In 2008, Steven Wells called into question the subversiveness of knitting and questioned the titles of Alter Nation and AntiCraft: Knitting, Beading, and Stitching for the Slightly Sinister. He eloquently argued that taking up a domestic chore and insisting you are doing it ironically, post-anything, or just tongue-in-cheek does not automatically make it radical, anti-anything, or even just non-controversial. He ended the two articles that I read (there may be more, I didn’t check) by listing people who had left their mark on the world and had notably not crocheted or knit their own bobble-hats, finally suggesting “If you need a hobby, take up spitting.”
Yesterday I read an article titled The New Domesticity: Fun, empowering, or a step back for American women? and a response arguing that yes, “New Domesticity” Is a Step Backwards for Women. I also followed the hashtag #newdomesticity on Twitter.
And now comes the confessional bit in which I tell you that I like to knit, bought books on ikebana as a child, love to bake, and don’t have a high-power job. I’m also going to tell you that I don’t like to clean or cook. Luckily, my husband loves to cook and therefore does all the cooking and grocery shopping. In exchange, I occasionally clean in a non-ironic, half-hearted way.
I understand what Steven Wells is saying. I also understand what Jamie Stiehm is saying. I’m also sure that Emily Matchar understands that making jam for the pleasure of it can quickly turn sour when it is your only option in life. Nevertheless I’m going to write my (slightly rambly) bit.
1. Maker Culture and Feeling in Control
The maker-culture is a broad and inclusive term that encompasses jam-making, bee-keeping, knitting, and tinkering. It includes the person who can fix their own bike, darn their own sock, build a shed, make a souffle, program a lego-robot, or knit a bobble-hat. It appeals to the idea of knowing what you’ve spent your time on because you’re holding it in your hand. It appeals to a mindfulness about our consumerism, by valuing repair-ability, re-usability, and recycle-ability. It also appeals to those mistrustful of large corporations and where they get their raw materials from. Buying locally, foraging, and making are interconnected. They all mean taking back control of who we give our money to and what exactly we’re getting for it.
Admittedly, for many it is enough to feel like they’ve taken back that control. They’ll sew new covers for their throw pillows, delighting in having made something themselves that no-one else has (with fabric bought at IKEA). These are the same kind of people who will drive to the organic supermarket in an SUV to buy organic pineapples that were flown half-way across the globe. They’ll buy a book on organic gardening and plan their little vegetable patch and decide that it’s just too much work.
But there are people out there who are taking their kitchen gardens seriously because for them it is a way to save money, control where their food comes from, and literally reap their rewards. Teachers have set up gardens as a way of teaching students discipline and the value of work. And they are not all female.
Also: the blogs on foraging, food preservation, and vegetable gardening on guardian.co.uk are written mainly(?) by men.
2.1 Artisan, Hand-made
Hand-made chocolate, artisanal cookies and bread, hand-crafted jewelry, or even a home-cooked meal. These things evoke a sense of luxury and wholesomeness. This of course can lead to the fetishization of things that often require back-breaking labor and consume a lot of time. Terry Pratchett wrote in Monstrous Regiment “It was women’s work, and therefore monotonous, backbreaking, and social.” (He describes the job of washer women in particular.) There is a reason we have washing machines and dish-washers. Convenience food freed many people from having to slave away in their kitchens. There is nothing romantic about making preserves if it is the only way you’ll have food in Winter.
Nevertheless there also seems to be a psychological demand in our post-industrial societies for preserving “ancient” knowledge, as the Foxfire books, among others, show.
2.2 Women are Disproportionately part of a Movement that Fetishizes Domestic Making
Yes, it’s questionable when a lot of young women decide to go all Bree Van de Kamp, with a cookbook or a book on parenting being the only contribution to mankind they can imagine. Yes, it is worrying when otherwise intelligent people start saying things like “it just makes me feel so feminine,” “women’s work,” or even “it’s just something women /men are naturally good at.”
It is worrying when there is suddenly a growing market for paraphernalia that copies the look and feel of kitchens in the 1950s and 60s. When the era depicted in Mad Men is romanticized, despite the issues the show mentions. We know better. The educated women discussed in Matcher’s and Stiehm’s articles are all aware of their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ struggle and the systematic and wide-spread medication of women who were unhappy despite “having it all”. Yet, I’d argue, just as female politicians occasionally pass legislature that harms or oppresses women, so too are other women free to submit to a domesticity that many others around the world would love to escape. I’d put the emphasis on the freedom of choice. A choice between working a 9-5 job or staying at home. This freedom is hard-won and needs to be preserved.
