Dedakatsi: The Unsung Feminist
By Polina Chesnakova
From her perch atop the Sololaki ridge, Georgia’s most famous woman—and protector—proudly stands at twenty meters tall and looks down at the ancient city of Tbilisi. The striking lady is dressed in traditional Georgian garb and holds a bowl of wine to greet friends in one hand and a sword to ward off enemies in the other. Her name is Kartlis Deda, or “Mother of Georgia,” and she was erected in 1958 to mark the city’s 1,500th anniversary as an embodiment of the national character: a hospitality that knows no bounds and a fierce pride in the country’s freedom and strength. Yet for decades the monument has also served another purpose. The Mother of Georgia stands as an example for all women—to remind them of their familial and national duties to provide for and protect their home.
The concept of women as, above all else, devoted caretakers is deep-rooted in the Georgian patriarchal narrative and still rings true in many parts of the country. But this imperative was brought to a whole new level during and following World War II. Many women had to take on the role of breadwinner while their husbands were away fighting. Thousands of these men never came home, and the ones who did returned physically and mentally damaged and unable to fully or properly care for their families again. What other options did these mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters have but to continue carrying out their familial duties—even if this responsibility verged on the self-sacrificial? So they labored on—cooking, cleaning, working, and persevering—and eventually these strong, resilient women became referred to as dedakatsi—literally “mother-man” in Georgian.
This phenomenon continued through the latter half of the twentieth century, as social and economic turmoil wracked the Soviet bloc country and brought unemployment to an all-time high, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The women of this new generation again were forced to extend their role from caretakers to breadwinners, selling goods such as secondhand clothes or homemade cakes on the streets or markets while men sat at home without jobs. Time and time again, in response to male defeatism, these dedakatsi, with their enterprising and determined spirit, have risen to the challenge.
I first heard of the “mother-man” term while listening to an interview of London-based chef and author Olia Hercules on an episode of the Radio Cherry Bombe podcast. Hercules was discussing her new cookbook on Georgia and the surrounding countries, Kaukasis, and how she came across the concept and history of dedakatsi while she was researching the book. “For me, it was the most incredible discovery. I met so many women like that who have nothing to do with the feminism movement. They don’t know what it is, but they are that—personified.” She was so moved by the term and all the dedakatsi she met in Georgia that Hercules was tempted to title her book after them.
As I listened to the interview, I immediately thought of my mother and her four sisters. All born in Tbilisi, they grew up in a family of eleven in Soviet Georgia. I could fill pages with stories of their childhood and youth, but in short summary: they learned from a very early age to get by and be content with very little; that life owed them nothing and hard work always paid off. As they grew older, each sister followed her own path, whether it was to get married young, attend school, or stay at home to look after their ailing mother and work when time allowed. Their familial ties and sense of obligation to each other remained strong throughout, and eventually propelled them to flee the country together in the chaotic wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
One by one, five of the seven sisters traded the sprawling mountains of Georgia for the crowded suburbia of Rhode Island. They soon found out that the promised land came with its own set of hardships and trials. As they grappled with the loss of what they left behind—which was, quite frankly, everything—my parents, aunts, and uncles had to adjust to a new culture, language, and way of life. Compounded with small children and infants who demanded constant attention and care (I myself was five months old when we moved to America), the weight of these burdens proved more than the men could bear. Two of my uncles suffered from alcoholism, and the unfamiliar landscape only exacerbated their crippling addiction. My own father’s mental illness was triggered in those early years, not only debilitating him but also isolating him over time.
Despite their husbands’ demons, my mother and aunts devoted themselves to providing the most nurturing and dynamic upbringing as possible for me and my cousins. From cleaning the gutters to cooking dinner to picking up extra jobs, there was nothing these women couldn’t or wouldn’t do for us: they were superhuman and they were the pillars of our families. I don’t mention any of this as a passing judgment on the men in my family but as a testament to, as my boyfriend aptly dubbed them, The Matriarchy. These are women whose lives were hard but who remained kind and dedicated themselves to building and sustaining their loved ones. In speaking of the dedakatsi she met in Georgia, Hercules reminded me of the strong, independent women in my own life.
What I know of perseverance, willpower, and sisterhood comes from this pack of mother-men. But the most formative lesson I gleaned from them was the power of food and its ability to ground and nourish. The childhood image of my mother standing at the stove stirring a big pot of stew or at the counter chopping away at cilantro and parsley will forever be engrained in my mind. As I grew older, I found myself being drawn to the kitchen and spending more and more time alongside her and my aunts. I came to see how a simple meal, made from scratch, not only filled our needs at the most elemental level but also comforted and united us. Whether we were rolling khachapuri (cheese bread) or grating beets for borscht, we were keeping a food heritage alive that restored a bit of the life they left behind while at the same time paving the way for new traditions.
As these women continue to share their knowledge with me, I preserve it as any millennial would—by sharing it with others through my writing and social media. I’ve been able to witness how genuine interest from others has encouraged my mother and aunts to see their food heritage in a new light and to fall in love with it. What was once just another dull familial duty, cooking is now approached with an eagerness, passion, and pride I never witnessed growing up. This rekindled interest has brought us closer while also empowering our sense of self.
So in light of this nuanced take on tradition, I put forth a new understanding of what it means to be a dedakatsi in the twenty-first century. This is a woman whose strength doesn’t lie in her ability to take on a man’s role, but simply in her willingness to face life’s obstacles head-on. Whose value and sense of worth don’t stem from her finesse with a broom or a rolling pin but in the passions and aspirations that drive her to do and be better. Who finds her independence in fully and abundantly loving herself—whether that’s through food, meditation, you name it—and letting that awareness and those acts of self-love set her free. Dedakatsi don’t just exist in Georgia but throughout the world, in all walks of life.
We inspire, encourage, and look after each other in sisterhood and in a way that I know Kartlis Deda would appreciate.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 7
Illustration by Laurence Deschamps-Léger (Laucolo)