Femivores in the Henhouse

Feminists debate the meaning of “chicks with chicks.”

Members of WAM!

(Illustration by Jennifer Berman)

In the March 11 New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein explored a new trend among wealthy women – the stay-at-home mom who raises chickens in her backyard. The article is titled The Femivore’s Dilemma.” She writes:

I am one of ‘those women’ in the sense I do raise chickens in my yard—for the eggs. The larger issue that Peggy Orenstein touches on is the growing move to live more simply, and to recognize how amazing and fulfilling it can be to do so.
Four women I know – none of whom know one another – are building chicken coops in their backyards. … Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird. All of these gals – these chicks with chicks – are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. … Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. … Conventional feminist wisdom held that two incomes were necessary to provide a family’s basic needs – not to mention to guard against job loss, catastrophic illness, divorce or the death of a spouse. Femivores suggest that knowing how to feed and clothe yourself regardless of circumstance, to turn paucity into plenty, is an equal – possibly greater – safety net.

Orenstein’s article touched off a vigorous discussion on the WAM! (Women, Action & the Media) listserv, a small portion of which follows.

Lauren Dunnington : Why does raising chickens have to be the province of women staying home to feed their families? Are any men staying home? Do these chicks with chicks” have to rely on a partner’s income to be able to make this ostensibly feminist choice?

Katha Pollitt : I’m sorry. Women who stay home to raise chickens are out of their minds. It’s like homeschooling, but with farm animals.

J. Goodrich: Orenstein really argues for a return to farmwifery. But anyone born on a farm (ahem) knows that a few chickens don’t support a family and that farming is incredibly hard work. In fact, a subsistence farm (which she really means) is about as much work as a farm that allows you to sell products to others, because a subsistence farmer cannot afford machines or seasonal workers.

Andi Zeisler: It reminded me a lot of Lisa Belkin’s famous opt-out piece, in the sense that Orenstein was like, I know four women who raise chickens, and I am going to extrapolate from their experience about all modern women and feminism.” I live in Portland, Ore., where urban homesteading is a pretty common thing, and – this is important – not nearly as female-centric or as all-or-nothing as Orenstein would lead us to believe. But that’s not a story the NYT is interested in printing, since it doesn’t support the Oh noes! Educated women are leaving the workforce because feminism lied and told them they could have it all!” thesis. They really never run out of ways to make that story hot, do they

Amie Newman: Despite Katha’s comment making me laugh and smile, I am (to a degree) one of those women” in the sense that I do raise chickens in my yard – for the eggs. We have our vegetable garden as well, and herb garden and fruit trees. It’s definitely part of a sub-culture out here in Seattle. I do work though, and my husband works full-time as well. The larger issue that Orenstein touches on is the growing move to live more simply, and to recognize how amazing and fulfilling it can be to do so.

Irin Carmon: At Jezebel​.com we published a post on Femivores by one writer-turned-homesteader, Rurally Screwed: A city girl’s attempt at country living.” For that writer, the questions of division of labor and gender rang very true:

In New York, it was easy to think of myself as strong, self-sufficient and independent mainly because I didn’t have to lift or carry or fix or make anything. Not so, here. Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he’s a dude and I’m not. I find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn’t seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll in her grave. Ergo, my femivore’s dilemma,’ living an egalitarian, self-sufficient lifestyle but feeling more dependent on my husband than ever.”

Sarah Jaffe: It’s excellent if you can do it – if you enjoy it and have the time and money. But I find it incredibly problematic to cast it as the solution to women’s dilemma, just as I find it problematic to cast it as the solution to the world’s food problems.

Katha Pollitt : Yes. Farming is fun as a hobby, like gardening, which I love. If I lived in Connecticut year-round I would love to have some chickens, just for the experience. But farming hardly makes life simpler. Simple is buying things from other farmers. What’s next, making our own candles? From our own beeswax?

J. Goodrich: Life on our farm was very hard. Have you ever harvested potatoes when the frost makes your fingers freeze through the gloves and the dirt in the ground turns into a half-freezing mud? I guess my point is the difference between a hobby (which you can drop if you feel like it) and something you could actually live off if need be. 

Lauren Dunnington : I don’t think that the urban homesteading/​farming trend is silly, though, as Katha challenged. Urban homesteading offers one way of deliberately stepping outside of capitalist economics. (As J. Goodrich acknowledges, it is hard work, essentially subsistence farming – and certainly should not be romanticized or cast as the panacea of the world’s problems.) But it does offer one way of participating less in systems that do not align with one’s values (be they feminist values, anti-capitalist values, whatever). I just think we can’t lose the gender and class analysis lens into the localvore/​sustainable food trend.

Katha Pollitt : I don’t think it’s silly. It sounds like fun. But for a woman in the prime of life to stay home to do it? To be dependent on a man so you can grow your own vegetables? I don’t think that’s a wise life plan for women. And the way it is moralized bothers me too. Like, if a woman said I’m going to stay home so I can play cards with my girlfriends” that would sound really frivolous, but if she’s growing organic salad for her family that’s a challenge to the capitalist system. It’s not. It is incredibly difficult to opt out of the system. That’s what makes it a system. … More and more people are growing their own vegetables these days what with the recession. It’s great. Just don’t quit your day job if you are lucky enough to have one.

Anna Clark: In Detroit, urban agriculture is really huge. In a city with so much open space (and a dearth of safe, fresh food sources), farms and community gardens are, quite literally, filling the void. Within the city limits, there are hundreds upon hundreds of formerly vacant acres that are cultivated as farms and community gardens. I see it as utterly transformative for this once industrial city (transforming even the idea of what a city” looks like), and a truly democratic arena that has leaders from all ages, ethnicities, income brackets, and yes, genders.

Jen Nedeau: I was recently in Montana for a training with New Leaders Council and I was astonished by the true passion that everyone there has for the land. Nearly every fellow we had in Missoula talked about wanting to own a garden, live a sustainable life and yes – one of the young women, age 29, owned five chickens (she also had a day job).

I was inspired by the way they live in Missoula. They pretty much grow their own food over the summer, jar it and save pounds of potatoes and onions in their basements. They hunt animals, which they butcher themselves, to consume year-round. I have never had a sense of place like these people do – and I must say I really admired it. 

As we dive into why a highly educated woman might want to raise chickens, get back to farming her own food – I think we can, in some sense, look at it as an entrepreneurial mindset, a progressive set of beliefs, a sense of independence that is actually growing in certain places around the country that I would rather embrace than critique. 

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WAM! (Women, Action & The Media), which is dedicated to building a robust, effective, inclusive movement for gender justice in media, started in 2004 as a project of the Center for New Words. In its first five years, WAM! has grown into an influential national force; it forced the Washington Post to revise its editorial policy after WAM!mers publicly protested a sexist slur aimed at Hillary Clinton.
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