The Jam of Oppression?: Feminism, “New Domesticity,” and Gender-Neutral Home Cooking

[note: this was edited to update terminology in 2016]

A friend linked a really interesting article from the Washington Post: Emily Matchar‘s “The new domesticity: Fun, empowering or a step back for American women?” (26 Nov. 2011). I know this article is nearly a year old, but it demands contexualization. In this piece, Matchar discusses American women’s new-found passion for cooking, crafting, and DIY projects and her concerns about the relationship between feminism and “domesticity.” To elaborate, she writes,

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?

I find it amusing that I’m writing the first draft of this post as I wait for my whole-wheat hamburger buns to rise. They’re going to be amazing and at least 100 times better than the sole brand of white-bread burger buns I can only find at the scary grocery store.

Homemade ume jam and oatmeal bread (recipes forthcoming)


I’m not much of a crafter, but I am most definitely in the DIY cooking category. This blog is called, after all, I’ll Make It Myself!, and focuses on my attempts to learn to make the food I want to eat. Regarding the relationship between gender and the DIY enthusiasts, Matchar questions,

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?

Is it extra labor if it’s my hobby from which I directly benefit? My culinary yaruki is, however, decidedly not about being a good wife, prostrating myself to domesticated duty, trying to cattily outdo my friends. For me, this is about self-sufficiency, independence, and the love of knowledge.

If there were one nugget of wisdom I would pass on to others based on my experiences, it’s that if you are very particular about something and want it done right (and have the time and ability to deal with it), you’re probably going to have to do it yourself. I’m not advising going rogue in a group project, and I believe in team work and collaboration; I am lucky to have such talented friends in fields in which I am not skilled. But when it comes to cooking, if I rely solely on restaurants, grocery stores, and food manufacturers, I’m going to be disappointed. Why buy burger buns I don’t really like when I can bake my own? Why pine over applesauce I’d have to import when I can make my own? Why get sad over the lack of meatless okonomiyaki toppings that I actually want to eat when I can make my own?

Sans America’s selection of healthy cold cereals, I challenged myself to learn to cook other breakfasts.

Additionally, the science of food fascinates me. The first time I made paneer and yogurt, I felt like a mad scientist. “IT’S ALIVE! BECAUSE OF ACTIVE CULTURES!” Feeling the gluten in flour reconstitute itself in yeast doughs makes me feel like I’ve bent nature to my delicious will. Watching my herbs sprout new leaves makes me feel like I’ve done something wonderful (until they inevitably die from the cold or the heat).

But, since Matchar brought it up, and I’ve had a while to consider if there are reasons for me to have this obsession other than 1. I love food and 2. Science is cool, why, yes, there is a gender-based reason why I enjoy cooking from scratch so much.

My food, this blog, my whole late twenties life–this is my flipping the bird to the marketing department that tells women that using chemical cleaners and mops is their duty to their family. To the commercials that tell me that as “married woman,” I still have to put food on the table “for my husband” after a hard day’s work in our two-income household [note: I was married to a cishet man for a number of years. Now I am in a relationship with a genderqueer AFAB person. #stillbi]. To the copywriters that conflate chocolate with sin, guilt, sex, weight, and indulgence. To the designers who create Photoshop disasters out of women’s bodies. To fad diets and plastic-y chocolate and non-recyclable packaging. To women’s bodies being objectified and equated with food, as a consumer good. To categories that group “women and children” together and “men” separately, conflating womanhood with motherhood, and not acknowledging other forms of families. To presuming I am that I am straight, that I am married to a man, that I am single and want a man, that I am desperate for male attention, that I enjoy the male gaze, that my women friends and I want to be in Sex and the City, that I compete with other women for men, that my male partner is incapable of caring for himself, that he makes financial decisions in our home.

I don’t want the products you are selling. I don’t want the lifestyle you are selling.

“Selling Cleaning and Parenting to Women Only.” Sociological Images.

