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feminism and the new domesticity
Tuesday November 02nd, 2004 09:59 AM
My Crafty Manifesto
or how i came to stop fretting and embrace my inner craftiness!
(excerpted from get crafty: hip home ec, broadway books)

“Dear Ms. Magazine,” was how I began my first real writing assignment. It was a letter to the editor of the quintessential second wave feminist journal. I was thirteen and already angry; the letter expressed my dismay that the Catholic school I attended required girls to wear uniforms, but not the boys. Girls, declared the administration, couldn’t handle the peer pressure of dressing themselves and, they continued, boys shouldn’t be made to suffer because of our weakness. Being young, my protests were easily shrugged off as teenage impertinence by both my parents and the school. But the rule was clearly unfair and I desperately wanted to be heard.

Ms. published my letter and seeing it in print gave me the validation I was looking for, cementing my life-long passion for feminism. Sitting in my suburban home in the San Fernando Valley, listening to the punk band X and leafing through my mom’s back issues of Ms., I dreamed of a better life—a world without ugly polyester uniforms or afternoon detention, where the women were all super-stars and wore beautiful outfits and were taken seriously and, even maybe, revered. On that day I promised myself I’d become a feminist warrior; I would never marry, never be tied down to keeping a home and never find myself changing dirty diapers.

Even with this new-found politicization, I still pursued my little craft projects. I made and designed my own T-shirts, experimented with kitchen concoctions like apricot-yogurt-nutmeg smoothies and continued with the funny “art” projects I had learned in girl scouts: sculptures made from dried macaroni and spray-painted gold, Popsicle stick cabins and jean jackets with badges and patches sewn all over them. I saw nothing contradictory between my passion for feminism and my love of crafty projects My desire to be an influential woman and my enjoyment of crafts seemed to coexist in peaceful harmony.

As I got older though, I grew less and less interested in the domestic arts. Consequently, I never pursued my grandmother when she offered to share her baking secrets with me and I shrugged off my mother’s attempts to teach me how to clean or housework, doing just enough to earn my allowance. I soon began to see sewing and crafts as a waste of time; they were things that “other” women like my mother and grandmother did but not an up-and-coming bohemian like me.

My disdain for all things domestic only increased throughout my college years. I was a women's studies major at UCLA in the early 1990s, and my professors, mostly second-wave feminists, perceived the home and its accompanying activities as something from which women needed to free themselves. The subtext was that housework and the domestic arts were drudgery—work done by women who don’t know better. Smart, enlightened women became writers, thinkers; they became important, like men. They didn’t have time for silly things like cooking, sewing, knitting or cleaning. Of course, there were a few exceptions to this rule, post-modern feminists who were questioning the liberal ideology of the more mainstream professors, but for the most part, the logic of the day was work/career is good; home/domesticity is bad.

And this all made sense to me. I spent most of my twenties, defining myself as a feminist not by what I did, but what I didn’t do. I didn’t keep house. I didn’t get married. I didn’t cook very often. I didn’t knit nor sew.

Then, at age 28, I crashed. Sure, I was living on my own in New York City and had built a "career" as a writer/producer working in multimedia, cashing in on the dotcom boom. I was living the life I was supposed to live as a contemporary woman: I had my own home, paid my own rent, had a successful career, went out almost every night, slept with whomever I wanted and was utterly undomestic. Yet there was something missing. Along with the job and the social life, I had credit card debt, a crappy apartment with the requisite futon on the floor, bad eating habits, worse boyfriend choices, and no real clue as to how to be a grown-up.

Today, I feel that being a grown-up is not only making enough money to support yourself. It’s taking care of how you live: it’s eating well, having a home that suits your needs, a hobby or two that you enjoy, friends and family that care for you and a sense of belonging to the world. Being a grown-up is taking responsibility for yourself and others--being a part of a community. In my attempts at avoiding domestic entrapment, I had unwittingly become vulnerable and a bit childish; while I could pay the bills, I didn’t have a sustainable lifestyle and I couldn’t help other people because I lacked the basics of self-care. In not wanting to be a typical woman, I was waiting for someone else to come clean the house and make me feel better. But that person never showed up.

