In Defense of What the World Calls ‘Domestic’ (HINT: it’s not actually domestic)

Cooking, baking, canning, knitting, quilting, sewing, a propensity toward caring for children – these are just a few things associated with what the world perceives as “domestic.” These are also some of my favorite things. But heres the rub: I am NOT domestic in the sense that domestic implies “domesticated,” and I am a feminist. How can this be?! Well it goes a little something like this…

Our intellectual and technological society values a femininity that is blatantly abstract, post-modern, and driven by a consumer ethic. I would even argue that it teeters on the edge of exploitative. And society is justified in valuing that form of femininity: women in the kitchen have a long, problematic history. For years following the publication of the Feminine Mystique, mainstream feminism preached fulfillment outside of the home and the then-oppressive kitchen. Think Mad Men‘s Betty Draper. Feminism pushed women out of the home and into the office and the university, anywhere but the kitchen. Which was an appropriate response at the time, but this history is in a way unfortunate because it allows the mainstream to dismiss domestic knowledge. Let’s face it, the office can be just as oppressive as the post-WWII kitchen.

There is a growing collective of women who are reclaiming this domesticity.

My desk: where all the thinking, knitting, and recipe planning goes down

They find satisfaction in cooking, baking, sewing, canning, knitting, quilting… Although these tasks appear to be in keeping with the Feminine Mystique‘s grievances, they are entirely feminist in reality: these women are breaking away from the mainstream system where consumers depend on others for their labor and goods. Once basic knowledge has been forgotten. Young adults can’t cook for themselves, children can’t recognize vegetables in their unprocessed forms. We depend on others for our clothes, our food, our happiness.

My system of femininity and independence, like others walking along the self-sufficient path, is different from, say, the woman intensely focusing on her career in the power suit (I’m talking extremes here, of course). My independence is about domestic self-sufficiency rather than monetary, professional, or sexual success. I take pride in making things with my hands, I get fulfillment in providing nourishment to myself and others, I find happiness in knowing that I’ve respected the Earth. Ostensibly, I appear domesticated. But in actuality, I feel more wild and free than the woman confined to her office just barely breaking the glass ceiling. My decisions to cook, bake, knit, care for the Earth, etc. are political decisions; they’re a way to break free of the patriarchal consumerism that exploits laborers, animals, and the Earth.

A few others have recognized this trend toward the domestic as a way of feminist self-fulfillment and independence, including Steph Larson over at Grist and Shannon Hayes in her book Radical Homemakers (reviewed here at Civil Eats).

I dream of a farm where I can knit, cook food from vegetables I’ve grown, dress my children in clothes I’ve sewn. The point here is options; we have them. This is not to devalue other women’s understanding of feminism, but rather to bring value to this alternative notion of feminism. Today femininity takes many forms, this is just an example of one kind.

Cecile Schmidt, woman farmer of Escot Valley Farm, with her daughter

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3 Comments on “In Defense of What the World Calls ‘Domestic’ (HINT: it’s not actually domestic)”

  1. bettymingliu says:

    oh my goodness. i have so much to learn from you. even though i love to quilt, sew, cook — i’m knitting a scarf right now — i’ve never thought of these activities as feminist in any way. radical homemaker…what a great concept. thanks for sharing!

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