Sunday, April 14, 2013

Homemaking as a Feminist Choice

Ann Friedman reviews Emily Matchar's Homeward Bound:
“Opting out” has never been as sexy as a decade of style section articles would have you believe. A decade ago, Lisa Belkin coined the term “opt-out revolution” in a piece that explained, “It's not just that the workplace has failed women. It is also that women are rejecting the workplace.” Each of the lightning-rod articles that continued in this vein (Linda Hirshman’s in 2005 and 2008, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s in 2012) was primarily about what women are saying no to: women who don’t want to do what it takes; women who can’t have it all; women who are letting their careers slide; women who are walking away. These are all articles about the demands of the workplace, not the joys of the home, chronicling why women are pushed out, not pulled in. This implied lack of agency is probably why women on all sides of this debate tend to get so defensive—think Sex and the City’s Charlotte screaming, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”

The brilliance of Emily Matchar’s new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, is that it exhaustively describes what disillusioned workers are opting into: a slower, more sustainable, and more self-sufficient lifestyle that’s focused on the home. The woman who leaves the public workplace is “the Brooklyn hipster who quit her PR job to sell hand-knitted scarves at craft fairs,” Matchar writes. “She’s the dreadlocked ‘radical homemaker’ who raises her own chickens to reduce her carbon footprint. She’s the thirty-one-year-old new mom who starts an artisan cupcake company from her home kitchen rather than return to her law firm. He’s the hard-driven Ivy Leaguer fleeing corporate life for a Vermont farm.” Though the vast majority of Machar’s subjects are women, this is not just a story about gender roles. It’s about what happens when the structures we were raised to buy into don’t provide what they were supposed to provide, and the alternative values that have, for a growing subset of Americans, come to replace them.
This has always been my take on the whole phenomenon of women abandoning their careers. It isn't sexism, or whether anyone can have it all, it's the soul-destroying bureaucratic miasma of office building life. Well, that's not really fair; some people enjoy office life. But lots of people hate it and long for something that feels more natural and real.

As Matchar emphasizes, one of the key enablers of this movement is the internet. It used to be that the bane of staying home was loneliness, but now there are numerous internet sites where educated stay-at-homes can connect with like-minded people and read about others following the same lifestyle.


ArEn said...

I always wonder about the statistics. What percentage of the female working population are we talking about. (I have a prejudice that it's a relatively small elite.) Many of the women I'm in contact with can't walk away. And most of the other women I know about work a bit here and a bit there, some part-time, some work-at-home, some taking a year or two off after the birth of a baby... I don't know any hipster artisan cupcake bakers.

John said...

Well, for one thing, rich New Yorkers are sometimes trend-setters for the rest of America; it was women like these who started the trend of married women sending their kids to daycare and embarking on "careers."

For another, I think that when the most successful people in any society turn against its values, that is very interesting, and it may point to a deep rot in the system. I think a life of working hard for a corporation or law firm and consuming a lot is unfulfilling for many people.