I read an article in Sunday's New York Times and I felt like it was written for me.
It's called The Femivore's Dilemma and it's about how the DIY, back-to-the-land movement – keeping chickens, canning, gardening, composting, raising livestock, root cellaring – has given many women such as myself "an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women" - housewives in particular – "to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper."
I guess it's because these pursuits allow women to work outdoors, to commune with animals and nature, that it has liberated them from the more soul-crushing aspects of housewifery, or as the article states, "it has allowed women to flourish in the domestic arts by embracing soil," as opposed to merely furniture dust, "fresh air over air freshener." Modern homesteading is a self-sustaining, self-sufficient, anti-consumerist lifestyle that lends itself closely to the core tenets of feminism.
The piece really hit a nerve. I feel like I've been having a femivore's dilemma since abandoning my career as a women's magazine editor in New York four years ago to pursue a more "authentic" and "pure" existence with my cowboy-slash-farmer husband in rural Virginia. I moved here because I was sick of New York, and I thought living closer to the land would be an adventure, a new chapter in an otherwise bourgeois life. While I still manage to make a living as a writer, I have now become, more or less, a chicken farmer.
We have a flock of 30 birds, with 50 more chicks coming in June. I sell eggs for "walking around money." I live in a small cottage down a twisty country road located 10 miles outside of a small, conservative town where the Civil War still rages in the hearts and minds of many. We heat our house with wood, so there's a lot of chopping and stacking of logs around here. I've learned how to make fires that can burn fast and hot or long and warm, depending on the weather. I grow a good percentage of the fruit and vegetables we eat, and I preserve food like I'm preparing for the Final Days. I snack on homemade venison jerky. My husband brews beer and makes homemade wine. I learned to sew after I realized the only affordable fashion outlet around me was Walmart. We eat meat procured from local sources, i.e. the woods behind our house.
The irony is that while there's no question I'm more resourceful and frugal and self-sufficient in my new life, I actually felt like less of a feminist than ever.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Number one, DIY living, as far as I've experienced it, is still pretty much a man's game. Much of the local economy revolves around construction and, to a lesser degree, farming, whereas satisfying, reasonably well-paying jobs for women are few and far between. So a lot of my peers end up staying home to raise the kids. For some, this is a wonderful opportunity. For others, I get the feeling it's for lack of anything better to do. The result is that a masculine blue collar ethos holds sway. I've been to more than a few dinner parties where the men end up dominating the conversation discussing chain saws and diesel engines while the wives try to get a word in edgewise (or maybe that's just me?), or else drift off to the kitchen to hang out with the children. Maybe there's similar segregation at Brooklyn dinner parties, I don't know – I left NYC before my peers started having kids - but I always find myself thinking, how very The Waltons. And not in a groovy, DIY homesteading kind of way but in a weird, retro 1950s kind of way.
Which leads me to another point. For all of my newfound self-sufficiency, there's a lot of brute, physical strength involved in living closer to the land, and I've realized after trial and error that I don't have much of that. I actually kind of suck at performing most outdoor chores. I'm still pretty much clueless when it comes to trying to navigate the back of my husband's truck onto a trailer hitch, which I know annoys him, though he tries to be patient. Horses scare the crap out of me to the point of tears. I can barely lift a bag of chicken feed from the trunk of my car. I'm expected to haul 25 pound buckets of water down to the chickens every morning, stack firewood, light fires, wield nail guns, operate Bobcat bulldozers, dig ditches and wage daily battles with an aggressive rooster who I swear is out to kill me.
Stumbling and bumbling around our little "homestead" sometimes makes me feel more ineffectual, more weak and useless – more like the cliché damsel in distress – than I ever thought possible.
In New York, it was easy to think of myself as strong, self-sufficient and independent mainly because I didn't have to lift or carry or fix or make anything. And neither were men, for the most part. Not so, here.
Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he's a dude and I'm not. I sometimes find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn't seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll in her grave.
Ergo, my "femivore's dilemma," living an egalitarian, self-sufficient lifestyle but feeling more dependent on my husband than ever. Jake says I'm too hard on myself (I should also mention my husband is Superman when it comes to working in the outdoors so he sets the bar really, really high), but the biggest feminist awakening I've had since moving here is the acknowledgment that I don't particularly want to live like a man. I don't want to be measured and evaluated by the degree to which I can stack firewood and build chicken coops and drive a truck. But the flip side is feeling set apart, like I'll never truly embrace this lifestyle in the way I perhaps should. So Jake and I have had to reach a truce in our marriage: He still does most of the manual labor around here, and the little lady does what she can.