In the last few years, as I’ve developed my identity as a Christian feminist, I’ve thought a good bit about potlucks: the staple of churches everywhere, a meal that allows me to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and a plate-load of desserts, all in the name of Christian fellowship. I’ve thought about potlucks because they seem, even in the most progressive churches, a space where entrenched assumptions about gender roles are allowed to flourish, no questions asked—not even by a Christian feminist like me.

Well, I think I’m finally ready to ask some questions. To wit:

It seems, in my experience (and by what I’ve observed) that most church potlucks are still initiated, organized, and managed by women. Why is that? Why are women the ones who stay long after everyone else is gone, cleaning the kitchen (while a few men linger to stack chairs)? In most family units, why is it the woman who must remember to make something for a potluck, must decide what to make, must make said dish?

In some ways, I understand why the gendered potluck might go unquestioned in complementarian churches where roles are clearly outlined for men and women, given their understanding of the Bible. I do not understand how churches that prize egalitarianism—like my own—would allow church fellowship of this nature to be carried on the backs of its women congregants.

After all, it’s one thing to support women in leadership, but it strikes me that egalitarian churches need to take this impulse a step further, acknowledging that a husband can probably make a casserole as well as his wife can, and that there’s nothing in God’s design dictating women will make better brownies than men. (And isn’t it interesting that single men get a kind of potluck pass in ways that single women do not? That a single man might be lauded for bringing a box of Oreos, but a single woman darn well have better made her cookies by hand. But that’s another post for another time.)

I recognize in the scheme of issues, this one likely isn’t that big. At the same time, I don’t want my boys growing up to believe there are some roles in the church a woman must fulfill by virtue of her gender, and that goes for speaking from the pulpit as well as working in the kitchen. I also know some people will argue (and have argued) that if women step away from managing food fellowships, the potlucks will be weak affairs, dominated by hastily-purchased food from the local quickie mart.

My response to this would be two-fold: 1) Do we really believe men incapable of doing better? and 2) If yes, then we have created in most men a learned helplessness, at least where church potlucks are concerned. (If we discovered anything from the recent GOP convention, it’s that learned helplessness is bad indeed. We must help others to help themselves. And so, my Christian brothers, that means you must also bring cupcakes to the next church meal!)

Am I making much ado about a small thing? Am I simply jaded by the two church potlucks I attended this weekend, and to which I alone brought our family’s offering, no matter my last month’s breakthrough? Do I need to see the church potluck with a different lens, one that focuses more on hospitality and charity, and less on a kind of inequity that broils my insides?

I guess I want to know: What can this Christian feminist’s response be to church potlucks?

Response by Letha:  Traditions can be changed

Two things ran through my mind when I read Melanie’s essay. First, it struck me rather bemusedly that church meals have generated one kind of problem or another ever since the very beginning of the church!

Church meal problems are nothing new
To gather together with other believers for a daily common meal was an important part of loving one another and living as Jesus’ followers. But as Bible scholar Reta Halteman Finger has shown us, those meals of the early believers sometimes became a source of conflict.

In her book, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, she writes that the “neglect” about which the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) Jewish widows in Acts 6:1 complained did not mean that these widows were not being given enough food. Rather, they were unhappy about being denied the privilege of preparing and serving the meals along with the Aramaic speaking Jews. To these widows, organizing and serving the communal meal signified full participation in the church community—an opposite problem to what Melanie wrote about! In this very different situation in the early church, these women had felt discriminated against by being denied the privilege of serving the church meals.

In a workshop at the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Gathering in Indianapolis this past June, Reta taught the group about another case of very different church-meal problems—this time in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33. These Christians were having a conflict over how much food at the communal meals was being greedily consumed by the more socially and financially privileged believers,  leaving just leftovers for the poorer believers who arrived later because of work responsibilities.

So it’s clear that church meals have long been a problem! That was the first thing that ran through my mind when I read what Melanie wrote.

Tradition keeps alive expectations
The second thing that ran through my mind when I read about her potluck woes —especially her questions about why it’s almost invariably the women who plan and manage potluck meals, prepare the food, and then clean up afterwards, was to mentally hear Tevye’s famous song from Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!”

“Who day and night must scramble for a living. . . .be the master of his house? The papa!”
And“who must know the way to make a proper home. . . . the mama! Tradition!

In other words, as with so many situations, it all goes back to traditional gender roles—even though they are so out of sync with today’s realities. Women are still the ones expected to be the nurturers, and what better way to nurture than through supplying food—whether through preparing casseroles for the church potluck or baking brownies for a school fund raiser (where that’s still permitted), or providing refreshments for a husband’s faculty meeting, as in the example Melanie cited. It’s a carryover from an earlier time (specifically the 1950s model of suburban life) where a woman was expected always to be home, fully investing her time in husband, children, and household duties.

