First of all, may I ask which New York Times editor was responsible for permitting the coinage “femivore” to pass into language. Talk about illiterate (linguistically a “femivore” would be someone who ate women) and uneuphonious – yes, yes, I get that you want to get a Michael Pollan reference in there somehow, but come on… any writer worth her salt could do better than that.
Now to the meat of the thing – the essay, which profiles Shannon Hayes’s book _Radical Homemakers_ attempts to argue that focusing on food has given women a new set of choices.
Hayes pointed out that the original “problem that had no name” was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed — an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband — only now, bearing them was considered a “choice”: if you felt stuck, it was your own fault. What’s more, though today’s soccer moms may argue, quite rightly, that caretaking is undervalued in a society that measures success by a paycheck, their role is made possible by the size of their husband’s. In that way, they’ve been more of a pendulum swing than true game changers.
Enter the chicken coop.
Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place. Given how conscious (not to say obsessive) everyone has become about the source of their food — who these days can’t wax poetic about compost? — it also confers instant legitimacy. Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?
You’d think I’d love this, wouldn’t you ? And in some ways I do, but I’m troubled by it too. It may well be that Peggy Orenstein’s (the Times article’s author) “friends with coops” are taking the first steps in a radical disconnect from their culture of affluence, but it is more likely that they are getting chickens so that their lucky kids won’t have to eat factory farmed eggs. This, in and of itself is not totally trivial – every contribution to reducing the number of CAFOs in this country is a good one – but without larger context, it isn’t an answer to the problem that women have rotten choices. It isn’t a third way if it is only viable for affluent women. Nor is it a third way unless it represents the accomplishment of something meaningful – if it establishes the possibility that others could have the same set of choices.
Orenstein uses the word “precious” here – and I think it may be in her community. Contrast that, however, with the women that Hayes is writing about in her book (full disclosure, Hayes once contacted me about interviewing me for the book, but from one thing and another it never happened) – most of them with household incomes under 40,000 dollars, most of them engaged collectively (with extended family or partners) in a project where everyone, male and female, does a lot of domestic labor. Hayes’ work is about rejecting consumer culture and the assumptions about the “housewifization” of economic activity that make invisible domestic labor, that translate into valuelessness. She focuses on women in _Radical Homemakers_ but finds that the most successful households are the ones that have the highest degree of egalitarianism – that is, what’s radical about it is that everyone involved is working to expand the household informal economy and limit the control exercised by the formal economy. All of this may be true of the women Orenstein knows – but there’s no indication of it in the article.
I have often argued that the version of American feminism that largely succeeded – the one in which freedom was framed in the terms money and the right to work 60 hours a week for someone who times your bathroom breaks – succeeded because it was so very profitable for industrial capitalism. Besides the enormous pool of new workers, it offered new consumers, and created a large market for households to purchase services once done for free by women.
My argument has never been that women alone should have continued to provide these services for free, but rather that it is no accident that parts of the feminist vision that would have been less profitable, like state subsidized childcare, or a truly egalitarian distribution of domestic work did not succeed. It was far more profitable to send everyone to work and privatize the making of meals, the cutting of lawns, the tending of children – and to shift the labor onto the poorest and often least white folks around. Since only the most affluent of us can afford to pay nannies and house cleaners fairly, the equity that affluent women and men achieve often is built on the backs of poorer people who take on the labor that they escaped.
Housewifization of labor renders the household economy invisible, and things that are invisible can be infinitely exploited. Reclaiming the household economy, then, is a radical act. Making the case for the economic and social value of household labor, and making it the valued territory of both men and women does make a major shift in the culture. Refusing to exploit other people – only using the labor of others when you can pay them fairly is a radical act. Reducing your dependence on the industrial economy, your vulnerability, and having a measure of resilience in the face of economic instability is radical. But it only works if what you are doing isn’t precious – if you aren’t just making sure your lucky kids have clean food and contact with clean ground, but that others do as well. It only works if what you are doing is not the recreation of a simulacrum of a household economy – rather like Marie Antoinette’s farm, where she milked cows on a silver stool – but an actual household economy, where domestic work produces a meaningful part of your household economy. And that requires fundamental shifts in how you view your home, your family, your economic and social culture. Otherwise, it is just precious – and empty.
The chicken coop can be a symbol – it takes a service that has been done exploitatively and destructively, and says “I can do this myself, non-destructively and without exploitation.” But it works as a symbol only when you recognize the larger context of the act – the industrial chicken is a legacy of our desire not to know what price is laid on others and on nature to meet our desires, it is a legacy of our sense that the household economy doesn’t have value, it is a legacy of our sense that ordinary and everyday things aren’t important – it is an enormously powerful symbol if you are aware of what underlies it, and live your life in accordance with what it symbolizes. But if all it is is a coop, a way out of the conversation that begins “Oh, do you work?” well, it just doesn’t work.