In the past year or so, I’ve been gravitating toward a subculture that I find fascinating: homesteaders, both rural and urban, who are living out a philosophy of creation rather than consumption, community structure over monetary wealth, and traditional home arts as a means for creating a better future for the earth. These are people who plant spinach seeds in abandoned lots, pressure-can the berries they’ve foraged from the roadside, and barter carpentry skills for pastured meat. Politically, they are a group of both right-leaning and left-leaning people, united in the common goals of getting down to the earth and doing something to create “social capital”— the support of a tight-knit, interdependent community that is a stronger and more stabilizing force than money ever could be. In Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, Shannon Hayes presents a manifesto of this subculture that is thought-provoking, practical, and inspiring.
At its core, Radical Homemakers is a modern feminist argument that the home, rather than being a cage for listless housewives, can actually be one of the most important hubs of meaningful work, ecological responsibility, and social change. It calls for both men and women to return to traditional home arts, not as a regression to backbreaking labor, but as a choice to bring intentionality, community, and humanness back to a place that too often serves as only a place to sleep, microwave dinner, and watch TV.
In writing the book, Hayes traveled all around the country, talking to people in many different cities and situations (including single moms, stay-at-home dads, married couples young and old, people in group living situations, and so on) about how they were living out their worldview in real life. She profiles these families, individuals, and groups, drawing on their words and experiences to expound her ideas.
The first half of the book is titled, “Why,” explaining the reasons for someone to adopt this countercultural mindset in the first place. The first few chapters dive into the history of homemaking from prehistory through the Industrial Revolution, second-wave feminism, and modern day. It explains that the popular concept of a “housewife”— a repressed, empty-headed woman vacuuming and cooking all day— reflects a tiny moment of time in the history of homemaking, most notably the 1950’s, when aggressive marketing encouraged woman to be good consumers and little else. These chapters also feature diatribes against the “extractive economy,” as well as perspectives on how consumer culture came to be and why we started trading away time for money.
The second half of the book is titled, “How,” where she discusses topically the different ways that countercultural convictions can play out— in job choices, gardening, homemaking skills, hobbies, education, community development, expectations, and, of course, our fundamental paradigm for viewing the world. She counters common arguments about how a life “should” be lived (it takes two incomes to buy a house; childcare is a fixed cost; everyone should go to college, etc.) with real-life examples of how people are living differently. She also discusses essential traits for delving into the lifestyle— fearlessness, willingness to make mistakes, and many others.
Particularly interesting to me was Hayes’s perspective that a homesteader’s job is not to be “self-sufficient” in the sense we normally think. She regards independence as unnatural cultural conditioning, an illusion that we are “independent” as long as we have enough money, when really we are dependent on jobs and income for to amass this false security. She argues that being part of an “interdependent” community is essential to living a full life, in which we recognize the ways that we depend on and support each other. The community, rather than the individual, is what should be “self-sufficient.”
As with most countercultural arguments, the book has some weak points. It shows great disdain for a “money-based” economy, yet most of the families profiled in the book are living on an income that, while modest, isn’t exactly threadbare. Like it or not, we are still engaged in a money-based system, and even many ways to live against the grain (buying secondhand, dumpster diving) can only exist if most people still live and work in the “normal” world. Still, Hayes does point out some of the tensions in the countercultural arguments, and is willing to allow the readers to wrestle with these questions, rather than just blithely ignore the difficulties that this paradigm shift might create.
All in all, this book gave me a lot to think about, as well as a renewed sense of purpose in continuing to pursue my interests in the home arts. Read it for the history, the philosophy, the challenging ideas, or just the practical stories of how a countercultural lifestyle plays out in practice— you won’t be disappointed.