Domesticity and Feminism

Domesticity and Feminism

I woke up this morning thinking about a comment that Leah, over at Struggle in a Bungalow Kitchen posted on her website. Apparently, by blogging about domestic life, and in particular, blogging about cooking a nice dinner for her husband and young son on Valentine’s Day, she called down the Voice of the Disapproving Feminists upon her head. Apparently, choosing to love one’s family, and to think about the ways one cares for them, and to blog about this “does next to nothing to promote woman as a healthy, vitally aware, culturally meaningful being in the world.”

Clearly, something about this stuck in my craw, because I woke up this morning wondering why if domestic life is so unimportant, if building a home is such a culturally insignificant act, why is it that when war breaks out, the first thing that happens is that the homes are destroyed, the women are raped, and domestic life itself is destroyed? I woke up thinking of the women of the Sudan, of the women of the Balkans, of those women in every war zone who are the first targets. Why does domesticity itself seem to pose such a threat?

Part of what interests me so in this subject, is that as someone who came late to the joys that a solid homelife can bring, and as a person who has subsequently lost my domestic life, I find myself in a sort of no mans land. I was the girl who never wanted to get married. Married life, as far as I could tell from my mother and her siblings, lead only to unhappiness and ruin. My Aunt Lynn was so miserable in her marriage, and felt so incapable of escaping, that she quietly drank herself to death standing at her sink, looking out over the willowy creek. As far as I could tell, marriage led to death — death of the mind, death of creativity, death of all hope. I was going to be free. I was going to have my own money and my own career and I was going to travel and be adventurous and sleep around and in general, I was going to live like a man. And for a long time I did. And for the most part, I liked that life.

And then I found myself at the end of a very difficult and disheartening PhD program, with an unsold, unpublished novel and thousands of dollars in student loans. And Patrick was struggling to make ends meet, and they seemed to be not only hiring writers in the computer industry, but paying them real money, and so we decided to pool our resources, and see if together we couldn’t get a little bit ahead of the curve. Neither of us meant to wind up living together, and we were very leery of it. Family life had never been a source of succor, but rather, had always been a danger zone, a place where you never knew when you’d come home and someone would be furious with you for something you hadn’t even known you’d done. And so it was with great trepidation that we moved in together, and we spent a lot of time wondering whether we weren’t just big losers. I mean, who lives with a sibling when you’re in your mid-thirties? We made many jokes about fearing we’d become one of those elderly Irish sibling couples you find sometimes out in the country, still living in the frame house in which they were raised, comfortable enough that they just never made the move to get married.

And then I discovered that I had a talent for domestic life. I was good at it. I liked it. I liked spending my Saturday mornings doing the shopping, thinking about what we’d eat that week, buying organic chickens and veggies at our local farmer’s market. I discovered I was good at keeping track of the bills and that there is a very specific pleasure, particularly if one grew up with parents who were always on the verge of bankruptcy, in paying the bills on time, in living within one’s means. And after a few hiccups, and a few fights, after the establishment of our core household rule: State Your Need — Patrick and I discovered that home could indeed be a place or refuge, a place where you could come home at the end of a long day, a day in which you’d navigated the various minefields fo corporate life, and that home could be the place where there was someone who loved you, and who’d listen to your day, and who would cook a nice dinner that you could eat together, and that no one would attack you out of the blue. Considering where we’d come from, this was miraculous. It was a gift.

Building a domestic life with my brother was quite possibly the most radical thing I’ve ever done. It was a little strange, a little unconventional, but it worked. We were happy, for the most part. We were safe. We were making economic progress. We were rebuilding a world that shattered when we were just children and out parents divorced and our youngest brother died of cancer and our father went bankrupt and our mother just never recovered from the blow. Learning to care for another person, learning to like caring for another person was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. I learned that you could love, freely and from the heart, and that this enlarged your life. That this act of choosing to love another person, this act of choosing to care for someone and to build a home, rather than trapping you in my Aunt Lynn’s kitchen with the hidden vodka bottle under the sink, actually set you free. That it allowed you to go back out into the world and to accomplish things. That it could make you brave. And if that isn’t a “healthy, vitally aware, [and] culturally meaningful” act, then I don’t know what is.

