How reclaiming domestic chores could hurt women

Nov 28, 2011

Young women are embracing the household DIY tasks that our mothers and grandmothers were liberated from. Chat with writer Emily Matchar as she discusses the dangers of reclaiming domestic chores and what it means for women.

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Read: The new domesticity: Fun, empowering or a step back for American women?

Hi! Emily Matchar here. Looking forward to chatting about new domesticity and answering any questions you guys have. Ready to get started? 

Why do we assume it a harmful thing to have a domestic partner/parent in the family? Haven't we proven that the moral structures of our homes in the US have fallen dramatically in the last two generations? Isn't this due to the departure of the "housewife"? Sad how many of us couldn't sew a shirt or dress for the lives of us. And tragic how many families resort to 'grazing' instead of sit-down family meals, Meal time is a nurturing factor that makes households actual homes, yet this too has pretty well gone by the wayside with fewer and fewer actually knowing how to cook. And why does the domestically inclined need to be the women?

I don't know if I agree about falling moral structures of the family, but I do agree that the domestically inclined person in the family does not need to be the woman. In fact, I strongly believe that if we're going to be reclaiming dometicity and housework as an environmental and moral good, it needs to be done by both men and women. 

I have a few friends that are very much into the DIY craze, and while I will admit to teaching myself how to can, sewing and other things, I truthfully don't have time for much else. And I find it infinitely frustrating to hear about my female friends that seem to spend all day/weekend on these activities because they either come from wealth and/or have a partner that supports them. It seems like it becomes a DIY lifestyle of privilege because my 50-60 hour a week job doesn't provide the time to make everything myself. Thoughts?

There's certainly privilege involved for anyone who can afford to quit a job and make DIY domesticity their whole life. Though I wouldn't necessarily say that it's a super-rich person thing - many of the stay-at-home women I've talked to have been married to schoolteachers or plumbers or other members of the middle class, but are living very downsized lifestyles compared to their peers. That said, it's only a minority of DIYers that don't work - most American women DO work, out of necessity or choice or both. I think the frustration you feel is really common - the stakes have been raised on domesticity, but few people have the time to pursue it all the way. This is one of the big conundrums of New Domesticity: if we're going to be embracing Slow Food or make-your-own baby food or whatever, who is going to be responsible for the extra labor, and where does the time come from?

I'm 30 years old and a mom of a 2 (2-years and 3-months old) who works part-time. I appreciated Joan Williams's comment in your piece, stating that many of these women find a "refuge" in their decision to stay home with kids by continuing to push themselves toward perfection in homemaking. This notion completely resonates with my experience. I find my mommy friends subtlety judging each other starting with their child's birth (natural vs. medicated vs. heaven-forbid-cesarian), the decision whether or not to breastfeed, what kind of diaper to use, and so forth. The extreme homemaking movement seems like another manifestation of this perfectionism and competition between women. Do you see parallels between the Mommy Wars and NeoHomemaking?

Wow, that's a great (and difficult) question! I think there definitely can be an element of what Joan Williams was talking about, but it's not the full story. For educated, creative women who have left the workforce (whether they "opted out" or were pushed out by family-unfriendly policies is another question), there's certainly a vacuum left that a traditional consumerist approach to housekeeping (buy Clorox! Eat Lean Cuisine!) doesn't fill. Many women I've spoken to have said they would "never" be "1950s-style" housewives, but that the new style of crafty, DIY homemaking is very fulfilling to them. Whether they're "justifying" their choice to quit working by embracing extreme homemaking depends on the person - I think there's definitely an element of that for some people. There does seem to be a huge element of competition to homemaking and motherhood (this is not new, but does seem to be getting worse), and it'll be interesting to see how this plays out with New Domesticity. 

It seems as though many of the women characterizing this movement are able to so thoroughly immerse themselves in domestic activities because the household income comes from the partner/spouse. Is privilege implicit in new domesticity? Also, feminism has historically been critiqued as centered on the experiences and concerns of (often middle/upper middle class) white women. I wonder if there might be a similar critique leveled here - how does race figure into this discussion do you think? This is thoughtful, fascinating work. I look forward to reading more!

Another great question! Like I said to another reader, I think a degree of privilege is implicit for any woman who has actually quit her job to stay home - but these are the minority, since most women (including mothers) work. And even among the (heterosexual) stay-at-homers I talked to, most were not particularly wealthy - many lived "downsized" lives to be able to exist on their husband's salaries. (whether or not existing on your husband's salary is a good idea is another question entirely!). Race is another good question, one which I don't know much about yet. I do know that questions of staying at home versus working are very different for African-American women than for white women. While white mothers are often judged as "bad mothers" for working, African-American mothers are judged more for NOT working because of ugly "welfare queen" stereotypes. It's a thorny question, one I look forward to learning more about. Thanks for your comments! 

It is wonderful when people can discover and enjoy traditions in food preparation and other home management activities..My family every year canned vegetables for day to day living, e.g, 300 quarts. We raised pigs and chickens for meat. We had chickens for eggs. We had to plant every vegetable to can and pick every piece of fruit. Not romantic work. It was hard work. It wasn't anything romantic.

That's a really good point. Urbanites and suburbanites seem to have these really gauzy, romanticized fantasy of farm life, but that stuff's definitely hard work! I have a good friend who grew up in rural North Carolina and remembers how hot and sticky and tiring it was for her aunts to can tomatoes every summer. As an adult, she thinks the mania for canning is really funny. 

Hello, in your article, you raise questions similar to my own. But I was wondering about your take on new domesticity when not in the context of a family (single women), or in a non-traditional relationship (gay women, etc.)?

