Frisky Q&A: Emily Matchar, Author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing The New Domesticity

One upon a time, the phrase “domestic diva” referred to Martha Stewart and stereotypes of 1950’s housewives. But you may have noticed recently that all your friends are knitting and growing their own kale. Your cousin is raising chickens in her backyard. Your mom is making her own pickles and selling them on Etsy. And everyone is wondering why you aren’t baking your own bread yet.  (“It’s so easy!”)  Congratulations, you have been hit by New Domesticity, an aughties phenomenon in which traditional homemaking tasks experience a revival in the hopes of saving money, eating fresher, improving health, and cutting the government out of your personal life.

Journalist Emily Matchar always loved reading blogs, especially the do-it-yourself (DIY) and homesteading genres. She was surprised to see a lot of middle-class professionals, including Third and Forth Wave feminists (not the likeliest group to embrace washing their laundry by hand), taking on pioneer woman-style chores and calling it a feminist choice. Matchar got curious what was going on. Why would people milk their own cows if they could just buy milk at the store?  Why would parents refuse to vaccinate their children? Were women who quit their jobs to devote themselves full-time to growing nearly all their family’s food could really be serious? Quickly Matchar fell down a rabbit hole where answers only lead to more questions.  There are liberal Earth mamas, conservative Mormon housewives and even some pioneering dudes who read the same blogs about DIY homemaking tips — and they are everywhere. In her new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing The New Domesticity speaks to a bunch of these folks and paints a fascinating portrait of this new twisty-turn in feminism.

I spoke with Matchar over the phone in Hong Kong, where she is currently living about New Domesticity, traditional gender roles, and the pleasures of breaking your bed. (Apparently, it really is so easy.)  Our conversation, after the jump:

The Frisky: When did you become aware that New Domesticity was an actual trend?

Emily Matchar: Well, I’ve always been a big blog reader and I’ve always been interested in blogs as a social phenomenon. So I think I started noticing this stuff happening online maybe five years ago. Just in the course of reporting stories, I kept meeting people who were really into what would’ve seemed like odd hobbies — people that were really into canning and people who were keeping chickens.  I kept meeting people who had quit a job to start farming and I sort of started to see it as part of a larger phenomenon.

Overall, what are your feelings towards these folks? Fascination? Respect? Concern?  

All of those things. I think fascination is number one, because I think a lot of the stuff that they’re doing is interesting, and the reasons why they’re doing it are also interesting. So that’s sort of where I was coming from, just curiosity. I understood some of the stuff, I said you know “oh totally, I get wanting to make all your food from scratch.” And I had just gotten married not long before and I get the whole getting super crafts-y and obsessed with DIY wedding stuff before you’re getting married, and then some of it I found I just didn’t understand, like the wanting to quit jobs to homestead on a farm or homeschool your children. That was just sort of beyond my understanding and I wanted to know why people were interested in this sort of thing and what it meant.

Tell me about the types of people embracing New Domesticity. I was very happy to read in the book that it was both liberal people and also some conservative people.

Yeah, one of the things that I also found the most interesting about this phenomenon is that you get people from both extremes of the political spectrum. A lot of people that are really into neo-domestic stuff are your typical crunchy liberal college-educated types that are doing this because they are concerned about the environment and they’re concerned about chemicals, and they want to support small businesses and not be so dependent on corporations and that kind of stuff. And then on the other extreme you have people that are very conservative that are interested in neo-domesticity because they don’t want to rely on Big Government and they put moral value on doing things themselves, or as part of their religion — women who feel like having kids and cooking everything from scratch and homeschooling their children is part of their faith. So I interviewed women all over the country on both extremes of the political spectrum, and also everywhere in between.

Particularly with the women who were embracing traditional gender roles, what would you say was the level of self-awareness that some of them had about the ways in which these roles might be problematic?  I’m fascinated by people’s personal reasons for not embracing the changes of feminism and instead purposefully sticking with more old school gender roles.   

