Feminism and Simple Living

I recently came across the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes. Hayes’ website describes the book as

a book that looks at men and women across the United States who have opted to focus their lives on home and hearth as a political and ecological act; who have chosen to center their lives around family and community not only for personal fulfillment, but as a way to bring about cultural change. It explores what domesticity can look like in an era that has benefited from feminism; where domination and oppression are cast aside, where the choice to stay home is no longer equated with mind-numbing drudgery, economic insecurity, or relentless servitude.

Hayes asserts that radical homemakers

  • redefine wealth in terms of family, community, good food, pleasure, and health
  • reclaim skills lost in the increasing dependence on corporations for our livelihood, including nurturing relationships, setting realistic goals, redefining pleasure, and cultivating courage
  • rebuild society by engaging in civic, artistic, and entrepreneurial activities often in their communities4

Yes, please! I can’t wait to read it. But this post isn’t really about that book. It’s really about what a book like that means in today’s society.

I mentioned the book to some of the wonderful ladies (and gents) over at SufficientSelf.com, a forum that I am extremely pleased to be a part of. Naturally, they put on their thinking caps and went to town researching about the book and the concept. One of these ladies, who I would definitely categorize as a radical homemaker (check out her wonderful blog here), found the article “I’m a Radical Homemaker Failure” by Madeline Holler.

Missing the Point

Holler quit her job to stay home with her daughter.  The family took a significant income cut so that her husband could “fall back on his Ph.D. and start a career in academics, rather than continue earning piles of gold shoveling rocks for Satan.1” In her article, Holler talks about how “spending less instead of earning more nudged [her and her family] toward the Radical Homemakers movement.1” She writes

I hated being left behind. By then, our friends had settled into careers, started families, entered escrow. While they drove new hybrids all over town hunting down backsplashes for new Viking stoves, I was loading up on two-for-one gallons of milk or racing to the zoo before 9 a.m., where I had heard the parking lot attendant would wave me in for free.

In the drop-off line at preschool, tiny mothers climbed like mountain goats into SUVs the size of K2. Our lifestyle came off as quaint or quirky, and these moms sweetly waved down to me in our ’97 Nissan Altima, the difference in altitude fitting.1

I just couldn’t help but feel like this woman was completely missing the point. She and her husband obviously saw that making money wasn’t everything and that it certainly didn’t bring inherent happiness, yet she constantly yearned for the materialistic symbols that society has come to acquaint with success and therefore, however incorrectly, satisfaction. Dreaming of Viking stoves and SUVs? Would she really have found happiness in those things? Um, no. She would have found herself back at a job she obviously didn’t care about and her husband would have been forced to go back to “shoveling rocks for Satan.”

So, radical she is not.

Children: The Best Ally of Masculine Domination

Elisabeth Badinter

Holler references French feminist Elisabeth Badinter and her not-yet-translated book, Le Conflit: la femme et la mère (Conflict: The Woman and the Mother). Badinter has her sights set on what one reporter referred to as “the breastfeeding, pumpkin-peeling, earth motherhood ideologists who [Badinter] believes are a threat to women’s liberation.2” If Badinter is to be believed, children (and a naive desire to be a hands-on parent) have replaced men as the oppressor of women. “Eco-babble” has forced women back into the kitchen and laundry room to be slaves to the whims (not needs) of their children, while the menfolk are left to watch football and revel in their role as breadwinner and head of the family.

The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.3

Badinter argues that all this “back-to-nature” mumbo-jumbo is because women have been burdened with an intolerable guilt if they don’t fit the image of “the perfect mother.” This model of the perfect mother, which Badinter believes is purely contrived, includes breastfeeding, slaving away to make fresh food for baby, constantly washing cloth diapers, never being apart from the child, and giving up all “pleasures” including, but not limited to: a social life, the ability to drink wine and smoke, sex, and all other forms of personal expression and satisfaction.

In a previous book, she even claimed that the maternal instinct doesn’t even exist. She waxes poetic about Frenchwomen (the whole of whom she apparently speaks for) being mediocre mothers who happily birthed children and then farmed them out to nurses so they could continue their own personal lives. “The English tradition of sending children to boarding school from a young age,” she notes, “is like the 18th-century French tradition of sending them to nurses — a way of getting rid of them.2” She equates this with France’s higher birth rate among European countries: 2 children per French woman as compared to 1.3 children per German woman. The difference, according to Badinter, is that almost 100% of German mothers breastfeed, compared to just over half of their French counterparts.2 It’s interesting to note that a higher birth rate is a plus for Badinter.

