Friday, 18 January 2013

A Case for Domestic Feminism

This post was originally called "Reclaiming Domesticity", written for Too Fat For Our Pants on Radio One 91FM on January 16 2012. I have edited some parts slightly.

This post was a response to a blog by Emily Matchar in the Washinton Post, and a reply by Jamie Stiehm in US News, which struck something of a nerve for me.  Matchar writes about the “new domesticity zeitgeist” which she sees sweeping up her female friends: women learning to knit, sew, bake bread, grow vegetables, keep bees.  Stiehm’s concern is that the revival of traditional skills and an appreciation of homesteading is fetishized nostalgia and a glorification of domesticity, and that the renewed valuing of those skills also necessitates a return to the slightly-more-extreme gender imbalances that accompanied them.  She worries that women will run back into the kitchen, thinking it’s all a bit of fun, and will unwittingly wind up trapped there just like their grandmothers.  She worries that any return to performance of those tasks will also initiate a return to defining women by those tasks, to a cultural acceptance that women aren’t good for anything outside the kitchen.  She's maybe right to be skeptical of "privileged domesticity"- though I suspect a little undercurrent of hipster-bashing, the rebuttal to which I turn to Sady Doyle - but she doesn't recognize that the ability to dismiss the doing of domestic chores is itself a privileged position.

I do not intend this to be a defense of women's performance of domestic labour, but the labour itself: I believe the work is undervalued because it is performed by women, and that simultaneously the (still mostly) women performing the work are undervalued for their performance of it.

At the heart of Stiehm’s disapproval of Matchar’s article is her unexamined and unstated assumption that being in the home is bad for women, and that returning there is against our best interests.  I’ve often thought that this was an oversight of second-wave feminism, which, instead of rejecting the notion that domesticity is exclusively woman’s domain, or that women are best suited to domesticity, rejected domesticity itself.  What should have been - and started out as - a conversation about the undervaluing of the work performed in the home (think of the Wages for Housework Campaign), and the relationship it bears to the undervaluing of the gender doing most of that work, became instead a conversation about getting women out of the home and into the workplace, which has from there turned into a conversation about women struggling to balance work and family.  Now, I am in no way suggesting that women should leave the workplace and return to the home.  But that work is still performed primarily by women, and women being a lesser social class than men, the work they do is also seen as lesser.  If we can bring some value to the work women are doing while we’re also trying to simply value women as a social class, that makes it easier for that work to stop being so gender-segregated.  If we can acknowledge that the work itself is necessary and important, then the workers also become so, and it becomes easier for men to take on more domestic tasks, which makes it easier for everyone to balance work and family. 

First- and second-wave feminism fought to break down gendered barriers to entry in the work place and offer women the choice to work or to stay home. Not to rehash all the compelling and obvious arguments against the mantra of "personal choice", but the ability to choose represents a level of privilege which is simply not available to most women: a proliferation of various options is, itself, a privilege, in addition to indicating membership in a particular social class.  And this particular conversation is doubly let down by a narrative of personal choice because it was very clear that the only truly feminist choice to make was to leave the home, which was the seat of oppression, and enter the workforce.  Rather than trying to bring power to the work done by mostly women all over the world, rather than acknowledging that the problem wasn’t the work, but the lack of value assigned to it specifically because of the gender doing most of it, the work itself became symbolic of that oppression.  Escaping the oppression of being confined to the domestic sphere meant escaping domesticity altogether.

It’s a racist narrative because the women who have the least options open to them, the women who couldn’t possibly decide not to go to work once they had children, or who have jobs with less security and less flexible hours and lower pay, are disproportionately represented by black, Hispanic, Aboriginal peoples all over the world, Maori and Pasifika people here in New Zealand, and globally in general anyone who’s not white.  So framing the decision to return to domestic skills and knowledge as a step backwards for women, as is so often done, marginalizes and silences all the women who never had the choice to leave the home or return to it in the first place.  More than that, it paints them as the kind of women we shouldn’t want to be: if being empowered is wrapped up in the ability to exempt oneself from the tasks of cooking and cleaning and growing food, the implication is that all those women who do perform those tasks are not empowered, because the tasks are not powerful.  And I think that contributes to the harm being done to those women, and therefore the harm that’s done to everyone who identifies as a woman.  

