[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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!