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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review - Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity

My mother has occasionally remarked on the seeming incongruity between my persona as an independent career woman and my love of domestic arts like cooking from scratch and sewing throw pillows by hand. A stay-at-home mom herself, she fed us a steady diet of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and frozen hot dogs (in her defense, I probably wouldn’t have eaten Greek yogurt or organic mixed greens then as I do now) and the little sewing she did was to repair a seam or replace a button. 

Given my upbringing, it’s somewhat surprising that I now choose to can apple butter and bake my own granola when I could easily buy those items at Trader Joe’s.

But taken in the context of Emily Matchar’s new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, it’s not surprising at all. In the book, Matchar explores the growing phenomenons of modern homesteading, attachment parenting, and DIY food and craft culture, all told through a mix of historical and feminist perspectives. 

As Matchar points out, one interesting byproduct of these trends is that both hipster liberals and religious conservatives are launching Etsy businesses, homeschooling their children, or growing their own food, forging connections that might not have existed a generation ago. In fact, if you replace the term “God” with “nature,” much of the rhetoric around the importance of self-sufficiency and distrust of public schools or vaccines is remarkably similar.

But DIY culture doesn’t just appeal to women at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, and Matchar also includes more moderate examples of women testing the waters of DIY culture or ultimately deciding that making all their own food isn’t for them. (Full disclosure: canning apple butter is a fun weekend hobby but I also buy plenty of food from the grocery store. Kudos to Matchar for legitimizing this middle ground instead of espousing an all-or-nothing approach!)

The chapter on DIY food culture even opens with a familiar scene: a food swap in Sarasota Springs, New York. The book includes dozens of these little vignettes about the New Domesticity, but I wished it devoted more time to each one rather than flitting between scenes of launching a homemaking blog or making jam or raising chickens.

On one hand, reading examples of women who enjoy cooking but don’t dress like June Cleaver helped me see how my independence and tendency to nest aren’t so incompatible after all. But at times Matchar’s criticisms of the New Domesticity can be unsettling (and rightfully so). Even as she explores the benefits of modern domesticity, she raises some important questions about the long-term implications of forsaking a traditional career, the fetishizing of domesticity, and the pressures that come along with DIY culture. It’s well worth the read.

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