Friday, November 25, 2011

Washington Post Column Suggests a Conflict Between Feminism And Domesticity

Emily Matchar's column in the Washington Post suggests a conflict between feminism and "domesticity."  Such a conflict is artificial.

Matchar's column is personal. It begins with a listing of her plans for the holiday season:
I’m planning on canning homemade jam this holiday season, swept up in the same do-it-yourself zeitgeist that seems to have carried off half my female friends. I picked and froze the berries this summer, and I’ve been squirreling away flats of Ball jars under my kitchen sink for months. For recipes, I’m poring over my favorite food and homemaking blogs — the ones with pictures of young women in handmade vintage-style aprons and charmingly overexposed photos of steamy pies on windowsills.
Matchar contends that her personal story defines a new generation of women, who subscribe to the "New Domesticity":
Around the country, women my age (I’m 29), the daughters and granddaughters of the post-Betty Friedan feminists, are embracing the very homemaking activities our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shucked off. We’re heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.
Matchar then explores whether this development is a positive step for women or whether it spells a defeat for women's equality. Matchar asserts that the New Domesticity is a positive move that allows women to make decisions about their lives, such as choosing the ingredients for the foods they eat.

Although I enjoyed reading the article, I believe the question it seeks to answer presents an artificial conflict. Feminism was never meant to extricate women against their will from "domestic" life. Instead, feminism seeks to empower women to make choices that benefit them and their families.

Furthermore, I quarrel with the description of some of the activities in the article as signs of "domesticity." Choosing to can food, sew buttons on shirts, or cook meals does not relegate an individual to a life of domesticity. Indeed, feminists were not concerned with domestic activities as such but with the unquestioned assumption that domesticity was the natural place for women. The women in Matchar's article clearly have choices.

Well, now I am going to watch football and finish the last slice of White Chocolate-Dried Cherry-Toasted Pecan Bread Pudding (along with a cream sauce) that I made for Thanksgiving (pictured above). Just call me Mr. Domestic.


Joyce L. Arnold said...

Hope you're having a great T'day weekend.

"The women in Matchar's article clearly have choices."

Yep, and that seems to be the point missed quite often. Of course by now, the choices for many is likely to be more about what to do with my "off work" time than with whether or not one "works outside the home." If you have the time and resources to use some of that time for "new domesticity" -- which sounds like something beyond the necessities of housecleaning, doing the laundry, etc. -- and canning and knitting or whatever is what you want to do, great. But I think you're correct in pointing to the feminist efforts were, and continue to be, "empower(ing) women to make choices that benefit them and their families."

dakinikat said...

Thanks for this. I was appalled when I read this. She seems to want every one to appreciate her choices in life rather than appreciate every one has the right to make their own choices. It just shows how women can been misogynistic too. Sounds like she has a lot of hobbies that she feels the need to justify and wrap up in some sort of sanctimonious image.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks for the comments. We are definitely on the same page.

Nell said...

I was appalled, too, dak, especially by her condescending attitude toward her "baby boomer" mother's and especially her grandmother's early feminism ("typical 60's housewife, cigarette in one hand, cocktail in the other").

The author typifies so many young women I know who are either completely ignorant of or who misunderstand the history of modern feminism. They seem neither to appreciate nor understand that the choices they claim to be so proud to make today (marry or not, children or not, career or not, domesticity or not) are available because of the women's movement led by their mothers and grandmothers.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Amen, Nell!

AHLondon said...

"Feminism was never meant to extricate women against their will from "domestic" life. Instead, feminism seeks to empower women to make choices that benefit them and their families." Feminism might have never meant to extricate women in such a way, a point with which I would quibble, but that is in fact what it did. It quickly became about making the approved choices, not just any choice, and specifically not childbearing and domesticity. This is precisely why dakinikat is correct in stating that "[the writer] seems to want every one to appreciate her choices in life rather than appreciate every one has the right to make their own choices. It just shows how women can been misogynistic too. Sounds like she has a lot of hobbies that she feels the need to justify and wrap up in some sort of sanctimonious image." Exactly. She has to turn domesticity into the approved choice or be looked down upon by other women. A while back I made a similar point using the Sex in the City shoe fetish and some commentary about Nick Clegg's wife. Feminists couldn't get women to stop liking fashion, so they turned it into a stamp of girl power. Currently, I'm working on a post about a pro-choice screenwriter who had to rationalize writing a pro-life movie. She realized that to carry a child was a choice, something that she noted was often overlooked by pro-choice women such as herself.
Feminism might have been about giving women choices, but it has fierce opinions on which choices those should be.

