why i do what i do: revisiting the idea of a feminist housewife

This blog exists simply because I love writing. It’s important to me to share recipes, hear feedback, make blog friends, and (hopefully) inspire others to think about vegan food. But I also hope that through my writing, people learn about some of the ideals that inspire my activism. My passion for writing is grounded in the desire to create a world where homemade takes precedence over store-bought, where people delight in growing their own foods, and where industrial farms and food corporations do not feed the majority of the population. I want to create a world that encourages humans to nurture each other with fresh foods, share the bounty of their labor, and learn skills from each other. It sounds idealistic, I know- but it is happening! All over the country people are returning to urban gardening and attending re-skilling workshops for canning, fermenting, gardening, knitting, and raising animals. People are learning more about how the current food system has put the environment and our health at risk for patents and profits. These are some of the millions of small steps each of us can take to take back control of our food and set us on a path towards a healthier world.

A few years ago I had a chance to write in a more professional setting about these passions. This article was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Hawaii Women’s Journal. I had the pleasure of editing their brilliant writers for a few months, and was able to write my own articles for them in my column The Feminist Housewife. Though an earlier version of this post was languishing in my drafts folder, I thought that perhaps you lovely readers would be interested in learning more about the ideals behind the blog. The article is entitled At Home with Homemaking.

It was pretty easy to write the required reflective essay when I finished graduate school: I told the Political Science department that I just wanted to bake muffins. Despite the excellent grades and fellowships, the wonderful, engaged professors, and enlightening courses, it was clear that I no plans for a future in academia nor the non-profit sector—actually, I really just wanted to stay home. In a sense, I spent eight years in college to become a housewife.

Of course, it was about more than staying home and making muffins, but that is how this journey started. My last semester of graduate school was primarily thesis writing, which meant I had a lot of “free” time at home.  Quite a bit of that time was spent in the kitchen, but I also began to do some crafts and to garden in my yard. I baked for housemates and friends, cooked wine-infused “lady dinners,” and tested new ingredients and recipes. I learned how to sprout, transplant, and harvest vegetables; I even made my own Christmas cards and baked as gifts. I initially took these projects on as hobbies, but quickly became more committed to the ideals behind these actions. Like women’s studies teaches, the personal is political, and I began to understand that the choices we make for our home life have political resonance. Growing vegetables was a means of refusing corporate control of food, and sharing homemade foods made with local fruits and vegetables was an implicit protest of purchasing and consuming dangerous foods such as GMO crops. I have always been a passionate vegetarian and environmentalist, but I came to realize that all my home-based choices had a larger resonance—and I knew that I wanted to learn more about home cooking, backyard gardening, DIY projects, and other projects that traditionally fall under the banner of homemaking.

Homemaking generally, and the term housewife specifically, are often used condescendingly, but I am consciously reclaiming these terms to embrace the ecological, healthy, and soulful principles behind homemaking- and the feminist ideals that inform this project. There are a million tasks that could be considered as homemaking, but I am comfortable at a happy homemaking medium.  I don’t yet make my own soap or underwear, but I do provide sustenance for myself, share food with loved ones, and grow and source clean, organic foods- and I am desperate for my own little flock of chickens. Am I a throwback to the June Cleaver ideals of housewife life? Certainly not—as a vegetarian I would never wear pearls. By embracing these principles do I become a “foodie”? Perhaps, but I dislike the elitism implied by that label. Maybe this homemade lifestyle is better defined as femivorism—a movement of feminist homemaking defined by Peggy Orenstein as being “grounded in [principles] of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment” (Orenstein, 2010). Radical homemaker is another term that seems appropriate for this direction my life has taken. Shannon Hayes explains in her book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (2010) that, generations ago, the household was considered a unit of production rather than consumption: families worked together first to grow food and then to preserve, cook, or barter with their bounty. Things have changed drastically in those few generations: most of us work long hours to earn money so that, between the commercials, Internet, and bill paying, we can drive for miles to buy overprocessed, premade foods devoid of adequate nutrition. Hayes suggests that perhaps we could quit this cycle of overwork and overconsumption entirely—and I (mostly) agree with her.  I know this is entirely radical to the American work ethic and to those of us living in a consumer culture—that is to say, all of us.  I despaired for months about my inability to find a good paying job after graduating- after years of acquiring student loan debt, I found myself making just over minimum wage at a bakery.  Though I had some money saved from a fellowship, I learned to live well on very little income, sometimes sharing the rent, but most of the time I was doing it on my own. But radical homemaking encourages us to think that we can be productive on a different scale, moving at an easier pace, and hopefully accomplish more, with fewer goods, and be happier and healthier in the process. This column will focus on this desire to simply do more, with less.