 The idea that domesticity is anti-feminist was seized upon and perpetuated by marketers of products like processed food, which were meant to be freeing women from the tedious drudgery of cooking, at the same time that women were continually being told that keeping house was the greatest possible achievement for a woman.  Housework is both anti-feminist and the pinnacle of femininity: we’ve always been good at conflicting narratives.  And certainly some women were freed from tedious drudgery, but it happened not by sharing a workload more evenly or valuing the work so that it’s less drudgery, so that both parties in the household appreciate the importance of dinner and what it takes to make, but by outsourcing the tasks to McCain and Betty Crocker and everyone to whom they outsourced.  It’s like an STD ad from the 90s – you’re having sex with everyone he’s had sex with.  Food companies created a market by selling specifically women on products which were unhealthy, which were economically, environmentally, and socially expensive, and they specifically used the language of female empowerment to do so.  Feminism became another market, another avenue for capital absorption, part of the post-war spatial fix defined by suburbanization.  I think there’s a whole other show in there, a feminist reading of the second spatial fix.
Just as an aside, many of those products which were meant to make the keeping of a house a simpler, less labour-intensive task in fact had the opposite effect.  Things like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners are time savers, to be sure, but they also raise the bar on the acceptable level of cleanliness for a house.  So less and less dirt is tolerated anywhere, to the point that now we’re being sold anti-bacterial disposable counter-wipes which eliminate 97% of germs, like we can’t even have microscopic dirt.  Your house now not only has to be clean, it has to be sterile.  That’s not liberation from housework, that’s a company manufacturing a market for a product that isn’t needed  and co-opting the language of either feminism (“you don’t have time to do housework, you’re a high-powered woman on the go!”) or motherhood (“we know you care about your family too much to let them anywhere near germs!”).

Though I don’t see the feminist analysis used often these days, there is most certainly an aspect of political resistance to this domesticity zeitgeist.  Partly it represents a growing awareness that our way of life is finite, that we do not exist in a post-industrial economy but have simply outsourced our industry to poorer countries.  One of the side effects was that we ceased to value those production skills in favour of consumption ability, which is of course a highly class-based project which excludes huge numbers of people, the majority of whom are female.  Part of the political aspect of adopting more traditional ways of life, like homesteading and small-holding and more ethical and local eating habits, the resurgence of farmer’s markets, is an acknowledgement that being able to live in any other way is a luxury and an anomaly in human history, and one that is subsidized by people, mostly women, mostly in poorer and browner places.

It’s also an acknowledgement that even aside from the exploitative underpinnings of the entire western way of life, the financial crisis is alerting people to the flimsiness of a consumption economy and the inherent problems with the perpetual growth paradigm.  I think this has prompted people who are able to begin learning skills to survive in an economy which requires less consumption and greater production, as well as an environment which necessitates it. Some of this renaissance of domesticity is simple survival; this way of life has always been expensive, and many people who were previously able to afford it are now not, and so are being forced to adapt.  Sometimes that adaptation takes the form of making more and buying less.

Finally, though the first two points are reason enough for me, there is the simple fact that all these systems of food transport, factory farming, processing, outsourcing of labour, all the systems which have granted some women freedom from the work of sustaining themselves, are based on the assumption of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.  And those are just not going to be around anymore.  We are absolutely going to have to start performing domestic tasks, whether we like it or not, and so we might as well begin to talk about how necessary and valuable those skills are.  And if we can do that, we can also begin to talk about how necessary and valuable the (mostly) women who perform them are, as well.  If anything’s a step backwards for women, it’s an absolute refusal to see worth in the work that is done by women all over the world, to insist that domesticity is “nostalgia”, that it is distasteful, or that it is something to be avoided.  Steihm and those who agree with her are only succeeding in favouring their own privilege over the pursuit of true gender equality, for all women, everywhere.

Many women are relearning tasks their grandmothers knew, but as this return to domesticity has roots and ties to political resistance rather than simple nostalgia, there are also many men.  The trendiness of homesteading is useful for prompting discussions about the value of this work which has always been performed almost exclusively by women, and by extension therefore the value of women as a social class.  And I recognize the problems with what I’m saying, here: like it took men’s interest in domestic chores to start talking about them as valuable, productive work, and I don’t at all want to encourage that.  But I do think that an increased awareness in the male social consciousness of the energy, intelligence, and skill required for this kind of voluntary labour can only benefit the class which most often performs that labour.  And I also recognize that I’m attempting to raise the worth of women through their connection to an increasingly valuable skill set, rather than raising the value of the skill set through an increase in the value of women, but I’m not sure they’re so different – or at least, they’re not incompatible.  Either way, what interests me is a shift in the way we value work altogether.
Because it’s not enough for me to have women and people of colour succeed in a system which was created with only one social class, white men, in mind, which is what we’ve been aiming for; I want a system which is designed to be equal.  I don’t want us all to agree to only value the same things that the economic system values, as those are not representative of the full range of human experience, and success means embodying and exemplifying the traits that the economic system values – selfishness, cold rationality, efficiency.  I don’t want to try and fit into the parameters of the market; the market is a human construction, its parameters should include all of humanity.  I don’t want women’s success in a man’s world, I want a new world which is for everyone.  I know that sounds idealistic.  But listen, we’ve been ten thousand years with more or less the same power structure, as far as gender relations go, and a good few millennia as far as race relations go, so it’s ridiculous to expect that everything would be equal after a century’s work.  Social change takes time, and it’s ok that we’re not there yet, but it’s only ok as long as we keep talking about getting there. 

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