Radical homemakers or old school housewives?

I think about food issues a lot, and the roles of women and men in feeding their families and in society at large. Reporting a few years ago, I spoke with Shannon Hayes, of Fulton, New York, who had written a book, “Radical Homemakers,” about women leaving the workforce and finding fulfillment at home.

Now a story in Salon has re-ignited the debate over whether educated, middle-class women who choose to stay at home, tend the children and prepare family meals, can be considered feminists.

Writer Emily Matchar asks in the headline, "Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?"

Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and other thoughtful foodie books, is largely credited for waking up many Americans to the supposed dangers lurking in the center aisles of the supermarket.

Matchar quotes Pollan, the "demigod food writer and activist," as saying,

"[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."

Matchar responds:

"Comments like this make me–owner of not one but two copies of "The Omnivore's Dilemma"–want to smack Pollan…upside the head with a spatula. Claiming that feminism killed home cooking is not just shaming, it's wildly inaccurate from a historical standpoint."

History aside, a recent(ish) cover story in New York magazine glorifies "The Feminist Housewife." Writer Lisa Miller talks with two middle class women who have chosen to stay at home, including former career-woman Kelly Makino, who calls herself a "flaming liberal," and a feminist. Matchar writes about Mikino, "She has given herself over entirely to the care and feeding of her family." The story claims Makino is feminist because she doesn't have to do this, it's her choice.

Makino gleefully tracks down Hawaiian recipes online to please her husband. In some feminist circles, her efforts have made "pineapple fried rice" a new emblem of gender inequality.

Patricia Ireland, the other housewife interviewed for the New York piece, takes it further:

"I'm really grateful that my husband and I have fallen into traditional gender roles without conflict."

This quote sends Jezebel writer Tracie Morrissey into a tirade.

"Why, though? I mean, I understand about being happy that you and your husband found the kind of balance that works for your lives and your family. But why not say that? Why state, specifically, that you are "grateful" that what you do is gendered? What the f***ing f***. Am I in the Twilight Zone? Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining. Don't sell me some conservative flimflam and package it as neo-progressivism." (asterisk ours).

This all brings me to Fulton, New York's own radical homemaker, Shannon Hayes. On the surface, some might see her as one of those retro wives. After receiving her PhD from Cornell University, she stepped off the career path, and returned to the family farm with her husband to raise their children. She also raises her own meat, grows and cans as much food as possible, and even sews her family's clothes. It's beyond retro.

But unlike the women profiled by New York magazine, Hayes doesn't do this alone. Her husband doesn't go off to his day job, and come home expecting dinner on the table. He helps tend the animals, the children, and the dinner.

When I spoke with her a few years ago, Hayes told me:

"I think everybody should get back into the kitchen, not just women. But that's because I don't think you should be buying processed food, and I don't think you should be supporting industrial agriculture, and I don't think you should be supporting food traveling thousands of miles."

While some women who choose to stay-at-home might not have skills to join the workforce, should their husbands fail to provide income, that's less of an issue for homemakers like Hayes. She's learned to live off the land. Hayes says she's not abandoning feminism, she's redefining it on her own terms.

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4 Comments

  1. Good coverage of a difficult issue. I cook in my household, and wash my clothes, but my wife washes a lot more dishes than I do, and does laundry for the children. I tend to fix plumbing, electrical and carpentry issues when I have the ability. So are we traditionalists or progressives? We've adopted our roles based on practicality, interest and available time. I like the idea that we are defining our roles on our own terms!

  2. It is not a small thing that Pollan is completely wrong in blaming today's lack of cooking knowledge on the feminist movement. The change is cooking and eating habits arose out of the introduction of large-scale processing of food – canned, frozen, baked – and the subsequent marketing of such. This happened during the late 19th and early 20th century, well before the development of modern feminism.

    In other words, the move away from the kitchen has much more to do with the industrialization of the food system than with the influence of those trampling feminists driving women away from their traditional work.

  3. the chick with the rolloing pin is hot….

  4. I agree with Two Cents and will add, to each their own. One size doesn't fit all.