Farmers Markets and Home Births Are So Progressive, They're Conservative

All-natural domesticity has adherents on both sides of the political spectrum.

Homeschoolers for Obama

The current cultural mania for DIY domesticity—backyard chickens, urban knitting circles, the rise of homeschooling, the sudden ubiquity of homemade jam—shows no sign of abating. Across the country, progressives are embracing home and hearth with new vigor under the guise of environmental sustainability, anti-consumerism, and better health.

The movement has made for some very odd attitudes, especially when it comes to gender. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" barely seem to apply. The new progressive morality about food sometimes feels as retro and conservative as anything dreamed up during the 1950s. In many well-educated, well-heeled quarters, what you cook determines your worth as a mother (Is it organic? Local? BPA-free?), laziness in the kitchen is understood to doom your children to lives of obesity and menial labor, and the very idea of convenience is slatternly and shameful. In this culture, we have Berkeley heroes like Michael Pollan writing scoldingly about how feminism killed home cooking. Michelle Obama, every Democrat's favorite organic gardener, has been criticized for saying she doesn't like to cook. And not by Fox News, but by food writer and noted latte-apologist Amanda Hesser in the New York Times.

This curious conservatism extends to modern progressive parenting—the co-sleeping, the homebirthing (up nearly 30 percent between 2004 and 2009), the homemade baby food. Much has been written about how the natural parenting movement supposedly turns progressive women into unwitting gatekeepers of conservative gender norms, endlessly breastfeeding because BREAST IS BEST and spending their mental energies sourcing the purest unbleached cloth diapers because CHEMICALS ARE EVIL while their careers languish. Elisabeth Badinter, the French intellectual, ruffled feathers earlier this year with her harsh cry against the ideology of the "good ecological mother" in her book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.

"This ideology, which essentially advocates a return to a traditional model, has had an overwhelming influence on women's future and their choices," she writes. "[T]roops of this movement intend to persuade women to return to nature, which means reverting to fundamental values."

The conservative-progressive confusion exists on the other end of the political spectrum as well. The new "artisan economy" movement, driven by interest in sustainability, localism and giving the finger to Big Box culture, has been an unexpected boon for traditional women, women who, because of social expectations to stay home with children, don't otherwise have access to standard careers. Though Etsy headquarters are in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, one of the highest concentrations of Etsy vendors is in the Mormon-dominated Utah Valley, where women have more children than anywhere else in the country and often stay at home with them.

I recently talked with a conservative Christian stay-at-home mom in East Tennessee who sells homemade natural baby products online and considers it a blessing because she doesn't have to leave the home and compete in the "man's world" to make some extra cash.

Also, for women from extremely conservative communities, DIY domesticity can be a way to use their energy and creativity at home, thus avoiding some of the more classically depressing aspects of stay-at-home motherhood: boredom, lack of adult contact, few outlets for creativity. Being a crafty, knitting, from-scratch-cooking, rabbit-raising, garden-growing, blogging mama is a lot more fulfilling than being a 1950s-style housewife ordering curtains from the Sears catalog and stirring the egg into a Duncan Hines cake mix.

Presented by

Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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