But what does this homemaking life really look like? For me, homemaking is based around the concept of production: growing foods, cooking those foods, and sharing with others; making instead of purchasing. It can also mean undertaking DIY (do-it-yourself) projects such as making your own curtains from found materials, refitting vintage dresses, and using recycled objects for household repairs—all of which can be accomplished without purchasing a thing. Of course, these tasks take time to complete, and because of long work hours few of us have the time to undertake canning produce or sewing clothes. But, what if we were able to step off the overwork and overconsumption cycle, even just a small amount? Would we realize the disconnect between working and income, and understand that they do not necessarily have to be intertwined? It requires a shift in attitude to see growing and cooking as productive work: current societal attitudes have convinced us that productivity is defined by working outside the home to earn money. But what if we could learn to see time in the garden as productive and actually looked at it as a way to save money? What if we considered cooking a wholesome meal equally important to a few extra hours at work? Is it possible to work less and still have as much? How much is “enough”? Yes, it’s possible, but it takes some work—and this is why I refer to homemaking as a project.

Indeed, this homemaking project takes quite a bit of time—the cooking, baking, working in the garden, doing all those dishes —and it helps to have a partner in the process.  Perhaps these tasks seem like household drudgery, but for me they are a physical manifestation of the ideals that I hold dear, including less consumption, more ecoconsciousness, and healthy and mindful eating. But how is this possible in Hawai‘i—a place known for its high cost of living? I currently work part-time at a small health food store and I previously worked on a farm; neither have paid well but both have kept me supplied in good food.  But I also live on very little income—as most other homemakers do— which is a direct result of a conscious desire to live very modestly. I drive a ten-year-old truck—only because I smashed my fifteen-year-old car; I have never owned a television; I don’t own expensive handbags, and my cell phone does not have games or applications.  But, like many other humans I still want to travel to beautiful places, buy unnecessary but pretty candles (ditto for cute undies), and try out expensive new ingredients. Though some homemakers are able to completely opt-out from consumer culture, most of us are not there yet- because there are still those student loan bills to pay, the car insurance, and the requisite family holidays. But even the smallest steps one makes at home has a huge impact.  Maybe you don’t care to can tomatoes, but what if you grew some of your own herbs for your next pasta sauce?  You will definitely save money not buying herbs at the store, and you can experience the infinite joy of a dinnertime harvest- nevermind the fantastically delicious sauce.

I am sure that any type of homemaking sounds hopelessly awful to some people, and I am sure there are lots of feminists that would disparage this decision to not climb the academic or corporate ladder. But over the past few years I have tried to let go of societal pressure to find a better job or earn more income, and I gave up the feminist directive to break that ever-present glass ceiling; this opened up a space to find fulfillment and productivity in the kitchen, garden, and home. Making the proactive choice to grow and cook foods at home and to simply consume less outside the house has political resonance that I am determined to continue nurturing—and to share what I learn along the way.  I am still figuring many things out, but I am definitely at home with homemaking.

3 thoughts on “why i do what i do: revisiting the idea of a feminist housewife

  1. Pingback: fancy dinner: zucchini galette | Manis Kitchenworks

  2. Pingback: Books that Changed Everything - Green Living Ideas

  3. Pingback: Fancy Dinner: Zucchini Galette - Vibrant Wellness Journal

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