Feminism And The “New Domesticity”

antique foodstuffsThe Laundry Goddess is so Hot Right Now

The domestic arts are hot right now, or so the trend section of every major media outlet would have you believe. There have been numerous articles in the past year about young women’s newfound desire to take part in traditionally feminine activities like baking, gardening, and sewing. The authors’ discomfort with the idea of rich white women spending time in the kitchen or at home with their children is palpable; each article has a tone of skepticism at best, and clear disgust at worst. Pinterest is always mentioned, as are the subjects’ tattoos. The articles always suggest (either subtly or outright) that these activities and the women who enjoy them are anti-feminist.

Imagine a young mother who stays home with her young daughter, who was breast-fed and cloth-diapered. Her husband is a creative professional and wears glasses and a fedora. When she’s not cooking, taking her daughter out to explore the city, or doing craft projects with her, she’s sewing all her daughter’s clothes and taking tons of photos of her in their pretty Chicago apartment. She used to work in an upscale children’s boutique, but now she has a side business making children’s clothes and accessories and selling them to wealthy moms in the suburbs of Chicago. You’re probably imagining a white woman with great hair taking loads of Instagram photos of her daughter and posting them on her requisite blog. And if you’re like many journalists, bloggers, and consumers of internet culture, you’re likely rolling your eyes at this woman who fills her time with such privileged endeavors.

But the woman I just described is not, in fact, a lifestyle blogger; she is my mother, and what I just described was our life in the late 1980s. To help you really picture her, I’ll add this: she was a lifelong tomboy who begged my grandma for years to let her cut her hair short. When the passage of Title IX allowed girls to play Little League with the boys in her hometown (there was no separate baseball or softball league for girls), she was the only girl in the entire city to play with the boys. Though she stayed home with me while my father worked as an actor in Chicago, she eventually began raising me on her own while attending school to earn her degree in education. She sewed my clothes when it was less expensive than buying them.

In the summer of 2011, she built my brother a rocket ship loft bed (after he outgrew the train bed with a working light she built him when he was a toddler). In the summer of 2012, she built a pirate ship deck off the back of her house all by herself. Well, actually, she did it with the help of my grandmother. My grandmother, who cross-stitches, sews, and cooks. Who did all the house cleaning and earned the nickname “the laundry goddess” when I was younger because she could always get the stains out of our clothes. My grandmother, who was first in her class at nursing school, who raised her three kids alone after her divorce in the early 1970s (and her fourth on her own in the 80s), who, at seventy-one years old, still works sixty hours a week.

I grew up believing that the domestic arts are important, special, and valuable. I’d always been incredibly proud of all of my mom and grandma’s talents, and felt proud of myself whenever I could follow in their footsteps. Until recently, that is, when I learned that taking after the women in my family or emulating the things my mom did during a happy time in our lives (and then having the gall to put photos of these activities on the internet) makes me a hipster. A hipster who also happens to be setting the feminist movement back fifty years.

Women’s Work as Radical Work

Last fall, I read Radical Homemakers, a book by Shannon Hayes that puts forth a feminist philosophy I don’t think most of us learned in our women’s studies classes. At the risk of overly simplifying the message, here’s a brief overview: Hayes argues that instead of relying on a man, modern women now rely on The Man—that is, to be independent from our male partners, we have become dependent on our employers who we know do not always have our best interests at heart. And in our pursuit of financial independence, we must rely on cheap convenience products that are bad for our health and the environment, and that are often made by low-wage workers. According to the book, radical homemakers

“… are not the brand of feminists seeking security through economic independence…. In most cases, they view ‘economic independence’ as an imaginary condition; if a wife, say, is reliant upon her husband’s paycheck, he, in turn, is dependent upon the vicissitudes or even the whims of his employer. They are both vulnerable if their life skills are limited to what they can do for a paycheck. They are more stable if the paycheck is only a small percentage of the livelihood, and life skills, increased self-reliance, community, and family networks supply the rest…. These homemakers have evolved a more sophisticated view of what constitutes an economy and they have surrendered a false sense of independence to embrace genuine interdependence.

“… It is only natural that many feminists, working in the context of a power struggle between the sexes, suggest that the only way to achieve equality is to exit the home. The trouble is, however, that everyone still needs a home… the power struggle that is alleviated when both husband and wife become working professionals is merely transferred to someone lower on the social ladder.

“For there to be true social egalitarianism, then the work of keeping a home must be valued for its contribution of the welfare to all.”

