Femivores and DIY domesticity

Man, my tastes/interests are just so darn trendy (or, perhaps I tend to inadvertently follow trends…). While perusing the Internet the other day, I stumbled across this article by Emily Matchar on Salon. It’s actually an excerpt from Matchar’s newest book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity and it aligns perfect with what I’m interested in here.

Provocatively titled “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?”, you know I had to click on it. And while I’m not sure poor Mr. Pollan deserves that kind of slam, I found Matchar’s entire piece fascinating. I know what I’ll be reading once the book is released next week.

Check out my favorite parts:

First, this was a point raised during the “Makers” series on PBS, when they were discussing why young women today aren’t fighting for feminism and women’s rights.

Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops.

Second, as a devotee of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, I strongly identify with this:

“The return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America,” says Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on food culture. “We’ve lost our connection to traditional handmade cuisine, kids could have shorter life spans than their parents [because of obesity and poor diet], there’s global warming. This new food culture is a response to an industrial model that’s not working.”

And thus, why today’s “modern homemaker” is far and apart from the housewives described in The Feminine Mystique:

For young stay-at-home parents, a deep involvement in cooking and sustainable food culture can be a very twenty-first-century way of avoiding the notorious “just a housewife” trap. In 2010, writer Peggy Orenstein coined the term “femivore” to describe a certain breed of stay-at-home mom whose commitment to providing the purest, most sustainable foods has become a full-fledged raison d’être. These are the women who raise backyard chickens, grow their own vegetables for their children’s salads, join raw-milk clubs to get illegal-but-allegedly-wholesome unpasteurized milk.

Now, Matchar makes a point (and I agree) that much of this “movement” is dominated by young, urban or suburban, well-off, white people. There are bandwagons, and young white people like to jump on them. Plus, it helps when you have the means to treat “domesticity” like a hobby or a second career.

But back to a portrait of a young stay-at-home mom:

But she realized that modern homemaking could be creatively fulfilling in a way she’d never imagined. Unlike previous generations of housewives, who Erika imagines were bored and dissatisfied, Erika says women her age treat the duties of the home as outlets for their creativity. “The fact that I’m not career driven makes some people say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re a lazy sellout,’” she says. “But they don’t realize how much work her DIY lifestyle is.

“Now to be a stay-at-home mom doesn’t just mean you’re playing with your kids all day and not fulfilling your passions,” she says.

I’m close to calling shenanigans on that one, though. As my recent reading of The Feminine Mystique taught me, housewives of the 1950’s and 1960’s were also told that homemaking was a way to “fulfill your passions.” I think the difference here is that this Erika is CHOOSING to stay at home after having a very successful career after finding that being at home – and being domestic – was more fulfilling FOR HER than her previous career.

Now, onto whether Michael Pollan is a sexist pig.

Here’s another quote: “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”

Flanagan again?

Nope, that’s Michael Pollan. Yes, that Michael Pollan, the demigod food writer and activist at whose feet so much of progressive America worships. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan’s pro-local, pro-organic manifesto, spent years on the New York Times bestseller list, and Pollan’s motto of “eat food/not too much/mostly plants” can be heard murmured like a mantra in the aisles of local grocery co-ops nationwide.

Yet there he is again, in the New York Times Magazine, dismissing “The Feminine Mystique” as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” In the same magazine story, Pollan scolds that “American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook” they felt during his 1960s childhood.

Pollan is not alone in his assessment. Mireille Guiliano, author of the megabestselling diet book “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” ratchets up the guilt by blaming feminism both for ruining cooking and for making women fat: “[Women] don’t know how to deal with stress, and they eat when they’re not hungry and get fat. They don’t know how to cook, because feminism taught us that cooking was pooh-pooh,” she says.

Whoa, whoa, Michael. The Feminine Mystique did not TEACH women that housework was drudgery – it just told women that housework didn’t have to be EVERY woman’s vocation, the pinnacle of her life. This was an era when women were EXPECTED to stay at home, cook, clean and have babies because society told them they weren’t fit for anything else. The work (and real) world was for the men, the home was for women. If women had a moral obligation to cook for their families during the 1960’s, it was because they would be shamed as inadequate mothers and wives – nay, inadequate women – if they didn’t.

Now, I will admit that Friedan’s – and probably other feminists of her era – assessment of housework was a bit heavy handed. Keeping your house clean – and doing it without using  gallons of harmful, store-bought chemicals – is hard work, and does take time. Friedan does tend to brush this fact off rather flippantly. “Oh, it doesn’t take all day to clean a house.” “A working mother managed to keep her house just as clean as the stay-at-home mom, even though she only spent half the time cleaning!”

And yet, let’s not forget that this is the 1960’s. World War II is over and the market is flooded with dozens of new products meant to make life easier, more convenient, faster. Yes, women are going back to work again, and so the food industry rachets up its production of TV dinners and markets the hell out of them. We now know TV dinners are bad. But who’s to blame in this scenario? The food industry who knowingly produces crap and tries to tell us it’s good for us? Or women, who just wanted to get out of the kitchen, throw off centuries of stereotypes and get a semi-respectable job? Please.

But back to the article. Matchar makes an excellent point that sums up pretty much what I’ve said, but much better:

The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove. Since scratch cooking today is largely a hobby or a personal choice of the middle class, many of us wish we could spend more time in the kitchen. But it’s important to remember that this was not always the case.

It’s easy to forget, in the face of today’s foodie culture, that cooking is not fun when it’s mandatory.

And finally, back off snobby foodies:

The term “foodie” was originally invented to describe people who really enjoy eating and cooking, which suggests that others do not. Yet today everyone is meant to have a deep and abiding appreciation for and fascination with pure, wholesome, delicious, seasonal, regional food. The expectation that cooking should be fulfilling for everyone is insidious, especially for women.

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