I just finished reading Shannon Hayes’s Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture and had to comment. A magazine had recommended it as a good book to understand that lifestyle perspective, and as someone who increasingly tries to live more frugally and sustainably I was intrigued.
And bitterly disappointed.
It is clear the author has a chip on her shoulder, and her book is one way of proving that the lifestyle she advocates is not only good, but the only good choice. Her perspective is particularly interesting to me because she and I are the same age, both with two daughters (her oldest appears to be about the same age as mine; her younger daughter is a couple of years older) and we both have a Ph.D. And yet, our perspectives on the world are vastly different. Unlike me, she appears to have had high expectations for income and status, and apparently expected to be leading a much different lifestyle as an adult, which may explain the defensiveness and random petty criticisms of society that pervades the book. (I understand that modern society has much to be criticized, but some of her targets are rather benign.)
Before becoming a radical homemaker, Hayes mentions having written a paper in college discussing why she believed–at the time–that children were better off in full-time daycare. She also mentions six-figure incomes and new cars frequently in her book, as if that was reality for most Americans. I can’t say that I ever expected a six-figure income or new cars on a regular basis or knew anyone who did growing up. And, even in college I had plans to work part-time while my children were little. (Granted, I also thought going to graduate school was a complete waste of time and as a freshman, swore I would get a real job as soon as I graduated so it’s not like I can’t identify with changing my perspective.) However, one of Hayes’s more telling comments in the book comes about halfway through when she writes “[Radical Homemakers] ascribe to alternative methods to teach their children, believing that a true education is procured by the active learner, not delivered by the tenured professor” (160). Hayes says earlier in the book that she never received an interview, presumably for a tenure-track job, after graduating. Pair that information with the sentence above, and her resentment is clear.
She appears to channel that resentment into a surprising of time discussing (or dissing) education, arguing at times that her education (college and graduate school) and those of others like her did not “adequately prepare her for the life she wanted to pursue” (172). That’s all fine and well–except that what one chooses to learn in college is up to the individual. College students choose their own majors. And, if your goal is learning and not necessarily a degree, it’s possible to take classes in agriculture and animal husbandry, and to take classes elsewhere that teach one how to sew or knit or preserve food. It’s just silly to complain about it when one’s education is in one’s own hands after graduating from high school. The problem isn’t the colleges, but the individuals in her book not knowing what they really wanted to do. And in any case, her focus really should be on encouraging people to learn basic homemaking skills and to teach them to their children rather than railing against universities for not teaching people how to knit when people are actually paying to study biology or history.
There were many other areas of the book that struck me as badly-argued (i.e., when in her short section on health insurance, she quoted a Christian Scientist at length to support her [non-religious] belief that health insurance isn’t necessary and then mentioned that they did have health insurance for their children without any explanation as to why it was ok then). However, the comment below exemplifies her black and white approach in the book (bolding and text color added for emphasis):
In one method, the convention of our culture, substantial money is earned and then spent on purchasing life’s necessities. In the other method, significantly less money is earned, and basic necessities are produced or otherwise procured. Packages from the mall, plastic-wrapped food, designer labels and television sets are seldom seen inside these households. Rather, they are filled with books, simmering pots, some dirty dishes, musical instruments, seedlings, wood shavings, maybe some hammers or drills, sewing machines, knitting baskets, canned peaches and tomato sauce, jars of sauerkraut, freezers with hunted or locally raised meat, and potted herbs. Outside the door there are no multiple new cars or manicured lawns. Whether in the county or in the city, one is likely to find a garden plot or potted tomatoes, fruit trees, bicycles, probably a used car, shovels, spades, compost bins, chickens, maybe a wandering goat or some other livestock, and laundry blowing in the breeze. These people are producing their life, not buying it. (208-209)
Now here’s the interesting part. Although I wouldn’t define our income level as “significantly less” (less than who?) or myself as “radical,” her description of the “Radical Homemaker” home sounds very much like my own. All the things that are true of my household are in red:
Rather, they are filled with books, simmering pots, some dirty dishes, musical instruments, seedlings, wood shavings, maybe some hammers or drills, sewing machines, knitting baskets, canned peaches and tomato sauce, jars of sauerkraut, freezers with hunted or locally raised meat, and potted herbs. Outside the door there are no multiple new cars or manicured lawns. Whether in the county or in the city, one is likely to find a garden plot or potted tomatoes, fruit trees, bicycles, probably a used car, shovels, spades, compost bins, chickens, maybe a wandering goat or some other livestock, and laundry blowing in the breeze.
But, I also work a part-time job, P works a full-time job as a tenure-track professor (the kind that “delivers” information! the horror!), and our income is substantial–though by no means the six-figures that she keeps tossing around, as if such salaries were commonplace. Perhaps they are in her circle. No one in my family made that much, with the possible exception of an aunt and uncle who primarily heat their house with a wood-burning stove for which they chop their own firewood, and who raised chickens in their backyard and sold the eggs, donating the profits to charity. His full-time job is as a waterfowl biologist for the state; she is a therapist. Likewise, no one in my circle of family and friends find gardening, sewing, knitting and the like to be “alternative.” Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest, but gardening is commonplace, as is canning vegetables and the like. (Though, apparently the above-mentioned aunt, who like Hayes grew up on the East Coast, was mystified when my Midwestern relatives asked her if she “put up” [referring to canning]. She said she assumed that these seemingly proper ladies didn’t mean “put out,” but she couldn’t think of anything else they might be referring to. LOL!)
My biggest gripe with the book is that she draws hard and fast lines between her radical homemakers and the rest of the world. Radical Homemakers = good. The rest = bad. Do you make money from a (conventional) job? You’re exploiting resources and/or are ultimately reliant on someone’s labors (p. 206). Are you a Radical Homemaker whose parents are paying your school loans or letting you borrow their car because you don’t own your own? That’s just fine, and never mind the fact that you are ultimately reliant on someone’s labors–assuming, of course, that your parents aren’t independently wealthy and have to work conventional jobs in order to earn the money that is paying off the Radical Homemaker’s loans. Apparently secondary exploitation is just fine.
In the end, the author’s defensiveness and (subconscious?) resentment has not done the book any favors. It will undoubtedly be popular among those looking for validation of their lifestyle (assuming that someone is criticizing them for it to begin with), but it does very little for those of us who are looking to balance a fulfilling “conventional” career with the domestic skills that foster sustainability and independence from our consumer culture.