Just to be clear: this is not a book review. Yes, these thoughts were prompted by Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, but my main point is not to try to provide a balanced summary of the book itself. Let me just say that I found it mostly engagingly written and well researched, and I think it provokes some sobering and healthy reflection on gender and (to a lesser extent) class dynamics within the culture of earthy, homesteading DIYers. At the same time, something about the book really bothered me. I couldn’t tell if it was the author’s often sarcastic undertone as she portrayed the “New Domesticity” movement, or the fact that she presented a side of the movement that I don’t particularly (want to) identify with.
You see, on the pages of this book, someone like me can easily find versions of her own self. The book is about why women — particularly white, liberal, highly educated women (check, check, check) — are embracing a subculture that celebrates the very domestic arts that earlier generations of women fought to free themselves from. Matchar focuses on the world of crafting and cooking blogs, Etsy businesses, the DIY food culture, natural parenting, “opting out” of careers, and homesteading. I don’t have an Etsy store, I continue to work a full-time job, and I am not yet a parent (although soon will be). But in most other respects, I fit perfectly the stereotype that the book evokes over and over again, in a slightly sardonic tone: the chicken-keeping, sauerkraut-making, tomato-canning, earth-loving, bike-pedaling, wool-spinning, blog-writing New Domestic.
At the same time, this piling on of exaggerated stereotypes (though entertaining to read) obscures some of the truly urgent and morally compelling motivations that lead many of us to this way of life. If the movement is about re-creating the perfect 1950s suburban housewife — complete with cupcake-baking and a vintage-style Anthropologie apron — then yes, we certainly have to ask what is happening to feminist goals, but that is not the movement I see myself (or most people I know) being part of. If I was lured into this life by some role model or ideal, it is rather the badass farmer or resourceful urban homesteader or creative permaculture designer — of whichever gender — in overalls and muddy boots cultivating life in all of its forms and trying to do his or her small part to reduce the mindless waste and consumption that is built into mainstream American life. Although Matchar mentions environmental concerns as one of the reasons that motivate the “New Domestics,” I simply don’t think she takes this impulse seriously enough.
I also don’t agree that this home-centered life is an apolitical choice, that by “doing it yourself” you cease to try to change the system for the better. It is through activities such as cooking from scratch and preserving food that the local food movement, and small farmers everywhere, are being supported and the irresponsible, jet-fueled processed food industry challenged by a viable alternative. It is by developing self-sufficiency — learning to produce more and more of one’s daily needs oneself, whether it’s sewing a button or fixing an appliance or growing vegetables — that one can begin to make a small but important dent in the monstrous machine of consumerist culture and throw-away goods. It is by being more present to one’s children and involving them in these activities that one can foster future decision-makers who are capable of questioning what mainstream culture tells them to do and want and dream. It is by engaging in all these activities that people around the country are standing up as examples and inspiring each other. The “New Domesticity,” as I see it, is every bit a political choice.
Just my two cents. I’d welcome any thoughts any of you might have!