Monday, January 17, 2011

Radical Homemaking Week: (1) Beyond Housewives and Feminism

Welcome to Radical Homemaking week here at Dreaming Aloud! For an introduction to the Radical Homemakers book see here...

IS THIS IT? I wrote in my journal a few weeks back, after weeks of being housebound with a sick family and icy roads. Endless cooking, cleaning, tidying, more tidying and yet more tidying with little other distraction had taken their toll. I'M A $@*#£! HOUSEWIFE!

I have nothing against housewives: I just never intended to be one. For good reason: I am a TERRIBLE housewife (see here and here). I cultivate cobwebs and laundry mountains in my home with as great success as the courgettes and coriander I grow in my garden. I try to breathe mindfully whilst I do "my duties", rather than fuming against my family, my husband and biology. I would not class my domestic skills (except cooking) anywhere in my top twenty of "things I'm good at". They don't come naturally. I don't enjoy them. In fact, often I feel like I would rather gnaw off my own arm than empty the dishwasher or tidy the toys for the umpteenth time today.

A brief history of housewives
Housewives, argue Hayes in Radical Homemakers, are an aberration of our consumer culture. According to her"the household did not become the 'woman's sphere' until the industrial revolution."  Housewife and husband were related terms. Husband meaning bonded to his own house, rather than to a lord. In the past men and women shared a home based life with a division of labour according to tradition and skills passed down over generations. Men doing leather work, chopping wood, butchering animals, threshing, fire making, woodworking. Women would play their part childrearing, cooking, preserving, tending kitchen gardens, healing. Domestic work was valued, requiring skill, creativity and ingenuity, and was satisfying. But economics changed this, first drawing men, then women out of the home. No longer would home be a place of family, food production, education, work and leisure - instead all of these functions were externalised, and bought, requiring money, and thus further work outside the home, and round the circle goes.

One of the key texts which Shannon Hayes' Radical Homemakers refers to for her historical analysis of the development of domestic life in America is Betty Friedan's seminal text The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Friedan details 'housewife syndrome' thus: '"American girls grew up fanticising about finding husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies and living happily-ever-after." In truth, pointed out Freidan, happily-ever-after never came.' She documented the loss of potential, the depression, boredom and bewilderment of post-war American housewives, and spoke of  'the problem that has no name'. Her words hit the American psyche deep, helping to spark the second wave of feminism in the 70s, and sending women out to work, and away from their homes, in droves.

"Before long, the second family income was no longer an option. In the minds of many it was a necessity. Homemaking, like eating organic foods, seemed a luxury to be enjoyed only by those wives whose husbands garnered substantial earnings...At the other extreme homemaking was seen as the realm of the ultra-subjugated, where women accepted the role of servants to their husbands and children...." (Radical Homemakers)

I remember clearly reading The Feminine Mystique at university, as part of my self appointed women's studies. I may have been studying a degree, but also found myself doing far more than my fair share of housework. My head may have been full of feminist furore, but my heart was heavy with the knowledge that my ovarian ownership meant that our culture would expect the domestic sphere to be mine, especially if I were to 'opt' (for me it is not a choice, but a pre-requisite) to 'stay home' (it's WORK people, just not paid!) with my children for their early years. I had put so much of my time and being into attaining top academic achievements through to graduate level, I was not prepared to give up my creativity or life of the mind to keep house. Nor was I prepared to sacrifice my deep soul need for a homemade home and loved family and kitchen garden for a glittering career and loadsa money.

This was deeply problematic for me, because on the one hand I have the anti-tidy gene and on the other I am deeply attracted to self sufficiency. I have always aspired to a home based life: cooking, preserving, growing my own veg and sewing simple bits for my home. It was reading Radical Homemakers that finally balanced these two aspects for me. When the reader is ready, the book comes along! Hayes' book gave me the confidence boost I needed: I am not a struggling, failed housewife. I am just an over-whelmed Radical Homemaker with three very young children. 

Enter our life, which many of our friends share too, which I had always struggled to pin down. Yes, on the census form we are "housewives" but in reality we, and our partners with "job titles" are so much more. The lives we lead so much richer and diverse than any existing definition. Before reading Radical Homemakers I had no word for what we were, no framework for what we were trying to achieve. It felt so slippery, that when I wasn't "achieving" it and feeling miserable I found it so difficult to articulate why. This book has given me terminology.