Radical Homemakers really does value the work of creating a home. It argues that we dismiss what has historically been considered “women’s work” as unimportant because of its association with women (and, perhaps more important, its association with poor women and women of color) when in reality, mastering the domestic arts actually has a lot of value on a personal, community, and large social and political level. The book isn’t arguing that women stay home to keep perfectly clean houses, organize playgroups for their kids, and make baby food from scratch while their husbands go off to work; it’s pushing families to become units of production (raising/growing/making their own food, sewing their own clothes, trading skills and homemade goods with other families, etc.) instead of units of consumption.

Consider that most of us buy our bread rather than making it making it ourselves. It would probably be cheaper and healthier to make it ourselves, so why don’t we? Because we don’t have time. Why don’t we have time? Because we have to go to work. Why do we have to go to work? Because we need to pay for our homes and cars. Why do we need two cars per family? So we can go to work. To pay for our bread. And all the other things we need to buy to offset the fact that we’re working so much and don’t have time to produce anything for ourselves. Radical Homemakers argues that we should spend more time making our own bread so we don’t have to work in terrible conditions so that we can pay someone else (who is also working in terrible conditions) to do it for us.

Radical homemakers care deeply about social justice, the environment, their health, and about many of the seriously broken parts of our culture and economy. So why does the dominant portrayal of them tend to make them out to be smug, clueless, and regressive?

Hipster Housewives or Women Getting it Done?

It’s impossible to discuss the neo-homesteading movement without discussing how it has been affected by the internet, and by the lifestyle bloggers who make the domestic arts the main focus of their blogs. As they document their days sewing crafts to sell on Etsy, growing vegetables, and homeschooling their children, they become the most visible proponents of this return to a DIY-heavy, simple life.

In a 2012 article for Bitch Magazine, “Better Homes and Bloggers,” Holly Hilgenberg wrote:

“For many, blogging is a relatively easy, low-cost way to share personal anecdotes and explore interests in an accessible medium… At the same time, there is something a bit uncanny about the genre. Click through enough of them and you’ll start wondering: How is it possible that so many women and their toddlers spent their Saturdays in blanket forts made from vintage quilts found at a swap meet? And does the world really need more Instagram shots of early-morning trips to the flower market? One may get the impression that the Stepford Wives have swapped their pastel sun hats and starched blouses for sewing-machine tattoos and Rachel Comey shoes. The pastels; soft-focus and color-saturated photo filters; optimistic, sunny tone; and tendency to address readers as ‘sweeties,’ ‘darlings,’ and other diminutives characterize many of the most visible lifestyle blogs. Coupled with the focus on domesticity and the home, bloggers start to resemble a contemporary, superwoman version of a stereotypical 1950s housewife. These women don’t just maintain squeaky-clean, camera-ready homes and adorable families, they also run independent businesses, wear perfect outfits, rock exquisitely styled hair—and find the time to blog about it.”

Rather than celebrating the fact that the most visible bloggers who are doing this also happen to be making a living doing so, thus getting paid for “women’s work” (something early feminists fought for), the authors instead dismiss “women’s work” and “women’s interests” as fluffy and unimportant. These articles always use white, middle-class women with children as the example of this new type of homemaker, and the authors (who are typically white, middle-class women with children) subtly hint that what they are doing is silly or just the latest trendy thing to do.  The argument “if taking care of your home is so important, then why aren’t men doing it?” is often used, which simply sends the message that if men aren’t doing something, then it’s not a smart, worthwhile endeavor. When these women are casually dismissed with the pejorative “hipster”—which is really just another word for “poser,” an accusation that makes most people bristle—the clear message is that they don’t really know themselves or care about what they are doing. They couldn’t possibly be growing their own food because they care about their health, or leaving the workforce because it can be exhausting and unfriendly to anyone who wants to have a life outside of  her job. They must be doing it to be the “little wife” for their husbands, to get attention, or to “win” the competition between women.

The Bitch article and others like it makes the argument that these blogs support both a return to traditional femininity for all women and omit the realities of everyday life—dirty dishes, marital spats—in a way that makes the women reading feel insecure. Women reading are inclined to compare their lives to these bloggers’, and then feel inadequate when they don’t measure up. As Katie J.M. Baker wrote on Jezebel:

“I’d love to have home-brined pickles in my fridge, paper-mache globes dangling from my ceiling, and plants everywhere—but instead I have an old jar of martini olives (can olives go bad?), a lamp from Target, and dried-out flowers that have been sitting in a vase on my bookshelf for a month (thanks to a mixture of being lazy and thinking they look kind of cool). When I look at photos of beautifully-designed abodes, I beat myself up for, say, taking a month to order curtains online and another three weeks to actually put them up… as lame as it may sound, I can’t browse through more than a few ‘pins’ without wondering why I suck so much at being a ‘real woman.'”

