Radical Homemakers

Author: Shannon Hayes

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture

Published: 2010

I read it: April 2017

radical homemakers

We have backyard chickens. I never predicted this. But my wife is a DIYer who built the coop herself as well as several functional wooden items inside and outside our home. It’s impressive.

She also recently asked me to read this title because it spoke so closely about the type of lifestyle she is experimenting with. One of the people interviewed for the book summed up a preconception that I share with many others:

“I think that there’s a situation where we look at our lives and we read these stories about people who went off and started an organic farm, and it reads very hippie dippy,” observes Rebecca James. “And you think, well, I’m not named after a flower…and I don’t think I could do that. We tend to look at it as an all-or-nothing proposition.”

I too had started to categorize the lifestyle the author champions as sort of a hippie dream before digging into it. But I’ve also thought a lot about the dangers of the all-or-nothing viewpoint, like when I was a vegetarian and would inevitably find other people keeping score or asking when I last had meat, as if a black-and-white (almost religious) stance on social choices was the only game in town. Obviously people and their options are much more complicated than that, and it benefits no one to approach new lifestyles as all-or-nothing.

Radical Homemakers looks at the lives of twenty or so individuals/couples who have returned to the land in one way or another, and redefine themselves against mainstream culture mostly in the form of growing their own food. By doing so, many of them have to sever ties with a traditional form of income. Reframing our outlook of how an economy should work is best summed up by this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Give us wealth, and the home shall exist. But that is a very imperfect and inglorious solution of the problem, and therefore no solution. Few have wealth, but all must have a home.”

And what is a home? Hayes is critical of our fractured communities, of which Margaret Thatcher apparently said in 1987, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are just individuals and their families.” When we don’t rely on each other (friends and extended family) for much, we have to rely on capitalism for everything. And capitalism has proactively pushed for this approach. I was particularly enlightened by a brief history of the suburb, the idea for which was promoted by corporations and the federal government before World War II. With factories resulting in labor unrest, industrial companies thought they could lower the chance of strikes if workers did not live in the cities as close neighbors. The family unit then became a tiny island, and one not powerful enough to push for change.

There’s a lot of inspiration in this book, and a call to take a new look at the derogatory idea of the housewife as opposed to the independent career woman. One of the most eye-opening pieces was a chapter that opened with Betty Friedan’s warning. She wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which set off a wave of workplace feminism that may now be past its prime. In her final edition, published in 1997, she wrote:

“The sexual politics that helped us break through the feminine mystique is not relevant or adequate, is even diversionary, in confronting the serious and growing economic imbalance, the mounting income inequality of wealth, now threatening both women and men.”

It does seem like the myriad social issues we face cause a swirl in which we can’t ever prioritize anything. And while some seem obsessed with the importance of identity politics, those conversations (and, let’s be honest, manufactured outrages) seem to drain energy away from the huge things that prevent us from building a society that can sustain everyone: climate change, the profit mindset, religious extremism. If any of those were properly curbed, it would help dissolve some of the other tolerance issues we have along the way…or at least that’s how it would work in the utopia in my head.

Until then, Puritan work ethic maintains its subconscious edge. And I’ll get used to stepping around the chicken poop.

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