New Domesticity

When you dive into the past, especially the history of women, you won’t go far before you run smack into the idea of domesticity. Domesticity belonged to women–the word encapsulated both what duties women had and the ideal of womanhood in the 19th century. Women were to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. A woman’s place was in the home, taking part in tasks and chores that maintained and fulfilled her piety and purity. Housework was one such “uplifting” task.

The idea of domesticity arose in the early 19th century when the growth of new industries, businesses and professions created a new class of Americans: the middle class. This new middle class did not have to make what it needed to survive. Men produced goods and performed services outside the home while women and children stayed home. A man going off to work out in the rough public world served to create the view that a man alone could support his family. Women were far too delicate to be out in the world. They needed to stay home and make the home a refuge for men from the unstable, immoral business world.
Even as more women moved out of the home and into the workplace in the 20th century, many of the ideas of domesticity and the equation of women with domestic work remained.

All of this was on my mind recently when I read a piece by Steph Larsen on Grist about the links between the DIY lifestyle (sewing and preserving food for instance) of today and domesticity of the past. Larsen recounts chaffing at her mom’s declaration of how domestic she’d become after she serves them a meal made up of foods she’d grown, harvested, preserved, and cooked. Many of my female friends preserve and cook for their families.  And I occasionally feel the same sense of unease that Larsen recounts as I happily make dinner for my husband many evenings and pack his lunch in the morning. Am I betraying my feminist forebearers? Or is somehow the fact that this is a choice rather than something women must do make it okay?

My desire to cook comes from a place of real enjoyment. As a kid, my mom hated to cook and so we ate many meals out in restaurants or from a box in the freezer. To my mom, cooking was drudgery. I feel the opposite but not because I feel any pressure to put food on the table. Cooking for me is a reprieve. One of the few things I do in my life that yields immediate results. Writing means waiting months if not years to see your efforts in its final form. Cooking and food are also, for me, a way of supporting local farmers and combatting an agricultural system I think is broken.

So while domesticity continues to include a body of home tasks associated with women and women alone, maybe the doors on the cage are more open now.

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