3. Working around the Patriarchy
Let’s consider this 9-5 job. A job in what one might call the real world and the real economy. A world of negotiating for a raise, glass ceilings, and getting ahead. A world where work-life balance is scoffed at. This is a world shaped and dominated by men. A world that women have fought to be a part of. And now, that they are a part of it, changes have been made. Wonderful changes, such as part-time jobs. So that women can live the work-life balance. Except it’s a scam. Accept a part-time job and you won’t get promoted, let alone rise to the ranks of upper management. More knowledgeable and informed persons have no doubt analyzed the systemic disadvantages women face in the workplace. I’m too lazy to google them right now.
I heard an inspiring story of two doctors sharing the position of Head of Gynecology at a Swiss hospital. They share the work-load and the salary and both have a family. I think that’s a fantastic way to work around the system. But doesn’t it sound predictable that this should be the gynecological department, instead of, say, the surgical one?
3.1 Alternative Economies
Something in Ms. Matchar’s article, reminded me of Pedro Almodovar’s Volver Then men in Almodovar’s movies are noticeably absent, disposable, weak, or bad. But my point is, in Volver, among many other things, the characters make use of a non-official economy comprised of the women in their neighborhood. One sister runs a hair-salon out of her apartment. The other suddenly finds herself with an unexpected catering job for a film crew, so she borrows food from her neighbors. She borrows the food because she has no capital to go buy large amounts of food (she has the keys to an unused restaurant because the owner is on vacation). She has no capital to buy large amounts of food because the only money most of the women have is in their husbands’ control. This alternative economy of the neighborhood women, by necessity, operates outside the patriarchy. It circumvents the normal channels of power, for example banks, and relies on the community and the skills of the individual.
There are alternative currency systems where people can barter a service (mowing a lawn) for points and exchange their collected points for another service (tutoring for their kid). These systems also circumvent the Man. They might not change the law or our education system, but they take back a little control.
Alternative economies express our true needs. Many important services and tasks are not valued in the “established” economy. How much is raising a kid worth? How much is a friendship worth? What about a neighbor who will look after your kids spontaneously and help you shovel the snow in front of your house? How about knowing what the chicken whose eggs you eat in the morning was fed and how it was treated?
Finding someone who keeps bees and exchanging a jar of honey for a jar of blackberry jam made from foraged blackberries cuts out the conglomerates that are selling us artificial honey and jam that is made of 5% real fruit. Basically, it cuts out the middle-man who, as one food-scandal after another shows us, is regularly selling us bad food or even non-food.
Finding a local herd of sheep and their humans (that sounds a lot more touchy-feely than intended but I’ll leave it like this) and buying wool from them that you then knit into a sweater for yourself or someone else frees you from wondering about toxins in the fabric or dye. It also frees you from wondering what kind of sweat shop it was made in. I don’t know how realistic it is to say that many people do this or exclusively wear clothes like this (“Hello, my name is Rain. I have my own kiln, and my skirt is made of wheat.“). But I can relate to the underlying thought process.
3.2 Alternative Bodies
I’d like to point out something else: knitting or sewing your own clothes, for some people, is also a way of owning clothes they feel good in. We all know the beauty and fashion industries are not always friends to women’s bodies. If the clothes you offer women are a big eff you to their bodies, do not be surprised when they decide to make their own clothes.
Similar line of thought regarding all these allergies and additives in cosmetics and soap. If everything you can buy either makes your baby break out in a rash or is just really expensive you are going to try and find out how to make your own baby-shampoo with stuff in your kitchen.
A lot of what I read on Twitter regarding Matchar’s and Stiehm’s articles articulated one defining factor in this mass-exodus of bright, young women into domesticity: privilege. Not having to work for a living (for whatever reason) is one factor why a person might not want to be part of the work force. Feeling that women’ rights have come a long way and you don’t need to become head of the IMF or policy chief at the Pentagon can contribute to not wanting to participate in the rat-race. Not feeling marginalized also plays a big role in being complacent. I live outside the US and my cultural experience is slightly different; but I’d wager that women of color have their own, slightly different take on the New Domesticity compared to Matchar or Stiehm.
5. Buying things is easy. Making them is not. Time equals more than Money.
It’s almost Christmas. The time of year when we all collectively go “oh shit! I forgot to buy so-and-so a present!” and get on each others’ nerves by crowding malls and christmas markets. We try to buy each other the perfect gift when we can’t even think of something they might really need. In this case making something for a loved one means not just thinking of them and choosing something they might like, but taking the time to make it. Instead of spending money a person can spend time; especially in a world in which time itself is a commodity. Gathering your friends and family around to bake cookies, make decorations, sing, or read stories to each other is worth more than the money you planned on spending on them. Knitting a Vlad-the-Impaler bobble-hat for your niece can mean more than buying her some mass-produced doll.
At the end of this very rambly text I feel like saying: Everywoman can choose what domesticity means to her without being labelled anti-feminist. But what do I know?