This isn’t to say that I make everything at home or that I want to become a subsistence farmer. For the many things I don’t make myself, I try to buy from brands or retailers that do not advertise in traditional or sexist ways. In Japan, I buy my rice from a local farm; I try to choose vegetables and fish from my prefecture or at least my region. I get soaps, detergents, and cleaners from brands like Mutenka or Pax Naturon. (In the US, I bought a lot of products from Seventh Generation, Method, Soap Works, and Burt’s Bees.) It’s impossible to be perfect, but I can at least make a concerted effort to use my money to support companies that don’t treat me like I’m an imbecile and who are committed to environmental awareness and social change.

Matchar might find my rejection of commercialized gender roles in line with “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.” I’m not doing this to seem trendy. Even though I’m perfectly capable of cleaning my kitchen and bathroom with natural products doesn’t mean it’s fulfilling or scrappy, that I have dreams of being a pioneer. Let me make it clear that my rejection of the “mainstream” is as much of a rejection of chemicals sold by corporations as it is a rejection of the gender norms sold in their ads.

Policing Masculinity in Slim Jim’s ‘Spice Loss’ commercials.” Image via Sociological Images.

Before I get back to the issue of feminism in the article, I’d like to address some gaps in the research. First, no men who participate in “domestic” activities were interviewed. I find this strange because I actually know men in real life and through blogging who are even more obsessed with homemade food than I am. Derek and Sarah make sausages, bacon, and all manner of things. Kevin of Closet Cooking completely revamped his food lifestyle and takes stellar photos of his recipes. The author of Frugal Feeding makes his own ice creams, bread, and nearly everything else from scratch on a budget. Tim of Lottie and Doof is one of the most creative food bloggers I know in terms of scope and ingredients. Tuscan Foodie‘s cross-cultural observations and passion for making and eating American and Italian foods are always a treat. They can’t be the only ones, and as fellow jam-makers and DIY foodies, they certainly have a place in this article. Second, all the women interviewed are presumed straight (and if not, it’s not mentioned). Where are the all the queer crafters and cooks? Third, there’s a lot of talk of women who are stay-at-home moms and who were able to quit their jobs to work on “domestic” work, but what about the other career women, genderqueer folks, students, and bloggers in their 20s and 30s (and beyond) who can jam or raise chickens? I imagine there’s quite a few of us. How do they feel? Finally, why not go more in-depth with the women interviewed about how they perceive sex/gender as a factor in their lifestyle? Are the mothers who are concerned about food safety for their children framing this as a gendered issue or as a social one? If they have partners, how do they contribute? I realize the article likely had a maximum word-count, but going more in-depth is necessary to make a case for the connection between gender and “domesticity.”

As I’ve noted, the problem isn’t that DIY is a trend (or a movement), it’s how we and the participants frame and discuss the matter. While the issue is raised in the article and the author presents stories and comments from a number of different women, her conclusion does not satisfy me.

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.

“125 Years of Holding Women Responsible for Laundry.” Sociological Images.

Matchar’s mother and grandmother, she writes, have not been and still aren’t interested in jam-canning because of Second Wave feminism. While they may have put their feet down and said “jam-canning is a form of oppression,” they might have also just figured, “I’m busy working and raising kids, I don’t have time for jam.” Second Wave Feminism was very much about scrapping the whole idea of culturally acceptable feminine identities (which vary through class, ethnicity, religion, etc., mind you) from the last 50 or so years and starting over. Or, as the writer of Bespectacled Ape put it,

The problem is that traditional female identity was crafted and expounded by men, and so, in order to find a positive identity, women have had to strip themselves down, intellectually and emotionally, to discover what lies at the center. This is the major focus of feminist thought: a self-investigation meant, in the end, to determine what a woman is when she isn’t defined by self-described “benevolent father figures.”

