Radical Homemakers, Feminist Housewives — Book Club, 7th ed.

Let’s face an ugly truth — we’ve all become hungry consumer hippos who throw stuff in the trash and buy new at the first sign of shabbiness. I just threw out socks with holes even though I am well equipped in sewing gear! Also, let’s ask ourselves wether, as women, we’ve become too attached to a notion of autonomy that is tied to paid work outside of the home at the expense of creative productivity and well-being. Shannon Hayes’s Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture made me not only question most of my life choices, but it also unlocked a missing part of the puzzle in my feminist framework for understanding the world. And that’s no small potatoes (unless they’re grown in the backyard without pesticides…).

Hayes, Shannon. Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. Left to Write Press: Richmondville, New York; 2010.

Hayes, Shannon. Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. Richmondville, New York: Left to Write Press; 2010.

I first heard about Radical Homemakers while reading reviews for another book on a similar topic, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. I haven’t read that book, but the premise seems to be that women are crafting and setting up Etsy shops in order to escape the dissatisfaction of careers that don’t meet our needs, or our ethical standards (apologies to the author if I got that wrong). Reading those reviews got me thinking about how people, not just women, need to feel invested in, and connected to, our work. We like to see our efforts produce satisfying results. When I spend an afternoon transforming a basket of plum tomatoes I got at the market into a deliciously sweet sauce, I’m rewarded with a happy tummy and the appreciation of my partner. But the person who spends days preparing a report only to see it disappear into bureaucratic obscurity could be forgiven for thinking she’s wasting her time.

But back to radical homemaking. This book goes way deeper than Etsy shops and knitting funky scarves for your friends at Christmas; it’s about people who have completely redefined what it means to be independent. The author, an expert on grass-fed meat who lives on a farm and has a Ph.D., did extensive research into the historical conditions that have resulted in the ubiquity of households in which all adults work outside of the home. She also interviewed various individuals who have chosen to work primarily in the home, as she and her husband do. The result is a theoretical, as well as practical, exploration of a lifestyle that can only be described as radical in the context of our orgiastic consumer norms.

Who are these radicals?

Radical homemakers are both men and women, young or old, single or coupled up, urban or rural, who have chosen to produce what they need in life rather than purchase it at the store. Many have some kind of paying part-time gig, but most households live on about $20 000 USD per year. This means that food is raised, grown, and preserved, services such as vehicle and home repairs are bartered, and learning how to DO stuff is really important. It also means that there’s lots of time for enjoyment of home, friends, and family.

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (and chicken) were participants in Hayes's research. They are urban homesteader who blog at root simple.com

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (and chicken) were participants in Hayes’s research. They are urban homesteaders who blog at root simple.com

Many of the participants had previously embarked on conventional career paths, but concluded that the negative repercussions of too much time away from home, including poor health caused by stress and a take-out diet, were not worth the paycheques they earned. And speaking of health, the most shocking section of the book for this Canadian to read was the part about health (as imperfect as our universal health care may be, I thank my lucky stars for it). The low income of radical homemakers usually qualifies them for some free services in the U.S., but many say they are treated poorly within the system. Some even spoke of experiencing shame because they had chosen this lifestyle; they could work and have health benefits if they wanted to. Significantly, most would happily have purchased private health insurance were the fees reasonable and if they though they would get value for their money. Usually, radical homemakers did pay for their children to be covered, but were otherwise content to barter with natural health practitioners for services when needed. Most had some knowledge of plant-based medicines they could make at home.

Not an easy choice

The author is very clear about the fact that once a person decides to take herself out of the mainstream economy, it’s a forever decision. After she starts raising chickens, pickling vegetables for winter, and fixing up an old house on a couple of acres of land, conventional employers cease to see the value of her skill set. None of the participants said their life was ideal; all said they liked their community and relied on cooperation and exchanges to make things work, but that collaborations always have glitches. As well, perfectly clean houses and the latest fashions are not realistic expectations for the radical homemaker.

