Much has been written about the so-called "new domesticity," the surge in interest in things like canning, pickling, cooking, bread-baking, sewing, knitting, and gardening, which — at least if one were to judge by the pages of Etsy.com, the "crafts" category on Pinterest, or the stalls of your local hipster market — comprise the modern culture of DIY. Can DIY be political? Ought it be of concern to feminists that this incarnation of DIY is largely female-coded and domestic? Are DIY-ers with their perfect-looking projects just obnoxiously raising standards for all of us? What about women who found DIY-based businesses?
"Inasmuch as this new domesticity represents a desire to live more sustainably and authentically, it’s wholly laudable, if also a bit precious," goes the latest DIY trend piece in Newsweek. "But a return to home and hearth also has a way of reinforcing traditional gender roles, even if everyone involved says she’s only following her heart."
Firstly: these concerns are nothing new. In the late 1960s, when eating whole, "natural," and/or organic food was actually somewhat new and trendy, Joan Didion wryly noted in her reporting on the hippie movement that the burdens of cooking, cleaning, and child care fell disproportionately on the movement's women. Though the domestic life fostered in the San Francisco communes she reported on looked very different to that favored by the nuclear-family mainstream, each was powered by the same gendered division of labor. As Didion wrote in her seminal essay, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem":
Barbara is on what is called the woman's trip to the exclusion of almost everything else. When she and Tom and Max and Sharon need money, Barbara will take a part-time job, modeling or teaching kindergarten, but she dislikes earning more than ten or twenty dollars a week. Most of the time she keeps house and bakes. "Doing something that shows your love that way," she says, "is just about the most beautiful thing I know." Whenever I hear about the woman's trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin'-says-lovin'-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara.
It is possible to be the unconscious instrument of values one would strenuously reject on a conscious level. That's why it's important to bring values, conscious and unconscious, into conversations about things like DIY. And it is worth raising this concern when new cultural movements come along to replicate old power structures. Attachment mothering — which just happens to be inconsistent with a woman holding almost any kind of job outside the home — may be one such movement. It's not unreasonable to examine social phenomena — even ones seemingly the product of independent personal choices — through a political lens.
The DIY movement, of which I must recognize myself as a bread-baking, herb-gardening, home-sewing, thing-making, column-writing member, is not without a political element. For me, making things is very much about autonomy, about understanding and mastering the means of production and challenging the notion that "crafts" are humble and relegated to the domestic, female space. Making the kind of bread that costs $4 a loaf at an artisanal bakery or the kind of fresh pasta that costs God-knows-what at Fairway for pennies at home, or the kinds of purses and dresses that would be hundreds even at a sample sale for just the cost of fabric and thread, also saves me money. My last project was a leather belt, and the materials set me back $23. DIY is a way to acquire and hone skills that exist in an intellectual tradition that is too often denigrated, and simultaneously to surround myself with things I couldn't otherwise afford.
But DIY — and its current wave of popularity — also has a relationship to the wider economy, one with implications for gender norms and feminism, as one new book argues. That book is Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, by author Emily Matchar:
“The various pieces—the urban chickens, the domestic-porn blogs, the retro cookery, the attachment parenting—are beginning to come together to reveal a larger whole,” writes Matchar. “To say that these phenomena are ‘just trends’ or to snark on them as the whims of privileged hipsters is to ignore this emerging bigger picture. Fashion is fashion, but our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania speak to deep cultural longings and a profound shift in the way Americans view life.” And not only well-off Americans with liberal-arts degrees. Matchar began her book expecting to find a lot of ex-CEOs and dropouts from corporate law. Instead, she discovered “middle-class people struggling with modern life. Underemployed recent college grads learning to knit because they got no satisfaction out of their temp jobs. Women who ‘just happened’ to learn about attachment parenting at the end of their too-short maternity leaves from jobs they felt ambivalent about to begin with.”
As Newsweek notes, some of the people who are turning DIY projects into businesses are doing so because, for reasons of class or gender, they've found themselves shut out of the traditional job market:
[O]ver 14 percent of young people between ages 20 and 24 are either unemployed or underemployed. Matchar quotes a 23-year-old woman who is trying to launch an artisan jam business in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “My parents keep asking when I’m going to get a real job,” she says. “Nobody my age can find a real job. We have to be creative. I have a friend with dual master’s degrees who’s been unemployed forever; now she’s making and selling doughnuts.” [Retailer Gaia] DiLoreto is 38, but she says most of her vendors are in their 20s or early 30s and became entrepreneurs because “there were no jobs or they were unhappy with the jobs they had."
While it's concerning, on a broad, societal level, that companies are still not doing enough to retain talented and creative female workers — if there are rungs missing on the ladder, that impacts us all — it always bugs me how this narrative is spun out in the media. Stories about people's Etsy boutiques or the home canning project that turns into a profitable small business are always told with a "cute woman does cute thing!" kind of lilt. But what these women really are is entrepreneurs.
Yet their ambition to turn their ideas into money is rarely presented as laudable, and I think that's in part because of gender. The Newsweek article is full of finger-wagging sources who caution women against this kind of entrepreneurship — one even says trying to build a DIY-based business "guarantees mothers’ continued economic vulnerability, as well as that of their children." Did anyone concern-troll the risk-taking dudes who founded Hewlett-Packard in a garage? Did anyone speculate about the well-being of their children in the national press? It seems like we ought to be able to find ways to simultaneously celebrate these women for their business acumen while also working to fix the problems — inadequate maternity leave, the wage gap, employment discrimination — that continue to dog the traditional workplace. And we could start by giving respect where it is due: anyone who has found a way to charge $8 for a goddamn bar of chocolate probably has a few things figured out about retail.
Urban Mamas Get Crafty [Newsweek]
Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.