AHLondon said...

forgot to check thread follow. Sorry.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

AHLondon said:"It quickly became about making the approved choices, not just any choice, and specifically not childbearing and domesticity."

Unfortunately, that sounds like a page from Phyllis Schafly's playbook. Feminism did not tell women not to have kids. Imagine that as a political agenda: stop reproduction. Feminists challenged the societal construct that assigned women to domesticity without choice. Third wave feminists dug more deeply and considered the social context in which women's choices (post-1970s) were made. Did society give women the agency to choose domesticity or not?

But these arguments have never amounted to a demand that women must shun domesticity. A perfect example of my argument is seen in "cultural feminism." Matchar does not point us to any feminist commentary that would devalue her canning and other activities. Given the reordering of gender in our society (congrats feminism), I suspect that men embrace many of these activities.

Also - there is a urban bias to her argument. Men in rural and farm areas often do work involving the preparation of food. You could also consider certain ethnic groups where men cooking is a long tradition (Italian, blacks, Latinos). This is beyond my original criticism, but the more I dig, the less value I see in her article.

AHLondon said...

I hope there isn't a character limit.
That is an awfully rosy view of what feminism did; it mentions only the benefits, not the cost. Matchar might not point to any feminist contrary that condemns domesticity, but not because she can't. It is hard give specific examples because the assumptions, for instance, that a woman is wasting her education if she stays at home once she has children, underpin the Mommy Wars. Go to a business function with your husband and mention you are a stay at home mom, and you become invisible. In my experience the worst offenders are older women. The younger ones usually want motherhood advice, though out of the earshot of the other women. Here's a letter of resignation I came across a while back. Note that her parents don't understand and that she worries that others will ignore her as just a mom. That is, she's on defense. We housewives deal with the social repercussions of not taking the approved path all the time.
I recall the angst a while back when data suggested that more women were leaving the workforce to return home. Feminists worried that the younger generation was throwing their achievements away. Surf women's issues blogs and that theme comes up often. If we don't do things as hard and fast as they did, then we are weak-willed sellouts.
Pop culture can provide some good illustrations, too. Because it is fresh right now, take a perusal of any feminist analysis of Bella Swan, the "heroine" of the Twilight books. Her choices to cook for her father, marry her boyfriend, and bear a child have earned her and her creator countless scorn. (Ditto if you try to defend her choices on blogs.) I'd bet you could find a considerable amount of snark for the talents of Martha Stewart, too.
As for the urban bias, I don't see that, but that might have something to do with your Italian men example. After years in London I know a fair few Italian men, none of whom do much traditionally domestic other than the school run.
I see a cooking bias though. Cooking, and gardening for that matter, enjoy a kind of creative domesticity exemption. Artistic things are cool, like power women obsessed with fashion. Try the same analysis with laundry or bum and nose wiping.
Of course, with the higher education bubble about to burst, hand skills are due for a revival, regardless of gender.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

AHLondon - I think you fail to recognize the distinction between questioning the value of motherhood -- even the "stay at home" mom -- versus questioning whether individuals in the scenario exercised choice with perfect information. The distinction is very important, since gender roles are socially constructed and/or imposed. While some individual women might devalue motherhood, this has never been a project of feminism itself.

I cannot speak to what individual writers are saying about Twilight because I have not read those critiques. Please point me to some of them.

But I can comment on Martha Stewart. There was much talk about her as a threat because she was a powerful woman! Many men and women supported Martha Stewart because we believed that men in that situation do not receive the same treatment. The knitted throw she wore out of jail was a classic play on so many different social constructs.

Finally, some of the things you mention sound a lot like extreme anxiety that people have that might rest on a kernel of truth, but which becomes exaggerated due to fear. Consider the "coming out" stories of many LGBT folk for example. Many gay people remain closeted fearing that EVERYONE will abandon them. But, after coming out, they actually live richer lives.