For some, cooking and other domestic work may have been rejected as sexist and a tool of oppression. For others, domestic activities like cooking may have fallen by the wayside as time-consuming tasks that were no longer a “female obligation,” particularly with the market popularization of pre-made foods (canned soups, cake mix), and, with more women entering the workforce, a lack of time for something that perhaps never held their interest. I’ll admit that I’m shocked when I meet people who lack my passion for cooking, but they probably feel the same way about cooking as I feel about knitting: don’t want to put in the effort, already have at least five friends with that skill to take care of me, easier to purchase it, already have a time-consuming hobby. I’m not rejecting knitting as anti-feminist, I just am not into it, and as long as I can trade jam for handmade mittens, I don’t need to be.

The present Fourth Wave model of feminism includes not only an emphasis on intersectionality, but a breaking down and reshaping of the Second Wave’s and Third Wave’s either rejecting anything that was once considered culturally of the “women’s sphere” but simultaneously embracing, in other circles, the Feminine and Womanhood as powerful and sacred (any movement has its factions and intersections–a straight career woman and a lesbian separatist can both be Second Wave in different ways). That is, the Fourth Wave focuses on gender (including trans and genderqueer experiences), race, sexuality (including non-monosexuals), ability, and class. Perhaps once jam-making and bread-baking were once considered women’s chores (with the acknowledgment of class divides), but now those tasks (hobbies?) should be a choice I have as a person who loves cooking. My love of cooking has nothing to do with the sex I was assigned or my gender expression. Rather, it is a testament to my love of bread and jam. And the inverse is true, too: maybe my women relatives and friends don’t care about Ball jars and pectin as much as I do, but that doesn’t make them automatically feminist any more than the act itself of making jam oppresses me.

Copyright Rion Sabean. “February.” Men-Ups.

Finally, to address Matchar’s ultimate question of “is DIY bad or good for women?”, my answer is that it’s all in how the “domestically” inclined frame the issue. If the answer is “I make jam because women are naturally better at it” or “I bake bread because it’s my duty as a woman” or “But he told me to make him a sandwich!”, then we’ve conflated domestic work with the feminine, and that’s highly problematic. If the answer is “Cooking is my hobby and screw gender roles” or “FOR SCIENCE!” or “I like to DIY because the kinds of things I want don’t exist in stores/my town” or “Making yogurt means I can control what’s in it,” and there is awareness of the social history of these tasks in the home kitchen, then we can move toward de-gendering food made in the home.

Perhaps what the WP should focus on next is the problem with cisheteronormative expectations of domestic life and the culture of “make me a sandwich,” as well as the topic of non-heteronormative people who enjoy “domestic” activities without buying into gender roles, why that’s a good thing, and how we can take back our activities from the gender police. Furthermore, as a culture, we need to highlight the strangeness of separate spheres and stop privileging the “masculine” above the “feminine.” As for Matchar, I sincerely hope she will address these issues as well as foodie feminists more in depth in her forthcoming book.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have homemade veggie burgers and buns to enjoy. Nope, not even sandwich-making is safe–I’m taking it back, too.

Want to read more about gender and food? See the Food Culture: Gender tag!


13 Comments Add yours

  1. Leah says:

    Reblogged this on The Lobster Dance and commented:

    Check out my new post on I’ll Make It Myself about gendering the “new domesticity,” DIY food, and second- and third-wave feminisms.

  2. kamo says:

    Lots to pick over here. In an effort to keep this at least vaguely coherent I’ll just mention a couple.

    I say I enjoy cooking, but that’s secondary, really. I enjoy eating. I cook relatively more in Japan than back home because, like yourself, there are certain things I want that I just can’t get ready made here. Come October in the UK, I can pick up some mince pies from any supermarket you care to mention, but have little choice to go at it from scratch if I want them in Japan.

    Which brings me to the second point. As you say, these are very time intensive pursuits so you need that time, or the money to essentially buy that time. You need to be middle class, in other words. Buying local is both desirable and laudable, but so too is cheaper food for people who don’t have the luxury of spare time or money.

    And that time is the real killer. The standard food retail model in the UK is totally reliant on the car and the refrigerator. Once a week shopping in bulk at an out-of-town hyper market, mostly imported produce, mostly cheap, and mostly available all year round. It’s obviously riddled with problems and inequalities, but it does free up time for the customers.

