Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Radical homemakers

The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran the article, Radical homemakers reclaim the simple life, describing how women are stepping off the professional track and going back to homemaking. But, not in a 1950s way. More like an 1850s way which include subsistence farming, food preservation, bartering and frugal living.

These women are staying home to raise not only their children, but chickens, and grow gardens, can food and make their own soap. In other words, "shunning consumer culture in favor of a life of complete and utter domesticity." You know, the stuff many of us have been doing for years. With or without a job in the formal economy.

However, is it really radical? I would consider many of these activities to be non-mainstream (albeit popularity is on the rise), but not exactly radical. For many, I think they see doing these things more like a hobby. I'm sure the same could be claimed for men who are interested in cooking (a la the Food Network) or DIY automotive work (a la But, that's not considered radical.

First of all, do you need to quit your job to be a homemaker? Particularly in light of the fact that the women featured in this article all had some other source of income either through writing, their farm business, soap business or, in one case, a full-time teaching gig?

And, furthermore, is there anything radical about what we do?

Photo credit: Robin Johnson Simpson making soap in her kitchen, courtesy of The Chronicle.


meg said...

Hmm. I am having a lot of thoughts about this lately but nothing concrete. I don't really think it is radical. Not common (but becoming more common, in some locations) in mainstream-white-middle class.

I think parts of it are radical-or can be- when they are done as acts of resistance. But I think for something to be radical there has to be some politic behind it.

I have been wondering about the racism/classism of the green movement and the radical homemaking. There seems to be some glorifying when it is done by choice that is somehow different when done from necessity.

I don't'll be interesting to see what people think.

jennee said...

I'm guessing they probably meant radically different than the average wife. Since I didn't read the article I couldn't be sure.

I do or plan to do many of the things mentioned. I get many comments about it from friends and strangers alike. I think people view me as some sort of "supermom" But like you said, I see it as not only hobbies, but also ways to save money so that I can stay home with my kids.

Anna @ Blue Dirt said...

I read a magazine book review of the Radical Homemaker book. The family looked completely ordinary and the things they were doing were all things we have been doing. Except doll houses and making patchwork skirts. I have boys.

Ask any grandma or aunt and they remember those days. Most often the response is, Why on earth would you make lye soap? Or I can tell an old lady that I made 34 jars of jam, and she'll simply say, Oh that's wonderful! We did a batch last week, made 62! I never really know what to expect.

All I know is that I'm quitting my part time job to volunteer (at my job), build our house, and make a living somehow.

knutty knitter said...

So...I'm radical! Not that there's any choice in this. I only have one guaranteed hour of work a week.

I always thought radical meant something entirely new and different and scary. Not much scare in a jar of jam :)

As for glory - more like chapped hands and hard work! Where's the glory in something that has to be done anyway either by you or by hired help of some kind.

I think my halo slipped a bit:)

viv in nz

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's radical; I think it's natural. I notice that all the people mentioned in the article were probably making a good a deal of money beforehand and might have been considered upper class - maybe it's radical for them. Which, ugh, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Like Meg, I'm having some troubles with the way things are presented in some of these movements. I used to think that it really was mostly white educated people were interested in environmentalism and simple living - now I'm starting to wonder if the self righteousness and classism is turning off people who might otherwise be into it. Also wondering if it's semi-intentional.

Jen. said...

I haven't yet finished the book ("Radical Homemakers: reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture"), but it is largely about rebelling against 'extractive economics' and as the subtitle says, reclaiming domesticity as something to be proud of. It's quite good, especially chapter 3 which delves into the history of 'home economics' from 13th century Europe through the industrial revolution and Betty Friedan's influence. It's interesting!

On the back cover is a sticky note to-do list: hang out laundry, quit job, can tomato sauce, weed garden, drain lifeblood from multinational corporations. There's your politic, Meg. The women in this book have chosen it, but as a way to regain their freedom.

Brad K. said...

Today I think this is radical; in two months it will likely be less radical.

The "norm" is the electronically disabled family - the Ipads/iPods and MP3 players, electronic games and apps that now take the place of communication. The norm is prepackaged prepared food, takeout, or pizza buffet.

The norm is highly advertised.

