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Home Ec.

The economic logic of the "new domesticity"

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“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.

As a generation raised to expect creative, fulfilling professional lives grows increasingly frustrated with its limited options, the middle class (Matchar makes a compelling case that this is a middle-class phenomenon, with the poor being unable to choose this lifestyle and the rich not needing to) is becoming increasingly obsessed with handmade self-sufficiency. Environmental concerns and the collapse of the social safety net have made DIY-everything more attractive. Technology has made it easier to work from anywhere and connect with anyone. And so Matchar synthesizes dozens of trend stories about attachment parents, Etsy sellers, pickling enthusiasts, mommy bloggers, and Backyard Poultry subscribers into a single, compelling narrative about the resurgence of domesticity. 

Educated, disillusioned twenty- and thirtysomethings who are just now hitting child-rearing age really want to choose their choice, and Matchar’s book explains their rationale. No matter how taxing and unfulfilling the workplace is, no one wants to feel like they’re a quitter. No matter how entrenched the sexism or unforgiving the work-from-home policies, no one wants to admit they couldn’t hack it. “The domestic DIY movement provides a sense of control over a very out-of-control situation,” Matchar writes. Homeward Bound is refreshing largely because it’s not a rallying cry or a handwringing screed about Princeton-educated moms abandoning the corporate track. It addresses the fact that, in just about every way, our economy, culture, and policies have yet to catch up to what we all want: meaningful, stable work and a fulfilling home life. 

This is not to say that Matchar ignores the fraught implications of so many women and men choosing to return to the domestic sphere. For all of the profiles of “lushly bearded” artisanal chocolate-makers in Brooklyn and Portlandia sketches about avian accessories, broadly speaking we still associate domesticity with female subservience, usually with a religious bent. Matchar shows that this isn’t quite right. While many of the gurus of the new domesticity have deeply conservative religious ties—the greatest concentration of Etsy sellers is in Provo; the founder of attachment parenting is a conservative Christian; a disproportionate number of popular mommy bloggers are Mormon—the newer practitioners of the new domesticity are just as likely to be avowed liberals. Many of the women, despite nominally occupying a far-left niche of the ideological spectrum, venerate an idea of authentic femininity rooted in nurturing, and chalk up their traditional gender-role breakdown to natural inclinations. 

She also shows how some of feminism’s problems with the relegation of women to domestic work don’t apply to this new subset. Feminism’s problem with all women being shunted to the domestic sphere was that it they were poorly compensated, not societally valued, and had no influence on the public sphere. Without their own income stream and identity, women were little more than appendages of their husbands. But, as Matchar shows, a handful of mommy bloggers have more readers than mainstream glossy magazines. Some Etsy sellers (97 percent of whom are women) pay the rent by selling their crafts. And even though the majority don’t reach this level of success, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that women who spend their days doing domestic work have no public voice. “I feel like I really do have an impact on the world, even though I’m spending a lot of my time each day washing dishes,” one blogger tells Matchar. “The things I’m writing, people read it.” 

Matchar argues that this movement has not only been enabled by technology, it’s also been validated by it. Technology makes it easier to do part-time work from home and social media now makes it possible to receive external validation for private labor. Blogs like the Pioneer Woman and the Hipster Homemaker, in which (mostly) educated women chronicle the details of their quilting and baking projects, imbue what was for previous generations private drudgery with a sense of meaning. “This lifestyle wouldn’t work if women were raising their perfect, happy, locavore children in the middle of the woods with no internet connection,” one professor tells Matchar.

Still, these women are not exactly CEOs or congresswomen, and the number of women at the top of the professional world is still dismal. Feminism, many argue, has not gone far enough. But to hear many of the new domestics tell the tale, feminism has gone too far. In nearly every arena, second-wave feminists come in for some of the blame. They stand accused of pushing women into the workforce but failed to break the glass ceiling or ensure paid family leave. They’re charged with devaluing domestic skills like cooking to the point where we all got fat on fast food. But feminists “did not invent the two-career family,” Matchar points out. “The economy did that.”

One of the shortcomings of most opt-out trend pieces is that they fail to grapple with all of these factors—the state of feminist politics, sure, but also the flagging economy and the rise of technology and concerns about the environment. Unlike writers who remain laser-focused on high-achieving mothers and the feminism that failed them, Matchar takes pains to connect the dots. Her success is in not reducing the new domesticity trend to one about highly educated mothers. The shoulder-padded corporate warriors that raised many of the women interviewed by Matchar may have been unfulfilled by working too many hours in cold, soulless environments, but so were a not-insignificant number of their male colleagues. Women may have been buoyed by feminism as they marched off to work, but they were also motivated by economic concerns. And while the recession has hit men and women differently—as chronicled by Hanna Rosin—it’s not the glass ceiling alone that has driven women from the workplace. It’s the allure of something better. 

Still, as a wave of educated, middle-class Americans becomes focused on sewing non-sweatshop curtains and pureeing non-GMO baby food for their own families, they are increasingly uninterested in pursuing large-scale collective solutions to the very problems that drove them to become modern homesteaders in the first place. These droves of radical post-consumerist home-ec enthusiasts may believe that change begins in the home, but for them it also ends there. Matchar cites economist Juliet Schor’s prediction that the new economy will be a “synthesis of the pre- and post-modern,” affording every worker the ability to choose whether and when to work either in or outside the system. If educated middle-class workers aren’t rallying for better health care and paid sick days within the system, what hope do minimum-wage workers have? If wealthier moms are judging each other for shopping at Trader Joe’s, who’s holding down the fresh produce prices for lower-income families? It’s easy to see how the new domesticity, born of inequality and economic hardship and professional dissatisfaction, will only exacerbate those trends for workers further down the food chain, leaving them struggling to opt in to the economy at all.