Radical Homemakers
Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture
Shannon Hayes
Left to Write Press, Richmondville, New York (USA), 2010 (2010)
300 pages, including index.

A lot has changed in the way things are done in the average household in our advanced societies, but perhaps not the way most of us think about it, or at least that is one of Shannon Hayes' main points in this book. Thus, we tell ourselves that women always played a secondary role in society, their activity being confined to the household. Yet, it is far from clear that this is indeed historically accurate. Not only did women during the Middle Ages played a far more active role than we usually imagine, but also the relationship between men and women at home was not always as unequal as it is usually portrayed:

It is natural that men today assume that their life path will be defined by the struggle for power, as history by and large only tells us such stories. We rarely learn about the glories of great egalitarian and peaceful cultures; our stories center on how one culture or hero has "won a victory" over another. And in most instances, the central characters in these tales were almost exclusively men. Even our prevalent religious traditions have taught us that the gender of the almighty and powerful God is male.

We didn't always live this way. Human civilization was not always defined by the quest for power and the worship of the powerful. In fact, for a large part of human history (about 10,000 years), egalitarian cultures were the norm. While there may have been a division of labor between the sexes, difference did not imply superiority or inferiority. That is because, according to feminist scholar Riane Eisler, men and women worked together in these early cultures as partners.

Evidence from several Neolithic societies and the Catal Huyuk (one of civilization's first towns, 6500 BC—5000 BC) indicates that worship centered around the ability to create, rather than to destroy. A common religious image from this period depicts a birthing woman. Eisler tells us that all of the cultures that had significant technological breakthroughs had one common feature —they worshipped a goddess. An important distinction she points out, however, is that while these cultures were matrilineal (meaning they traced family history through the mother), they were not matriarchical or patriarchical. They did not rank one half of humanity over the other. Rather, Eisler says, they organized their society on a partnership model, or what Korten today calls "Earth Community". By such an orientation, human partnerships lay the foundation for creative cooperation, in which the aim of society is to grow the potential of the whole, rather than to expand the power of a few.

(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, pp. 24-25)

The more anthropologists find about our past, the more they realize that: first, until relatively recent times, most women did play a role beyond the walls of their homes, assisting even with many economic activities; and, second, men also played an important role in homemaking. So, where do these ideas come from? Chances are that popular culture has something to do with it. We have grown accustomed to seeing images of wealthy women who stayed at home enjoying themselves and doing pretty much nothing, but never leaving the confines of their homes. They simply gave orders to their servants. That was supposed to be normal daily life in pre-modern times, except... well, except that most women were certainly not rich. Plenty of them helped in the fields. And not only that, but we also tend to view things from a contemporary perspective, as if men signed up for a particular line of work and that is all they did, as it tends to happen nowadays. Yet, we miss the point. The extreme division of labor that we see these days is something that has been promoted and deepened by capitalism, but not necessarily the way things always were. Sure, centuries ago men had a particular line of work (blacksmith, carpenter...) but the division of labor was not as clear cut as these days, especially since most households were self-sufficient to a great extent. In other words, both men and women contributed to the household equally, albeit perhaps taking on different jobs: the woman might cook, sew, clean and raise the kids, as well as help with the garden and the chickens; the man might be in charge of making furniture, collect the firewood and work the leather; finally, the kids would help in whatever they could. Those of us who were born and raised in countries where capitalism and industrialization did not arrive until relatively recent times have heard stories from our parents and grandparents that sound a lot like it.

So, when did all this change? Surprisingly enough, the change happened not so long ago. For the most part, it happened in the 20th century. More to the point, a good part of these changes did not happen until the second half of that century, starting in the 1950s in plenty of cases. That is where we can place the birth of the two-income family and the commercialization of the family home:

It is not hyperbole to say that we live in a society where corporations are fundamentally directing, if not ruling, our economy. They have become the ultimate dominators in an Empire where the masses have been lured into believing that corporate survival is essential to the well-being of the common folks. However, for-profit corporations are not structured to benefit the welfare of society; they are structured to make money. "Under the prevailing interpretation of corporate law," policy analysts Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray explain, "corporations have one primary duty: to make money for shareholders... In pursuit of this one goal, they will freely cast aside concerns about the societies and ecological systems in which they operate." And when women left the home and entered the workforce, the corporations' charge was not to figure out how to accommodate women's needs to make money or to hand them opportunities for creative expression and personal fulfillment. Their intent, their duty, was to find a way to profit from the maneuver.

