Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Radical Homemakers

"If you have learned to live on less in order to take the time to nourish your family and the planet through home cooking, engaged citizenship, responsible consumption and creative living, whether you are male, female, or two people sharing the role, with or without children, full or part-time, please drop me a line and tell me your story." (15-16)
This online invitation was the basis for the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture, by Shannon Hayes. 

Initially I resisted this book because of the main title and cover. To me it gives off that crazed-feminist vibe which I really don't appreciate. In reality--it wasn't too much of that. Other than the the time she alluded to God as a woman, and the point where she used a quote from one person's research to blame the national issues of overworking and over-consumption as a whole on Christianity, I would say that the book fell into the moderate liberal range--which I can work with.

The author divided the book in to two parts.  The why of radical homemaking and the how.  I would have thought I would be more interested in the second, but it wasn't "how" as in "how-to."  It was actually more of a "what people do"  not "how to do it yourself."  So ultimately, I enjoyed the first section better.

In the first section the author presents a very thorough history of domesticity throughout time.  In support of one of her main theses of the book--that men play an important equal role as radical homemakers--she sites the term husband as meaning "bonded to the house," or hus in old spelling.  These thirteenth-century post-feudal homemakers were neither peasants nor aristocracy.  Their security relied on their combined efforts in their homes and the land around it.  While there was a clear line between man's and woman's responsibilities, there were not clearly separated "spheres."
"Men made cider and mead; women made beer, ale and wine.  While women made and mended clothing made from cloth, the men produced anything made of leather. . . women sewed and spun, men chopped wood and fashioned tools and utensils.  Both performed jobs that required strength and stamina--men hauled wood; women washed clothes.  Both men and women would milk animals, draw water, weave, and peel apples and potatoes.  Much of their work was a team effort.  Men would grow flax; women would break it and spin it into linen. Women nursed and cared for the children;men made the cradles, and mowed the hay and sheered the fleece to fill the mattress ticking." (62)
That was such an interesting perspective of history. Then came the cult of domesticity--the height of domesticity as colonial housewives were making great political statements through the things they purchased -or chose not to- for their homes. Then we all know how men began to leave the home with the advent of the industrial revolution, and the sphere of "housework" was left for women. But not for long as "soon the industrial values of maximum efficiency were called upon to rescue the housewife from her burdens (70)." Slowly the skills, credibility, good judgment of the homemaker were usurped by "experts" advertising the products to take over all the woman's responsibilities leaving her lonely in the suburbs, nothing more than a driver of the family car, operator of household appliances, shopper for household goods, and warmer of purchased food.  Thus, as explored in Betty Frieden's Feminine Mystique, women developed "housewife syndrome," a depression and dissatisfaction regarding their situation in life.

So women left the home as well, to garner a second income and become slaves to the self-serving extractive economy.  (Sometimes the author was a bit dramatic.)  Though I did appreciate her discussion about the economy and how we've been  brainwashed into believing that we have to support (and bail out) the big companies, even though they treat us like an abusive boyfriend, always telling us we aren't good enough, and threatening to dump us when someone better comes along.  Telling us to work harder, and sneering when we threaten to leave, because. . . really, who would want us? (An interesting analogy.)

But with the home converted fully from a unit of production to merely a unit of consumption there are major changes that have come about.  Negative changes have come to families, society, the environment, our own health, as we outsource all production to companies with shady business practices that abuse their employees and the environment, take advantage of their customers,  and ultimately provide us with products, food, clothing that is inferior to what we could produce on our own.

In the second section we see the results of the interviews the author conducted with radical homemakers around the country.  In a chapter titled Housekeeping, the author lays out the ways that radical homemakers live.  The book as a whole maintains that radical homemaking can take a number of forms, but this chapter didn't allow for such leniency.  This was definitely the chapter that seemed "radical."  A lot of the points are valid--I wholeheartedly agree that there are ways to make it work in America on just a single income--but I also took issue with some.  Like, you don't need a car because you can just borrow someone else's (wait how's that gonna. . . ) Only suckers buy health insurance.  And no one really needs college. Really this section that I thought I would be the most interested in, was actually completely irritating--when not outright infuriating-- to read.

The author followed this up with a chapter on reclaiming "domestic skills," such as nurturing relationships, self-teaching, setting realistic expectations, rediscovering the taste of real food, and becoming fearless.  I was interested (because it's my pet topic) to see how the "real food" issue was present in this book. 

The one idea that I don't think received enough attention was the author's hypothesis that in order for these new wave homemakers to avoid falling prey to housewives syndrome--radical homemakers must be and are involved in reaching out to the greater community in someway, not just simply being self-reliant, but helping others as well, mentoring, teaching skills and changing society. That idea is one that really speaks to me. 

I've put off reviewing this book for quite a while because I'm still not sure what I thought about it overall. There were things I enjoyed in it and things I was totally put off by.  So I'll just end with a quote that I feel sums up some good ideas about the radical homemaking movement, and shows that even radicals can show a little (a really little) bit of moderation. 
"This is not to say that every homemaker must start weaving cloth and hand-washing their family's clothing; with few exceptions, most of us will always rely on the broader industrial system for something.   But for each daily need that we re-learn to provide within our homes and communities, we strengthen our independence from an extractive and parasitic economy.  As we realize the impact of each choice we make, we discover ways to simplify our demands and rebuild our domestic culture.
"When we regain connection with all that sustains us, we regain creative spirit.  We rediscover the joy that comes with using our hands and our minds in union to nourish, nurture and delight in our families; we tap the source of true creative satisfaction, the ecstasy that accompanies a home that lives in harmony with the earth's systems, and the certitude of a life guided by principles of social justice and nonexploitation." (83)


Aleatha Shannon said...

Jeanette, I really appreciate this review. I finished the book a week or so ago and wanted to write something on my blog but didn't know where to start. I really, really liked the book, except for pretty much the same few reasons you mentioned. So I'm going to link to this on my blog!

Anna and Stephen said...

So, sure, no one needs college, but doesn't it enrich life? I'm glad you read this, so I can glean the good ideas from you, and then not have to worry about the rest. The picture on the cover both intrigues me and makes me want to cower in fear.

Anonymous said...

At age 55, I still look at women in the work force and ask myself, "Really? You'd RATHER work than stay home and enjoy living in the environment you have created for yourself?" It's all about food on the table and shelter overhead--we make our lives and environments enjoyable through personal creativity and art, or we burden them with deadlines, confrontations, lost sleep and someone else's expectations. Vote me out--I'll stay home and enjoy it there! Nonny

Mindy said...

Your mom is insightful.

Nice review. I'm sure I would have had a hard time reading the book. But I also appreciate the idea of having a slower life with more family and enjoyment from life. As for the modern conveniences to "rescue the housewife from her burdens," I'll take them! :) Unlike some, I am never sorry I live in today's age and time: an age of unprecedented comfort, freedom, and prosperity, an abundance of free time in which to pursue self-fulfillment, modern medicine and health, free exchange and access to information and education, and the restored gospel; I'm always so grateful for these things. Of course they come with a down side, but you don't have to partake of it if you don't want to! Especially with direction from the Church, we luckily know we can still live in modern society and take from it what is good, leave out the bad, and still glean all the advantages of the best joys of life that come from family and righteous living with effort and diligence.


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