Sunday, December 01, 2013
Shop Indie BookstoresWhen I took up gardening, I did it because I inherited (from the landlord) a beautiful garden, complete with pre-made raised beds and lovely native plants. Although I resisted the term "urban pioneer," it's true that I was very excited to eat my homegrown chard and kale and fussed over my tomatoes that first year like I imagine some people fuss over their children. I've tried my hand at an artistic endeavor or two, but know my limits: I'm not a crafter and I certainly don't even try to cook. In other words, I'm not into Emily Matchar's "New Domesticity" and if I am honest, I kind of scorn it. Put simply, new domesticity is the "re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject these things." Though there are a lot of push and pull factors leading people (read: women) to this new domesticity, it's not always obvious why people are taking up knitting as their extracurricular when they used to be reading, writing, going back to school or playing sports. New Domesticity is an even bigger phenomena: it's not just people like me who garden like weekend warriors motorcycle, it's people dropping out of "normal" life to craft as a full time job, hoping their earnings on Etsy will be enough, moms who decide that attachment parenting is the way to go, and that working is incompatible with natural mom-ness, and that food is so unsafe that the only way to live is to grow your own. All of it.
This is kind of creepy to me, and Matchar does a decent job problematizing it. Betty Friedan and other second wave feminists worked hard to get women out of house and to demand that men do their share. Many of these new domestics are "reclaiming" feminism saying that the workforce is oppressive and that it's more natural for women to be in the home, with their kids. Some of these new homemakers blame feminism for forcing them into the awful, stifling position of needing to work and sending their kids to daycare. As Matchlar writes, "feminists certainly believed in women's rights to have careers and financial independence, but they did not, as many today suppose, invent the two-career family. The economy did that." New Domesticity doesn't really answer this problem: It's a nice thought that women can drop out/opt out of the workforce to raise kids because they're feminists, but it's a daily life that depends on privilege, especially in tough economic times. It relies on a financial situation of inherited or passed-down wealth or a partner with a large and stable enough income to support the wife and kids. And this privilege comes with a very backwards sense of dependence: If mom stays home because dad is earning the money, mom is once again dependent on dad, who has many more options than mom. The dad can leave (he's got the money), the dad can change jobs (he's got the skills and experience), the dad can opt out of taking care of the house and the kids (he's got the job as the legitimate excuse, and hey, didn't mom embrace homemaking as her life's work?).
There's another part of this "return to the home" bit that has a creepy underside which Matchar touches on but doesn't dig into a whole lot. It's a nice thought that by opting out and line drying our clothes and raising our own food we can save the environment, but it's a very simple and, honestly, not very effective form of activism. I'm certainly not going to argue that people shouldn't eat locally, drive less, buy Prius(es) or make their own bread- lots of Matchlar's subjects seem to be obsessed with making bread and canning things. But it's when they do this because they don't trust the government or the American food system and decide to opt out entirely that I start feeling a little bit like I've been transported to Idaho. As Matchar writes, "this intense focus on what control the individual can have on their food is a mark of today's DIY culture in general. Progressive food politics lauds individual action, having largely written off government regulatory agencies as hopelessly ineffectual, even corrupt." The government may be ineffective, and I'm also not going to argue that lobbyists are out of hand, but really, if all of the people who care opt out, where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those (again we get back to privilege) who *can't opt out? Basically, eating out of that horrible, governmentally regulated food supply, which, to be honest, has given us some pretty awesome things, like chlorinated water and pasteurized milk. Before you think I'm just a total grinch, I'll give you another example. These same opt-outers are often the same people as the anti-vaccinaters, and maybe now you'll agree with themacinator in saying that yeah, opting out can be pretty selfish. Kids are dying because mom's don't trust the government- educated, smart moms don't believe that the government can/should/is doing a good job/has the right to regulate what goes into their kids' bodies. Individual activism can be a) shortsighted b) ineffective and c) dangerous. This DIY thing is going a little far, and it's all wrapped up together. I'd much rather that these back-to-the-home people banded together to fight the real systemic problems underlying our food supply, thus making the entire food system more healthy and equitable, so everyone could benefit from their beliefs. As much Michelle Obama's priorities are not my own, they're certainly not a feminist nightmare, and I believe that new homemaker-feminists have a lot to learn from her.
Matchar writes a lot about the new DIY parenting, and tries to explain it by breaking feminism into two: "liberal feminism" and "cultural feminism" (I think this is sort of a ridiculous dichotomy, but I'll let that stand for this purpose). "Liberal feminism," according to Matchar "suggests that most gender inequality is culturally based" while "cultural feminism is the idea that some gender inequality is actually just 'gender difference' and that we should honor women's (and men's) natural, inherent natures." I'm not exactly sure how this is feminism (and I don't think that Matchar thinks it is) but it is the way that people advocate for this return to the ideal of womanhood as mother and housekeeper. I find it disgusting and essentialist. It's not good for women, it's no good for men who may want to be dads, it's no good for queers- um, I guess all same sex couples have to pick a role, right?- it's no good for anyone who identifies as anything else- and it's totally retrograde about race. Once again we're back to idealizing that white, middle class housewife who is respectable and does respectable things and wouldn't want to do "unladylike" things like work, achieve, be competitive or otherwise do the things that most poor women have to do.
Which leads me to my final point: While Matchar is decent on class (she acknowledges that this return to the hearth is a primarily middle and upper middle class pastime, and then works hard to show examples of people who are struggling to make ends meet with one income), she completely whitewashes the issue. Although she doesn't ever explicitly mention race, I'm pretty sure that her subjects, or at least the vast majority of them, are white. Do you know a lot of nonwhite knitters, canners, return to homeschooling mothers? And really, is this an ideal that a lot of people of color you know aspire to? The ethic (or maybe aesthetic is a better word) that Matchar comes back to over and over is that of the 1950s, which, if I recall right, wasn't a particularly great time for women of color. Women of color are *still fighting for equality and might laugh at the idea of opting out or complaining about the freedom that their mothers fought for. The life that Betty Friedan et al said sucked wasn't the life of the woman of color in the 50s, and it certainly isn't the life of most women of color now. This discussion of race in this new (sub)culture is entirely missing from "Homeward Bound," making an otherwise insightful look at a slippery new phenomenon disappointing.