A Soapbox Moment

So, what exactly am I on about here? Why am I even talking about feminism and child rearing and stove-envy? Well, because I think these women are dangerous examples of exactly what I don’t want to be.

Let’s take Madeline Holler first. She writes that

Not spending money is an incredible amount of work. I had considered — sometimes seriously — canning produce as a way to keep costs down… Just thinking about putting up a winter’s worth of green beans and apricot jam, though, made me want to take a nap.1

Yes, living the simple life takes work: if you want to eat, you’ve got to get out there and plant some seeds, keeping them alive, and harvest. And, if you plan on eating year round, you’ve got to “put some by,” which usually means canning or freezing. The last time I checked however, working at a “regular” job was work too… You’ve got to get up at a certain time and show up and do what’s asked of you and dress appropriately.

And you still have to feed your family and develop interpersonal relationships in your “off time.” Dinner doesn’t just arrive fully formed without any input from you whatsoever- even if all you do is make a phone call and throw the boxes away afterward. Those who work “full-time” are usually so exhausted from “working all day” to actually have quality leisure time. They spend it catching up on sleep, watching television, or doing work they brought home with them. Yeah, super easy and relaxing.

But when you raise and grow your own, every single moment of your day can be family time or personal time or relaxing time. Take a book when you feed the chickens and have a little mid-morning break. Gather with friends and family to process some turkeys and then have a party with great food. Get up early to beat the heat, then spend the hottest part of the day swimming in the watering hole. These “chores,” when done thoughtfully, become excuses to spend time with loved ones and to have a good time. They don’t have to be solitary drudgery.

It seems to me that it is exactly the type of feminism that Badinter subscribes to that has created these women who feel that their only worth can come from working outside the home and acquiring material objects. This feminist culture seeks to view women only as the accumulation of their business accomplishments, rather than embracing the whole image of a woman and her personal journey. A famous female chef is a feminist icon but a woman that cooks for her family is a slave?

As for Elisabeth Badinter… well, her notion of “feminism” is so completely distorted. She falls into that special category of women who think that they own the rights to the term and concept and that you must meet their criteria in order to have anything to say. Exactly what part of “freedom from oppression” did they not understand?

What Badinter fails to grasp is that there is a massive difference between choosing a life of domesticity and having that be the only option society has allowed you. It has always been the choosing that is the most important part. The suffragist movement was about giving women the right to choose to vote, not about forcing women to vote. The sexual revolution was about giving women the right to express their own sexual identities, not about forcing sexual liberation on them. Equality in the workplace was about removing the limitations on women, so that they could fulfill their own potential, not about forcing women into jobs.

And that is exactly what we are seeing in regards to women- smart, educated, free-thinking, and, yes, feminist women- returning to the home to make their lives. These women are choosing to take the power away from the forces that have come to control us, namely corporations. They are embracing the feminist ideology that the most powerful thing you can do, as a person (not just a woman) is to reclaim the power to control your own life.

In her article “Food, Farming … Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense,” Elaine Lipson writes

No matter how we rebalance gender roles, women’s lives and health — and those of their families — are intricately connected to how food is produced. But putting food and feminism in the same sentence can make one wary. Wasn’t that part of the whole liberation plan — to make women less responsible for food? And what’s gender got to do with food choices and food production methods?


the second question, I’d say, “Plenty.” Every feminist, woman or man, who embraces equality and diversity and opposes violence and domination, should recognize that the foods we eat, and how they’re grown, matter to our environment and to our lives.5

Here’s the thing: women have always been a part of agriculture. But their roles have been ignored and downplayed. Food is one of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of life and it has traditionally been controlled by men (and now corporations, which are also often controlled by men). All those women who have embraced the “eco-babble” have also pitted themselves against the domination of a basic right- namely, clean, healthy food. They are marching against the overwhelming drum beat of the food monopolies.

And yet, they aren’t content to simply secure their own bit of earth. By refusing to buy into the modern mentality that we must look outside our homes for the fulfillment of basic needs, these women are breaking the iron grip of industry. Those cloth diapers aren’t just saving trees, they are keeping thousands of dollars out of the hands of rich capitalists with their own personal agendas to keep people dependent on “the system”- money that can be spent closer to home. Supporting local, organic foods isn’t just about getting your family fed, it’s about insisting on ethical, safe environments for workers (who have been notoriously crushed in the wheels of the Big Ag machine). Buying a pig to raise in the backyard means supporting a local farming family- a family who might now be able to send their children to college.