When a particularly painful bout of migraines left me debilitated for over a week, I took it as a sign that my life had to change. I began reevaluating who I was and what I wanted, including many of the things that I had always dismissed because I didn't want to be one of "those" women. Were cooking, crafts and keeping house something that would limit my life? I had always thought so, but living like a slob wasn’t very enjoyable. What did I really have to fear from domestic entrapment? I was a single girl with a job living in a tenement apartment on the East Village in New York City with a posse of girl friends who were like family. If I started knitting or even just vacuumed once in a while, the feminist police were not going to reject my membership.

So I started to dabble. Because my diet had consisted of cigarettes, coffee and beer for far too long and my health had deteriorated to headaches and lethargy, I started with the obvious. I cut back on my beloved cigarettes and reduced the amount of alcohol to a few drinks a week. I read up on nutrition and started cooking for myself, reconnecting with my family heritage of good food. I made a commitment to running and practicing yoga.

Soon I felt better. And then a weird thing happened, as I took better care of my body, I grew unsatisfied with the lack of beauty in the rest of my life. Suddenly, after years of unkempt, uncared-for apartments, I wanted a nice home and lovely things in it. So I set out to create a real shelter.

Working on my apartment got me re-interested in crafts from those years in Brownies and Girl Scouts: knitting, sewing and cooking. I borrowed old home economics books from the library and read about hospital corners, proper dusting techniques, stain removal and sewing basics. I even got secret subscriptions to Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet.

And you know what I learned? All the stuff that I had always dismissed as stupid women’s work is actually quite complicated. There are systems and rules for doing it well — and they are not obvious, nor are they being taught in most school systems. Be honest: Do you know how to sew a button or make curtains, let alone make dinner for eight without losing your mind? I sure didn't — and none of my friends did, either. We were domestically challenged, to say the least.

As I experimented with different domestic tasks, I discovered which ones I liked (cooking, building shelves, decorating my apartment and simple knitting), and which ones I hated (quilting, ironing, and dusting). I learned that my favorite thing to do in the whole world is to grocery shop — I love to be around food, to smell it, touch it, and think about all the delicious things I'm going to make in the kitchen.

I stopped fretting and embraced my inner craftiness. Yet, even with all this joyous creativity—and for me, domesticity is a very artistic process--there are times when I wonder: am I too domestic, too girly? After all, our culture continues to thumb its nose at domesticity. When I make a mean meal for a couple of friends—something I have researched, read about, shopped for and prepared—we enjoy it and then it’s gone. It isn’t important in the economic system—I don’t make money from it and it doesn’t have the cultural capital of, say writing a novel or making a sculpture. It’s unimportant.

More troubling for me is that it isn’t just mainstream culture which dismisses domesticity, but some feminists as well. When Betty Friedan searched for the cause of “the problem that has no name” affecting middle class white suburban housewives in 1963, she found it in housecleaning and caring for the family. According to Friedan, all things domestic were actually the root of women’s malaise and depression. As I read through The Feminine Mystique now, forty years later, I have a lot of sympathy and admiration for Friedan as someone who was trying to make sense of her world. But I think her analysis is too narrow. It isn’t the activity of housework that is so stifling, but rather women had so few other options and, more importantly, women’s work has always been devalued.

From cooking to cleaning to caring for children, our culture views “women’s work” as stupid, simple, suffocating—things that can easily be replaced by mechanization, crappy fast food, hiring poor women and neglect—precisely because women have always done them. Even feminists aren’t free from this type of thinking; we have internalized patriarchal thinking to such an extent that we also dismiss our own history of domesticity. And although we may not be aware of it, we have bought into the lie that women are inferior so we set out to be more like men: important, big, self-centered and good at getting ours.