There are very few companies making a profit from the Radical Homemaker. This has a chilling effect on the economy at the same time it enables the homemaker and household to be more economical, have better control (once cooking and housekeeping skills mature) over quality of food and life. And, I think, the extra time needed in efforts around the home and time spent with children will lend itself to better discipline of children and adults, and overall an opportunity for better parenting.

For those coming from families that retained cooking and other homemaking tasks, this may seem like "business as usual". For the adults that missed that kind of background, the Radical Homemaker must seem quite alien.

Chris said...

I had to laugh when I saw that it's "Pioneer Week" here at Crunchy Chicken. With all those rules about how to live a kinda old-fashioned, DIY, less-resource-intensive life for (gasp) a whole week? Ooooh...hang out the laundry! Cook from scratch! How pioneer-y!

You seem to be saying that people who do at least that minimum list of stuff year-round are mere hobbyists. You don't think raising and preserving your own food, cooking from scratch every single day, creatively minimizing resource consumption, buying second-hand/not buying at all, eschewing retirement plans/health insurance/government education, in a culture full of mall-shoppers dying from processed food, stuck in the rat race because they can't lose their stock options, who spend no more than an hour per day with their kids isn't even a little radical?

The article, like most such lifestyle fluff pieces, doesn't do justice to those who are living the life that Shannon Hayes describes in her book. The rich Bay Area liberals profiled are not especially typical of those I know who have made far more radical changes. Have a look at the book and the people Hayes profiles. Do some actual research, then get back to us with your opinions about whether they're hobbyist. Sheesh.

GeekGirl said...

I have to agree with both meg and simple poppy here. As a woman of color, I'm not quite comfortable with the classism and racism issues that are visible in this movement (and others that are close to it).

I'm still reading and learning about it, but I do think that it's only considered "radical" because these are upper-middle-class white women.

Olivia said...

Hmmm . . . well as one of the "60's counterculture" survivors, it seems that what goes around comes around. Or sort of. Since I and all my friends and our parents and grandparents and most of our neighbours live this way as a matter of course and necessity - and not as a political statement - I also dislike the word "radical." Ever since I outgrew my youthful need to rebel, I just choose to live my life as I see fit and not worry about what others are doing.
However, it is not really a "simple" life - at least in terms of work. It's pretty labour intensive, especially as one grows older. let's see how many of these youthful radicals are still living this way in another 30 or 40 years! How many of us"counter culture hippie back-to-the landers" are still at it?

megan said...

I do actually think it is a little radical.

We're only about 2 generations removed from this kind of lifestyle here. I'm 29 and most grandmothers (and practically all great grandmothers) know how to can, sew, quilt, garden, cook from scratch, clean a chicken, raise animals, raise children, cut hair, etc--even if they don't actually do it anymore. So, we're talking more like 1940s-60s in the South/Mid-South.

But, even with all of this available wisdom, I know very few people my age who do these things. I know some women who sew, but even those who do it quite well still only consider it a hobby. Generally, their older children would throw a fit at the idea of handmade clothes. I've looked for others my age that are really serious about gardening, but haven't found any. (Though, I did meet a few younger farmers, which is encouraging.) Most of the people that my husband works with are shocked at what we do (which is relatively little compared to a lot of the new "homesteaders"). He works with mostly women--baby boomers down to those just out of college--and only one or two can cook anything at all, let alone anything from scratch. They can't fathom why anyone would want to.

There are definitely anti-corporate political motives for a lot of what we do, but if you try explaining it to most others you get either blank stares, glazed eyes or looks of disgust at your commie liberalism. Of course, it's different here than the blue states.

Bullwinkle said...

I am reminded, sometimes several times a day, that we do is "radical": we are not following the dictates of mainstream culture/advertising.

Among "my people" :) this way of living and questioning what I do is not radical. Among my colleagues, who are a vast majority of society, we are.

Brad K. said...


I recall the TV series, "The Beverly Hillbillies." Many of the gags were about the backwoods hicks stumbling over "modern" conveniences. Lots of gags, lots of ridicule.

Media is still willing to portray that juxtaposition - eschewing the "conveniences" for older methods - as laughable.

@ GeekGirl,

I think you are correct. If they could still be laughing at poor folks, or "others", for living this way they would call it "funny". Or maybe "sad", with a sigh of (arrogant) pity.

Anonymous said...

