Record: Emily Matchar, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).
Matchar is a freelance journalist who has written for many prominent publications. This is her first book.
Matchar’s book is a lively look at several trends among mostly middle class, white, politically progressive young women in the United States. These trends, which range from cooking from scratch with local, organic food, to handicrafts, to at-home businesses, to homeschooling, are all illustrative of a larger movement among these young women toward what Matchar calls “the New Domesticity.”
Matchar seeks in the book both to describe the movement and to assess it. The description comes largely through anecdotes about various young women who are cooking, crafting, networking around homemaking, and teaching their own kids. Her assessment includes both historical and analytical components.
Her historical sections aim to situate the current fashion for neo-domesticity within the larger sweep of American history of things like housewifery, food preparation, and female employment. The conclusion drawn from these historical surveys is usually that the past wasn’t rosy like the nostalgic fantasies many new domestics entertain, and that modern trends like factory manufacture and feminism have actually done a lot of good in the world. But even if the historical self-understanding of those engaged in these retro movements is naive, the phenomenon is affecting the lives of millions of Americans. Why?
To answer that question, Matchar unpacks six factors:
First, she sees the new domesticity as part of a “rising sense of distrust” among Americans of all political persuasions of both government and corporate America, especially when it comes to food. Government programs which began out of progressive concerns for the broader community have become inflexible bureaucracies beholden to the food industry, and the food industry seems to care nothing for American health so long as it can maximize profits. This animus against private industry’s provision of and government’s regulation of food extends to other domains as well, from health care (illustrated by the growing preference for home birth and natural remedies) to education (illustrated by homeschooling).
Second, she sees the new domesticity as part of the larger environmentalist movement. Big Business seems to care nothing for the environment in its short-sighted rush to exploit all resources to make money, and Big Government seems to be doing little to stop environmental degradation. More and more Americans, frustrated at their powerlessness against such massive entities, are turning inward, making daily decisions to try to limit their carbon footprint and to live simpler, more natural, less environmentally destructive lives.
Third, Matchar sees a good bit of the New Domesticity as a logical reaction to the economic reality of our time. The Great Recession that began in 2008 has hit young Americans especially hard, many of whom have been unable to find good jobs even with a college education. Many of these young people are turning to do-it-yourself, simple living as much out of necessity as by choice. Again, as Big Business and Big Government have failed to provide good jobs, these young entrepreneurs are trying to do it on their own.
Fourth, many young Americans from privileged backgrounds spent their childhoods being told to follow their dreams and to aim for a life of significance and personal satisfaction. The typical 9 to 5 job in an office, even a corner office, just doesn’t seem attractive to many young people seeking more out of life than financial security. Young women feel especially alienated from corporate culture, with its inflexible maternity and childcare policies and its equation of success with longer and longer working hours. More and more of these women take it as a given that the feminist dream of “having it all” in the sense of a fulfilling career and a happy family is an illusion, and they are choosing family over career.
Fifth, Matchar points to a “re-skilling movement,” a broad trend within American culture toward reclaiming the manual crafts that were taken over largely by machines in the twentieth century. Here is where the nostalgic pseudo-history comes in especially strongly, as young Americans long for the good old days when omni-competent pioneers lived self-sufficiently off the land as they made everything they needed.
Finally, Matchar notes a final and much-discussed trend toward more and more intensive parenting. The inspiration for this trend again comes from a growing distrust of corporate and government expertise. This distrust manifests itself in a rejection of hospital births, of medical vaccinations, and of institutional schooling. Parents, especially mothers, take upon themselves more and more of the responsibility for child rearing that previous generations had shared with the wider community, and they think of doing this as a moral imperative.
Matchar’s book unfolds topically, and in every chapter she combines both the descriptive and the analytic modes I’ve summarized here to reach an overall conclusion that is both intrigued by and critical of these various do-it-yourself trends.
I’d like to make two points about this engaging book. First of all, this is journalism, not academic scholarship. Matchar’s Harvard education shines through in her historical sections, which read like very good college papers on the various phenomena she’s recounting. She has read some good secondary sources, and she summarizes their conclusions accurately and with panache. The uninitiated will find these sections fascinating, though academic historians will find her treatments pretty standard issue.
Her many anecdotes are likewise delightful to read. But social scientists looking for rigorous methodology that can help us understand the degree to which the various trends she’s chronicling have penetrated the American populace will be disappointed. Matchar basically tells a lot of stories, and it is unclear to what degree they are collectively representative of anything. No doubt many young progressive white women are drawn to cooking from scratch, needlework, home birth, Etsy, and unschooling, but how many? And to what extent? Is it so easy to distinguish these trends among self-consciously liberal hipsters from the exact same trends among conservative white Christians? If not, what is really going on here?
My second point pertains to her six-fold analysis. I personally agreed with every one of her six causal factors, but to my mind they often only re-describe rather than explain. Why are so many Americans of all political persuasions increasingly disaffected with big government and big business? Why the alienation, the knee-jerk rejection of communal solutions to common problems, the yearning for manual skill and intensive parenting?
My own answer to such questions would be historical. There is not the space here to lay it out in detail, but in general I’d stress two points. First I would note that this tension between individualism and communalism has been one of the abiding themes of American history from our earliest colonial settlements, and it has manifest itself repeatedly in movements romanticizing homespun goodness. Many wonderful books exist on this theme, but two classic standouts are Wilfred McClay’s The Masterless and Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace. The point here is that the phenomenon Matchar chronicles is nothing new. Americans of English Protestant descent and their imitators have been idealizing and pining for the good old days of colonial purity for a long, long time.
Second, I would note the lingering legacy of the Cold War. To my mind it marks the great divide in mainstream American political consciousness regarding the virtue of communal solutions to common problems. As I explain in my own more focused book on the homeschooling movement, the Cold War created in the minds of millions of Americans an unbreakable connection between government and totalitarianism. There has long been a libertarian streak in the American political soul rooted in the Tidewater settlements, but it has historically been held in check by an equally strong communitarian streak emanating from Puritanism. Since the Cold War the communitarian impulse has been in retreat even as economic and technological transformations have made it more and more difficult for individuals to thrive on their own frontier-style. Most of Matchar’s young women are not thinking of their lives in these terms, but their instinct to distrust institutional authority must have come from somewhere. This is where I would locate it.
Finally, I agree with Matchar that it is unfortunate that most of the women trying to recover the old ways and make a living at it will be unable to maintain the do-it-yourself lifestyle for long given the realities of 21st century technology and economics. The future only looks worse as the robots get better and better at doing white collar work. Though it is not a viable option for most people over the long term, the instinct to retreat from modern civilization to a more small-scale, simpler, familial way of life is completely understandable.