Where's the Beef?
Today I googled the Wendy’s commercial of the early 1980s were an older woman uses the catchphrase “where’s the beef?!”. This may—or may not—surprise you. What probably will surprise you was the fact that this search was not inspired by my Memorial Day plans of grilling, but because of my job here at the Jewish Women’s Archive.
I admit, it’s probably not the best use of my time. That being said, I’m going to share with you why I was inspired to question the beef.
While exploring our archives I came across a truly remarkable activist, Clara Lemlich Shavelson. Born in 1886, Shavelson was a key player in the labor movement. She was also a suffragist, communist, community organizer, and peace activist. Shavelson was even contextualized in a modern Broadway play and movie entitled I’m Not Rappaport.
Here’s where the beef comes into play. In 1935 New York City women took to the streets to protest the rising cost of meat. Shavelson, by now a seasoned organizer, led a group that crossed religious and racial lines. Groups of women, including the United Council of Working Class Women (a communist women’s group), mother’s groups, church groups, and black women’s groups, banded together. These homemakers refused to buy meat until the price was reduced by 10 cents a pound.
In New York City the boycott was so successful that just five days in the Retail Kosher Meat Trade Code Authority reported that at least two-thirds of the kosher meat shops were closed. While no one was actually chanting, “where’s the beef?” the answer soon became clear. By mid-June, only a few weeks after Shavelson began the boycott, over a thousand shops answered the call, and reduced their meat prices.
The boycott spread across the United States. Major cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Denver, and Miami all saw boycotting women demonstrating their beef with meat prices. These boycotts saw women of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities working together. Shavelson even led a group of women to Washington to meet with the Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace.
I can’t help but think that Shavelson would get just a little bit of a kick out of these old Wendy’s commercials. Sure, they weren’t calling for social change. But I can almost imagine her chuckling at the fact that such a revolutionary concept—protesting for fair meat prices—could one day become something as commonplace as a clever commercial boasting the right amount of beef for the right price. So be sure that when you crack out that grill for this long Memorial Day weekend you think fondly of Clara Shavelson. Without her efforts we might still be wondering just where the beef is anyways.
To learn more about Clara Shavelson, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Or, check out 10 Things You Should Know About Clara Lemlich Shavelson