These people eat completely off the land, or did until the oil spill. I herd them on NPR and they basically said they almost never shop for anything. Are they radical? Or is it only radical if you are pale, have a college education, and write a book about how radical you are? I'm not knocking the author, I just think "radical" in this context is being put out there by people who want to be known as "radical" and who have also CHOSEN this life.

Jennie said...

I think anything besides sitting in front of the tv watching American Idle is radical these days, especially when, as this article does, you're talking about middle class or upper white women.

I consider us fairly low-key about things, we/I cloth diaper, garden, can, cook from scratch and sew. But we don't have a tv, a dryer or a dishwasher and my co-workers pretty uniformly think I'm/we're nuts.

I'm pretty sure there are days when my own darling Hubby thinks we're nuts.

I look at the state of our food system though, complete with quarterly recalls of everything from spinach to eggs, and I can't imagine trading down to that way of living.

I look at my grandmothers and great-grandmother (she can remember moving across Texas in a covered wagon) and I know I'm just the latest generation of women in my family to follow this path, so in that sense it doesn't seem to radical to me.

Working a 45 hour week as an engineer AND doing all of this, does seem like I'm running twice as fast some days.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I think you might be radical, but I'm not, lol. This is how I was raised.

I read the book and enjoyed it, mostly the second half with the stories of people, but I'm simply unwilling and unable to give up my job to be an exclusive homemaker. I need health insurance for my family, and for that I keep my job.

As you said it, you don't have to be unemployed in the formal economy to be a homemaker. Somebody has to make the home, too!

I also look on our lifestyle as a hobby that I really enjoy. But to my friends, perhaps I am radical.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Chris - I suggested that many people think of doing these things as hobbies, not that people seriously doing it are hobbyists. For those who are doing all that you mentioned, I would in no way call them hobbyists because they aren't, and because it would be insulting.

Much like many would find your overgeneralization of "a culture full of mall-shoppers dying from processed food, stuck in the rat race because they can't lose their stock options, who spend no more than an hour per day with their kids" insulting. Many people don't have the financial ability to choose otherwise.

Finally, I was reviewing the article, not the book, which as you pointed out, I haven't read so I can't speak to the content, which is why I did not mention it here.

Even though I'm hosting Pioneer Week, I promote this lifestyle year round. It's not a lot different than No Impact Week and the like that get people to focus for a week on reducing their resource consumption. Because, for most of us with busy schedules, it's easy to slip back into modern conveniences.

Unknown said...

I think the "radical" in the title of Shannon Hayes' book, which I just finished, makes sense because she's talking about people who organize their lives in direct opposition to capitalism. That is politically radical. To replace the ideologies of capitalism and the American Dream with anything else is considered incredibly deviant. Her book is mostly not a "how to be green guide" or some kind of list of small changes you can make, but an examination of a radical political movement. This extreme lifestyle (and the profiles in her book are of lives that would indeed be extreme for most people to live) represents a kind of economic civil disobedience.

Unknown said...

You might be interested in reading the book, there's a lot more to it than is presented in an article like that. Which to me read slightly patronizing in a supportive kind of way. I believe in this culture we live in our strongest voice is our consumer dollar. It's what feeds the beast. And your paycheck? Pays "the man" more. So what's more radical in this culture, at this time, to say no to the consumtion train, to raise your own children, to eat real food, and to foster an interdependence on community rather than a dependence on your bank account?

Dea-chan said...

I just usually hate the implied criticism that "these privileged white women will come to their senses one of these days and come back to the fold". That it's a choice than one can make because they don't have "hard" decisions to make. "They" don't have to worry about paying their kids' doctors bills -- because they are eliminating reasons for them. Gah. I know it's not a classist, or racist movement, but the advertising/reporting it gets give that impression.

Crunchy Chicken said...

The book does look really interesting, I'm planning on adding it to my reading list.

MKD said...

The article cracked me up when it said, "...and they no longer eat packaged food." I think that was under the caption of the kid w/ the chicken

No longer eating packaged food is considered radical?

Some of us on here would be considered AMISH then if that's radical.

Aydan said...

I think it's considered "radical" when people do it who have other choices, who have the choice to fully indulge in our disposable culture... and the people who have other choices tend to be European American and middle- or upper-class. Of course, that stems from the assumption that, given the choice, everyone would eat packaged food, drive everywhere, use lots of disposables, etc. What's really "radical" is wanting another option, whether you can achieve it right now, or not.

