Inside the movement to reclaim domesticity

Kate Payne has been described as "something of a guru on the new-domesticity scene". (Photo Credit: Jo Ann Santangelo)

Kate Payne has been described as “a guru on the new-domesticity scene”. (Photo Credit: Jo Ann Santangelo)

Kate Payne is a writer and blogger in Austin, Texas, and the author of ’The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking‘. She is one of many people profiled in a new book called, ‘Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity’, by Emily Matchar.

Though Kate says she usually refrains from commentary unless she has something nice to say, she felt compelled to raise a few counterpoints to Matchar’s take on domesticity.

A year-and-a-half ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed teaser by Emily Matchar of her thesis in Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. The book, which was released in May, sets out to examine “what happens to American culture as a whole when our best and brightest put home and hearth above other concerns.”

When the Post piece ran, I didn’t feel directly under siege. What I did note was the unfair portrayal of those making an active choice to reclaim domesticity, and a genuine lack of analysis for the myriad of reasons behind such a choice.

Just a few months later, in January 2012, Slate published an article that explored the ‘paradox’ of the modern DIY movement. Beyond the clique-biased title – “Farmer Groupies and Chicken Coddlers” – I was dismayed at how the author (a female) targeted several people in this movement (myself included) with, among other judgments, the suggestion that there was “not a callused palm in sight.”

To simplify, the article’s author was insinuating that previous generations have a legitimate claim on ‘authentic’ DIY. If the real assessment of that is callused palms, as she suggests, she would be welcome to join me and inspect my hands during the height of preserving season.

The Washington Post and Slate articles were just a warm-up for the real arguments around modernity and domesticity, which reach a crescendo in Matchar’s book.

In many ways, the bar has been raised on domestic achievement. Many women have unreasonable personal expectations and end up feeling defeated when their limited supply of time runs up against those expectations. Personally, and in my book and blog, I say: “you can’t do it all.” So, choose wisely.

'Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity' is a new book by Emily Matchar.

‘Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity’ is a new book by Emily Matchar.

In that vein, it would have been nice to see Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity feature real investigation on the subject of modern domesticity and the rearranging of gender roles. Instead, the author takes readers on an extended personal rant highlighting rather extreme actions and beliefs, and using those as representative of an entire movement. In the end, Matchar lumps all of us together into a ridiculous caricature.

In the context of what she calls “hard-core foodism, New Domesticity-style,” Matchar describes herself as “a dilettante hobbyist who bakes bread on the odd weekend and eats Skippy peanut butter off the spoon the rest of the week.” At the same time, she says she adores cooking and that, “nothing is more fun … than sharing a home-cooked bowl of pasta puttanesca and a loaf of crusty bread with friends.” She often straddles the fence, simultaneously criticizing the very acts she herself seems to appreciate.

This schizophrenia runs throughout the book but, to be fair, Matchar paints an astute picture of the societal structures that make it difficult for women to stay in the workplace and simultaneously have children or a domestic life. That we’re all dealing with those structures in our own way should be the real focus of commentary.

What a hollow light Matchar casts on self-sufficiency. She manages to twist genuine personal action into perversity, pegging the fundamental human act of baking bread as reveling in domesticity and nostalgia.

She writes: “New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming yet still struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.” Not only does this sentence sum up my discontent with Matchar’s largely unfair and dismissive attitude toward the movement, it also highlights the irony of a career choice that, obviously, she finds unfulfilling.

Societal structures often make it difficult for women to stay in the workplace and simultaneously have children or a domestic life.

Societal structures often make it difficult for women to stay in the workplace and simultaneously have children or a domestic life.

It seems Matchar has spitefully lumped me into ‘the problem’ when my book and blog embrace all of her ‘solutions’. These can be summarized as follows: enfranchising men; relinquishing our obsession with all things ‘natural’; not downplaying the importance of financial independence; understanding the class issues involved; and ensuring that we don’t neglect the social good.

I do not, as Matchar seems to contend, find domesticity “natural or instinctual” to women. Even though I now know how to do things better and smarter around the house, I can honestly say I still don’t enjoy the majority of domestic chores. I do them anyway, because I don’t have the money to farm them out to other people. I enjoy working for myself, and in order to do so, I have to make trade-offs. If this means I have to take the time to really know my kitchen or to clean without introducing toxic chemicals into my home, it’s worth it to me.

On the subject of gender roles, I would have loved another mention in the section of Matchar’s book on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the New Domesticity. I am someone who doesn’t revel in domesticity the same way the other lesbians she interviewed seem to. I’m married to a woman and we judiciously divvy up the roles, chores and projects in our household. Neither of us puts stay-at-home motherhood or housewife as the pinnacle of our aspirations, and I’m pretty disappointed to see the LGBT community represented so narrowly here.