Debbie Stoller, the founder and editor of the third wave feminist magazine Bust, believes that if the feminist movement wants to achieve real equality, we have to embrace domesticity. “We already know what’s respectable and fulfilling about the workplace--basically going out and making money—and there is a certain amount of pride and independence in doing that,” Debbie continues, “But I think we, as a culture, need to relearn what’s valuable and fulfilling in the private sector. The home, children, crafts and making things.”

What if, instead of dismissing it, we thought of domesticity as an important part of women’s culture? Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that every woman should enjoy knitting and cooking and embroidery. But I am suggesting that we give women’s work its props as something valuable, interesting and important, like knowing how to build a house, keep accounting records or play basketball. Skill, love and creativity go into creating a nice home, making things by hand and raising children. It’s not stupid and it’s not easy; it’s damn hard work that we need to respect. Moreover, it is our history, and dismissing it only doubles the injustice already done to women who didn’t have any choice but to be domestic in the first place. And it is as relevant as ever. Taking care of our homes and children is important for our happiness and the health of our entire society.

Paradoxically, when I learned to respect and embrace domesticity, I became reacquainted with my teenage anger that led me to feminism so many years ago. I found myself frustrated by the dismissive looks I received for knitting on the subway or the way people related to me for being so concerned with buying the right cheese or arranging a lovely vase of flowers. With this anger and frustration, I started a Web zine called which is devoted to radical craftiness—a feminist home economics site, if you will. The site covers arts and crafts, cooking, relationships, home décor and finances, but only from the vantage point of living a more meaningful, egalitarian life. Our motto is “making art out of everyday life.”

The site has blossomed into an inspiring community of women around the US (and beyond) who share ideas about domesticity, feminism, politics, make-up, jobs, art, life and their favorite TV shows. We have one thing in common: we are all crafty.

Being crafty means living consciously and refusing to be defined by narrow labels and categories. It’s about embracing life as complicated and complex, and out of this chaos constructing identities, which are feminist and domestic, masculine and feminine, strong and weak. It’s painting racing stripes down muscle cars and driving them in homemade skirts and high heel shoes. It’s getting together to knit in cafes and building intimacy online. It’s swapping clothing. It’s about being both fashion-obsessed and simultaneously upset by sweat-shop labor practices. It’s about being well read and a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s not about being quiet nor demure, but it means always trying to be nice. It’s about making things with your hands. And, most importantly, it’s about living life artistically, regardless of whether or not one is an Artist with a capital A.

So here I am now at the ripe old age of thirty-three. I no longer live alone in a tenement but rather in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village with a husband and a dog, and a baby on the way. My life is much more domestic and mundane, yet also more varied and interesting than I ever imagined it would be when I was as a teenager in the suburbs of Southern California. I didn’t grow up to be a famous feminist writer--instead I practice my feminism in the way I live my life, the clothes I wear, the home I live in, the food I eat, the company I keep. It’s not glamorous but it is fulfilling. Ironically, my experience is the exact opposite of those women Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. For me, embracing domesticity and women’s work has freed me from a feeling that life is meaningless. Best of all, I now have simple ways to give myself and others the gift of living well.

Get Crafty is a manifesto for what I call the New Domesticity, a movement committed to recognizing, exalting and most of all enjoying the culture that women have built for millennia. In these pages, you’ll find a lot of tips and ideas to help you domesticate, but only from the vantage-point of creating a more meaningful life. In other words, you will not find chapters on creating the perfect Architectural Digest abode, making your floors so clean you can eat off them or organizing your junk drawer, because I don’t think that’s what life is about. I’m more interested in the community we experience during a long dinner party or the nourishment we get from a home that feels warm and comforting. The point of life is to take advantage of all the joy and beauty that surrounds us – and to ensure that it’s there for others to relish.

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