A Sphere of One’s Own

Attachment parenting, mommy blogging, hipster homemakers and urban homesteaders…Delilah Campbell reads a book about the new domesticity.

Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Back in 2001, I wrote an article for T&S about the ‘new domesticity’– a sudden revival of popular interest in the art of keeping house. Knitting was back in vogue, and cleaning was the subject of a popular reality TV show. Nigella Lawson published a book entitled How To Be a Domestic Goddess, and a rash of glossy magazine articles featured women who had given up their high-powered careers to concentrate on full-time homemaking.

Thirteen years later, it’s clear that this was not just a passing fad. Cath Kidston, the queen of retro household accessories,  is a global brand; the Great British Bake-Off is a national institution. University students have formed branches of the Women’s Institute. And the new domesticity is also big on the other side of the Atlantic, where according to Emily Matchar, the return of the full-time housewife is a genuine trend. Her book Homeward Bound is an attempt to investigate what’s behind this phenomenon, and to ask what it might tell us about the times in which we live. She thinks it has a lot to tell us: ‘Our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania’, she argues, ‘speak to deep cultural longings and a profound shift in the way Americans view life’ (4).

Whatever happened to Betty Friedan?

Homeward Bound was published in 2013, exactly 50 years after another book–Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique–helped to propel an earlier generation of women out of the kitchen and into the workforce. The main audience for Friedan’s denunciation of the 1950s cult of domesticity was white middle-class women with college degrees. And it is women from this same demographic who are now moving back into the home. Not surprisingly, Matchar wonders what’s behind this reversal: why are these young women voluntarily embracing a role their mothers and grandmothers were desperate to escape from?

One major reason is the state of the economy. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, un- and under-employment have been serious problems for the young adults of ‘Generation Y’ (born between the mid-1970s and the 1990s). Many find themselves drifting through a series of unpaid internships and unfulfilling temp jobs; even if they find jobs with more security and status, the conditions which are common in US workplaces (80-hour weeks, no statutory maternity or sick leave) make no accommodation to the desire for ‘work/life balance’, or the practical needs of women with children. Rather than ‘leaning in’, these women are opting out.

For some of the homeward bound, another important motivation is concern about the future of the planet. In their search for more sustainable ways of living, some of today’s hipsters are following the earlier example of the hippies by going back to the land (though not, it seems, to set up communes: these days it’s more about the small family farm). Others have adopted the practice of ‘urban homesteading’, where the aim is to live self-sufficiently or ‘off the grid’ in the city or the suburbs. A related trend is the growth of anxiety about what’s in our food (pesticides? E Coli? horsemeat?). The new middle-class ideal is to avoid industrially produced food by cooking from scratch with seasonal, local ingredients. Even if you don’t aspire to grow your own produce, this approach to feeding a family demands significant time and effort.

Matchar sees these worries about the environment and food as part of a more general distrust of authority and ‘the system’ which extends to all kinds of public institutions. Home birth and homeschooling are both on the rise, especially among the white middle classes. There is also a new enthusiasm for time and labour-intensive forms of childcare, like ‘attachment parenting’ (a rather creepy phenomenon which I’ll come back to later on).

Another factor Matchar mentions is the attraction of low-tech, DIY lifestyles for people who grew up in the digital age. It’s true that the new domesticity celebrates traditional, pre-industrial modes of production, but to me it is also striking how heavily the lifestyles described in the book rely on access to digital technology. Social media, in particular, have transformed the experience of being at home: they’re a major reason why today’s housewives do not experience the isolation, alienation and lack of recognition which their 1960s counterparts found so oppressive. All the women Matchar interviewed were involved in online networks; some spent several hours a day at their computers.

Is domesticity the new feminism?

If Matchar’s first question is about the larger social forces that are driving the new domesticity, her second is about its sexual politics, and how today’s domesticated women relate to feminism. The ones she spoke to were certainly critical of a particular kind of feminism: the kind espoused by their own mothers, women who had heeded Betty Friedan’s advice and put their energies into their careers. But they denied that they were anti-feminist. On the contrary, a number of them claimed to be more authentically and radically feminist than the overstressed career-women who raised them.

