Reviews of Homeward Bound

“3.5 out of 4 stars” - People Magazine                                                               “The brilliance of Emily Matchar’s new book 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. Matchar synthesizes dozens of trend stories … into a single, compelling narrative about the resurgence of domesticity….Refreshing.” -The New Republic                                                       "[P]rovocatively explores what the movement says about the role of women in society today.” – The New Yorker                                                                       "I unreservedly loved it…It’s empathetic and funny and thoughtful and smart, and I encourage all of you to read it."– The Hairpin                                                         “Cogently argues that choosing a more hands-on, DIY lifestyle – family farming, canning, crafting, can, without sacrificing feminism’s hard-won gains, improve on an earlier time when ‘people lived more lightly on the earth and relied less on corporations, and family and community came first.’” - ELLE                                                               “[I]ntelligent and insightful...essential reading.” - Christianity Today                                                       “A lively and perceptive reporter… a valuable and astute assessment.”—Publishers Weekly                                                         “A well-researched look at the resurgence of home life…. Offers intriguing insight into the renaissance of old-fashioned home traditions.”— Kirkus Reviews

What is New Domesticity?

This blog is a look at the social movement I call ‘New Domesticity’ – the fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising, etc. Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off? Why has the image of the blissfully domestic supermom overtaken the Sex & the City-style single urban careerist as the media’s feminine ideal? Where does this movement come from? What does it mean for women? For families? For society?                                                                                     My book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, which explores New Domesticity in greater depth, will be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013.

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Can urban homesteading really be a solution to poverty?

 

back to the land

photo via nytimes.com

Ever since the recession began, we’ve been seeing a certain kind of story pop up all over the media. Call it the Tale of the Heroic Recession Homemaker. It’s a person (usually a woman, often a mom) who pulls herself up by her bootstraps via intensive domestic work or neo-homesteading – sewing her own curtains, growing her own veggies, baking her own bread. This week, the New York Times has an essay by a divorced and “flat broke” Brooklyn mom of three subtitled “I went back to the land to feed my family.” The author, Susan Gregory Thomas, describes how she slashed her grocery bill and transformed her life by raising backyard chickens, growing produce and making her own cleaning products.

“[M]y family and I are living our own scrappy take on President Obama’s promise of ‘Yes, we can!’” she writes.

Even for those of us (uh, me) who can’t even keep a houseplant alive, let alone a coop full of chickens, there’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of DIY-ing it at home – picking freshly grown veggies in your own backyard must be delightful, making your own granola to save money is just good common sense (I love this recipe), and the idea of making your own shampoo seems kind of cool and subversive and MacGyver-ish. It’s not hard to see why a little self-sufficiency and concrete tactile labor has such benefits for our sense of well-being.

It’s when this neo-homesteading starts being presented as a genuine solution for poverty that I start having questions. I’m not the only one, apparently – while many Times readers loved the essay, others raised a skeptical eyebrow:

Most New Yorkers don’t have backyards and most working mothers don’t have the time to bake bread from scratch. This is a rich person’s version of being “poor.”

I’d like to add a dose of reality to yet another star-crossed I-saved-my-life-by-getting-chickens-and-starting-a-garden account…It is HARD work, takes lots of time and needs quite a lot of start-up cash.

We spend $100 a week and do a lot of shopping at trader joe’s or fairway. Hardly a sacrifice. But rent and health insurance … you got a solution for that?

Making bread and family meals from scratch while taking care of three kids is a full time job. When did you have time to look for work?

These criticisms raise a lot of interesting questions – what’s the worth of a woman’s time such that homemade bread is “cheaper” than store-bought? Since stuff like shampoo is already pretty inexpensive (a bottle of Suave is $1.99 at my drugstore), is making your own shampoo really more about telegraphing values than saving money? Is urban homesteading/DIY homemaking really a solution accessible to the genuinely poor? Is this “bootstraps” narrative part of a move away from collective social solutions for poverty and food safety and towards an “every man for himself” approach?

Since I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of domesticity lately, I’ve been marveling at the parallels between the narrative of the Heroic Recession Homemaker and her predecessor, the Heroic Depression Homemaker. As Sherrie Inness writes, in her (excellent) book Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture:

Everywhere readers looked in Depression-era cooking literature, they were likely to encounter this thrifty housewife doing her home canning, growing her own vegetables, saving heels of bread to turn into breadcrumbs, serving inexpensive meatless meals, and using leftovers rather than discarding them—anything to stretch money a little further… The household was transformed into a battleground where the war against the Depression would be won or lost…Thriftiness became a demanding full-time job.

Sounds familiar, right?

For the flip side of the Heroic Recession Homemaker story, check out this very funny Madeline Holler essay, “I am a Radical Homemaking Failure.”

 

3 comments to Can urban homesteading really be a solution to poverty?

  • kate

    “This is a rich person’s version of being “poor.””

    Nailed it. It’s still relying on individualism in a social species. If we focused on community gardens and co-ops, that may help poverty. I sure as hell don’t have land or tools or anything material to start a garden. I don’t have the money for such either, but I have the time if someone else provided the physical resources. Bootstraps my butt, no person is an island. If you have those materials resources as an individual, or even single family unit, especially land, you’re not poor.

  • I, too, wondered what kind of pretty sweet-sounding living situation the author had that would accommodate 20(!) omega-3 filled hens somewhere within the five boroughs. Folks working one (or several) full-time jobs to make ends meet, or folks who are commuting long distances, would be hard pressed to find the time for all the upkeep and maintenance required by a hardcore homesteading lifestyle.

    On the other hand, for the unemployed and underemployed (this author seems to suggest she fits this bill), taking up these activities could be an inexpensive and satisfying way to beat the boredom of otherwise jobless days, provide for her kids, and maybe involve them in the process. Maybe for her next act she could undertake a community garden-building project, to help urban dwellers who have never met a $10 Zabar’s health loaf in their life learn to eat and live healthfully on the cheap.

    Where you’re starting to go with the individual self-sustainer vs. collective social solutions is interesting. I’m not sure this particular article signals that, but certainly the individually driven success story seems to be gaining in popularity, maybe to the detriment of identifying, discussing, and creating solutions, in public forums, for larger populations? Those kinds of stories seem more an more scarce in forums like the NYT…

  • Heather F.

    Some things to consider, this is the way that billions of people live across the globe. I do not think it is too Utopic to think that a poor person in a city couldn’t raise their own animals or plants in an urban environment. It happens in Africa, Asia, India…the list could go on. They make it happen. This is an issue with Americans in our cities. The reasoning may stem from issues of health code, city ordinances, germaphobia, or plain-old lack of knowledge but that does not make it impossible. I guarantee that if every poor American was as poor as someone in a third-world country they would be doing all that they could to homestead in the city.
    I can also promise that eating healthier results in decrease in medication and doctor/hospital visits. It has been cheaper for my family to pay more upfront and eat healthy than to put “non-food” in our bodies and to pay (quite literally) for the damage to our health.