The Complex, Often Idealistic Reasons Feminists Become Housewives

Progressive women who devote themselves to domesticity aren't nearly as annoying as New York magazine makes them out to be.

The National Archives (United Kingdom)

Lisa Miller's recent cover story on "feminist housewives" in New York magazine seemed to irritate people like sandpaper on a sunburn.

In her story, Miller focuses on a few well-heeled stay-at-home moms who are embracing what they feel is their most "natural" role as mothers and claiming their choice as a feminist one, an embrace of what's good and natural and handmade over what's greedy and corporate and mass-produced.

Cue reader dyspepsia.

"These navel-gazing articles that are mainly about middle-class folks are repetitive and useless," writes a New York commenter, reflecting general sentiment.

"This article was specifically written just to bug me," writes a commenter on The Hairpin.

Fair enough.

But the phenomenon Miller touches on—what I term "new domesticity" in my upcoming book on the subject—is very real. There's been a tangible shift in the way educated young women—and many young men—approach the issues of feminism, work, and homemaking over the past decade or so, and it's not just about the rich white ladies Miller profiles.

Across different social and cultural groups, there's been a collective return to domesticity—the rise in educated stay-at-home moms, the obsession with traditional crafts, the mania for cooking and growing our own food, the decline in career ambition and the growing importance of family among the young. This phenomenon is about far more than privileged women choosing to stay at home with their children. It's about the laid-off office worker who opens an Etsy boutique selling crocheted baby clothes rather than jumping back into the fray of recession-era job searching. It's about the grown child of harried Baby Boomers who, having seen his parents work 60-hour weeks to climb the corporate ladder, decides to lead a slower, more home-focused life. It's about the young parents who, freaked out about BPA in baby food and pesticides in fruit, decide to take food into their own hands by growing their own veggies and baking their own bread, maybe even raising a chicken or two in the backyard.

Their mothers and grandmothers may have eagerly shunned domestic work in favor of the office, but they're reclaiming traditional women's work in the name of environmentalism, sustainable living, healthier eating culture, anti-consumerism. Some are quitting their jobs to do domesticity full-time. But most couldn't afford that, even if they wanted to.

During my research, I met a wide variety of people from a vast variety of backgrounds. I talked to tattooed high school drop-outs turned neo-homesteaders raising pigs in Western Pennsylvania. I spent a weekend at a Midwestern conference of craft bloggers, talking to women (mostly) who aimed to revive lost domestic arts like knitting, embroidery, and woodworking through the Internet. I met with working-class attachment mothers (a rapidly growing demographic) who had given up full-time jobs—often at great financial cost to their families—in order to breastfeed their babies on demand and carry them in slings, in the belief (scientifically unsupported but deeply felt) that this will create smarter, healthier, gentler children.

What they shared was a conviction that America was messed up, and that all-out careerism and materialist values weren't working anymore. They believed that a different way of life—a slower, more handmade, more family-focused life—was the key to happier, more sustainable future.

These people are taking the bumper sticker sentiment "all change begins at home" quite literally, which is a natural outgrowth of DIY culture and the longstanding American belief in the power of personal agency. Don't like the public school? Homeschool your kid. Don't trust the food system? Grow your own tomatoes. It's a reaction to record-level distrust in government and institutions, to the gloomy economy, to worries about climate change, to fears about food safety.

In this context, domesticity is reinvisioned as a valid, creative, politically powerful, even feminist choice. After all, we're not talking June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls here, we're talking about Saving the Environment and Reviving Healthy Food Culture and Giving the Finger to Corporate America. It's an entire philosophy of living, far more complex than the wealthy stay-at-home moms in the New York magazine story.

There's much to admire about the culture of new domesticity. But, as Miller's story illustrates, the belief in the power of homemaking too often overlaps with a weird brand of neo-gender essentialism. The women in her story, like many people I've met during my research, turned progressive sentiments about the value of "women's work" and the goodness of all things "natural" into an awfully conservative-seeming worldview in which women are "inherently" better parents than men, and it's "just natural" to cook from scratch, grind your own baby food, etc. rather than rely on modern labor-saving inventions like restaurants and chain supermarkets and daycares. All too often, the movement ignores broad social change (workplace reform, school reform, food reform, etc.) in favor of a DIY approach. That's a lot more work for mom.

And that's the rub. As long as the return to domesticity continues to be a largely female prerogative, it's going to be on uneasy footing, gender equality-wise. So let's can the talk about women's inherent nurturing capabilities or men's natural need to bring home the bacon. Hopefully, one day not too far in the future, we'll be seeing a lot more feminist househusbands.