THE BLOG
05/14/2013 06:27 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

On Eden Foods, Motherhood, and the Politics of 'Natural Living'

In the last few weeks, Eden Foods, the nation's oldest organic and natural foods producer, has come under fire from its soy-milk swilling and quinoa-cooking clientele, who were ostensibly drawn to Eden by the purity of its products and of its liberal politics. The issue is Eden CEO Michael Potter's assault on one of the left's sacred cows: reproductive rights. Potter has filed a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act requirement that Eden cover the cost of contraception for its employees. Potter's problem, he explained to Salon, is that these are "purely women's issues."

The lawsuit (and basically every ensuing Potter statement) has been a PR disaster for Eden. On the company's Facebook page, former patrons from Austin to Vancouver publicize boycotts and decry this "massive betrayal;" the Twitter hashtag #edenfoods calls up even more lefty outrage (see handles if you think I presume too much about their politics):

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The press is crowing about Potter's "quiet right-wing agenda" and clamoring to enlighten anyone who "thought 'organic' means 'progressive'..." as New York Times food critic Mark Bittman tweeted. In general, the reaction has alternated between outrage and incredulity at Potter's oblivion to the politics of his clientele (and his failure to articulate any religious basis for his beliefs, weakening the lawsuit's legal foundation).

One Twitter user wrote:

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As unwise a business decision as Potter apparently made, there's an ideological coherence to his worldview best understood by examining the very terrain on which this current battle is being fought: gender and motherhood.

Little of the backlash has focused on a highly dispositive quote in the Eden filing, regarding contraception:

"... these procedures almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices." [emphasis added]

Consider this context. The contemporary natural and organic foods movement that spawned Potter's career emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 raised health concerns about chemical food additives and helped birth modern environmentalism; antiwar and human rights activists blasted American capitalism, exposing industrial food companies for producing poor-quality sustenance and exploiting labor. Especially in the wake of the 1950s, the age that gave us frozen TV dinners, SPAM, and McDonald's, eating "real food" became not just an "agricultural act," as Wendell Berry famously said, but a political one, an explicit rejection of a suburban, bourgeois inauthenticity.

This relationship between a celebration of the "natural" and social justice is more complex as pertains to that other major social justice movement, feminism. A core philosophy of many feminists in the late 1960s and 70s was a rejection of nature, a unifying perspective in a movement otherwise deeply fractured by race and class. For obvious reasons, a poor black woman stereotyped as hypersexual and a white suburban housewife presumably inclined to traditional domesticity might have little common ground except in a profound skepticism of essentialist assumptions. These liberal feminists downplayed biological differences, arguing that gender inequality was socially constructed.

Dissatisfaction with the limits of liberal feminism inspired a radical critique that sought to reclaim womanhood as source of power rather than degradation. Motherhood took center stage among these activists. Rejecting social conventions that disdained certain "womanly" experiences as unladylike, these feminists employed a rhetoric that echoed the rejoice in natural living foundational to the countercultural food movement, rejecting practices such as "twilight sleep," which sedated women during childbirth, as well as formula feeding, which had been widely recommended by the largely male medical establishment. It is easy to understand how the historical moment that inspired celebratory New Age menstruation rituals, modern midwifery, and unshaven armpits also gave rise to the proliferation of food cooperatives and mainstream vegetarianism (as unappetizing a juxtaposition as that may be).

The political legacies of these forms of liberal and radical feminism might seem more or less correspond to their labels; if liberal feminism has given us corporate powerhouses Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, radical feminism has bequeathed us bohemian icons Ina May Gaskin and Peggy O'Mara.

However, feminist social critics have pointed out how this "radical" commitment to "nature" can uphold deeply conservative ideas about women. The expansion of reproductive rights -- the very topic at stake today -- already half a century ago was a case in point. La Leche League, the United States' preeminent breastfeeding advocates, in 1971 nearly issued an official statement against abortion (the moment's major feminist initiative) as the practice seemed inconsistent with natural motherhood (it ultimately decided not to "mix causes.") Similarly, while many feminists strove to make inroads for women in the workplace, LLL remained committed to the inseparability of mother and child in infancy, refused to accredit any LLL leaders who scheduled any separation from their child.

These issues persist. French feminist Elisabeth Badinter perhaps inaugurated the contemporary conversation with her 2010 salvo that modern progressive parenting was undermining the status of women precisely because of its embrace of "natural" approaches. Breastfeeding, cloth diapers, homemade baby food, no-thanks-on-that-epidural: most of these choices require extraordinary labor only a mother can perform, thus limiting her from doing much else during years which tend to coincide with the most intense period of her career. In the United States, these "mommy wars" (as they are often diminished) are especially heated over breastfeeding, as policies such as New York City's "Latch On NYC" initiative and Michelle Obama's campaign proclaim "breast is best," and social critics such as Hanna Rosin and Suzanne Barston defend the choice to be "fearless formula feeders."

Plainly, "natural living" has a deep foothold among the political left. Reproductive rights, however, vividly reveal how the progressive thrust of advocacy for a "natural" life can have profoundly conservative implications. In this light, Potter's life's work in the natural foods trenches and his rejection of reproductive rights as "unnatural" actually cohere in a way many overlook. The intensity of the Eden backlash sounds a cautionary note against making facile assumptions about someone's politics based on the contents of their pantry. Especially if you haven't peeked in their medicine cabinet.

A longer version of this essay was published on the U.S. Intellectual History Blog.