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From New Urbanism to New Domesticity

“Women’s work” is threatening to become trendy, or so a few recent books would suggest. Apparently the “Hipster Housewives” are taking the crunchy movement to its next step: New Domesticity. Cooking. crafting, and cloth-diapering are just some of the ways that cosmopolitan young ladies are reclaiming the home. But is this anything more than a fad? The answer, I think, is maybe. If the “New Domesticity” doesn’t manage to become something more than a Pinterest and Etsy side-hobby, crafting and making designer cupcakes, then it won’t manage to leave much of a societal footprint. It might be a better use of time than its competition, but it would still not be terribly noteworthy on the larger scale. But there may be a larger perspective that can make use of the New Domesticity.

We’ve written a good bit about Allan Carlson’s project on the politics and economics of the family. His thesis is simple: industrialism killed the family by transforming the home from a center of production into a site of exclusive consumption. As such, the natural movement was towards individualism and egalitarianism, in opposition to the natural family and most traditional religious cultures. That women would want to stop having children and become full-time workers was completely predictable and, given the economic necessities, wholly understandable. That the home would basically become a hotel was just as reasonable. The entire force of the society was against it.

One of the more curious expressions of “Third Ways” which Dr. Carlson has highlighted are the Swedish Socialist Housewives. These women felt that they could only truly be women if they were able to be protected from the forces of industrial capitalism. They looked to a socialist government to create a sort of domestic sphere for them to produce distinctively as women. This movement failed, of course, because it lacked a coherent foundation for its ideals and because “feminism” eventually placed less value on women being distinctively women and more value on them being equal with men. But the thought that “women’s work” is a “women’s rights” issue is an interesting parallel to some of the New Domesticity ideas. For instance, Rachel Wilkerson summarizes one New Domestic writer:

Last fall, I read Radical Homemakers, a book by Shannon Hayes that puts forth a feminist philosophy I don’t think most of us learned in our women’s studies classes. At the risk of overly simplifying the message, here’s a brief overview: Hayes argues that instead of relying on a man, modern women now rely on The Man—that is, to be independent from our male partners, we have become dependent on our employers who we know do not always have our best interests at heart. And in our pursuit of financial independence, we must rely on cheap convenience products that are bad for our health and the environment, and that are often made by low-wage workers. According to the book, radical homemakers

“… are not the brand of feminists seeking security through economic independence…. In most cases, they view ‘economic independence’ as an imaginary condition; if a wife, say, is reliant upon her husband’s paycheck, he, in turn, is dependent upon the vicissitudes or even the whims of his employer. They are both vulnerable if their life skills are limited to what they can do for a paycheck. They are more stable if the paycheck is only a small percentage of the livelihood, and life skills, increased self-reliance, community, and family networks supply the rest…. These homemakers have evolved a more sophisticated view of what constitutes an economy and they have surrendered a false sense of independence to embrace genuine interdependence.

“… It is only natural that many feminists, working in the context of a power struggle between the sexes, suggest that the only way to achieve equality is to exit the home. The trouble is, however, that everyone still needs a home… the power struggle that is alleviated when both husband and wife become working professionals is merely transferred to someone lower on the social ladder.

“For there to be true social egalitarianism, then the work of keeping a home must be valued for its contribution of the welfare to all.”

Ms. Wilkerson goes on to make some helpful qualifications to the New Domestic conversation, but there’s something to these excerpts that she has provided. Women don’t need to be “independent” of men, but they certainly do need protection from being dominated by either “men” or “the Man.” For women to truly champion their sex, they need to champion their nature. And while they should subject certain societal assumptions to careful scrutiny, they should always keep in mind the need to have a distinctively womanly economic calling. That is exactly the kind of feminism that is needed.

Another interesting historical parallel which Dr. Carlson has pointed out in the past is Catherine Beecher’s The American Woman’s Home This book was essentially a “New Domestic” manifesto for its time, arguing that women needed to be highly trained and educated in order to run a home and then going on to begin that training. There’s a good amount of 19th century oddity in the book, not least of which is the strange view of health and nutrition common to the day. But still, the main idea is sound. “Women’s work” ought not to be demeaned but rather exalted. It’s hardly easy, and it is essential.

And so the New Domesticity needs to make its central aim, not merely the empowering of women, but the empowering of the home as a foundational component of social economy. This will require a matrix of religious and philosophical convictions, as well as a community of friends and family who are supportive of the project. But it’s a noble goal. And if a little trendiness can help start the conversation, then by all means, bring it on.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.