Firstly the term homemaker, which for me had always been a slightly awkward Americanism, suddenly made more sense. The distinction between a housewife and homemaker is an important one. Whilst Americans have moved over to the term homemaker in common parlance, in the UK and Ireland we have tended to stick with housewife. Housewife connotes both a woman, in her role as wife, therefore in relation to her husband, not her own person. And also wedded to her house, an object, a possession of status. Whereas homemaker is firstly gender non-specific and secondly speaks not merely of an economic asset, but a place of primal belonging: a home.

So what is a radical homemaker? According to Hayes it is: "someone who wasn't ruled by our consumer culture, who embodied a strong ecological ethic, who held genuine power in the household, who was living a full, creative, challenging and socially contributory life....These families did not see their homes as a refuge from the world. Rather each home was the centre for social change, the starting point from which a better life would ripple out for everyone."

Yup, that's us! Perhaps it's you too? Or perhaps it's what you aspire to? 

But what is this framework of values and practices that radical homemakers, young and old, rural and urban seem to share? Come back later in the week to find out!

Like this? Then you might also like...

Call Yourself a Feminist?
Material Memory: Women and Quilting
Mothers Meeting: Women's Sacred Circles


  1. This is a great post Lucy. I always tell people I am a stay at home mum not a stay at home housewife. I'm not working outside of the home at the moment because I want to nourish and raise our children, not because I want to iron the sodding boxer shorts.
    I definitely class myself as a homemaker rather than a house wife. For me the term homemaker has much more spiritual connotations; I feel fulfilled and feel I have fulfilled my role if my children (and myself and Andy) and healthy and happy and on the paths we are choosing for ourselves. I see my job as enabling this providing clear space (but this can be messy!) good, nourishing food, a good example but above all love and time and care and attention.
    love and hugs to you x

  2. I get it and I have to get this book. What I do as a homemaker FEELS radical to me in the context of our society. It feels like what I'm doing is incredibly important and it feels (balanced with creative work) immensely fulfilling. However I'm also aware from the outside it probably looks like all I'm doing is the housework (and certainly not doing it well, hear you there sister!). I have struggled to fit the soul satisfaction that my mothering experience and the domestic arts bring me with my feminist upbringing and the career goals I previously set myself. I can't wait to read this book after reading your reviews and look forward to discussing it here with you. Thank you!

  3. Feeling less like a failed my home disappears under its own mess, tired of my busy busy life, trying to do it all. Raise 4 kids, develop theirs and my talents. Work full-time, now outside the home, produce art. Make money, feel valued. Were it not that I feel very loved and love my family so much I think I could run away. Great article. Thanks Lucy.

  4. Great summary of the thesis and tie into Feminist philosophy. When I read the first few chapters of Radical Homemakers, I really had to reflect back on my own feminist upbringing, courses like yours in Women's Studies, and my own changing perspective as I sat approaching forty a few years ago with a very successful career and a lot of stress and unhappiness. I'm now embracing the homemaker concept in a way I don't think would have been possible for me ten years ago.

  5. Wow powerful stuff Lucy.
    "I am not a housewife, just a overwhelmed Radical Homemaker with two and a half very young demanding children..."
    I'm going to have to adopt that mantra for a while.
    Funny, I've always had a problem with calling myself a Homemaker, possibly because it sounds like Homewrecker, which is maybe closer to my truth!

  6. This is tricky for me,

    Dont see myself as a housewife, tried for a little while (well maybe one day, and I actually dropped a 12-yr old pottery lamp from Stephen Pearce Pottery!), so clearly this was not a good way forward for me.

    And not sure I would identify with the home-maker.

    I work fulltime, study for a MA, volunteer for a local arts group, run a young writing sqaud, live in rented accommodation, have a 3 year old son, and actually some weeks pass when we spend very little time in the house.

    I'm renting always have done, so wherever I live it never really feels like home, its a house, which I can make inviting for us to live comfortably. Id love to have a garden and time to keep it, but I dont. I absolutely love cooking but rarely have time to spend shopping for good quality ingredients, let alone time for cooking them.

    I am positive and creative, but I just cant fit it all in, and when the bills have to be paid, the homemaker puts on her working boots and leaves the house, and perhaps carries the same attention to detail and love for others with her/him?

    You've written elsewhere about having a portfoliio of work (Handy) and this works for me, are there ways for us (men and women) to have more paid work that we can do from home? If we are sitting at a desk all day, could we do this in our kitchens in our houses? So that when we have our lunch hour we can also prep dinner, a quick spot of weeding and maybe a bit of loving?!!

    (But that would require our employers to trust that we will do the work if we are not under surveillance.)

    I love the notion of cottage industries, but I think I would go crazy being in one place all day every day, so it would have to be a network of home-based cottage industries with lots of social interaction!

