Making Radicals at Home

Making Radicals at Home

Radical Homemakers
Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture
Shannon Hayes
Left to Write Press
Richmondville, New York 2010

Whose nightmare was it to turn the Biblical “every man shall sit under his own vine or fig tree with no one to disturb him” or the Declaration’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” into what we see around us: everyone who is not foreclosed upon and/or unemployed may work the longest hours in the industrialized world – the two, three or four jobs per family required to keep up the mortgage payments on homes, one in five of which of which are underwater – spend another 50 minutes per day getting to and from work, and rack up more debt buying clothes for work, childcare for the kids, maintenance for the manicured lawn, restaurant meals (who has time to cook?), the gadgets required to keep up with colleagues and neighbors, etcetera etcetera?

Shannon Hayes and the other “radical homemakers” she writes about are, as the subtitle of her book declares, “reclaiming” the antique, but ever-potent, ideals of domesticity the Bible and the Declaration point to for their own. Like any proper radical, she returns to the root:

A search for the origin of housewife traces it back to the thirteenth century as the feudal period was coming to an end in Europe and the first signs of a middle class were popping up. Historian Ruth Schwartz Cohan explains that housewives were wedded to husbands, whose name came from hus, an old spelling of house, and bonded. Husbands were bonded to houses, rather than to lords. Housewives and husbands were free people who owned their own homes and lived off their land. (p. 14)

Shannon Hayes – who herself raises grass-fed livestock with her family on their Sap Bush Hollow Farm in West Fulton, New York, where she and her husband homeschool their children – sought out “a different type of homemaker – someone who isn’t ruled by our consumer culture, who embodied a strong ecological ethic, who held genuine power in the household, who was living a full, creative, challenging, and socially contributory life,” (p. 16) and interviewed twenty of them in their homes all around the U.S. for her book.

“Radical Homemakers” is divided into two main sections: the first reviews the relevant history and theory of homemaking – the home’s arc from largely self-sufficient center of a household’s economic activity to warehouse for commodified products acquired and maintained by various forms of drudgery inside and out. Hayes immediately confronts the feminist case against homemaking, acknowledging the continuing tension between society’s need for nurturers and individuals’ needs for autonomy and self-realization. One understands that she looks for that tension to be at least partially resolved through “radical home-making,” and Hayes makes the case that it can be in the second part of her book, which focuses on her fieldwork among the radical homemakers.

That section is bookended by short profiles of the participants, but the heart of “Radical Homemakers” is its examination of the ways homemaking has been reinvented by these radicals and its exploration of the attitudes, character traits and skills that seem to be necessary to make the project work.

The skills she identifies are of the non-quantifiable variety our society scarcely identifies as “skills”:

-nurturing relationships
-working with a life-serving economy
-cultivating the ability to self-teach
-setting realistic expectations and limits
-redefining pleasure in our lives
-rediscovering the taste of real food
-adopting a fearless attitude in withstanding cultural expectations

But they are clearly helpful, not only for radical “homemaking,” but for radical anything, for making an impact on our world that is defined by something other than an ecological footprint.

As a recent article by Hayes in Truthout illustrates, radical homemaking is more than the twenty-first-century equivalent of a “back-to-the-land” movement: in many middle-class locales, hanging out the laundry to dry requires not only changes in personal priorities and consciousness, but politicking to change local CC&Rs or zoning restrictions. Her radicals may drop off the grid, but they are attuned to local and frequently larger political issues – and have created the time to be engaged as citizens. “Home is where the great change will begin. It is not where it ends.”(p.18) The self-actualization required to be a radical homemaker tends to makes them active and involved citizens. Used to producing rather than buying their own lives, they eschew the passivity of consumers in the political as well as the material sphere.

Although Hayes’ radical homemakers redefine wealth and poverty, eschew “conventional jobs” and live “with a sense of abundance at about 200% of the Federal Poverty Level,”(p.16) they seem pretty consistently to enjoy the benefits of class and education: Like the thirteenth century housewife and husband, they tend to be somewhat privileged compared to their peers – able to choose “bondage” to their homes rather than to the lords of our day – corporate employers and suppliers, creditors, entertainment. And Shannon Hayes succeeds in communicating the potential, the richness and the challenge of radical homemaking as a first step in creating a new economy that serves rather than uses up human life.