Radical Homemakers: Radical Indeed

Radical Homemakers: Radical Indeed

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.

Radical Homemakers Home Comforts best housekeeping homemaking bookHayes 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.

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  1. Mrs. Zwieg says:

    I think they wrote this book about my aunt and uncle. Wow…it sounds just like them! Crazy amount of canning, chickens in the Chicago suburbs, honey, raw milk…etc.

    My hubby and I would actually like to do some homesteading, but I have to admit that I really like back to school sales on markers and paper, Day After Thanksgiving sales on various items (usually kitchen gadgets strike my fancy) and the yellow dot (severe clearance prices…say 90% off) at some Department stores. I don’t think I would give those three things up even if we do grow all our own food at some point.

  2. Laura says:

    I am FAR TOO lazy to live this type of lifestyle. (I had to sit back and relax for a few moments after just reading your review!! 😛

    I love being at home with my kids. I love making my house a home. I am very happy that I’ve been able to care for my home and family without having to work (outside of the home). Like you, we have made sacrifices and changed our thinking and lifestyle but it’s been 100% worth it!
    If women want to work outside of the home-go ahead, I’m not judging anyone but for me and mine, this was the way to go.

    Some of the things that you described that are in the book appeal to me. I’d love to have my own vegetable garden again! Would love to learn how to preserve foods! Bartering for second hand anything… ummm.. no spanks! 🙂

    For some reason, it kind of makes me angry when women try to tell other women how to live their lives. That if you’re not home with your kids OR if you’re not out working, somehow you’re doing it all wrong and have failed. People have to make their own choices based on what’s best for them and their family. Do some make selfish choices? Sure -but,they are theirs to make.
    I like the sound of your “Home Comforts” book. I might just pick that one up. Thanks for the review of the book “Radical Homemakers” you did a great job describing it.


  3. Home Comforts is a good read. I purchased it several years ago after reading a review about it in Victoria magazine. The problem is, I would rather sip tea and read Home Comforts than actually clean my house . . .
    Sewing their own clothes,canning and keeping chickens! – These radical homemakers are committed, I’ll give them that. I agree with Laura. Thank God for the freedom to chose whatever lifestyle best defines our priorities.

  4. Seems like a very interesting book. I am such a grey person, that reading black and white books can frustrate me. I think there is a reason for “shunning” the consumer driving attitude, but at the same time a lot of people would lose their jobs if we stopped buying things. Not sure how that fits into her book, or even something she takes into consideration. But it’s what stops me from going all out with not shopping.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, I know what you mean–with complex issues like these I wish people would acknowledge that they are, in fact, complicated! And she’s talking about the whole American economy–talk about complicated!

  5. Morgan says:

    Wow, what an interesting sounding book. To me, and I may be wrong, I normally am, it sounds like the exact opposite of modern day feminism, and just as….combative? I’m not sure that’s the right word. But, it does sound like a great read.

    I also agree with Sarah, I think it’s a very complicated issue, and sometimes reading books that take the black-or-white approach make me crazy, haha!

  6. Thanks for such an honest review of this book. I had seen it early and put it on a wish list to consider reading it, but you’ve done a nice job summing it up for me. I find it ironic that people who try to “escape” a stereotypical lifestyle go the opposite extreme and do the very same thing they are critical of. They are just as much in bondage to self sufficiency as they were originally to consumerism (referring to the author herself). I think you could have done a much better job writing it – a balanced approach that considers the reasons WHY we do what we do is so much more joyful and fulfilling. And when there are tough days, knowing WHY keeps us going.

  7. Krissa says:

    Hmmm…I have this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it, but not I’m not so sure if I should devote my precious time to it! Thanks for the review!

  8. I read this book and quite enjoyed it. I didn’t take from it that she was attacking office jobs for the fact that they were office jobs, rather if you are in an office job because you have to be for the money, that is soul sucking. If you are in an office job because you like it that is different. The underlying point I got from the book is that your time is more valuable than we are lead to believe. Do what is most fulfilling by committing to your family and community before committing to a paycheck. What is the point of the paycheck when you have no time to enjoy it? Side note…I do understand that basic needs need to be met but after that decisions to accumulate more money should be weighed against your fulfillment in life…but I digress.

    I do agree with you on two points. One is that if you are looking for hands on practical skills this book is not that. She writes about a philosophy not the how-to. Though she does have a blog in that regard but…I will leave that up to you to decide its merit. The other is that your totally right that there is a happy medium and most people will fall into that category. I too also hang out in that category. I do realize it is slanted more to the extreme, but you can’t really write a philosophical framework without taking a stance. I just took the parts I liked and worked that into my lifestyle.

    Thanks for the review. I think you did a good job and I totally relate to the sad feeling of the collective loss in domestic skills. For me that loss of knowledge has resulted in this new lifestyle being a seriously learning curve.

    Keep the writing coming, I quite enjoy it.

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