If these women are skilled at anything, the argument goes, it’s the art of making other women feel bad about themselves. I do wonder if there would be so much pushback against these bloggers if they weren’t so pretty, so happy, so… popular. When a single, non-white, non-straight, or non-conventionally attractive woman cooks a Texas sheet cake for a loved one’s birthday and then blogs about it, we don’t think twice about gender roles. But when she does it for her man with her blond hair tucked out of her way in a top-knot? Well, then, she’s hurting the sisterhood.

So the question then becomes: why are we blaming the women who are doing something they enjoy (and, in many cases, are earning a living from it) instead of questioning why, exactly, one woman’s desire to make her own pickles is immediately taken as some sort of attack against the women who buy their pickles from the grocery store? That we perceive it as an attack on our own life choices is simply us buying into the false idea that anything a woman does is for others’ pleasure and not her own. And even though (unfortunately) mocking the girls we perceive as being too popular is nothing new, it’s possible we’re getting so caught up in our own insecurity that we’re missing a budding feminist movement. Perhaps our learned-in-middle-school instinct for taking down any girl that looks like she’s gotten too popular, is causing us to dismiss a group of successful women entrepreneurs.

I’m not saying I never get a case of the “whomp whomps” when spending too much time on Pinterest, but when that happens, it’s something I need to take up with my therapist, not the women whose homes are so damn photogenic.

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Homeward Bound

This isn’t to say that there aren’t parts of this celebration of the domestic arts that aren’t problematic. In her new book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, writer Emily Matchar explores the neo-homsteading movement in depth. She unpacks everything from the realities of earning money selling your wares on Etsy, to the way the neo-homesteading movement brings together evangelicals and crunchy liberals. While I don’t agree with all of her arguments, she takes a balanced and informed approach to a complex topic.

Matchar argues that, for the most part, women getting more into the domestic arts as part of a focus on social justice or is not a bad thing. “New domesticity is, at its heart, a cry against a society that’s not working,” she writes. “A society that doesn’t offer safe enough food, accessible health care, a reasonable level of environmental protections, any sort of rights for working parents… New Domesticity comes out of a deep desire to change the world.” But, she writes, attempting to change the world through individual solutions rather than collective political effort is a problem.

“Gardening and making your own soap and home-birthing your babies are fine, but these are inherently limited actions. If we want to see genuine food safety, if we want to see sustainable products, if we want to see a better women’s health system, and if we want these things for everyone, not just the privileged few with the time and education to DIY it, then we need large social changes.

“This is not to say that many DIYers aren’t fighting for social change—many are. But the overall attitude of ‘Screw the government, I’m going to grow my own food and shop at the farmers market’ is still dishearteningly common against the kind of educated progressives who might otherwise be the best advocates for large-scale social change.

“…But unless you genuinely believe we’re going to return to the days of yeoman faring, the workplace is here to stay… If women cut back on their ambitions en masses, institutional change will never happen and the glass ceiling will lower. We need to be there to demand equal pay, mandatory maternity leave, more humane hours.”

And while she’s correct, I do wonder why we are so quick to call out women whose choices don’t make the world a better place for all women. (The recent backlash against Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer for her decision to end the company’s telecommuting policy comes to mind.) I think most feminists struggle when they are inclined to make a choice that is one of those constantly derided by Big White Feminism; I know I do. Not every choice is a feminist choice, but when someone takes my pride in my ability to frost a cake like a champ as some sort of evidence that all women just want to stay home and raise babies, it occurs to me that this has more to do with that person’s assumptions than my cake decorating skills.

Still, I agree with Matchar’s call to make the movement toward domesticity inclusive rather than exclusive. We can fight for change by going to the farmers market… and by advocating for changes to food policy that would make healthy, fresh food more widely available. We can sell our crafts on Etsy for extra cash…and not lose sight of the fact that a financial safety net is still crucial to survival in today’s world. We can, and I think many of us already do.

But in the meantime, we have to stop perpetuating the idea that “women’s work” is silly and inherently oppressive, and the idea that anyone who says she enjoys it is just pretending to like it in an effort to put other women down and get herself a husband. When we’re snarking on women for their love of baking, sewing, or gardening, we can apply the same test I apply to chores: Would it bother us so much if she were doing this for her mother? Will this skill help her survive the zombie apocalypse? Well okay then.

Being a housewife actually never crossed my mind when I was younger, because, unlike me, all of the housewives I ever saw were thin, white, well-off, and conventionally attractive. Anyone who thinks that I’m cooking to please Eric is quite mistaken; when I cook, it’s because I am hungry. I love my frilly aprons and KitchenAid stand mixer because they are reminders of the things my kick-ass feminist family members taught me to do for myself. They are not symbols of a secret desire to stay home and raise babies, but reminders of my mom’s and grandma’s lessons to stay strong and raise hell.

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