That's such an important question. I do think a lot of the re-embrace of traditional "women's work" IS happening outside the boundaries of the traditional nuclear family - single urban women joining knitting circles, lesbian crafters, etc. When you see this stuff outside the context of the family, it's easier to see it as "fun" or "choice." But it's in the family-with-kids (whether that's a heterosexual or homosexual family) that we start to see questions of guilt or obligation or the division of labor crop up. 

RE gay families - some sociologists think that the continued acceptance of gay families will help further break down the still-existing divisions between what society sees as "men's work" and "women's work." When you have a family with two dads, there's no such thing as women's work! 

My husband has been dismissive of my back to basics desires forever. I lobbied to move to a small hobby farm after 9/11 but he was dubious. At this point I'd be happy with backyard chickens, some rabbits and a large freezer. How do you get both partners on board?

Wish I had an answer for you! One of the women I've talked to for my book, a neo-homesteader, told me that she gets emails all the time from women who want to get their husbands on board with raising backyard chickens. So you're not the only one with this issue! 

Hi Emily, Why is it that it is easier to blame the new domesticity movement for keeping women down than to discuss the exploitative conditions and discriminatory practices that women (and men) face in capitalist work places?

I'm not blaming anyone for keeping women down, only suggesting that there are unanswered questions and potential problem spots involved in the re-embrace of traditional domestic work. 

That said, I think the awful, anti-family policies of the American workplace are a huge, huge, huge part of what makes domesticity seem appealing in contrast. It's been shown that the so-called "opt out" movement is really more about being "pushed out" - many women would love to continue their careers but feel like the lack of maternity leave/the expectations of 60-hour work weeks etc. make it impossible, so they opt out or drop down to part-time. Men feel these pressures as well, but they also feel a correspondingly greater societal pressure to be breadwinners, which seems to keep them in the workforce more.  This is all really problematic. 

I don't see it as any "new domesticity"; I see it as the same motivation as the home-schooling boom: because people don't trust what's out there. They know that processed foods are loaded with preservatives and unnecessary fats, salts, sweeteners; they know that their children might do better academically if home-schooled than at a bad local school, etc. Why interpret this as "women hurting themselves?"

While I never said this was about "women hurting themselves," I did suggest that it was a pretty big problem that we live in a society where people don't feel safe with the food system (or the public school system, etc) and women are feeling the need to take up the slack themselves, unpaid. I want to see a world where the food system is safe and the schools are good - for everyone - such that we don't HAVE to resort to DIY. This is not a criticism of the women who do it, it's a criticism of the system. 

What role do schools have to teach some of these domestic skills if kids can't learn them from their parents? I grew up in another country and we did cooking/sewing once a week for 2 years during what would be 5th/6th grade (before we hit any heavy academics). Still have my recipe book from the class 30+ years ago! And we even learned to make jam. Some of my kids' friends' parents in this area don't seem to have the first clue about how to sew on a button, hem trousers, make a white sauce etc I think some of these skills would be more useful in the long run than excessive hand- wringing over standardized tests.

I think bringing back home-ec (and not just the kind that means mixing boxed cake mix) would be a great idea! In fact, it seems to be an idea that's gaining traction lately - I recently read a New York Times editorial about bringing back home-ec. 

Just chiming in to note that there are a few of us men who enjoy these domestic chores, too. I discovered a few years ago that I like to cook (and I now do the cooking in our house), and I branched out from there into baking desserts and bread. Your article inspired me: next, I'm going to try to make my own jelly!

Awesome! Good luck:) 

I'm hoping that, with our generation and the next, we can really break down the gender labels on different kinds of work, and everyone can do what they enjoy! 

I'm a recent grad from a small liberal arts college where DIY is all the rage among the self-identified feminists. I'm glad you wrote about this, because I think about it often and haven't heard it talked about much. I've always thought of the DIY movement as powerful for these women because it feels so anti-technology and anti-corporate (I lump it in my head with all my dorm mates who owned turn-tables and listened to indie labels on vinyl). Though I realize that its largely symbolic, I think it is useful as a way to participate in a discourse in which we are struggling to figure out what it means to live in this new world of technology (at least im still trying to figure it out!). And I guess the shift for women to domestic DIY is an easy enough path because those actions are so historically tied to the female/private sphere. What I always wondered though is why I never saw a similar push among men. Are women more affected by capitalism in the private sphere? Do men express the same ideas through less "feminine" things like music and the slow-food movement? Have you seen a similar movement that wasn't so tied to women specifically? Thanks for any response!

So many good questions in here. I think you're totally right about this. Women are taking on domestic DIY more than men in part because it's historically tied to the female sphere and that perception hasn't totally changed yet. It's also deeply tied to nurturing/caregiving work, which is still by and large seen by society as feminine. I think it's awesome that we're giving these things the respect they deserve, and I hope men will continue to get involved. I think men ARE involved in a lot of aspects of the DIY movement - urban farming, music, etc - just not as much (yet) in the domestic sphere, for all the reasons mentioned above. 

OK, looks like I'm out of time. Thanks so much for all your awesome questions - sorry I couldn't answer them all. If anyone wants to get in touch with me, my blog is, and my email address is up there. Thanks again! 

In This Chat
Emily Matchar
Emily Matchar writes about culture for places like Salon, Gourmet, Men's Journal, Babble and many others. She's currently working on a book about the "new domesticity," to be published by Free Press in 2013. She lives with her husband in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and blogs about women and the new domesticity at
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