On the bright side, these folks live ecologically; they exist largely outside of an economy that requires the continuous destruction of natural resources, and they reuse and fix things that would otherwise be dumped. Most importantly, they have time to read by the fire (after chopping the wood, mind you!), they play games together, and they enjoy meals that are fresh, healthy, and delicious. In fact, a recurring theme in the book is how sad it is that Americans no longer know what food tastes like, their taste buds having been warped by too much salt, sugar, and chemicals.

Is it feminist to stay at home?

What I’ve described so far is what I learned in the second half of Radical Homemakers. But the book begins with a comprehensive critique of how society became mega-consumerist, including how second wave feminism fits into the picture. A short history of feminism usually goes something like this:

Back in the 1950s, women were bored at home because they had no meaningful work. All they did was make sure the kids were ok and have dinner on the table by 5 o’clock. Modern appliances, like clothes washers and vacuum cleaners, meant that housewives had too much time to contemplate their existence and they got antsy. Cocktail hour came earlier and earlier, and a Vallium helped the gin go down. But then Betty Friedan wrote a book about this invisible plague and — bam! Women started marching in the streets, demanding equality in the eyes of the law, locating their clitoris, and heading out into the work force. Anti-feminists also like to point out that this is were everything went wrong. Wives stopped cooking, people got fat, girls became promiscuous, and, worst of all, as husbands were no longer socially mandated or needed for financial support, the family collapsed. The end.

When looked at through this prism, leaving the home seems like a damned good idea. And I, for one, am proud of having become financially independent and of never having to feel trapped (it sure took a while, but here I am). That’s partly why reading Radical Homemakers blew my mind.

Hayes takes a broad look at work outside of the home starting in the pre-industrial era when each family was a unit of production. In the days of yore, women and men both worked at home in order to produce food, clothes, and goods they could use or trade. Some work was done exclusively by women, other work was done by men, but all work was essential; therefore, no labour, whether masculine or feminine, was more valued. That’s not to say that households were utopian models of egalitarianism, but rather that no one was “bringing home the bacon”. The bacon had to be raised, fed, slaughtered, and cured. All this required the collaboration of the entire household.

The joys of modern refrigeration!

The joys of modern refrigeration!

As men increasingly went out to work in factories (and yes, I know, some women also worked in factories; this might be a good time to acknowledge that poor women often worked both inside and outside the home, and STILL had no economic independence — suckiness galore) in order to earn wages, their part of the household production had to be replaced. For instance, money earned could now be used to buy the food that used to be grown by the family. Eventually, more and more goods were purchased instead of produced and that’s when men’s work outside of the home began to be perceived as being more valuable than that done within.

By the 1980s, I think it’s fair to say that most life-sustaining skills had been long forgotten by not only men, but by women as well. As the author points out, almost all activities are now commodified. Those with means willingly pay lower income folks to do all the things they don’t have the time or energy to do themselves, such as clean their home (guilty!), or walk their dog. Those who can afford to stay at home, women with high-earning husbands in particular, are usually occupied by nothing except their children’s success. Their time is spent driving them to extra-curricular activities that will [in theory] make them into professionally successful adults… who will, in turn, become massive consumption machines. These unfortunate kids are learning how to become as useless at life as their parents are! Most of them don’t know the satisfaction of spending a muddy afternoon outside building a fort and would be at a loss to creatively occupy their free time if they had any.

Rethinking what it means to be free

So, staying at home is not a regression for radical homemakers in the sense that being a liberated woman doesn’t begin and end with earning a paycheque. Many of these women have more freedom as homemakers than they did when they were on the job market because they are directly responsible for the decisions that engender their livelihood and well-being. They see the result of their hard work in the happy faces of their children who get to spend lots of time with parents, and in the material production of goods far more valuable than the junk we find at the mall.

