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Dr. Weston A. Price, who had a unique view of women’s roles in communities untouched by industrialization, chronicled in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, “In all primitive races, there is a recognition of the supreme importance of motherhood, and a high tribute is paid to the mothers who excel in their duties.” He importantly adds, “In many tribes, it is the women who have the deciding voice in matters of the most vital importance to the tribe as a whole.” Price’s observations about the roles of women in Indigenous cultures, much like his insights about nutrition, highlight areas where our divergence from practices developed over millennia has undermined the health of our societies and our planet – and where we can do better.
When women are able to lead and contribute on all levels of society, everyone benefits. As noted female social anthropology expert and former president of the American Sociological Association, Dr. Ruth Milkman, once said, “The most successful societies are those that have fully incorporated the talents and perspectives of women. When women are empowered, they are able to contribute their unique insights and skills to the benefit of the entire community.” While Dr. Milkman’s body of work is largely focused on labor rights, her sentiment extends to the importance of empowering women in all societies today.
When it comes to how we nourish ourselves and our communities, women play a foundational role. Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, director of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, has argued in the just released documentary, The Invisible Extinction, that the loss of our ancestral microbes is tantamount to a public health emergency and “we need to empower women and promote traditional foodways to maintain the diversity of our gut bacteria, which is essential for our health and well-being.”
In the animal world, bonobos (who, sharing 98.5% of our DNA, are tied with chimps for being our closest living non-human relatives) provide a remarkable example. My partner, Dr. Amy Parish, a noted primatologist who discovered that bonobo societies are ruled by females, states, “In many primate societies, females are the primary social and ecological engineers, and their success and empowerment is key to the well-being of the entire group.” In highlighting the parallels between human and non-human primate societies, Dr. Parish underscores the importance of recognizing the vital contributions of female individuals in all social systems.
When it comes to taking action in the realm of food and nourishment, we recently featured two more women innovators in the winter 2022-2023 issue of the Journal of Health and Healing, who are playing a leadership role in changing our understanding of our relationships with food, with farmers, with human health, and with the health of Mother Earth.
You may know or have heard of Alice Waters, author, food activist, founder and chef of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project. In our article, “Alice Waters Through the Years,” you will learn how Alice’s decades of leadership in food cultivation, connection, and dining has helped to reconnect people with food sources and to promote a sense of community around the shared experience of enjoying a meal together.
(photo credit: Kenneth Brayden Matthews)
Also in the winter journal is my interview with Sally K. Norton, MPH, “Toxins in the Kitchen – The Hidden Dangers of High-Oxalate Foods.” In our conversation and in her groundbreaking new book, Toxic Superfoods, How to Optimize Health and Avoid Foods That Can Harm You, Sally confronts today’s emphasis on plant-forward diets to expose the potential dangers of oxalates in certain plant-based foods. Her research and advocacy on oxalate toxicity are urgently important, given the widespread belief that many high-oxalate foods are “superfoods” that are beneficial to health. By raising awareness about the potential risks of consuming high amounts of oxalates, Sally is helping people to make more informed choices about what they eat and how they can best support their overall health and well-being.
(photo credit: Amanda Marsalis)
National Women’s History Month is a reminder that we have a long way to go for women to be recognized, acknowledged, and provided equal and equitable opportunities to their male counterparts in all aspects of society. By reflecting on their contributions, from pioneering research on the human microbiota and the discovery of empowered females in our biological past, to broad contributions to societal innovation and approaches to cooking and dining that are at the same time modern and reflective of ancestral practices, we can help to create a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable world for everyone.
In good health,
Steven J. Schindler,