Ultimately, I resent the picture Matchar paints of women and the aspects of modern domesticity she finds troubling. On a personal note, I’m working my ass off to make it in this world. I’m full of career ambition and I don’t appreciate Matchar’s armchair look at my career path. If it doesn’t work out I’ll go get another job. But at least I will have the satisfaction of saying I tried.

My last request for Matchar: don’t peg my choice of making a living around your own standard of meaning.

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This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Diane says:

    The real problem with most analysis of the new domesticity is that it attempts to value all activities based solely on their economic worth. “You can bake bread, but why? It is $.89 a loaf!” With this comes the assumption that your time (3 hours or so) invested in the bread made this morning is only worth $.89. The reality is that whether I have a PhD or not, my time is no more or less valuable than the industrial worker who made the $.89 loaf. The opportunity cost argument is not the only lens through which to view this issue.

    My home is a place of production, which adds value to ALL activities therein, including the people that dwell there. My children are all capable of many things because in the process of baking bread, planting a garden, building a chicken coop, making cheese, et al they were also learning about microbiology, botany, architecture, and the value of work. The thorny issues around immigrant labor and the price of our food becomes real when you are engaged in the backbreaking job of picking green beans. Social reproduction, while harder to quantify, is the larger part of my choice to work in my home.

    As Robert Heinlein so eloquently put it, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    • Sheena says:

      This is a great comment. I would add that there is joy in acts of self sufficiency that can’t be monetized in the way people tend to reduce such activities, and that it comes down to priorities in the end. I prioritize learning how to make things over thoughtless consumption and, as a result, I’m far happier than I was before and I no longer feel like I’m missing out when I can’t buy something I want but don’t need. It’s hard to fill your days with buying stuff, especially if you’re not a millionaire, but knitting a pair of socks will give me hours of pleasure and the satisfaction of having created something beautiful and practical that will keep me warm. Sure, I could buy 10 pairs of socks for less than $1 a pair from WalMart, but what sort of pleasure can be gained from buying versus making? The sense of accomplishment I feel after having learned and/or perfected a skill can’t be quantified or reduced to what Matchar characterizes as trendy ignorance of what it takes to be self sufficient.

  2. katz says:

    People are too worried about drama. Do your own thing.

    Not only that, but men and women are NOT interchangable. That last paragraph is an insult to everyone bc it presumes that men and womem are interchangeable.

    And, just to address the last two items in Heinlein’s list: WAR IS A RACKET and NOT WORTH DYING FOR or MURDERING FOR. Only Men would think it is worth anything, mainly bc they have too much testosterone and a lust for violence.

    Too bad people don’t get the truth: GENDER MATTERS regarding natural ability.

    • ehawkins says:

      This is so obvious and seems so hidden in (especially) modern academic feminism. Like my husband often says, “There are some things you can never get a liberal to admit….” Sometimes facts are inconvenient to our theories.

    • JPool says:

      What in the hell are you talking about? Not only is what you write not “the truth”, or true for that matter, it doesn’t have much of anything to do with this article.

  3. Thanks Kate, I feel you. But, in my opinion the debates are for those who, on the one side, know nothing about the issues (planet, equity, food justice, resiliency….yada, yada, yada) or, on the other side, for those who feel they must apologize and/or justify their life. Hell, did I ask someone to send me some cash to support my life? I don’t think so. So what’s the rub?

    I don’t get involved (except here to support you) because I’m too busy kicking ass in my home and facing off with “it’s the economy stupid” side of this life to give a shit what anyone says. Sorry to be so damn street but I have long anticipated the feminist naysaying on householding or the “new domesticity” and it is tiresome at best and small minded and uninformed at its worse.

  4. jmccharen says:

    Hear, hear! Marx too, said the same thing in his own way. Man is not a one-job animal. That’s such a great Heinlein quote.

  5. chicky says:

    Having grown up in rural poverty, I still find canning charming. It is bust your ass work, too, but the peeling calluses and sore feet are worth it. That said, I have many advantages my grandma and mom did not and still do not have. I’ve done it with no AC and a wood cookstove, but now have AC. For the last two years I have also had a dishwasher. I have not read the book, so I can’t comment much further. It just sounds to me like the same old issue of stereotyping everyone who does a certain thing or is part of a certain group. And, growing up where canning and other DIY are still very common and never went out of practice, it is really weird to see it now criticized as something extra, or privileged, or “hipster”.