These types of anxieties normally diminish with age -- which is precisely why older women speak their minds so freely (and intimidate younger ones in your examples). I encourage young women to live their own lives. If their moms and friends bicker - so be it! Every out lesbian has had to deal with that possibility around sexuality. Trying to attribute the individual conflicts that you describe to feminism as a whole strikes me as misguided.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

AHLondon - I just read the "letter of resignation" you posted. Again, this sounds like an individual who is overly anxious about people around her. It is not a response to anything feminists have said or done.

In fact, I would take it even farther -- given the extent of education and professional stature the writer says she has attained, I would ask her the same questions. And if I left my career, I assume that most of my friends would question me as well.

This is a big life change. When people make big life changes, friends ask questions. This does not mean they devalue the person's choices. It means that they want to be a sounding board and make sure the friend is making an informed decision. Every major life change I have made has involved friends asking lot of questions. This is one way that close friendships are built.

The High Desert Chronicles said...

I was pretty angered by Ms. Matchar's article and decided to write my own rebuttal on my website. As a homesteader and stay at home mom I took great offense to having my lifestyle reduced to the word "domesticity." The tone of her article was condescending at best. You can read my article here:

AHLondon said...

Two main points to address here (I’ll comment on link over at her place and I had my own observations at mine.)
Regarding the main complaint that feminism has never devalued domesticity, one of the foundational tomes of feminism, The Feminine Mystique implied that a women doing housework was like a mindless animal. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of domestic work, and BF spent considerable time in her later years trying to rehabilitate domestic lives which had shockingly, to her at least, been abandoned by women. (I think Jonah Goldberg said it best when describing some sixties advances. They sought to burn out undesirable elements of our culture but couldn’t manage a controlled burn and scorched the landscape instead.)

More recently, Linda Hirshman made quite a fuss about the damage wrought by what she saw as the newly fashionable and immoral “choice feminism,” which is the feminism you describe. Hirshman and some of the older line feminists think that the women of Gen X forward are betraying the cause by wearing high heels, embracing the “lavender menace” (their term, not mine), and staying at home with children. It is immoral for PhD’s to wipe butts. You can see similar themes from rank and file feminists in the pop culture examples I mentioned, and I’ll get you a few links soon as I’m finishing up my post on the movie and will find some examples, I’m sure.

Beyond the blunt Linda Hirshman types, the take home message of even choice feminism is that a domestic life is beneath intelligent, educated women. It condescends, as Chronicler so aptly noted.

Look at the lives of modern women. Why do we seek advanced degrees, delay marriage, and childbearing, sometimes to the point of impossibility?  Because we are told from an early age to establish our careers, to experience life ourselves, to do our thing before becoming tied down by a child. Why are children often viewed as a burden, pregnancy as punishment? Because they keep us from doing things which are implicitly better. Why did we even coin the term stay at home mom?  Because, among other things, the domestic flavor of the word ‘housewife’ was degrading.

From childhood on, we have been told by parents, teachers, and peers that we can be anything we want to be. We were encouraged to get advanced degrees, to do something more than mere domestic or traditionally female anything. To do otherwise was a waste of our life. My dad, hardly a left leaning guy, arranged an intervention when I wanted to be a nurse because it was too domestic. It involved changing “bed pans and bedsheets.” Women who get married before 28 are pitied. Others who might desire to leave work when they have children are paralyzed by worries that they will be bored. Girlfriend interventions are often scheduled then. The idea, the “click” moment of that a domestic life is mind-numbing--its in the water supply. It informs everything modern women do.

In the feminist world, a domestic life is a second rate life, and only among young feminists is it accepted for the sole purpose of child rearing, by the way. As the article that so annoyed you took pains to point out, she was home for her children’s nutrition and education. She focused on one of the creative tasks of domestic work, cooking. Had she mentioned anything about being home also to make sure the toilets got cleaned or that she wasn’t too tired to engage in maintenance sex, she would have become a pariah.  

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

H.D.C. - thanks for the post. I will check out your response!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

AHLondon - Again, I disagree.

1. Feminists never said women should never work at home. They questioned assigning this role to women using biological arguments. Asking people to question - rather "mindlessly" following social constructs -- does not demean the work itself.