    In Japan it appears to be exactly the opposite. Compare the relative sizes of the shopping trollies. It’s just impossible to stock up in the way it is back home. Instead you get very seasonal, local, expensive produce in relatively small shops, which people pay frequent visits to. And by ‘people’ I really mean ‘housewives’.

    That all made more sense in my head. I guess I’m saying that it’s good that people, women, have those choices, but not to overlook the fact that those self same choices may be indirectly denying them to others (cf. childcare). I think.

    1. Leah says:

      I just started this book that touches on some of the issues of food (namely bread but also local food and nutrition movements) and class–White Bread: Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf that is highly relevant to the topic of the time/cost issue and the middle-classes’ food movements, starting with the Progressives of the 1890s and going till the locavore/free-range/new domesticity/wholegrain movements of today. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I am! (It also makes me feel guilty for being one of those middle-class toters of whole grains and local food, because I can make my own food and because “good bread” in bakeries can cost a lot. Of course, all bread costs a lot here, even shokupan, so I suppose brown rice would be more the equivalent in Japan.)

      I do hope Matchar will address class in her book, too, because you’re right that what I save in money making my own bread costs me time that I can afford to spend on my hobbies, whereas if I were working multiple jobs to make ends meet or a primary caregiver of a child or relative, I might not have.

      American grocery shopping is very similar to British–once a week, in a car, large fridges. I have the luxury of shopping on my lunch break and a spouse who works near a grocery store, too, if I need more veggies or ingredients throughout the week. And you’re completely right about the Japanese method–if you don’t have a job with some freedom, a housewife or part-timer seems necessary for so many things here because of the short hours of the post offices, banks, and groceries. On one hand, that means workers can go home and be with their families, but if you had full-time shifts or better automation, it would be possible for regular full-timers to manage their time more effectively. Work/life balance, both for families with children and for people without children, is really broken here.

      On the bright side, the veggie-box delivery system (CSAs in the US) can help people save time and still get fresh food on a regular basis. It seems quite popular in Japan, too, though I’m not sure on the costs.

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment!

  3. Sarah L. says:

    I am so happy to see you writing about this. I struggle on a regular basis with the gender roles of my husband and I concerning our household tasks. He bakes our bread and makes our coffee (sort of a process in our house), which sometimes gives him extra-credit with some of our friends as a man helping out with household tasks. The reality is he just likes sandwiches and good coffee and he works more flexible hours as a graduate student. I work a “normal” job and contribute more to the household income. Therefore, my DIY activities are more hobbies and less essential to our daily existence. We share everyday cooking VERY evenly. Is that us protesting gender normative behavior or just being practical? What would happen if we had children? It is really easy now because we have time and money to follow through on these behaviors. If we both had full-time, traditional jobs? Sometimes I see us sliding into extremely gender normative behaviors around the house and I joke about it, which, I think, keeps it in the front of our minds and prevents us from really internalizing those behaviors…

    Speaking of crafting… I love to sew and it is a form of self expression for me to make things with fabric and thread. While I recognize that I probably would not have been taught to sew if I had been born male, I consider my desire to create beautiful and functional things for myself and my friends a fun hobby. Is this a gendered activity? I would argue this is a very slippery slope. I certainly feel I do these activities as an interested person. The sewing community is definitely a world that assumes you are a straight woman in a traditional family before anything else. Sewing stores, fabric lines, and patterns even assume you are female and subscribe to traditional female standards of beauty and taste. I certainly contribute to this through purchasing some of these things and subscribing to the blogs. It is hard because sometimes I like these girly things or think they are pretty, yet I wish I could like them as a person, not a woman. I would love to hear what you think about this dilemma?

