Speaking of Women's Rights: Feminist Homemakers: Oxymoron, or Food for Thought?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feminist Homemakers: Oxymoron, or Food for Thought?

Probably you too have noticed the recent trends toward a more DIY (do-it-yourself) culture. In 2009, 35% of U.S. households participated in “food gardening,” according to the National Gardening Association. More folks are canning, raising chickens, knitting, quilting, and taking part in all manner of pioneer-type activities. The First Lady planted an organic garden at the White House, to much fanfare. Even I, a chronic black thumb, succumbed last year to growing some edibles and whipping up some pillow covers and drapes on my new sewing machine.

Do such acts of “homemaking” have the potential to be transformative, another wave of feminism? Or are they a retreat to an old way of life in which women's contributions to family economics were devalued?

For me, such activities are mostly a hobby. For others, they are an economic necessity. For yet others, though, they are a choice: a conscious rejection of a consumerist culture.

A recent New York Times article chronicles the rise of a movement of “Radical Homemakers.” The word “femivore” in the article’s unfortunate title, “A Femivore’s Dilemma,” in fact means “eater of women.” If you can get past that little precision problem, the title is a riff off of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the search for an environmentally sustainable, back-to-the-land, slow-food, locavore way of living.

The eponymous Radical Homemakers website and book describe the concept this way:

It is the story of pioneering men and women who are redefining feminism and the good life by adhering to simple principles of ecological sustainability, social justice, community engagement and family well-being. … Radical Homemakers is about men and women across the U.S. who focus on home and hearth as a political and ecological act, and who have centered their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change.

The article has generated a lot of interesting discussion in the blogosphere (see, for example, here and here and here), raising questions such as these:
  • Is this movement yet another way for working women to feel guilty, for not being superwomen who also grow and can their own food while toiling in a factory or in an office?
  • Does completely embracing the “back-to-the-land” movement end up just duplicating an ages-old structure in which women are not compensated for domestic duties, and women’s work is separated by men’s work because of differences in physical strength?
  • Are only women who are already economically empowered (read: stay-at-home moms) able to make the choice to devote their time to such endeavors as raising chickens or feeding their own families fresh, local food?
  • Is it misguided to bemoan the lack of women in the Forbes list of richest people (only 14 females out of 1,011 self-made billionaires in the entire world), when this list merely reflects a corporate, industrial structure that relies on exploitative labor and ecologically extractive processes – and is radical homemaking the antidote?

While I don’t pretend to have the answers, I do know this: All women should have real choices, and real opportunity to develop economic self-sufficiency and financial stability.

We don’t need to completely eschew corporate industrialism, nor do we have to accept it as the ultimate measure of women’s empowerment and success. A person’s gender should not constrain her from pursuing some form of economic self-sufficiency – whether it be on a farm, in a restaurant, in a manufacturing job, or in an executive suite. And advocating for, and enforcing, laws that ensure equitable treatment at the workplace, as well as laws that change the normative employment standards (for example, laws protecting workers who need family and medical leave, or laws promoting flexibility and worker empowerment), can help transform work - wherever it takes place - to be more in sync with the lives of real women.