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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Wendell Berry on women and work

I just read New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s essay praising Wendell Berry, which got me thinking about the guy. Berry, the beloved essayist and promoter of rural values, is a huge hero to many of the people I’ve interviewed for the book. In particular, I keep coming across this quote, from Berry’s essay “Feminism, the Body and the Machine:”

And what are we to say of the diversely skilled country housewife who now bores the same six holes day after day on an assembly line? What higher form of womanhood or humanity is she consenting to evolving toward?

How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to? And that question is made legitimate by another: How have men improved themselves by submitting to it? The answer is that men have not, and women cannot, improve themselves by submitting to it.

Basically, Berry is saying that the working world has been degrading for men, and questions why women would want to follow in their footsteps. Isn’t it better to be a “diversely skilled,” self-sufficient homemaker than to be a cog in some assembly line, he asks?

The idea that self-sufficient homemaking is a way of escaping the rat race  is a major underlying theme of New Domesticity. Even people who aren’t full-time homemakers or homesteaders are really attracted to the idea of domestic DIY and “not working for The Man.” This is fascinating to me, since it’s basically the opposite of the 1960s/70s feminist view that careers would provide women with fulfillment.

I must admit, I’m not always a fan of Berry’s worldview, which I think over-romanticizes the rural past and undervalues scientific and technological progress (this is what Berry says about airplanes: “[they] have nothing to recommend them but speed; they are inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky, and scary.” I gotta say, airplanes seems pretty darn convenient to me, compared with the alternative. Also, they are amazing! A chunk of metal that flies?! Cool!). And I think that contrasting self-sufficient homemaking to assembly line work is silly – there are lots of jobs out there, and most of them do not involve assembly lines. And even early factory workers – like the Lowell Mill girls – thought factory work was a huge step up from the hardscrabble life on the farm.

Any Berry fans out there? Why do you think people today are so dissatisfied with the working world?

 

4 comments to Wendell Berry on women and work

  • Hmmm. I guess my problem with Berry’s worldview, although I don’t disagree with everything he says, is either you are a rural country housewife or your a cog in an assembly line. Not all work outside the home is that menial and unfulfilling. If the assembly line job is indeed what you are escaping, a job that only exists to help create a product in our already over-saturated marketplace, thereby making some fat cat get even richer than he/she already is, than yes. But there are jobs out there that people truly love doing and are good at and find meaning and a greater sense of purpose in. I guess the problem with today’s working world, and what many are finding so dissatisfying about it, is that so many jobs are designed to just make a buck. I think human beings need that greater sense of purpose to make what they’re doing feel worthwhile.

    • Emily

      Exactly. I don’t think the problem is jobs, or capitalism. Even stereotypically crappy jobs can be fulfilling if they’re well-paid, flexible and you like the people you work with. I think the problem is our particular style of winner-take-all capitalism that drives people to work ever-harder for less reward.

  • Ruben

    I think this post highlights the area that makes me itch as I read your blog. Obviously, there are lots of annoying hipsters who can food and garden. Cupcake feminism should be critiqued, even as it is appreciated. But the failing of “the progressive left” has been how it tries to move the excluded into the inner circle–women into the corner office, labour into power.

    I think the reason so many people can food and raise chickens is because there is a deep–very deep–knowing we are on fundamentally the wrong path. So, equal representation of women on corporate boards won’t solve the problem, because the world of corporate boards is on the wrong path.

    Well-paid jobs won’t solve the problem, because well-paid jobs are on the wrong path. We live on a finite planet, a planet that has limits. Living within these real limits means accepting a smaller life–I call it the Small and Delicious Life. On a living and sustainable planet there are very few well-paid jobs, but there are a whole lot of farmers.

    So the New Domesticity is one manifestation of the Small and Delicious life. The peace and acceptance of fundamentally menial and boring tasks is an acceptance of a planet that has edges. That doesn’t mean a life without beauty, without art or music or design, but it does mean a life in which we do more of the the work that is required to sustain ourselves.

    Within an acceptance of a finite planet, I sure would like to see a strong feminism–not trying to get women into the boardroom, but trying to ensure domestic partners share work, assumptions aren’t made, roles aren’t gendered.

    I have certainly worried about gendered roles in my life. My wife does all the cooking, but she also makes all the money. I do all the dishes and laundry. I can the food. She runs the rabbit breeding. I break their necks, but she slits their throats and we both skin them. She is happy to cook, but is that just how she was raised? We talk about these things regularly, and it will be ongoing.

    I am re-reading the post, and I want to talk a bit about factory work. I don’t know many people who have worked in factories. I have, and I have also done product design for factories. Factory work is shitty. It is mind-numbing and dehumanizing. What is worse is how teachers and economists start to talk about workers as people who prefer factory work, they don’t want responsibility and they don’t want to think. I have never met someone who doesn’t want to think. I have met a lot of people, who, through various circumstances, don’t think they can get a job that isn’t repetitive and destructive (to their mind and their body–joints and muscles). But all of those workers have been smart, capable, responsible people–who have had a factory shrug beaten into them. So yes, I am with Wendell Berry. Factory work sucks, whether you are a man or a woman. It is no great reflection on our society that we have managed to take women from a varied, seasonal and local domestic life and make them a repetitive automaton in a factory.

    But then again, from craft to washing dishes, we have taken all the work that requires skill and attention, all the work you might challenge yourself with and feel pride at bettering, and we have given that work to the machines. And now our job is to stand in front of the machine and press its button. We must make sure the machine is always happily supplied with parts.

    Anyhow, your blog is super interesting, and you are asking a lot of very interesting questions. Into the RSS feed for you.

  • Ruben

    Further to the notion of self-sufficiency–Chris Hedges points out the consequences of entities up to the nation scale being not self-sufficient.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUxjZhquwPk&feature=youtu.be at about 12:30

    He says it was an explicit strategy against the indigenous peoples of North America. So when we see the same strategy being deployed again against different populations (“us”) what are we to think?