    1. Leah says:

      This is a subject I’ve touched on in my culture blog before, but it can be really hard to separate personal interests vs. socially appropriate interests (and fashions, etc.) In my parents’ house, I learned basic cooking skills because recognized that I needed to be able to feed myself something prior to leaving for uni and because I am the older child by 4 years, so when my parents started working different, later hours, I would cook dinner. (I am uncertain how my family survived that period. Experimenting a lot before you know the basics is a very bad idea.) But other things, like my love of poofy skirts (good for biking!) and floppy hats, which are indulged in Japan, I feel make me look overly femme and overdressed in the Midwest.

      Back to cooking: our arrangement is that he makes the coffee, and, with his new job giving him later hours and a longer commute than mine, I do almost all the cooking because it’s my hobby and because I have an extra 2 hours. He does the majority of the other housework (hanging laundry, vacuuming, cleaning the tatami mats, garbage sorting, assembling the futon–living here has a whole different set of chores one does…) except for dishes, which are divided pretty evenly.

      However, when the subject of food prep comes up with our Japanese acquaintances, we both get really awkward. I know back home women tend to do more housework on average, but here it’s like wives are expected to do all the chores regardless of the couple’s work situation. So if we get asked about food, it’s assumed that I’m the primary cook, and then we’re both like “she likes to cook, so she cooks, but he does the cleaning! She gets off work earlier! He makes good desserts, too! STOP JUDGING US.” Because even if the cooking looks stereotypical from the outside, the way our domestic life is arranged is egalitarian and conscious of the expectations and stereotypes.

      When I was a grad student, our rule was that whoever got home first had to cook (since I had some afternoon/evening courses and his job was more flexible). If we go back to the US, I guess it will depend on how/where we work, but my cooking skills are heaps better than they were 4-5 years ago, so I suspect I will remain the main cook but have him help more than he can now.

      As for the guilt over liking “girly” things–I think we have two problems to overcome there. First, we need to stop hating on “feminine” things. I don’t know if it’s the best method, but I try to point to a balance when someone calls me out on doing something “feminine” or “masculine.” (“Yeah, I make a good pie. And a good Manhattan. Piss off.”) Second, we need to reclaim hobbies from the gender police. The feelings of frustration you have about the sewing books and patterns I get about Japanese cookbooks. I own a couple ones by “Housewives’ Companion,” because, despite the ridiculous name, they’re quite good. In addition to writing these rants, I also try to patronize blogs, books, and restaurants that aren’t heteronormative or speak out against gender stereotypes. I have a local group of foodie friends who are intelligent, educated, non-heteronormative people with whom I can discuss food and gender. (They keep me sane.)

      I think the difference between practicality and protest comes from framing. For all intents and purposes, your living arrangements and mine are sharing the work because that’s what working couples do–but there is the added dimension of saying, “No, I am not going to do all the housework because I was born a woman.” There is a conscious rejection of the realities of most women’s home lives and the expectations so buried in our subconsciousness that most heterogamous cohabiting couples don’t even realize how they are perpetuating this system.

      I apologize for the book I wrote you here, but one final thought: I feel awkward as hell in cupcake shops. I love cupcakes. I love cute cupcakes that come on tea trays. I even like the rococco feel of some of the shops. But I feel like I’m not allowed to like these things because they cater to a certain kind of woman that I am not and because I struggle with how my gender presentation has effected my personal tastes. I want to take back pink, but I don’t really like the color. Do I not like the color because I associate it with toys and the gender oppression of children or because I just really like green better? Am I setting up the “feminine” as lesser?

      No easy answers to tough questions, but talking about it, getting it out in the open, and, to use a Second Wave term, “consciousness raising” are critical points in undoing damaging gender roles. Thank you!!

  4. Jean says:

    Hmm. Well, I welcome the whole do-it-yourself movement in general. Cooking, gardening and sewing for men and women. It’s not lost on me nor many good female chefs/cooks that the Food Network TV channel features alot more male chefs/cooks in general.

