The cover of Susan Hayes’s Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture bears an image of a woman raising a rolling pin skyward–an announcement of the battle cry contained within.
Hayes is trumpeting a new movement–that of the Radical Homemakers. This is not a throwback to the 1950s housewife. Hayes draws heavily on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, saying the women suffering from “the problem that has no name” were miserable because they were pawns in a sprouting consumer-driven culture. No, radical homemakers are spurning the errors of their elders’ ways and are forging an altogether new path. They’re not powerless subservient spouses, and they’re not wealthy soccer moms. These women (and men) have renounced consumer culture by choice, and have chosen to seek fulfillment by growing their own food (including collecting eggs from their chicken coops), sewing their own clothes, and putting up endless pints of strawberry jam, and they’re doing it to honor community, ecology, social justice and peace.
I had high hopes for Radical Homemakers. As a woman who has not always been domestically inclined, I was eager to read what “reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture” could look like. I am still repenting of an earlier phase of my life, when I shunned anything that smacked of womanliness or femininity. When I came to my senses, I was eager to make up for lost time: I started wearing pink, admitting that I liked to cook and spent my evenings poring over Home Comforts. Having regained an appreciation for the domestic arts, I was suddenly sorry for the loss of collective memory regarding them, and was interested in reading about reclaiming lost homemaking skills.
I’ve come a long way in my domestic endeavors. My family lives relatively simply, line-dries our laundry (sometimes), planted raspberry bushes in the backyard and toyed with the idea of getting chickens (we didn’t). I thought I was ready to step it up a notch and was ready to learn a few tricks from the radical homemakers. Well, it turns out that Hayes’s brand of domesticity has a very hard edge.
Hayes says becoming a radical homemaker must begin with a journey out of the dominant consumer culture, so she spends a large chunk of the book denouncing consumer culture. She repeatedly and categorically attacks office jobs as “soul-sucking” and says that her radical homemakers wouldn’t deign to “work for gold” and that they “refuse to work to make the rich richer.” She brags that her radical homemakers don’t mistakenly believe–as the majority of us do, according to Hayes–that “more money” automatically equates to “a better life.” Hayes’s solution is to opt out of the consumer culture. Completely. Her radical homemakers sew their clothes, can their own tomatoes, and barter honey for second-hand shoes.
There’s obviously a middle ground here. Hayes hails Radical Homemaking as the only means of finding fulfillment outside consumer culture. Yet many of us (including my family) have moved away from the income-at-all-cost mentality and have given up many consumer comforts because of it. And we’re not the only ones; this is a generational shift. Generations X and Y work a lot fewer hours than the Boomers did; they’ve seen the negative impact of working long hours on family life, and they want no part of it.
I don’t doubt that radical homemaking can be a path to fulfillment. The radical homemaker’s work is autonomous, meaningful and varied, offers endless outlets for creativity, can be used to express love to those around them and is often just plain fun. But it is only one path to fulfillment, and we are not all called to the same path.
By all means, read this book if you need help rethinking the “givens” of your life. But if you want to learn homemaking skills, stick to Home Comforts.