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Feminists who can

Some women are now empowered, not burdened, by traditional homemaking

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For Shana Starobin, downtime means baking bread, knitting and crocheting, picking and canning fruit, doing woodwork or tending vegetables on her rooftop garden in Durham.

Starobin, a 32-year-old doctoral candidate at the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment, sees her favorite do-it-yourself pastimes as more than hobbies, though.

"I feel, as a woman, so empowered to be able to learn how to do these things," she says. "They're kind of lost skills."

In the Triangle, DIY culture is strong and growing, especially as it relates to food. You can hardly swing a sustainably raised chicken without hitting someone who cans her own okra pickles or has quit a corporate job to become a baker. And many are women.

The media has been getting a lot of mileage lately over the concept of the "femivore," a rather regrettable word coined by Peggy Orenstein of The New York Times to describe a certain stripe of contemporary woman who has used the new can-your-own-organic-jam culture as a way of embracing traditional homemaking "without becoming [Mad Men's] Betty Draper"—that is, bored and dispirited.

There's even a book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture, by an upstate New York farmer named Shannon Hayes, that encourages women (and men) to view tasks like knitting, canning and growing a garden through a feminist, environmentalist lens.

You might call them, as Hayes does, "tomato-canning feminists."

"I think the return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor of American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and an expert on American food culture.

Women, Ferris says, are looking around and seeing the fallout of an industrialized food culture—toxic food scares, environmental degradation, global warming—and they're opting out. The awareness of the fleeting nature of a life and an attendant greater desire for meaning and connection may be another factor, Ferris hypothesizes.

"There's the idea of 'what is quality of life?'" she says. "Is this all there is? We go into our jobs and work all day and run home. Where does the quality of life lie?"

The DIY movement is appealing to women from various sides of the political spectrum, Ferris says. "You could be a way, way conservative homeschooler in a military camp in Nevada and re-embrace domesticity because you're anti-government," she says. "Or you could be a Carrboro-Durham young, educated locavore-hipster type."

When talking about women and DIY food culture, it's important to remember that industrially produced prepackaged foods were once viewed as a boon for housewives. In the post-World War II era, convenience products like canned soups and TV dinners were considered major labor savers, freeing women from lives of kitchen drudgery.

But what replaced that drudgery? At first, not much, and women got bored. In the early 1960s, Betty Friedan wrote about "the problem with no name"—the feeling of anomie that came from being stuck in a suburban home with nothing to do.

The solution, Friedan thought, was to leave the kitchen and join the workforce. But these days, Ferris says, many women are questioning whether work truly offers the ultimate fulfillment.

Ferris, who is in her 50s, says women of her mother's generation are shocked that so many young women are eagerly embracing domesticity.

"They [the older women] imagine the suburban lives they remember, which were very isolated," she says.

But today's DIY culture is about community, Ferris says. "[Women are] baking together, they're knitting together, they're having sewing circles. It's like another form of social media."

And this new domesticity is certainly compatible with feminist beliefs. "I'm a feminist, but I also feel like there has to be a space where you can embrace the life-giving stuff that comes with being a woman," says Starobin.

Originally from suburban Massachusetts, Starobin was raised by a strong feminist mother whose annual bread baking was one of her few connections to the daily domestic lives of her own mother and grandmother.

Starobin was fascinated by the bread baking, something she's come to see as a central "female ritual" that's been largely lost over time. She began baking bread herself in her early 20s and has since taught the skill to people from throughout the U.S. and even in the Dominican Republic.

While Starobin does know men who are interested in craft making and DIY food, she thinks women as a group may have an easier time with the kind of idea-sharing inherent in these activities.

"You have to be able to say, 'I don't know how to do that thing you're doing,'" she says. "I see women able to admit a lack of knowledge."

Erin Huntington, 40, of Chapel Hill, sees the movement as an extension of the old-fashioned quilting bee. "We're such a social group, we inspire each other," she says.

As a full-time IT project manager with three young sons, Huntington might seem like the kind of busy working mother Hamburger Helper was invented for. But despite her packed schedule, Huntington finds time to bake bread, make goat cheese, make and bottle her own wine, quilt, build a 16-foot wooden arbor for her deck, craft wooden beds for her sons, grow a vegetable garden and turn the contents into healthy meals and creative treats like dehydrated "zucchini candy."

"I get a lot of joy from knowing that I'm making a positive contribution to my immediate world around me," she says.

Huntington hopes her can-do attitude inspires her sons to be self-sufficient.

"My 12-year-old and I were driving somewhere and out of the blue he says, 'You know, Mom, you're not like other women,'" she recounts. "I said, 'Well, how do you mean?' And he said, 'You know, the other moms, they're kind of wimpy. They're not growing a garden or digging in the dirt and fixing the fence.'"

But having time to plant a garden or bake bread from scratch is a luxury many women don't have. "The majority of American women don't have a choice to decide, 'Well, should I return to canning?'" Huntington says. "We're talking about a more elite, affluent group of women, who have a choice."

Asked whether she worries that DIY culture places an unreasonable level of expectation on women—not only does one need to be a good mother and a good employee, one also needs to devote her free time to growing organic vegetables and composting and sewing eco-friendly cloth diapers—Huntington says no.

"Whoever's doing the expecting, what are they doing to help?" she says.

Kathy Rudy, a professor of women's studies at Duke, says feminism still has a long way to go in terms of creating a more gender-equitable division of labor in the kitchen. Until that happens, the relationship between feminism and neo-domesticity may be uneasy, she says.

Some have already noticed a small backlash rising. In Salon.com, writer Madeline Holler describes how her foray into radical homemaking left her feeling oppressed and depressed. "Even baking all of my own bread sounded dreadful," she writes. "For me, kneading dough was the physical manifestation of pushing and pressing all of life's ambitions into one yeasty ball of carbs."

Rudy says feminism has a lot of work to do to illustrate the principles of equality around food preparation. "We will do it, but it's not there yet," she says.

Chris Green, 67, has been around long enough to see cultural expectations surrounding domestic roles change dramatically.

"My husband never cooked," she says, laughing. "Men now are free to cook, to make cheese. If a woman doesn't want to can, and she doesn't want to knit, I don't care. But you're going to find a lot of women still really love to."

As co-owner of Woodcrest Farm School in Hillsborough, Green has devoted much of her life to learning and teaching "forgotten" domestic skills.

"I often thought I would have made a great pioneer," says Green, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia and became a "farmer by choice" in the 1970s. While the back-to-the-land movement languished in the 1980s and '90s, Green continued to bake bread, make yogurt, can apple sauce and jam, and tend rabbits and goats, all while raising 11 kids and several foster children.

Today, students flock to Green's 19th-century farmhouse on Dairyland Road to learn how to do things their grandmothers could have done in their sleep.

Green says she's seen the DIY movement explode in the Triangle in recent years, an expansion she attributes partly to the economy, partly to growing environmental and health awareness and partly to a desire for an old-fashioned sense of community.

"It's going to continue to grow," she says. "People need to feel like they can take care of themselves."

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