And she was expected to be a good cook; that was just part of being a woman. The advertisers would see that she had plenty of kitchen gadgets like new stoves and refrigerators and blenders and rice cookers and so much more.

Sure, men could be professional chefs in restaurants, but for “ordinary” men, the only times they might be expected to cook would be for the church’s annual fund-raising pancake breakfast sponsored by the men’s group, or when they grilled for an outdoor barbecue. It was just the way things were expected to be, as this little clip from Leave It to Beaver shows.

What Can Women Do?
OK. So what do we do about it? What Melanie did was a good step, showing that her job was just as important —and her time was just as limited— as her husband’s, and therefore providing some help (submarine sandwiches) but kindly refusing to be the one expected to be the default food provider for every work-related social event, just because she’s a spouse. Unless it’s reciprocal, of course! (If women faculty get together, do the men provide the food? I’m guessing the answer is no. )

Yes, there is a learned helplessness that men can easily develop, but I fear that we women sometimes become enablers and foster it. Sometimes I think it’s because we women like to feel we’re needed , or we can do it better, or even because we give in to manipulative flattery. (“But you do it so well, dear. I could never make cupcakes the way you do”—as he gives back the box of just-add-water-and-eggs cake mix box she has placed in his hands.)

If women are invested in outside work, just as men are, then both partners in a marriage are equally responsible for the home and family—and that includes providing the food for social gatherings. (There is some evidence that same-sex couples could teach heterosexual couples some lessons on sharing the division of labor in a way that is not dependent on traditional gender roles.)

One other thing that struck me about Melanie’s essay was her point that she, not her husband, would be the person judged if she did not comply with expectations of his faculty friends and their wives. I think we have to learn not to care and to be brave enough at times to send tasty but store-bought prepared food items as a statement that our time as employed women is just as valuable as that of an employed man and we, too, have deadlines and work pileups. It might even give other wives the courage to do likewise! Perhaps to further make the point, Melanie could even organize and propose a female faculty meeting and ask the men to provide the refreshments!

But one last word, some women really enjoy preparing refreshments, planning new recipes to bring to a potluck, delighting in showing off their culinary abilities, and taste-testing others’ special desserts, and so on. I saw that a lot in my mom’s generation. I think some of us scholar and career types have to be careful that we don’t fall into a kind of elitism that would disparage other women’s domestic joys and their choices. After all, choices are a big part of what feminism is all about!

Response by Kendra:  Language must be part of the change

As a life-long Methodist, I was practically reared in a little Methodist church in a small town on the Kansas prairie where each Sunday evening at our church potluck I filled my plate full with Aunt Merle’s lasagna, Javene’s egg casserole, Mildred’s coconut pie, and Oral’s apple crumb cake with imitation rum sauce. More than anything else at church, I loved Sunday night dinners.

Suffice it to say: I have a fondness for potlucks. But, then again, who doesn’t? Someone else does the cooking and cleaning, which includes, of course, an earlier trip to the grocery store not to mention time chopping and mixing. Then baking or browning. Or, in some cases—especially when going to a potluck meant taking several dishes— both.

But Melanie’s post and Letha’s response invite me to wonder again about how easily we accept things as they are and refuse to imagine how differently they could be—if we decided to change them.

Last week I made dinner that consisted of grilled steak, roasted sweet potatoes, and parmesan-crusted tomatoes. Since I seldom grill steak and since I was trying to create this meal in less than 30 minutes, I left the meat unattended slightly longer than I should have. As I filled my plate I took the burned steak, explaining to my husband why I burned it and saying that he should take the one that had survived my unskilled grilling. As he took my plate with the blackened steak, he remarked that he should simply be glad I had made something to eat; and since I had prepared dinner, I should eat the better meal.

And I thought: I have become my mother.

Despite all of my claims to be a feminist, I have without thinking embraced her selfless model of always being last, of always serving others, of always seeking to please. Now, I love my mother. And, I am thankful every day for her and for what she has taught me. But this: this idea of always being least and last is not entirely healthy, nor is it what an egalitarian relationship looks like.

The potluck dilemma and my burned steak episode remind me of how pervasive our feminist challenges are. It is easier to be complicit than to take a stand.

So I found Letha’s suggestions to be quite helpful. Her practical advice of refusing to feel judged by our actions and to take initiative to create alternative methods of potlucks strikes me as easy steps all of us can take to form new patterns within our homes and within our various communities.

And while I realize some will most likely think “there she goes again” (you see, I’ve not taken Letha’s wise advice to heart as fully as I should, acknowledging how I feel judged), Melanie’s struggle with potluck dinners is just one of various tangible expressions of our patriarchal culture: one the church has whole-heartedly embraced and condoned.

