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The joy of canning? (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Food Fight: Feminists and Femivores

Is slow food about politics, privilege, or oppression?

BY Rebecca Burns

We have to value work in the home. But we also have to be realistic about how you can feed your family if you’re not a highly-skilled cook and you’re already working 40 to 50 hours a week at seven dollars an hour.

“Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?” asks Emily Matchar in her new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, published in May by Simon & Schuster. Matchar wants to know why many young, middle-class women are returning to the home after their feminist forebears rushed to leave it—and whether the revival of domestic arts like home cooking and canning is also reviving some of the sexism that kept women moored to these tasks. “It’s easy to forget in the face of today’s foodie culture,” Matchar writes, “that cooking is not fun when it’s mandatory.”

Some feminists have accused the food movement Pollan helped popularize of romanticizing a return to the kitchen, but that’s not the only thing driving women “homeward,” Matchar finds. The do-it-yourself ethos embraced by practitioners of the “new domesticity” offers an appealing alternative to taxing careers that leave no time for home or family life. By advocating a slower-paced lifestyle, the food movement has helped disseminate a compelling critique of modern capitalism sometimes overlooked by feminists focused on breaking the glass ceiling. Yet often, the solutions offered by foodies are impracticable for those who lack the luxury of spare time. What would a more inclusive food justice movement look like?

In These Times discussed foodies, class and feminism with author Emily Matchar; Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating; public health activist Laura Orlando; and Yvonne Yen Liu, national research director at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

Emily, your book introduces us to the growing ranks of jam-makers, wool-spinners and backyard gardeners. What’s driving this “new domesticity”?

EMILY: In 2010, Peggy Orenstein wrote an essay looking at women she calls femivores [a play on “locavores”], who have left the traditional workforce to work inside the home and are repopularizing cooking from scratch, growing your own food, paying attention to where your food is coming from and so on. My book takes a look at the growing number of women (and some men) who are directing their creativity and energy toward these kinds of pursuits, but living something different from the traditional stay-at-home ’50s lifestyle.

What are the gender politics of this trend? In 2009, Michael Pollan described Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.”

LAURA: Friedan put her finger on the pulse of a lot of unhappiness. Pollan had blinders on in his critique of her, but he’s right to take on the narrow idea that getting back into the kitchen is somehow going backwards. When we expand this act into the politics of food and of health and of agriculture, the whole business of going back into the kitchen does become a political action.

The “femivores” who are returning to the kitchen stand accused of betraying the post-Friedan feminists who left it to pursue careers. What does the food movement have to offer to women who have never fallen into either camp? Pollan and Friedan are both speaking primarily to white, middle-class audiences.

TRACIE: When the food movement poses home cooking as a moral choice, it is making a pretty alienating, class-based argument. When the discussion is framed as, “If you really cared about your family, you would eat this way,” I think that pretty quickly excludes anybody who doesn’t look like the person who’s making that argument.

We have to value work in the home. But we also have to be realistic about how you can feed your family if you’re not a highly-skilled cook and you’re already working 40 to 50 hours a week at seven dollars an hour.

YVONNE:  There have been different generational approaches to how movements deal with these questions of food, how our time is valued and how we arrange our lives. Friedan’s main target was normative gender roles, whereas Michael Pollan and the foodies of the past 30 years have been struggling with corporate control of the food system. Neither of these perspectives addresses the problem adequately. We need a food justice movement that attacks patriarchy, class inequality and corporate control of the food system.

Emily’s book shows us a large group of people who are combating the industrial food system, as well as disillusionment with the workplace, by “opting out” and focusing on the sphere of the home. Where does this leave us in terms of the ability to pursue change outside the home?

EMILY: People are unhappy with the food system, they’re unhappy with the workplace, but those who have the education and the means to do so are pursuing very individual-level solutions. Shopping at the farmers’ market or canning your own jam is great, but I think we need to be clear that what we need is larger institutional change.

LAURA: When a small action connects you to the politics—like turning off a light connects you to climate change—I think it’s a real, political action. There are also many people who are working very hard to make healthy food accessible and address the structural issues at the neighborhood level: How can we double people’s buying power when they come into our farmers’ market? Or can we have a sliding-scale price system?

The food movement has most often been conceived of as a consumers’ movement, even though the rise of mechanized food production was also a way to cut labor costs. Foodies tend to emphasize local autonomy, but should the food movement also be pursuing a broader political agenda?

TRACIE: I see in the food movement echoes of the “back to the land” movement of the ’60s and ’70s. There’s a sense of, “I’m going to create a really awesome little bubble for me and my friends, and I’m just going to sort of opt out of everything else.” That’s really powerful in terms of American culture, because it’s putting the focus on self-reliance. But there are problems with it as well.

YVONNE: The problem with the “back to the land” movement—or the “new domesticity” today—is that those movements have a strong individualist bent. They emphasize small-scale local autonomy, but also the free market and non-state solutions. The politics are very libertarian.

LAURA: Scale matters a lot for how the land is treated and whether or not people can make a living wage by working on it. This all favors small-scale farms, but that doesn’t mean people have to act in a conservative way without a connection to community.

YVONNE: We need to look at who’s farming the land: What do they look like? There are a lot of barriers to land ownership for low-income people and people of color, so small farms alone are not the solution. We need to acknowledge that there’s an inherent conservatism in promoting small land-ownership, and seek solutions that benefit all of the 40 million hungry people in the country, as well as the 20 million workers in the food system.

LAURA: There are huge barriers to access to land. It doesn’t mean that we can’t work to address those barriers while advocating for having more farmers. We can bring these bigger structural issues into community-level efforts. The more we move toward incorporating both food and labor in the same discussion, and acknowledging race, class and gender in the food system, the more we’ll have a chance of having a real food justice movement.

Are there signs that we are beginning to see a more broadly inclusive food justice movement?

EMILY: I see the people in my book as potential allies in such a movement. We’re in the thick of a very individualistic, “all change begins at home” mentality. That is insufficient, but perhaps it’s a start. There are lots of people who cannot at present afford to waste their time canning jam, but who might be brought into a real effort for broader reform of the food system.

YVONNE: At Restaurant Opportunities Centers, we understand that to lift wages and working conditions for 20 million food chain workers, we need to mobilize eaters alongside those workers. There’s a lot of potential to capture the interest that people have in these issues and link their desire to eat slow, locally procured and produced food with broader efforts for change.

We have to remain focused on actions that will help ensure that workers in the food chain are being treated well in addition to the animals—by working to raise the minimum wage, for example. We can’t just bunker down in our backyards to can peaches and raise chickens.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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