  6. Annie says:

    It’s really not about reclaiming “domesticity”. It’s about reclaiming our lives and meaning. It’s about making real things and reveling in the doing, rather than frittering your life away in a grey cubicle to buy cheap crap made by slave labor in a foreign country, eating industrially-produced and processed toxic garbage, and anesthetizing yourself in front of the idiot box at night until you fall asleep.

    • KatheM says:

      I read the book and quite frankly I would love to monetize my hobby.Her take on Etsy is probably spot on, but Ebay is another matter.And there are lots of stuff women can do at home (telecommute, but I hate that more than going to work — my sacred space is invaded.) to bring in money that doesn’t involve knitting, chickens, or corn.

      Yes, the career Gloria Steinem romanticized really does suck, and even though I am doing something I chose, it didn’t meet up to my personal expectations. My fault for listening to Gloria. Bit of a cheat,though. At her age she’s sitting on her behind not having to experience that rat race.

      My crafts are my outlet. My baking is satisfying. My knitter’s group gives me community. Nobody gets 100 percent as she says in the book, but I don’t find Matchar a font of wisdon either.

  7. Becca Riley says:

    It seems to me that several of these people, usually women, who are making such statements don’t really know what it’s all about.

    It’s not just women who are “reclaiming domesticity” it’s whole families. There are many men who are canning, who are tending chickens, and growing gardens. There are men who are staying home and doing all the domestic things the naysayers want to put women down for doing.

    Some of us do it because it’s the best fit for us, some of us do it because it works best for our families, but I don’t think that there are many who do it because they think they have to. I enjoy most of what I do, I want to try other things once I can get a house with a yard I can grow things in. It feels good knowing I can do something to take care of my family.

    • eema.gray says:

      When it was unfashionable to do so, my mother taught me AND my brothers how to make bread, cook a meal, wash/dry/fold laundry, and a host of other “domestic chores.” Needless to say, we hated doing these tasks as children! However, today my bachelor brother keeps a spotless apartment and my married brother not only works full time in the engineering field, he also does probably 60% of the domestic chores and 90% of all the cooking (and canning, brewing, and all of the other preservation chores traditionally associated with the women’s realm). I’m crazy proud of them both.

      See, the problem with a phrase like “reclaiming domesticity” is that it’s not a women thing. It’s a people-who-live-in-the-U.S. thing. We’ve got this idea stuck in our heads that the only things worth doing are those to which we can attach a direct monetary value. This is something that’s drilled into the heads of men and women, equally, from earliest childhood.

      Reclaiming domesticity is about saying there is social value and possibly indirect financial value in a clean home, animals living in the backyard, and being able to preserve the bounty of what is in season for a time when it is god awful expensive at the grocery. If I can put up quarts of radishes now when they are less than a dollar a pound, then there is financial value in the task because I will not have to pay a $1.50 – 2.00/pound come mid winter. It may only be a dollar here and a dollar there but repeat that same task over the course of the produce season and a person who preserves renders a great deal of financial value out of the task for their family.

      A little bit of a rant there. The point is that for the past few decades, neither men nor women have placed personal or general value on domestic chores. That is at last beginning to change and the women who are reclaiming the home are most noticable because a certain sub group of hard left femminists take the choice to go home rather more personal than they ought to. For some strange reason, men as a whole don’t become nearly so upset when they learn that one of their number is doing most of the domestic work or even becoming the stay at home parent. In fact, I suspect most men are openly jealous of the ones who make these decisions.

  8. citrusbritt says:

    All of these comments in defense of canning are lovely and powerful. Thank you so much, Diane, for the Heinlein quote.

    As for me, I don’t have the “luxury” of simply reveling in domesticity. I have a career as a social worker–not a high-paying job, mind you, but one that is quite fulfilling. In addition to this, I choose to can, and cook from scratch, and I make a conscious choice to not buy anything that is processed or produced in a factory. My choice to spend much of my time prepping and cooking food directly impacts my happiness and stress reduction in the short term, and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on my health and well-being in the long term.

    I would much rather make and freeze black bean burgers, pesto, and stuffed grape leaves than watch cable, any day!