I would argue that Badinter’s views on child rearing and family is more of an “ally of masculine dominance” than any woman who chooses to make her life at home. The question that lingers in my mind is “What is the point?” If a person is determined to be unfettered by the burden of raising a child, why have children at all? Could it have been that having a child was what you did because you were “supposed to”? That sounds very much like something other than a woman’s freedom of choice to me. While Badinter looks down her nose at those breastfeeding German mothers who are driving down the birth rate with their new-age touchy-feeliness, it is exactly those German women who seem to have the better grasp on the situation: while almost 100% of German mothers breastfeed, a quarter of German women are choosing not to have children at all, more than twice the number in France.2

The very same “farming out” of children that Badinter has romanticized was not a tool to set women free, it was a way to distance mothers from their children- children that could have taken their focus away from their primary role as attendant to their husband and attentive hostess to guests. Lactating women weren’t supposed to have sex, a situation their husbands must have disliked. Breastfeeding also suppresses ovulation.

Records show that wealthy women customarily gave birth annually while working-class women gave birth at considerably longer intervals, about every three years… In preindustrial England, it was not uncommon for wealthy women to have as many as eighteen children during the first twenty years of their marriages. The near-constant pregnancy experienced by these women was quite debilitating, certainly more incapacitating than breast-feeding would have been. Poor women had far fewer children and were apparently the healthier for it.6

We’re looking at a period where producing heirs was extremely important in carrying on lineages, so a breastfeeding wife, unable to conceive another child for a duration of possibly years, was not a benefit to her husband.

And it, as well as Madeline Holler’s preoccupation with shopping, refuse to take into account the lives of women outside their own financial bracket. Badinter resides in an “imperiously large flat overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens in central Paris,” owns a 10% stake in Publicis, the world’s fourth-biggest advertising agency, and is the wife of a celebrated Justice Minister.2 So, she was born into the financial stability to pursue her womanly freedom, away from the needs of her children. And Madeline Holler’s nightmare is when “[finding] a new shirt to meet up with an editor turned into a soul-crushing ordeal, since [she] shopped nowhere but Target and Old Navy.1” What of the women for whom Target and Old Navy are a luxury? And if children are forcing women back into the stone-ages of feminine emancipation, are the women who are being forced to raise farmed-out babies just collateral damage? This brand of feminism smacks heavily of elitism to me.

A Conclusion: but surely not the only one

So, what is the real answer? This post could go on forever, so perhaps a list is the easiest way.

  1. Simple living is not equal to male dominance. To assume so is to ignore that women have the right to choose their lifestyle and that men and women CAN be partners in a home.
  2. Homemade baby food doesn’t need to be an extra step in one’s life: many mother’s prepare their child’s meals as a part of their own. How hard is it to mash some peas that you’ve already made for yourself?
  3. Birthing at home or without the use of drugs is a decision that women make for various reasons. One of those reasons is because they trust themselves and their bodies to do something that the medical community (remember that it was dominated by MEN) has tried to tell them they aren’t strong enough to bear. They are.
  4. The decision to center one’s live 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.
  5. Men can wash cloth diapers as easily as women.

In short, you won’t find me slaving away at a day job to make money (most of it for someone else) while waiting for some corporation to deliver my food to the grocery store and hoping that the baby formula isn’t contaminated with lead.

You’ll find me drowning in tomatoes instead of drowning in work deadlines.

You’ll find me getting up to the sound of a hungry goose instead of the sound of the alarm clock and work bell.

You’ll find me sweating over the oven, making the best bread, instead of sweating over the credit card payments.

And one day, hopefully not so far away, you’ll find a beautiful, happy child, sucking some good old-fashioned mother’s milk from me instead of the modern world sucking the life out of me.

I won’t be a pawn in anyone’s game, especially some self-righteous woman-bashing “feminist.” So, if Badinter and her cronies don’t think I’m a feminist, then maybe I’m ok with that. Maybe me and all those Radical Homemakers are something more. I, for one, like making Mrs. Badinter squirm.

1: “I’m a Radical Homemaker Failure” by Madeline Holler for Salon.com
2: “Is motherhood a form of oppression? Thanks to breastfeeding, organic purees and eco nappies, the baby has become a tyrant, says a bestselling book in France” by Adam Sage for The Times Online
3: “In Defense of the Imperfect Mother” by Steven Erlanger and Maïa de la Baume for The New York Times
4: “Radical Homemaking: A revolution in progress? Are radical homemakers fronting a revolution against corporate America?” by Kimerer LaMothe for PsychologyToday.com
5: “Food, Farming … Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense” by Elaine Lipson for Ms. Magazine
6. Wet-nursing on FAQS.com