Jackie Siegel, The Queen of Versailles (2012), loading up on stuff her family doesn't need at Walmart

Jackie Siegel, The Queen of Versailles (2012), loading up on stuff her family doesn’t need at Walmart

As well, the radical homemakers who are married have a happy home life because they are in true partnerships (and both those married and single also have a broader community on which to depend — a key factor for success). I recall a friend who got married in her mid-20s telling me that she wouldn’t mind doing the traditionally female chores if her husband did the man things, but she was stuck taking out the garbage and changing lightbulbs, in addition to cooking and cleaning (she’s now divorced). I was reminded of that when reading this book — it doesn’t matter if men do one kind of domestic work, women do another, and some chores are shared, as long as everyone participates and all contributions are valued. I also got to thinking about the sad state of manhood these days, something that I’ve fretted about in previous posts, and I wonder if the fact that men have been alienated from production in the home for a longer period historically than have women has anything to do with that… I’ll perhaps explore this in a later post. For now, I will say that relying on my very handy Mr. Amour to repair my long-broken radio or my vintage bed-side lamp does not make me less feministy, and I appreciate him all the more for it.

So… what now?

Having read what I’ve written so far, you probably think I’m ready to pack up the urban apartment, leave the secure government job, and head for the nearby snowy hills where backyard chickens and small apiaries are allowed. Woah! No so fast. I will admit to this, though — I read Radical Homemakers during a period of reflection and reevaluation. I’ve taken a few weeks leave from work in order to deal with an ongoing health issue (about which I’ll write at a later time) and to focus on creative projects. My health has forced me to eat like a radical homemaker in that I’m consuming all natural foods that I prepare (but not grow) myself. And, as I’m not being paid while on leave, I’ve had to curb my shopping habit. Both of these things have been difficult, especially the no-shopping rule which I haven’t adhered to as much as I’d hoped, but they’ve also brought me a measure of personal satisfaction.

The truth is that I like the frilly distractions of life, like reading fashion magazines and watching Say Yes to the Dress online. Of course, these could still be an occasional treat for a radical homemaker, but surely more important matters would take precedence on a daily basis. And Vogue can be read at the library… it’s just that I like having my own copy (such waste!).

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book tremendously. And while I’m not ready to dive into a new lifestyle or even to start boiling Masson jars right at this moment, it’s given me a lot to think about. I’m considering what small changes I could make for the time being. If, at some point, I’m able to earn a bit of income from writing then perhaps I’ll reconsider my options. But, at present, I do obtain satisfaction from my participation in the work force, even though a measure of disillusionment is inevitable. And I’m still learning how to cook all of those local hormone-free grass-fed cow bits sitting in my freezer. One step at time.

Could you be a radical homemaker? Have you read the book? Do tell.

Comments

  1. I don’t think I could be, seeing that it seems to take so much effort and time AT home. I like to believe that when I am home, I can goof off and relax. If I have to worry about how the food is growing and then prepare it … do they really have more time to do other things? It takes a lot of courage. You need to be a risk taker. I’d rather make my risky decisions in another building or place, other than my comfort zone. Very interesting post, Brenda!

    • Ya, it’s definitely not something to go into lightly. There would be no real line between work and life. But then work would be so very satisfying cause it’s producing survival stuff.
      Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I would definitely get on board the radical homemaking train! The tricky thing for me in Ottawa is that I like living car-free, which means living close to downtown, which means no chickens. But if (when?) my husband and I take the plunge into working part-time as freelancers, living in a rural area would certainly be more doable. We’d need to get a vehicle, but there wouldn’t be a daily commute. We’re already used to keeping our expenses low to make space for more freedom, so I think we would manage. I will definitely check this book out of the library. Thanks for recommending!

    • Ah yes, that’s a big scary “if (when)”… but sometimes the Gatineau hills do call.
      I hope you enjoy the book!

      • Jasmine Rose says:

        I read the book and loved it! Thanks for the recommendation. It gave me some inspiration to try out a few things at home, even in an urban setting. And who knows, maybe living off the land isn’t so far away as I think. My husband has taken the leap into the freelance world and is very happy. Maybe I’ll take the plunge in a few years too… But for now working part-time suits me fine.

Trackbacks

  1. […] And yet I really don’t think things were better pre-women’s lib. Being a 1950s housewife couldn’t have been very fulfilling, plus that lack of independence, financial and otherwise, […]

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