  9. Robin says:

    I was excited when I found this book. I thought it would be an update of the 1970’s book put out by Carla Emery: The Encclopedia of Country Living.I am female, married for 36 years to a wonderful man.My husband and I have been struggling to live off he land, but we are looking for more land and a smaller house now.We raised our daughter the way we thought best – having eaad this book, I can see it is now called “attachment parenting”.
    My main problem with the book, and I do have LOTS of problems with the book, is that no mention is made about the role of money – these women who left their careers to “return to the land” gave up a huge chunk of money to do this. So how does that money get replaced? Land is not cheap.The author claims that they grind their own grain to make their own bread. A grain grinder costs money – how do they pay for it? How do they pay for the 50 pound bag of organic wheatberries? Do they all have partners that now have to work harder so that they can stay at home and raise the kids? And,giving the number of times she raises it – knitting seems to the favorite DIY project – does she know how much organic wool yarn costs per ball? Yeah, it is expensive and organic needles cost about $22 a pair. How do they pay for that? And, making homemade sweaters for children is silly! They grow out of them as soon as you finish them!
    Another ridiculous claim is that these women shop the Goodwill stores and Thrift shops for clothes like June Cleaver would wear. In all of my life, I have NEVER seen any woman who have “gone back to te the land” and has worn that kind of clothing.
    There is more that I can say. I don’t think the author did her research.She was too excited about her hypothesis. It certainly was a waste of my money.

    • ehawkins says:

      Yes you are right that we are supported by my husband’s paid employment. And we are what I consider to be quite wealthy. Still we’ve built everything we’ve ever lived in, I make everything I wear except shoes and the thrift stuff, eat right etc. AND here’s what I’ve got to tell you: you can’t see that I’m wearing thrift shop or that the contents of my fancy china cabinets and my furniture etc etc are thrift shop or even garbage picked because I have good taste!!! Why would I pick the stuff that looks bad? So I can show off my right-on-ness? It wasn’t right-on when I started in 1985! We were poor then. Then I was clothing my boys and teaching them thrift. Now I do this stuff b/c I can and I value direct recycling and I LIKE TO. Plus my boys are coming out of grad school with NO DEBT thanks to our not buying lots of expensive stuff.

      You’re also right that I gave up my career (PhD chemistry, major U). Not b/c I wanted to, I went kicking and screaming for lack of daycare & emotional support. Professional scientist AND mom, sorry, I’m not that strong. So we were poor for awhile, and it was ok, thanks to DIY and thrift stores. But also thanks to not wanting wanting wanting. Also NO TV.

      PS I don’t knit or make bread.

  10. Darlene says:

    I have been knitting and sewing and canning since before it was “cool”. I finally have space in my yard to garden now, so I can grow my own vegetables to can instead of buying at the farmer’s market.

    And I live in suburbia with 1/4 acre, working 40+ hours a week out of the home, with three children and five pets. No maid and no nanny. I certainly can buy my own pickles or shawls or dresses.

    What drives me absolutely INSANE is insinuations that I’m a “prepper” (not sure how I’ll live off of pickles and jam when the zombies come… so whatever) or “old-fashioned” or “cheap” (believe me they are not cheap hobbies). Why does that have to be the case? Why can’t I just find joy in my hobbies like someone else enjoys fishing or golf?

    My passions are neither political nor cool. It’s a love, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment. I get so much joy out of wearing a shawl and someone asks “where did you get that?!”, or enjoying my chips with some amazing homemade salsa. You can’t put a price on that.

    • Caitlin says:

      I completely agree with this comment. One of my big issues that seems to be ignored is that if these were all hobbies mainly enjoyed by men, no one would be criticizing them. No one discusses how silly golf or fantasy football are. At least with hobbies like knitting and baking you end up with useful items.

  11. EK Bradley says:

    SO happy to have found this article, and very unhappy that I made the error of buying Reclaiming Domesticity; after I purchased the epic Radical Homemaking, Amazon recommended RD as being something I would like. This book seemed like the author had some sort of guilt with comparing herself with Mom bloggers and domestic types that she wanted to prove was irrational so as to make herself feel better. The summary at the end exposes this pretty clearly with how living the DIY life ‘won’t save the world’ Ha, really? I am a freelance writer and travel photojournalist, and a SAHM. My husband works from home too. This isn’t a luxury, we made a conscious choice that because jobs were not paying him a living wage he would work from home, and we would homeschool our little one. It has given all of us immense joy and as a comment above stated it is about the whole family. To me the radical homemaking is more about community than isolation, more entrepreneurship than a shackled desperate housewife. And I am one of those (GASP) non vacc APing types that watches as my daughter thrives and almost never gets sick when her peers are struggling with frequent colds and bullies at school. We are all happy with our lifestyle choices. I wish this book had just been an unbiased investigations into radical home ec instead of such a biased book that tries to refute most of the movement.

    • Rustik Magazine says:

      Thanks for your comment and for your first-hand views! Congrats on the healthy choices your family has made – your choices make the whole community stronger.

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