Matchar explains this by invoking the distinction between liberal, equal rights feminism and what she calls ‘cultural feminism’. The women she talked to were cultural feminists: they criticized their mothers’ liberal feminism for putting ‘male’ values (like money and status) above ‘female’ ones (like taking care of others), and for devaluing women’s traditional skills. Some felt that by relearning the skills their mothers had rejected, they were reclaiming a rich female cultural heritage.

I don’t like the term ‘cultural feminism’ (which I’ve never heard any woman use to describe her own politics), but what Matchar describes using that label has always been one strand in feminism, and up to a point (the point at which it becomes mystical, essentialist bullshit) there is something to be said for it. In my ideal feminist world there would certainly be a shift in values as well as in the distribution of wealth and power. In this world, however, there are some serious problems with the claim that the new domesticity is a ‘feminist’ movement.

The political economy of the new domesticity

The first problem is economic. Almost without exception, the women Matchar talked to were dependent on a male partner’s wage to pay the rent and the bills, and (this being the US) for access to health insurance. Betty Friedan may have seen paid work as a source of personal fulfilment, but for most early second-wave feminists its importance had more to do with financial independence and autonomy/equality within heterosexual relationships. Women needed to earn money, among other things, to avoid being dependent on a man who might walk out on them, or who might abuse them. Those were not rare scenarios then, and they are not rare scenarios now. Yet Matchar’s subjects seemed not to have considered what they would do if their relationships broke down and they were left to fend for themselves.

This may be because they didn’t see how limited their economic options really were. The new domesticity has spawned its own market economy, and many women imagine that they will be able to use that to generate an income. It is possible, for instance, to make money from blogging about your domestic life: a popular blog with a large number of followers can attract advertising revenue, commercial sponsorship and—in exceptional cases—very lucrative book or TV deals. There’s a whole meta-industry of courses and conventions for women who want to break into this business. But in reality it’s an overcrowded market: a few ‘mommy bloggers’ have become rich and famous, but the majority, even with sponsorship, do not make enough to live on.

The same goes for the other main route through which the new domesticity can be ‘monetized’, which is selling your handicrafts on websites like Etsy. Etsy is a globally successful business started by three hipster dudes (i.e., men). They provide the (virtual) retail space, and in return, the makers/sellers (the vast majority of whom are women) pay them commission on every sale. It’s a business model that works well for the site-owners, but the only way for women to make more than a pittance is to collude in their own exploitation by working extremely long hours. Betty Friedan compared the 1950s suburban home to ‘a comfortable concentration camp’; some of the new urban homesteads where women have set up businesses making jam or soap or baby clothes could be likened to comfortable sweatshops.

No such thing as society?

The ‘alternative’ market economy Matchar describes seemed to me very much in the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the late Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher is a guiding spirit in another way, too: it was she who famously declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. As Emily Matchar observes, the new domesticity puts that principle into practice, offering small-scale, privatized solutions to large-scale social problems like environmental degradation, corporate greed, unfair working conditions and the dearth of affordable, decent-quality childcare. And as she also says, the result is a vicious circle. The more individuals and families assert their right to do their own thing (grow their own food or home-school their own children), the less likely it is that there will be collective pressure for changes which would benefit everyone—including or especially those who can’t afford to go down the DIY route. This rejection of collective politics and social solidarity is another respect in which the new domesticity is anything but feminist.

In some cases, the right to do your own thing clearly conflicts with the interests of the larger community. An example is the opposition to vaccination which has become widespread among middle-class devotees of attachment parenting. In some areas the number of parents refusing vaccination has decreased overall ‘herd immunity’ to the point where there have been major outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough. When that happens, it’s the poorest children who are most likely to die or suffer serious complications. But the anti-vaccine parents feel no obligation to other people’s kids. What they demand is the right to do what they believe is best for their own.

Some of the beliefs espoused by Matchar’s interviewees suggest youthful idealism (‘I don’t want to work for the Man’/ ‘I want to live lightly on the earth’) and naive optimism (‘my husband/boyfriend will always support me/ ‘my kids will always need me’) rather than overtly reactionary political ideologies. But with the anti-vaccine crusaders we begin to see a darker side: what Matchar calls ‘cultural feminism’ meeting up with religious and/or right-wing extremism. On her travels around the US, Matchar found hipster homemakers rubbing shoulders with evangelical Christian or Mormon women who believed their roles were ordained by God, and self-sufficient urban homesteaders finding common ground with ‘preppers’—survivalists preparing for Armageddon, whose political views are so right-wing (think hardcore gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists), they make the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party.

