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

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

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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.

The idea that intensive DIY homemaking is a valid substitute for paid work has also become increasingly accepted among many progressive women, the kind of women who have always expected gender equality at work and at home. I've talked to dozens of women who cheerfully say that their new domestic endeavors are much, much more fulfilling than their old jobs - in fact, quitting these old jobs was a feminist act! Instead of slaving away for The Man, they're raising organic veggies. Instead of driving a gas-guzzling car to work, they're riding bikes around the neighborhood with their kids. Instead of throwing cash into the gaping maw of Wal-Mart, they're sewing their own blankets, baking their own bread, buying local.

What would once have been an incredibly conservative view - "a woman's place is in the home" - now has a new, progressive logic. As blogger Barnyard Bookworm writes:

The decision to center one's [life] around the home is not necessarily a return to male domination, but rather a reclamation of all the things that really make life good: freedom from (employment) oppression; access to clean, healthy, ETHICAL food; the right to parent as one sees fit; the chance to work together with one's partner to accomplish good works

A popular blogger who writes about "the new DIY housewifery" describes a movement of "punk neo-feminist housewives" reclaiming the role of homemaker:

[T]ruth was I secretly wanted to be a housewife. Some part of me still thought making and keeping a true Home was about as good as it gets. What could possibly be more feminist than to embrace the natural female quality of nurture?

It's hard to know what to make of all this. Crunchy progressives are arguing that quitting your job to become a homemaker is a radical feminist act, far-right evangelicals are talking about "women's empowerment" via Etsy, lefty liberal writers are excoriating the First Lady for hating to cook, and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are giving birth in their bathtubs with midwives and self-hypnosis tapes.

Both sides of the political spectrum turn to domesticity for many of the same reasons: distrust in government and institutions from the EPA to the public schools to hospital maternity wards, worries about the safety of the food supply, disappointment with the working world, the desire to connect with a simpler, less consumerist way of life.

The fact that domesticity is so appealing speaks to the failure of these systems. Until these things are fixed, I predict we'll see an increasing number of people from all parts of the political spectrum deciding to go the DIY route with their food, their homes, their children. And yes, this will mean more progressive people opting for lifestyles that seem uncomfortably retro. But maybe too we'll see Rush Limbaugh at the farmer's market.

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

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