Along with some of the other commenters, I see the environmental movement, particularly the domestic segment, infused with classism and racism... and sexism, in a way. I mean, there's no reason why men can't become homemakers, too, but no one (or few people) ever suggests that.

Kerry said...

I think we have to examine how the term "homemaker" has been maligned when we look at a title like "Radical Homemakers".

I have a Chinese neighbour who is so PROUD when she says "I am a housewife". It wasn't a choice before she and her husband left China.

I think as much as Communism removed the right to choose how you would live from her family, Capitalism has removed that choice from MOST North American families. It is downright unpatriotic to step away from the consumerist lifestyle and reject Capitalism.

The first whisperings I saw in the mainstream media about returning to the home were extremely classist - attachment parents who left the workplace to raise their kids. Overnight this (to me - pretty radical, given being raised by a second wave feminis who thinks institutional daycare is the greatest invention ever) was coopted by the media into these bizarre housewives that they'd profile who were into the trappings - consumerist trappings of the "1950's homemaker".

I think its radical for FAMILIES (and they are families in the book) fathers are radically returning home to make a livelihood within the family sphere - kids KNOW what dad does. That's radical too.

And yes I do think of my family as radical. We purposely chose to move to an area of the country where we could subsistence farm and learn from those on century old or older composite farms. My partner left a job in the city to be home to help raise our kids. We are both university educated and want to make a living from our own two hands in a sustainable way. Every choice we make starts on the micro community level. I walk to get most of our groceries from end of laneway farm stands now. It isn't at all radical here, but we stepped out of the populated heartland to find this.

The people around me, are, without realizing it, radicals. Invisible radicals because they do not live anywhere near a city centre where their lifestyle differences stand out. But they feel the pressure too, from big agri, from urban sprerad, and we are all fighting back. There are SOS Save our Farms signs in all my neighbours front yards. We will not let urbanites rezone farmland for development. We all seem to have no farms no food or farmland belongs to tomorrows farmers bumperstickers.

They're very welcoming to any "radicals" that have woken up and are going to support them in the fight.

Rosa said...

I do think, for a lot of us, these "radical" things seem so normal and everyday, it's easy to scoff - kind of like how last year there was a lot of coverage of EXTREME FRUGALITY that was all sort of pennypinching 101 - "only go out to eat once a week" and stuff like that.

But then, I visit family and realize I'm pretty much on alien territory. And then my life feels pretty radical again.

Personally, though, i don't think it's radical to do much of anything individually - it's when you organize as a group, then you're radical.

Unknown said...

Not radical. And I love the statement that you don't have to leave your job to be a homemaker. I do many of these things-and have a FT job. Being all about domesticity with no life outside isn't such a great thing-you kind of lose track of the outside world. I think what some of these articles mean is that (some) women who are educated and politically liberal are choosing a path that typically would be chosen by someone more conservative, who might be home because they thought their religion or political philosophy compelled it, etc. At-home parents (dads, too) now seem focused on the kids and the home as opposed to, "back in the day," a wife obligated to focus on a husband in a servile way. Today's version is progress, I guess, but I worry that women are sometimes wasting their education and talents.

simplifysimplify said...

While I don't agree with the whole post (especially the tone that I infer), I have to say that Chris has a point, that the use of the word "radical" referring to this type of homemaking is possibly just as relative as the use of the word "pioneer" is for Crunchy's back to basics week. For these people and their upbringing, it is a radical choice, or radical lifestyle compared to what they had before, or what they have available to them. Maybe that's why it's classist, as well. I do think it's admirable when people choose to work harder with more inconveniences than they would otherwise have to, also. I have no less respect and admiration for people who make do with very little out of necessity.

Kerry said...

I've read the comments and GAH! I hope more of you will READ and then actually comment on *the book*. It is NOT about returning to the home and focusing on kids as opposed to husband. Its about returning home to a lifestyle that is based on being a unit of production within a community/local based economy. It is about the very radical concept of stepping out of capitalist society. Its a very realistic return to a society model that has been under attack since the industrial revolution.

Other books that look at a similar issue but from different personal perspectives would be Tom Pawlick's book The War in the Country or Rob Hopkins book The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience.

Lorraine Butler said...

I don't think our pioneer forefathers and -mothers would consider using actual dishes and growing and cooking our own food particularly radical. Is this concept radical because "progressives" during the women's movement wouldn't have been caught dead doing these things?