    Would like to read the book and look forward to hearing more from you Lucy


  7. Great post. I've read Radical Homemakers as you know and found it a great source of inspiration. In my home I'm the one who works full-time, my husband had to give up work due to health problems.

    However I do care for 1 1/2 allotments and grow lots of our own fruit and veg. We share the cooking, cleaning etc. We are both concerned about the environment/climate change/peak oil and try to live in a way that tries to move away from mindless consumption of modern society.

    I love my home, I enjoy working there at the weekends and my afternoon off. I am very conscious that for a lot of people this lifestyle focused on home is Aunt for instance believes pleasure/value lies in going out all the time. She views housework as a lot of people she'd rather be out spending money.

    I find it very hard to get across to people that I value my home, producing my own food, living simply, avoiding buying. I can see them thinking that it's really because I can't afford to go out/buy....and that I must me miserable about this. I'm not - we save money and should pay off our mortgage early. We will then be in a position to live very cheaply if needs be.

    My happiness comes from time spent growing, walking in the countryside, seeing tiny daily changes in nature, being with my husband and dog, friends and family. I don't need to buy any of this.

    I also agree with Hayes that this type of lifestyle also depends on connections with other people in your local community. With sharing and helping each other.

    Great to hear everyone's thoughts on this.

  8. Thanks so much For letting me know about your radical homemakers week!!!! It's like a mini book club for me. I'm going to read each section of the book and come back here, just like a book club!
    thanks again,
    See you in a couple days once I'm done the first part :)

  9. You're welcome! And welcome to Dreaming Aloud. It is certainly a book that people want to talk about, whether they like it or not, it's a book that makes people feel passionate. My friend Mary made me read it so she'd have someone to talk with about it! Am so glad she did!

  10. I work from home during the day while taking care of my 3 very small children while my husband is at work. When he gets home, I go to work an evening job. *I think* he has been falling asleep because my house gets trashed while I am at work. So I am in perpetual mode of cleaning and lack of sleep. None of our money is enough to keep up and we don't have a mortgage, nice clothes, or any furniture for that matter. All of our money goes to keep my husband's stupid business running, that isn't netting. He won't give it up. I feel like a slave. If I just had someone to watch my children for me during the day, I could work during the day and we could get out of this mess. But in the meanwhile I'll keep my degree hanging over the toilet bowl. I don't have enough time to be a mother, I am too busy being a maid, a zombie, and a work horse. :(

  11. Hey anon, that sounds SHIT! Really SHIT! It doesn't sound like the situation is OK with take action...If I were you I'd be having BIG conversations right now, about money, work, and where your energy is going and how things can change. Thinking of you, whoever you are! Go well x

  12. I just started reading this book, and I came across your post on a google search. You sound just like me in the facts of cringing from housework at the same time aspiring to be more sustainable in my living practices. I just wanted to say thank you, since I appreciate hearing from people who have similar struggles.

  13. I've been reading essays in Feminist Mothering along with a great new blog called Maternalselves, and in both of these the theme of the false separation of the public and private spheres keeps coming up. I'm fascinated by the historical perspective on the construction of this separation offered by Radical Homemaking. Having studied early American history in college with feminist scholar Nancy Cott, I've long been aware that current ideas about women, men, work, the economy of the home, and what's *natural* are completely ahistorical and bogus.

    Thanks for the book review! I've seen references to this book before, and now it's on the to-read list.

  14. P.S., I'm going to be quoting a few sentences from this post in the post I'm writing for the upcoming Thursday. I'll be giving credit and linking back, of course!

  15. Thanks for the resources Rachael, they sound too clever for my currently still slightly fuzzy mama brain, but will follow them up at a later date.

  16. Hey, loved reading this! I'm a mama of two very fun 17 month old twin girls and one that should be hatching at home sometime this week. (not ready) Anyway its nice to know that i'm not the only one getting lost under the mountain of laundry and feeling guilty about how others precieve my crazy lifestyle. since when do I give a flying F*** what people think... well things change once you have kids and are struggling to meet the challenges while outsiders looking in give you the judgy feeling. You all know what i'm talking about, the women that look at you thinking I wish I had the "LUXURY" of staying at home to do whatever...Na its not like in sexy lingrie, breaking out some wine and chating on the phone with all your girlfreinds..Its work, its tough sometimes, its demanding and it's a 24-7 job. But It is soooooooooooo worth everything. My kids eat good, learn a lot, are goofy as ever and most importantly know they have a family that loves them like crazy (most of the time ha ha)



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