    I cook and he cooks because we like to eat. Also when a person changes their lifestyle and wants to become healthier they start caring what’s inside their food. What is interesting in past few years is that now he is naturally just a more creative, better cook than me. But then he’s alays cooked. He was raised by a mother who not only cooked and baked well (including gastronomic German baking techniques of fine bakers), but she had a natural teaching style for her 2 boys who loved to watch their mother bake cand cook.

    So yes, I did choose a guy that I knew I wouldn’t get embroiled in energy sucking arguments of who was supposed to do the cooking. WE take turns whenever we feel like it. At times, he and I may have some different dishes becasusa person doesn’t care for a certain dish. That’s cool. But a 2nd dish we may share.

    1. Jean says:

      Sorry for the typos and grammar errors. I should also indicate that I’m 53 and he is 69, just a sign that older ‘age’ doesn’t mean a couple fall into traditional roles at all. I welcome the dyi movement because it’s just healthier for people to do some dyi stuff!

      1. Leah says:

        That’s great that you and your partner are both into DIY and cooking! I think it’s great that more people are taking an interest in making food, clothing, etc. for themselves, and it sounds like you have a good balance at home. Like most other areas, DIY can be a stand against sexism (or consumerism, etc.) just as it can be a practical decision without dialogues about gender in the home, or it can be a conscious or subconscious upholding of the idea of separate spheres. It’s all about dialog and context, as well as awareness.

        Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. These articles (the one in the paper, not your post) always leave me baffled. I am a man. I am heterosexual. I am married. And yet I am the one doing most of the cooking at home: I bake, I cook, I think of recipes, while my wife works in a corporate job, coming home at 7pm if she is lucky. And I won’t even go into the fact that I was the one to raise my now 14 months old son for the past 12 months at home. Add to that that I am Italian (so, in the mind of most, a macho beating women up), that I used to have a high-power job, and you have the perfect storm.

    The reality is that these articles, as you point out, are often written with very poor research done, if any. And this, only in the best possible scenario. In the worst-case scenario, the research is carried out in a biased way exactly to prove whatever point the writer wants to prove.

    As a non-American living in America I must say at first I was surprised at what looks like some sort of revivals of pin-up 50’s girls baking pies and cupcakes. But boy, would I be wrong in assuming that these women are like their grandmas: most of my friends and acquaintances who look like a 50s pin up are either openly gay or so sexually liberated that their grandmas would be quite upset about them (I assume).

    What am I saying here? That I think you are spot on on a lot of things, and that embracing the baking/DYI/craft side of you, doesn’t set your clock back 50 years in every single aspect of your life. And I am not even talking about the completely overlooked growing number of men who decide to give up their jobs and stay at home, which obviously don’t fit the description or the argumentations that this journalist was trying to make.

    Good post, really.

    (And thanks for the shout out!)

    1. Leah says:

      Pin-ups drive me nuts. Some women adopt them as a sort of fierce, in-your-face femme sexuality, but it’s still about posing to be looked at by men. And how many female food bloggers use some sort of illustration of a pin-up or pin-up-style representation of themselves with a cartoon waist the size of a wrist? I wish we could separate being femme (in terms of gender presentation and fashion) from meaning that a woman exists for men to view. Men-ups, I think, really draw attention to the ridiculous poses and concepts illustrated in pin-ups.

      What I really like about your blog is the idea that anyone can go anywhere and fall in love with food, and that even though there’s a lot of examples of “doing it wrong” about other countries’ food abroad, every country has food worth loving and a complicated food culture worth dissecting. Similarly, I think must be others like us whose interest in DIY stems from not being able to find what we want but that we frame our participation in a gender-neutral way or as rejection of gender norms. In the case of American women during Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s-80s, as Matchar wrote, being a liberated woman or a straight (non-professional-chef) man, something other than “femme,” often meant rejecting food work and other “women’s work,” but as a contemporary feminist, I reject that–liking cooking doesn’t gender a person! Cooking is for everyone who wants to do so! Not being able to cook doesn’t make someone cool or butch, it makes that person not able to cook.

      Anyway, thanks for the great comment and keep up the awesome blogging!

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