Perhaps the most significant of these peculiar political alliances has formed around the practice of attachment parenting (AP), an approach to child-rearing developed by the paediatrician William Sears. Dr Sears is a Christian fundamentalist who advocates the submission of wives to husbands; but this has not prevented his ideas from becoming popular among liberal and hipster parents (including lesbian and gay couples), and getting public endorsement from high-profile media celebrities (the late Peaches Geldof was a British devotee).

The AP approach demands total responsiveness to the needs of your developing child, and it clearly reflects its inventor’s ultra-conservative gender politics. In the first six weeks Sears maintains that mothers should be with their infants 24/7; thereafter, babies should be carried in a sling, sleep in their parents’ bed and be breastfed for an extended period. They should not have fixed schedules for eating or sleeping, and they should not be left to cry even for a few minutes. This makes childcare an all-consuming task, and in Sears’s view it is ‘natural’ for that task to fall to the mother, who alone is biologically equipped with the instincts it demands. And this doesn’t stop as the baby gets older: AP also maintains that ‘natural’ is best when it comes to weaning (commercial baby food is poison, so it should all be home-made), toilet training (use cloth nappies or no nappies), and education (kids should learn at their own pace, about whatever they want—so the answer is home-schooling with Mom as the teacher).

You wonder how all these intensively attached, 24/7 career mothers are going fill the 30+ years after their kids leave home; but in the meantime, what you mostly wonder is (a) how women whose own parents did send them to school can believe so much crap, and (b) how liberal/hipster types can manage to ignore who else, apart from their babies, they’re getting into bed with.

A new feminine mystique

In 2001 I was ambivalent about the new domesticity. I still think some aspects of it are harmless (if you want to make pastry or knit socks, be my guest), and some of the impulses behind it are arguably quite progressive. We should all be more concerned about the environment, and we should all recognise–as feminists have always done–that caring for other people is essential work which no society could function without. Overall, though, reading Homeward Bound has made me feel that any positive aspects of the new domesticity are more than outweighed by its reactionary elements.

What’s particularly problematic about it from a feminist perspective is its underlying ideology of gender: it assumes that caring for others and saving the planet are women’s responsibilities rather than everyone’s, and that they are best done (or can only be done) within the traditional, patriarchal family. This is what enables the liberal/green/hipster version of domesticity to coexist so comfortably with the religious fundamentalist version. Both buy into traditional views of masculinity and femininity, and both affirm the doctrine of ‘separate spheres’, which says that women should exercise their authority in the home while men have power in the wider world.

It’s depressing that this idea has proved to be so persistent, but perhaps it should not surprise us. The ‘separate spheres’ arrangement, unequal though it is, has some appeal for women living in patriarchal societies. At least it gives them one undisputed sphere of influence, a domain where they can rule without anyone questioning their right to be in charge.

But in addition to reproducing patriarchal attitudes and structures, this arrangement has a toxic effect on women’s relationships with each other. The domesticated woman may not compete with men for status, but since she isn’t, in reality, a modest self-effacing angel, she competes instead with other woman on the terrain of domesticity itself. We see this in the endless hostilities between full-time homemakers and ‘career women’; we see it in what daughters say about their feminist mothers (and vice-versa—a lot of women told Emily Matchar that their mothers disapproved of them ‘throwing away’ their educations and career prospects); we see it in a particularly ugly form when middle-class attachment mothers judge poorer women as ignorant and negligent because they don’t breastfeed for years or make their own organic baby food.

There is also the issue of mothers’ power over their children. One woman who had given up attachment parenting told Matchar she thought it appealed to some women because it legitimized their desire to have total control, shutting out both the father and outside institutions. Homeschooling extended that monopoly into childhood and adolescence. This kind of maternal control is the acceptable face of female power, since it is presented as ‘natural’, and as self-sacrificing rather than self-aggrandising. But radical feminists like Christine Delphy have argued that it is oppressive: children should not be treated as women’s personal property any more than women should be treated as the property of men.

The return to domesticity does show up a lot of things that are wrong with the societies we live in (and the USA is not alone here), but it is not the radical alternative movement its supporters claim. Neither the fact that today’s women are embracing it by choice, nor the idyllic portrayals we encounter in the media, should prevent us from seeing it for what it really is: a 21st century ‘upcycling’ of the feminine mystique.