8 thoughts on “Domesticity and Feminism

  1. You had become like Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. All you had to do was adopt a red-headed orphan.

    I think I was like you too–partly. I wasn’t going to live the same story as so many other women–but that never stopped me from being domestic for myself. My parents are also divorced. My mother ran her house much better than I do, but she had nothing else to occupy her mind other than soap operas and dreams of romance (and of other men.) So went the marriage.

    I’ve been under a lot of brain strain lately, so thanks for writing this soothing, reassuring, heartfelt, gentle yet feisty domestic manifesto.

  2. What a beautiful essay, Charlotte. I find it both very moving and thought-provoking. Though the circumstances of my life are different, I could relate to your description of growing up in a house that was more “danger zone” than home. As an adult, I too have learned from scratch how to create a home: safe, peaceful, cheerful, my husband’s and my cherished space together. I hope that one day you will find true love again. And I feel quite certain you will, because there is nothing like your gifts for the domestic, delight in the everyday and capacity for friendship to create a home for abiding love.

  3. Thanks for the kind words — that person really made me angry — between the glib elision of domesticity and oppression, and that condescending academic tone — well, she hit all my buttons. It’s only people who could take the concept of “home” for granted who don’t seem to understand what an act of heroism it can be to build a home. I spent yesterday rereading Elizabeth Ehrlich’s lovely memoir “Miriam’s Kitchen” about how her love and admiration for her in-laws, Holocaust survivors, influenced her gradual move toward keeping a kosher kitchen. It’s a terrific book about the political and spiritual and ethical decisions that go into building an authentic domestic life.

  4. Here’s a coincidence. I just happen to have a copy of “Miriam’s Kitchen” on my desk, the front cover folded back so that the opening line is always on display: “Work and house and errands and physical fitness and activities and things. The expediencies of every day. This cannot be all there is.” I agree with her, but find it curious that she doesn’t mention love, love of her immediate family. Is it because that’s almost too sacred to mention, or has that just become the backdrop to her life? She goes on to recognize her need for ritual, saying that it “contains a precious substance, though I cannot name it.” (Other writers have come closer to naming it.) Without passionate belief, she makes dedication to this ancient ritual a lifestyle choice. Though she says it’s not an empty vessel, I find myself wondering, without the faith of her ancestors, just how far it will go in fulfilling her, and am tempted to re-read it in order to find out. Oh, I think it’s a terrific book too, don’t get me wrong, but time and our own experiences can formulate new questions to bring to old favorites.

  5. I think there is nothing more liberating than building a safe, loving domestic “homeland,” where others are welcome. Liberation is nothing more than being able to do what makes you happy, whatever that may be. Paige

  6. Beautiful post.

    Like you, I was going to be a Career Woman and turn my back on all things domestic. I tried, sort of. And then I realized that I loved nothing more than cooking a great meal and drinking a bottle of superb wine with my husband in the beautiful home we have made together.


  7. Hi Charlotte,

    I was just reading a post over at Exigence: Time Demands and was surprised to see that you had left a comment on the Schiavo case. It sounds like you know A.V.

    I don’t know her, except via email.

    You see (and maybe you know this already) but she was the “Disapproving Feminist” who wrote me the post-Valentine’s Day e-mail

    Surprising? Not surprising? It just struck me as a funny coincidence.

  8. Lovely essay. I always thought the whole idea of feminism was for women to be able to have a choice, and not be made to feel badly for the choice they took.

    I too am domestic at the moment – keeping my small business running but in the background instead of full time. My fiance loves coming home to a place that is nurturing and relaxing. We have a great division of labor that works! I love making friends and family who come here feel cared for. I’m good at it and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of but I know there are some who would think I’m wasting my life.

    I don’t know how long this ‘resting’ will last, eventually I may decide I want to kick up my business into a higher gear but for now I’m happy making a home.

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