While we may chip away at various corners of patriarchal expressions, we will not successfully create an alternative way of living and relating to one another until we change our thinking about both women and men alike as having been created in the image of God, and that this must surely mean that God is both female and male and that the male gender does not rank above the female gender. That means that we need to change both our language and imagery for Godde. (Godde is the spelling some Christian feminists, but not all, prefer to use in talking about the Deity because it suggests a combination of male and female in the very name.)

Until we see and understand the relationship between the perception of God-as-male and subtle expressions of sexism (whether it shows up in potluck expectations or limitations on women’s leadership in churches), we will not substantially change the way Christian communities are constructed. When we become as familiar with the image of God as Mother as the church has been with the image of God as Father exclusively, then and only then, will the long and painful history of patriarchy begin to fall.

I think a failure to recognize this explains how churches who purport themselves to be progressive or egalitarian and yet fail to change their language for God will nevertheless continue to reflect patriarchy in Sunday school classes, nursery attendants, potluck dinners, vacation Bible school programs, and all the rest of it.

Despite this pessimistic appraisal, I think I can hear Letha’s voice urging us on: if you can change other traditions, you can begin to change language as well. Start with your own references to Godde, or at least alternate male and female pronouns when speaking of the Creator, and then work to help your church leaders change theirs.

And to help us in our journey, we have the EEWC, where there are no potlucks, but She is here. And there is genuine hospitality, too, at Her table. (Listen to Marg Herder sing her beautiful composition, “At Her Table.”)

“At Her Table” a song by Marg Herder

Composed, performed and engineered by Marg Herder. Copyright 2008 by Marg Herder and used by permission. For lyrics and more, click here. [haiku url=https://eewc.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/AtHerTable.mp3 title=”At Her Table, Marg Herder”]

FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting topic, friends! I’ve thought about this, too, as a clergywoman – do male pastors usually bring a dish to a potluck? and if they’re single? What signals does it give if I do or if I don’t? I’m one of those “I only cook because I have to eat” people anyway.
    I recall folks in churches thinking it was so “cute” when their male pastor put on an apron and helped clean up, or brought some cookies he made – it was not expected, so he got points for chipping in. As a female clergy, I didn’t want to give in to stereotypes; nor did I want to just shun participation. So I decided just to bring something and not to make a big deal out of it; and, as I consider potlucks a work night, I sit and visit with people and don’t usually help clean up.
    I have been in a congregation where men were an equal part of what they called “Kitchen Ministry.” And the other night at my current church’s potluck, a couple each brought their own entree and their own dessert, and tied for the prize in the dessert category…. I do admit he was the only man who brought a dish. And this year we had a new prize category for the best “bought” dish, because we have several women who dislike cooking and won’t do it….
    My thoughts have really been more about community and role than theology, although my feminist orientation is what makes me question and think about practical things like this.

  2. Years ago, when I was the only female full-time faculty member at a fundamentalist college, I was expected to join the “faculty wives” by bringing home-baked cookies to faculty retreats. (Nobody expected my husband to provide anything, of course). I remember the huge COURAGE it took to stand up in protest against such expecttions. Gender role-assignments feel like the will of God until they are confronted and shown to be just human contructions intended to preserve patriarchal power. Making our God-language inclusive is a basic and fundamental beginning, but a great deal of courage is required. People will call you names–but if you remember your sisters and and feminist brothers and in-betweens and their solidarity with you, you can do it!

  3. Thank you, Melanie, for choosing this topic. And thank you, Kendra and Letha, for excellent responses, showing how the gender expectations surrounding church potlucks are just one of the symptoms of the disease of patriarchy in our churches. Many years ago I began “taking a stand” on potlucks by bringing something I bought or volunteering to bring the paper plates and napkins (what the men usually volunteered for) or encouraging my husband, who really likes to cook, to make something for the potlucks. He was very willing, but I often noticed something interesting: he wanted me to carry the dish into the church. But when people started complimenting me on it, I would proudly say that David had made it. Kendra, I was delighted to see your connection of potlucks to God-language. I totally agree that churches who “fail to change their language for God will nevertheless continue to reflect patriarchy in Sunday school classes, nursery attendants, potluck dinners, vacation Bible school programs, and all the rest of it.”

  4. Thank you, Becky and Virginia, for your comments. I hadn’t even considered what women who are clergy must do to negotiate the shoals of potlucks! I love that you all have contests at a potluck. I wonder if that would bring in more participation from others, including those who don’t cook but love to compete. I resonate more with Virginia’s experience, as a faculty wife who is also a faculty member here. I think I need more of Virginia’s courage to stand up to expectations about what I should or should not do.

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