My baby boomer mother does not can jam. Or bake bread. Or knit. Or sew. Nor did my grandmother, a 1960s housewife of the cigarette-in-one-hand-cocktail-in-the-other variety, who saw convenience food as a liberation from her immigrant mother’s domestic burdens. Her idea of a fancy holiday treat was imported lobster strudel from the gourmet market.
My, how things have changed.
My grandmother died nearly a decade ago, but I can imagine how puzzled she’d be to behold my generation’s newfound mania for old-fashioned domestic work. Around the country, women my age (I’m 29), the daughters and granddaughters of the post-Betty Friedan feminists, are embracing the very homemaking activities our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shucked off. We’re heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.
But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, “reclaiming” domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this “new domesticity” start to look like old-fashioned obligation?
Jam-canning is just a tiny facet of our domesticity craze. Sales of home canning supplies have risen 35 percent in the past three years, and sales of the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” (the bible of home canning) have doubled over just the past year, according to the company. There’s the knitting resurgence, the homemade cleaning supplies made using white vinegar, the homemaker blogs. Then there’s all the “Little House on the Prairie” stuff, with its shades of ’70s hippie back-to-the-landism — the beekeeping, the cheesemaking, the urban chickens. When the magazine Backyard Poultry came out with its first issue almost six years ago, it printed 15,000 copies. Today, it prints 113,000.
The shelves at Barnes and Noble are overflowing with how-to guides to sewing and yogurt-making and rooftop vegetable gardening, more philosophical books about “urban homesteading” and “radical home economics,” and memoirs by women who quit their corporate careers to raise sheep or home school their kids (the number of home-schooled children went from 850,000in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007, according to the most recent official estimate). The “career girl gone Green Acres” story is to the 2010s what chick lit was to the 1990s, a fantasy for a certain demographic of educated (though not necessarily wealthy) young women; today they’re concerned with sustainability, good food and conscious living.
At one level, this stuff is just plain fun. “Sometimes a can of jam is just a can of jam,” as Freud (never) said. Our tech-saturated generation craves creative hands-on activities, and nostalgic hobbies such as canning, knitting and baking fit the bill. We’ve realized that just because something was historically devalued as “women’s work,” that doesn’t mean we have to shun it to be taken seriously in the world. Plenty of young men are embracing their domestic sides, too. My husband bakes a mean blueberry pie, and nobody considers him less the man for it.
But lately, many women (and a few men) are diving into domesticity with a sense of moral purpose. The homemade jar of jam becomes a symbol of resistance to industrial food and its environment-defiling ways. This view has been brewing for a while, a thick stew of Slow Food and locavorism and DIY brought to a boil by recession and anxiety. Suddenly, learning the old-fashioned skills of our great-grandmothers seems not just fun, but necessary and even virtuous.
“This was initially about being frugal and concerned with what I put in my body,” says Kate Payne, 30, the Austin-based author of “The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking” and something of a guru on the new-domesticity scene. “But it became about the politics. . . . Am I going to buy cheap crap, or am I going to do this stuff myself?”
I recently spent some time with Megan Paska, a 31-year-old Brooklynite whose pixie-cut hair and inked-up biceps make her look like she should be fronting an indie rock band. But Paska’s daily life more closely resembles a 19th-century farm wife’s: soaking beans for stews, feeding her backyard chickens and rabbits, drying herbs, baking bread, keeping bees on her apartment roof. Her frugal, home-based life allowed her to leave a desk job she disliked; she now lives on $1,000 a month earned by teaching classes on DIY urban food production and writing about beekeeping and other pre-industrial skills.
A few years ago, her friends thought she was nuts. Now, with the economy stagnating and career disillusionment growing, they all want to imitate her. (Though her boyfriend, an IT guy, is not so sure.)
Most of the urban homesteaders Paska knows are female. “Women find this lifestyle very empowering,” she says. “Some people assume that this is a backlash against the feminist movement, but I see it as a continuation of it.”
In the past couple of years, a slew of hipster home-ec books has arrived to fill us in on lost domestic skills, recasting housework as scrappy, anti-establishment self-fulfillment. In addition to Payne’s “Hip Girl’s Guide,” there’s Raleigh Briggs’s “Make Your Place,” Bust Magazine’s “The Bust DIY Guide to Life,” Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen’s “Making It: Radical Home-Ec for a Post-Consumer World” and Shannon Hayes’s “Radical Homemakers.”
In one such book — “How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew” — writer Erin Bried recalls serving her dinner party guests a homemade “rhubarb” pie accidentally made with look-alike Swiss chard. One might chalk this up as a simple goof (hey, they’ve both got red stems!), but Bried sees her mistake as something much more serious:
“When did I lose my ability to take care of myself? . . . What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism.”
This vision of what it means for a woman to take care of herself is either radically new or incredibly retro. Bried is a senior staff writer at a major national magazine, yet she’s framing her ability to take care of herself around her ability to bake a pie.
Clearly, knowing how to cook (or knit, or garden) is good and useful. Some of us — myself included — find it enjoyable. But is it a moral and environmental necessity? Is it not good enough that I earn the cash to buy the jam — or the pie, or the loaf of bread, or the scarf? Do I really need to be able to can the jam myself? And if we’re raising the stakes on domestic expectations, we have to ask: Who’s doing the extra labor, men or women?
Many champions of the DIY movement explicitly say that domestic work shouldn’t be about gender. But I’ve also noticed a resurgence of old-fashioned gender essentialism from some surprising sources. I’ve lately been hearing things like “There’s just something natural about women taking on the nurturing role in the home” coming out of the mouths of women’s studies grads and Ivy League PhDs.
What used to be a reactionary right-wing view now passes as almost progressive — stuff like “We’re biologically hard-wired to do this” or “It makes evolutionary sense.” When you get too focused on the word “natural” as it applies to food, clothing and shampoo, it seems to become awfully tempting to apply it to people.
Natural or not, women are still overwhelmingly viewed as the guardians of family health and safety. And a growing number of women whom I’ve spoken to genuinely think that “do it yourself” is the best — perhaps the only — way to ensure their families’ well-being. This anxiety and the need to personally vet food and other household items has been well-noted by scholars: A large part of the return to domesticity among educated young women has to do with “a reaction against a broken food system in America,” says historian Marcie Cohen Ferris.
As a young stay-at-home mom in Pennsylvania recently told me, “The only way to know what’s in your food is to make it yourself.” A stay-at-home mom in Iowa said she wants to try home schooling her son because she’s worried about the school environment: the cleaning supplies, the food in the cafeteria.
You could say these women are simply homemakers searching for a purpose beyond driving carpool. As work-life balance scholar Joan Williams tells me, extreme domesticity can be a refuge for educated women who’ve left the workforce: “You’ve been trained your entire life in a high-pressure, high-achievement atmosphere, and you need somewhere to put that,” she says. “So you turn your household into an arena for dazzling performance.”
But these extreme DIY-ers are also voicing a fear and frustration that resonates with anyone who worries about salmonella-tainted eggs or BPA in their kid’s sippy cup. Which is to say, most of us. Their domesticity can be seen as an effort to repair on an individual level what isn’t being fixed at a governmental or societal one. Pro bono. Because, as important and fulfilling as housework may be, it’s unpaid. And in a world where college-educated women still earn, over the course of their careers, about $713,000 less than college-educated men, that’s no small thing.
Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s “liberating” lobster strudel. And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050.
Emily Matchar is a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Gourmet and Outside, among other publications. She is working on a book about “new domesticity.” She will host an online chat about this piece on Monday at 12 p.m. Submit questions before or during the discussion.
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