If the household was to be empty all day, then an assortment of products could be marketed on grounds that they would minimize domestic duties upon returning home, or fill the void left by family members' absence from each other. As women joined men in the workforce, opportunities to spend the paychecks were plentiful, including professional clothing, labor-saving home appliances, entertainment, exercise equipment, luxury vacations and, most significantly, processed foods.

By the 1950s, our nation's food system was rapidly industrializing. Cheap oil made it possible for fresh foods to be available year-round, and factories made it possible to produce canned foods far cheaper and faster than a housewife could do with her surplus garden produce. Once both men and women were working, and no one was home to bag lunches or fix dinner, then an enormous market opened wide. Processed convenience foods flooded the grocery stores, office buildings, gas stations, office supply stores, restaurants, street corners, rest stops and schools. Our dietary habits changed dramatically. In one telling example, US per capita production of high fructose corn syrup, the essential ingredient in most processed and convenience foods, and a major contributor to obesity, was about 0.03 pounds per person per year in 1967. By 1977, that figure had jumped to 9.6 pounds per person per year; by 1987 it was 47.7; by 1997 it was 60.4 pounds per person per year. From 1960-1962, 44.8 percent of the US population was overweight or obese. By the late eighties we crossed the halfway mark, and by 2001 over 66 percent of our population was overweight or obese.

(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, pp. 32-33)

Where the households were the center of people's lives in the old society, the action now moved towards the factory. A rapid process of industrialization led to an increase in commercialization which, in turn seriously eroded the role of women in the household. Men were now gone and had not role to play at home whatsoever. As for women, what could they do if modernization had done away with home gardens, chicken coops and even the need to sew and cook? The following ad is a clear illustration of the social trend described by Hayes:

While men had become cogs in the machine, robotic employees in the assembly line whose sole job is to turn the same screw over and over again, women's role at home was now to pop a new tart into the toaster, mix a couple of boxes and a can of processed food to make "dinner" and drive the kids to and from school. Is it any wonder that, as Hayes maintains, they dreaded their role and started to flee en masse to go out and find a job?

So, as women joined the workforce, things changed even more radically in our societies:

As women's place in the workforce has become the norm in the last fifty years, the American household has changed to accommodate the shift. Agriculture rapidly industrialized and generated highly processed foods that supplanted most home cooking; skills were replaced with products, thrift with income, and time with convenience. As the home became increasingly devoid of enterprise and creativity, few could blame women for fleeing the hearth. However, during the same fifty years, our health, happiness and well-being have also dramatically declined. The abandonment of the kitchen, the loss of personal finance skills despite rising household incomes, the relentless increase in busy-ness and the compulsion to replace emptiness and loneliness with consumer products have put us on course for an ecological, social and cultural train wreck.

Perhaps saddest of all is that Americans seem to have surrendered their entrepeneurial spirit to the god of employment. Success, in our country, is now defined by money earned, by promotions, by continued service to an employer (or by eventually pressing others into service). Our gauge of success and personal worth has become so reliant on external validation that women and men now find it difficult to believe that a life centered around the home can satisfy their needs for personal fulfillment and genuine achievement.

(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, p. 39)

However, none of that is truly part of the essence of American society, as so many people would have us believe:

Americans did not always embrace the corporation as a central axis of our culture. These legal structures first reared their heads in this country when Europeans settled along the East Coast, a process that was overseen by a series of British colonial companies chartered by the crown in order to explore, extract wealth and develop markets in the New World. This arrangement eventually proved unacceptable to the colonists who, at the Boston Tea Party, finally rebelled against the Tea Act of 1773, which was imposed to benefit the financially troubled East India Company, in which the king and members of parliament were personally invested (apparently, history repeats itself with the idea of government bail-outs). Homemakers, notably —the women of the colonies— had determined that they could operate their homes using local resources, and the colonies began a boycott of British goods. Thus empowered, rebels were able to respond to the Tea Act by dumping 90,000 pounds of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor, provoking the revolution that was not just about political independence from the crown, but about economic inidependence from British corporations. The good news here is that we already have a history of confronting corporate control. The bad news is that after overthrowing corporations, we eventually succumbed to them once more.

Corporations regained their foothold in this country as quasi-governmental institutions created through acts of government for the expressed purpose of creating national infrastructure, such as canals or turnpikes. Origially, they were limited in size and were entitled to only limited rights specified within their charters. But slowly, states began loosening their control over the corporate form. Corporations were able to grow bigger, and their legal status eventually devolved from what policy analysts Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray describe as "creatures of the state," "mere business organizations," to "independent entitites... 'persons' with constitutional rights." The legal devolution proceeded to the point where today, explain Drutman and Cray, "they have very little accountability to the public, and the ability of the people to use public institutions, such as governments, to control corporations is largely circumscribed. This weakness of our public institutions has resulted in corporations committing countless social, economic and ecological crimes. "If these corporations were ordinary persons," Drutman and Cray argue, "they would probably be locked up and put away for life for what they had done. In some states, they would even be executed."