2. I do not follow Hirshman's work, but I'll comment on the "lavender menace" in particular. Absolutely, feminists conflicted over lesbian and gay rights, but as early as 1972, NOW sponsored a huge women's rights convention in Houston and the platform embraced gay and lesbian rights. This, in fact, became a symbol against which conservatives blasted feminism. They associated feminism with gay rights. So, if you're suggesting that second-wave feminists in general are backwards on LGBT issues, your point is very problematic.

As for the rest of your post, it is laden with class, racial and regional assumptions. Southern women marry early. Many of them are also professional. I taught many married law students at SMU Law School.

Second, people do not admonish women of color "from day one" to become hardcore professionals. Men of color don't even get these social cues. The same could be said about poor folks.

So - it sounds like you are addressing a tiny group of upper-class white women whose moms had the privilege of getting advanced degrees at a time when most women could not. If they want their daughters and grand daughters to work outside of the home, that's a product of their own experiences. Blaming that on feminist theory is misguided, in my opinion.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

To explicate my regionalism point, I imagine (no statistics), that a Southern woman who cans food, etc., probably is not the scourge of her family. A rural or farming community mom in the midwest probably can do the same without condemnation. All of the women I knew as a kid worked and did tons of domestic activities. They worked because they were poor and needed the income. They were domestic because they needed to feed their kids. They couldn't afford nannies. Their husbands often worked second jobs at night to keep the family going. The woman you describe who works in the office but who gets weird looks for working at home is a foreign concept in many American households.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Here's more about the "myth" of feminism lowering the status of working-at-home moms:

AHLondon said...

We are certainly just going to disagree, though I have a few lingering rebuttals.
I am not suggesting that second-wave feminists in general are backwards on LGBT issues, I am suggesting that they are less open to "choice" than you argue.
If it sounds like I am addressing a tiny group of upper-class white women--yes. Who else would choice feminism serve? It likes to equate those rich women problems with the more dire problems of poorer or powerless women, as if the bank executive's decision to keep working for "her identity" is just like the secretary's for food and clothing. Choice feminism sounds lovely, but the secretary doesn't actually have a choice. This is one of the major problems with modern feminism, it is confined to the concerns and problems of upper middle class white women.
As for your regional points, I will agree there. The domestic stigma is far less in Houston than New York. Actually, thinking about it now, it isn't so much that the stigma is less in Houston but that it is easier to find other housewives to support you if you do return home.

Anonymous said...

Interesting string. I found you via AHLondon. I know little about feminist philosophy or the history of the feminist movement. I wouldn't know one wave from the other, lol.

From the anecdotal standpoint of a regular old person, though, well, yeah feminists have looked down upon domesticity. My mom had to put up with that for decades.

Nowadays, I don't get looked down upon like she did. Folks show surprise that I abandoned a career, that's all. I think attitudes are evening out, or the pendelum is between swings maybe.

I do take issue with this one, though: "gender roles are socially constructed and/or imposed."

Gender roles are not just artificially created. One cannot dismiss all the biological differences between male and female.

We could probably debate ad nauseum about how much is biological, how much is cultural, but you can't just dismiss one altogether.

My own two boys have shown me without a doubt, children are not blank slates.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

To: "noone...."

Thanks for posting. 1. I find it interesting that you concede that you don't know much about feminism, but you conclude that it is anti-domesticity.

2. On social construction - have you boys been isolated from society?

AHLondon said...

1. Many don't know much about textbook feminism, but Noone's comment was to the practical implications of feminism in which modern women are well versed. In fact we don't know much about textbook feminism because its tenets have been so thoroughly absorbed that they are no longer seen as feminist, but the way things are--the good and the bad.
2. Prof Hutchinson, do you have no children? True, socialization is a factor, but what consistently surprises, even shocks, modern mothers is the extent children come with pre-programing, and how early that programing starts to show. Mothers and society can only work on the margins.

Michelle said...

Furthermore, as women's status has risen, the support for each successive egalitarian or feminist ideology increased while acceptance of domestic ideologies declined. These egalitarian ideas have propelled and directed women's efforts to improve their status.
Two unremitting and fundamental conflicts in American society.

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