When I was 10 years old, I read a book that quite literally changed my life.
It would be nice to say this book was the Bible or something similarly elevating, but it wasn’t. It was “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean George.
In a nutshell, the book describes the fictional adventures of a boy who runs away from home in New York City and spends a year living off the land in the Catskill Mountains, hunting, trapping and gathering. From the first time I read this book, I wanted to embrace the primitive and basic skills that Sam Gribley taught himself. He was living the ultimate in independence.
That book explains, in a huge way, my adult presence on a 20-acre homestead in north Idaho, where we raise meat, milk, fruits and vegetables and strive for as much self-sufficiency as is possible in this modern age. We’re not living off the land – I doubt many people ever can anymore – but we’re doing the next best thing.
For a long time, we were viewed as peculiar and eccentric for embracing this lifestyle. Except for a limited group of like-minded oddballs, everyone else thought we were nuts. Why would anyone voluntarily can garlic, shovel manure, milk cows, grow wheat and make cheese?
So it was with great interest that I read an article this week in the Washington Post called “The New Domesticity: Fun, empowering, or a step back for American women?”
The article details how an increasing number of urban women are embracing old-fashioned domestic skills such as canning, baking bread, knitting, sewing, etc. “Around the country,” notes Emily Matchar, “women my age  are embracing the very homemaking activities our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shucked off. We’re heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.”
Well, it’s about time.
The tone of Ms. Matchar’s article is one of combined pleasure and bewilderment. She clearly enjoys learning skills of an earlier age, while at the same time frets lest women should come to relish domesticity too much. “Could this ‘new domesticity’ start to look like old-fashioned obligation?” she wonders. “[I]s it a moral and environmental necessity?” For decades, the feminist perspective has been that earning the money to buy organic raspberry jam is the epitome of empowerment for woman. Now feminists worry that heading back to the kitchen to make that jam is a betrayal of “the cause.”
There’s a sense of shock in the article, as if admitting that women liking domestic duties is embarrassing and humiliating and, possibly, temporary. Fortunately, such distressingly old-fashioned interests are being interpreted through a good progressive lens, namely “resistance to industrial food and its environment-defiling way.” Yet Ms. Matchar acknowledges that women are unquestionably enjoying this traditionally feminine side of themselves.
Not to worry. The article quotes Megan Paska, who teaches urban homesteading and “pre-industrial skills” in New York City. “Women find this lifestyle very empowering,” she says. “Some people assume that this is a backlash against the feminist movement, but I see it as a continuation of it.”
Yes, heaven forbid that traditionally feminine skills such as sewing or canning should threaten the feminist movement. Whatever women do, they must continue to support “the cause.”
For too long, manual labor and “pre-industrial skills” alike have been dismissed with contempt as unworthy of anyone except the dim, the uneducated and those who lack the ambition to do anything better … in short, the lower classes. Even raising one’s own children was unworthy. It didn’t matter how many high-powered female executives left their firms and rediscovered the joys of the home; they were simply dismissed as traitors to the progressive, feminist cause.
Even now, housewives who prefer to can their own tomatoes are viewed as eccentric. Why can your own when you could be buying bland factory-canned tomatoes instead? Rather than encouraging boys in their natural proclivity to hammer nails and build treehouses, parents buy their sons computer games that keep them in the house and glued to a screen, so they learn nothing practical.
The end result, of course, is generations of Americans who can no longer “make do.” We can’t sew our own hems, tune our own cars, can our own fruit, or wire our own homes. As for old and cherished skills such as milking a cow and making butter and cheese – well, let’s just say I’m building a writing career upon those skills because so few people know how to do them.
That’s why, as a housewife, a prepper and a homesteader, I applaud any and every attempt to learn urban food production and “pre-industrial skills.” It has long been a lament of mine that the basic survival skills of 5,000 years of civilization have been catastrophically lost in the last 100 years. Personally, I think this rediscovery of domesticity is fabulous.
After decades of extreme dependency on others to provide us with our most basic needs, people are learning dependency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Such dependency leaves us vulnerable and ignorant for coping with hard times. Therefore, people, both urban and rural, are struggling to recapture “pre-industrial skills” that have been virtually lost.
I view this trend with pleasure. The “new domesticity” should not be seen as a threat to feminism, but rather a delightful addition to femininity (and masculinity). Traditional skills can be very fulfilling, even when they’re gender-specific.
But it still makes me chuckle how feminists can’t admit that women just might enjoy traditionally feminine things, like the domestic arts. Instead, feminists feel compelled to attribute this interest to something solidly progressive, such as resisting “industrial food and its environment-defiling way.”
However, I see it as something deeper. Humans are, after all, remarkably prescient creatures. The dark line on the horizon of the economy has been noticed by many, even if only subconsciously. That’s why the “new domesticity” is making a virtue out of a necessity as people strive for greater independence.
Hey – however you get there, sister.