(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, pp. 51-52)

This is precisely where I find Hayes' approach a bit insubstantial or, at the very least, misleading. It definitely continues an old tradition of American populism, deeply rooted in an agrarian view of society that owes quite a bit to people like Thomas Jefferson. This American populist tradition tends to view things in terms of "good" and "evil" corporations, failing to realize that all these social changes are actually part of a much larger picture: the transition from an agrarian to an industrial (or even post-industrial) society dominated by capitalism. Thus, the central role of the market and profits, as well as the commercialization of everything in sight, are not so much attributable to "immoral individuals" making the "wrong choices" as to the very essence of the economic system that dominates our lives. But Hayes (like so many other American radicals) refuses to see that. It would be an "anti-American" approach. Instead, her solution to these problems is inspired by The Earth Charter:

  1. Respect and care for the community of life.
  2. Ecological integrity.
  3. Social and economic justice.
  4. Democracy, nonviolence and peace.

The problem, obviously, is not so much with the program she defends, but rather with the lack of ideas about how to implement it. Are we just supposed to win the hearts and minds of people, and expect that large corporations will just sit by and let it all happen? It reminds me of the old utopian socialism, which failed so miserably back in the 19th century. It was tried before, and it did not work. Why? Because individuals are not entities that float in the air. They are born and raised in a particular social context. To propose that, in order to solve all our problems, we only have to convince the majority of our fellow citizens to follow those four principles is just wishful thinking. Notice in this sense that all other trends that Hayes discusses in the final sections of the first part of her book as having an overall negative impact on family and community are directly linked to a capitalist society: the compulsion to overwork, the reckless pursuit of affluence, the credo of individualism...

The second part of Radical Homemakers deals with individual cases, people who actually decided to, so to speak, tune in and drop out in an attempt to lead a different, alternative lifestyle. It is, for the most part, regular people making about US $40,000 or less for a household of four (i.e., above the poverty level, but still below the official median US household income) who manage to get by on so little income by following six basic precepts that Hayes summarizes towards the beginning of this part of the book:

  • Nobody cares what (or if) you drive.
  • Housing does not have to cost more than a single moderate income can afford (and can even cost less).
  • Health can be achieved without making monthly payments to an insurance company.
  • Child care is not a fixed cost.
  • Education can be acquired and not bought.
  • Retirement is possible, regardless of income.
(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, p. 126)

In other words, these people definitely follow an alternative lifestyle. Something that can only be reached through a slow and painful process where one develops a given set of skills that she also describes in the book:

Of these seven skills, three of them —nurturing relationships, working with a life-serving economy and cultivating an ability to self-teach— are recovered, by and large, from the toolbox that men and women drew upon when setting up their households in pre-industrial communities. Aspiring Radical Homemakers must regain facility with them to create a lifestyle that re0ignites community-based self-reliance. Beyond the age-old traditions, however, Radical Homemakers must also cultivate a new set of skills, in which they unlearn much of what our modern extractive economy has ingrained so powerfully into our cultural beliefs. These "new" skills include setting realistic expectations and limits, redefining pleasure in our lives, rediscovering the tate of real food, and adopting a fearless attitude in withstanding contrary cultural expectations. The composite of these skill sets is a new "toolbox" that, like so much of Radical Homemaking, is informed by our past to create a new modernity.

(Shannon Hayes: Radical Homemakers, p. 185)

Overall, Hayes makes a good point as to why we ought to move away from the traditionally conceived role of the family in an extractive economy (as a matter of fact, "traditional" only in the way it has been conceived in the past few decades) and towards a more self-sufficient approach that is more in tune with our own needs, as well as those of our communities and the environment. She also manages to describe pretty well what the objective is and even how to make it there. In that sense, this book is a good tool to anyone interested in transforming his or her life to a more environmentally (and human) friendly lifestyle. If anything, as mentioned above, what I found lacking was a more in depth analysis of the structural causes of the current state of affairs, which the author almost seems to chalk up only to the fact that we have not managed to convince enough people yet to change the way they live. I remain convinced that is a very naive approach destined to fail, as it already did fail in the 1960s.

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 7/10