The emergence of the radical homemakers movement

Another sign of the strong cultural shift that is taking place.

Below is an excerpt from Shannon Hayes’ newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture, Left to Write Press, 2010, which was previously published in Yes magazine (CC license)

Shannon Hayes:

“Many of us born in the mid-seventies learned from our parents and our teachers that women no longer needed to stay home; that there were professional opportunities awaiting us. In my own school experience, homemaking, like farming, gained a reputation as a vocation for the scholastically impaired. Those of us with academic promise learned that we could do whatever we put our minds to, whether it was conquering the world or saving the world. I was personally interested in saving the world. That path eventually led me to conclude that homemaking would play a major role toward achieving that goal.

My own farming background led me to pursue advanced degrees in the field of sustainable agriculture, with a powerful interest in the local food movement. By the time my Ph.D. was conferred, I was married, and I was in a state of confusion. The more I understood about the importance of small farms and the nutritional, ecological and social value of local food, the more I questioned the value of a 9 to 5 job. If my husband and I both worked and had children, it appeared that our family’s ecological impact would be considerable. We’d require two cars, professional wardrobes, convenience foods to make up for lost time in the kitchen…and we’d have to buy, rather than produce, harvest and store our own food. The economics didn’t work out, either. When we crunched the numbers, our gross incomes from two careers would have been high, but the cost of living was also considerable, especially when daycare was figured into the calculation. Abandoning the job market, we re-joined my parents on our small grassfed livestock farm, and became homemakers. For almost ten years now, we’ve been able to eat locally and organically, support local businesses, avoid big box stores, save money, and support a family of four on less than $45,000 per year.

Wondering if my family was a freaky aberration to the conventional American culture, I decided to post a notice on my webpage, looking to connect with other ecologically-minded homemakers. My fingers trembled on the keyboard as I typed the notice. What, exactly, would be the repercussions for taking a pro-homemaker stand and seeking out others? Was encouraging a Radical Homemaking movement going to unravel all the social advancements that have been made in the last forty-plus years? Women, after all, have been the homemakers since the beginning of time. Or so I thought.

Upon further investigation, I learned that the household did not become the “woman’s sphere” until the Industrial Revolution. A search for the origin of the word housewife traces it back to the thirteenth century as the feudal period was coming to an end in Europe, and the first signs of a middle class were popping up. Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains that Housewives were wedded to husbands, whose name came from hus, an old spelling of house, and bonded. Husbands were bonded to houses, rather than to lords. Housewives and husbands were free people, who owned their own homes and lived off their land. While there was a division of labor among the sexes in these early households, there was also an equal distribution of domestic work. Once the Industrial Revolution happened, however, things changed. Men left the household to work for wages, which were then used to purchase goods and services that they no longer were home to provide. Indeed, the men were the first to lose their domestic skills as their successive generations forgot how to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood.

As the Industrial Revolution forged on and crossed the ocean to America, men and women eventually stopped working together to provide for their household sustenance. They developed their separate spheres – man in the factory, woman in the home. The more a man worked outside the home, the more the household would have to buy in order to have the needs met. Soon the factories were able to fabricate products to supplant the housewives’ duties as well. The housewife’s primary function ultimately became chauffeur and consumer. The household was no longer a unit of production. It was a unit of consumption.

The effect on the American housewife was devastating.

Before long, the second family income was no longer an option. In the minds of many, it was a necessity. Homemaking, like eating organic foods, seemed a luxury to be enjoyed only by those wives whose husbands garnered substantial earnings, enabling them to drive their children to school rather than put them on a bus, enroll them in endless enrichment activities, oversee their educational careers, and prepare them for entry into elite colleges in order to win a leg-up in a competitive workforce. At the other extreme, homemaking was seen as the realm of the ultra-religious, where women accepted the role of Biblical “Help Meets” to their husbands. They cooked, cleaned, toiled, served and remained silent and powerless. My husband and I fell into neither category, and I suspected there were more like us.

I was right. I received hundreds of letters from rural, suburban and city folks alike. Some ascribed to specific religious faiths, others did not. As long as the home showed no signs of domination or oppression, I was interested in learning more about them. I selected twenty households from my pile, plotted them on a map across the United States, and set about visiting each of them to see what homemaking could look like when men and women shared both power and responsibility. Curious to see if Radical Homemaking was a venture suited to more than just women in married couples, I visited with single parents, stay-at-home dads, widows and divorcées. I spent time in families with and without children.

The Radical Homemakers I interviewed had chosen to make family, community, social justice and the health of the planet the governing principles of their lives. They rejected any form of labor or the expenditure of any resource that did not honor these tenets. For about five thousand years, our culture has been hostage to a form of organization by domination that fails to honor our living systems, where “he who holds the gold makes the rules.” By contrast, the Radical Homemakers are using life skills and relationships as replacements for gold, on the premise that he or she who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules. The greater one’s domestic skills, be they to plant a garden, grow tomatoes on an apartment balcony, mend a shirt, repair an appliance, provide one’s own entertainment, cook and preserve a local harvest, or care for children and loved ones, the less dependent one is on the gold.

By virtue of these skills, the Radical Homemakers I interviewed were building a great bridge from our existing extractive economy, where corporate wealth has been regarded as the foundation of economic health, where mining our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors has been an acceptable cost of doing business; to a life serving economy, where the goal is, in the word’s of David Korten, to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few; where our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air pure, and families and can lead meaningful lives. In situations where one person was still required to work out of the home in the conventional extractive economy, homemakers were able to redirect the family’s financial, social and temporal resources toward building the life serving economy. In most cases, however, the homemakers’ skills were so considerable that, while members of the household might hold jobs (more often than not they ran their own businesses), the financial needs of the family were so small that no one in the family was forced to accept any employment that did not honor the four tenets of family, community, social justice and ecological sustainability.

While all the families had some form of income that entered their lives, they were not the privileged set by any means. Most of the families I interviewed were living with a sense of abundance at about 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. That’s a little over $40,000 for a family of four, about 37% below the national median family income, and 45% below the median income for married couple families. Some lived on considerably less, few had appreciably more. Not surprisingly, those with the lowest incomes had mastered the most domestic skills, and had developed the most innovative approaches to living.”

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