That was all over the map. On the one hand, I talked to women who were women’s studies majors in college, who were really aware of all the problematic historic stuff involved in the dividing of men’s roles and women’s roles. Women who were trying to re-invent these roles as they went along in a very self-aware way and really conscious of not falling into the trap of being a 50’s-style housewife and doing all the home stuff and having a partner who did all the money stuff. And then I had women who, although they might have been quite educated, were much less, I think, aware of the way divided, very black-and-white gender roles can be problematic. I think women who were looking at this solely from the angle of “oh, well its very empowering to be able to make my own bread and it’s very empowering to be able to control my family’s diet by raising chickens and educating my children by homeschooling” were not really aware of the ways in which that put them, sometimes, in similar situations to women of our grandmothers’ generation who found themselves in the position of doing all the domestic stuff and not having a work life and not having any independent finances. That was one of the things I found problematic and I tried to sort of tease that out.

Was there anything that surprised you about New Domesticity, either for good or for bad?

I was surprised and impressed by the length to which some people were really trying to DIY everything in their lives! … There were people who really were living not like 50’s housewives, but more like frontier women, so that was impressive. I was also surprised by [the class aspect].  I thought this might be more of an upper-middle-class or elite phenomenon. You know, people who really had this luxury of having free time and spending this free time doing these hobbies, and what I discovered was that the people who were most committed to neo-domesticity were people who were middle-class but struggling — people who were educated enough to be interested and concerned with stuff like where their food came from and whether or not they were supporting big agribusiness or not, but didn’t have enough money to just go buy everything organic from the farmer’s market or from Whole Foods, and so were actually modifying their lifestyles quite a bit.

That’s something I’ve noticed on Pinterest when I look at the pins on the Popular page. I feel like there are always these DIY crafts like “how to make your children’s backpacks for yourself!” and part of me thinks, “why would anyone do that when you can just buy a backpack at the store?” Then I have to remind myself that some people struggle to buy their children new backpacks every year and maybe making it themselves is a more thrifty option, and a crafty, fun one, too. 

One of the people in my book described that phenomenon. She described it as “Whole Foods frugality” because with, say, bread, you go “Why are you baking your own bread? Bread is so cheap, right?” And it is, if you buy the crappy white bread from WalMart. But if you want to buy the nice, organic bread from Whole Foods, that’s expensive, so they compromise by making it. It’s cheaper than Whole Foods, but it’s better than WalMart bread! It’s a kind of economizing that you’re doing when you’re not so poor that you just have to buy the cheapest thing but you’re not so rich that you can just go out and buy the nicest thing.

Where do you think New Domesticity is headed?  It certainly seems like with every month, I become aware of more people in my personal life who are creating urban gardens or raising their own turkeys.  I imagine that’s only going to increase as this stuff gets more normalized. 

I hope that we will see is more community surrounding this stuff. One of the things that concerned me was looking at people that were ‘opting out’ of what I think are important parts of the social contract — like public schooling and hospitals and things like that — to do it by themselves. I think instead we’re going to start developing communal alternative systems. We’ll start seeing a lot more people doing things like having food swaps, where it’s not just that they’re making everything themselves, but they’re making some things themselves and swapping stuff with their neighbors. Or instead of homeschooling, we’ll probably see more home school co-ops and things of that nature, where people are implementing these values of old-fashioned living but without having to do everything themselves. So, as things become more popular we’ll see more of that. And hopefully we’ll see more men involved too. That is one of my major hopes, that it’s not going to be this sort of ghettoized female thing. One of the things that concerns me is that it seemed like a lot of this stuff was just a way for women to do what they’ve always done, which is to do domestic stuff and make less money than men. I hope that it doesn’t go in that direction and it becomes more gender equitable.

One last question: in the course of all your research, did you come across any good tips or did you pick up any new hobbies?

I write it a lot in the book – I sort of use baking bread as a yard stick for somebody who’s really into do-it-yourself and domesticity. I talk a lot about people who bake all their own bread and I guess I thought when I was writing the book that baking your own bread was probably really difficult. But I’ve been living in Hong Kong for over a year, and it’s hard to find the kind of bread that we like. So I’ve actually started trying to make my own bread and I’ve found it’s actually not hard. So it’s like “oh yeah, well that makes sense.” You’re doing something by hand that I would’ve thought was kind of just a pain in the ass but it actually turns out to be pretty rewarding.

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