Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture
by Shannon Hayes

Left to Write Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-979-43911-7.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 06/10/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

In a growth-obsessed world where consumers are nagged and bullied into spending and using more and where people's priorities are focused on moving up and getting ahead, it's a pleasure to read a book about women (and men, too) who are paying attention to being at home. As a "radical homemaker" myself (a homesteader, homemaker, and worker-from-home for the past quarter of a century), I applaud Shannon Hayes' visionary, scholarly, and radical book. Taken seriously by enough people, the ideas Hayes offers could help to change lives, heal a broken society, and perhaps transform our collective futures.

Radical Homemakers begins with a substantial historical and theoretical introduction to the conflict between women's (and men's) need for economic independence, self-fulfillment, and personal autonomy in a society that desperately needs nurturers. As Hayes points out (quoting Thomas Berry), our civilization has decided that what is real and valuable in the world belongs to an active and creative life outside the home. This way of thinking began with the industrial revolution, continued into the age of oil, the automobile, and mass production, and now—in the age of computers, information technology, and just-in-time delivery of foods, medicine, and all our necessary supplies—completely and utterly dominates us. Born into a twentieth-century American society made up largely of mobile, rootless, and career-focused people, many contemporary American women have found themselves forced to fit into an industrial/information-based world that obligates them to create two-career, two-income, two-car families that are dependent for survival on outside sources and resources for almost everything.

This is a dangerous situation, for in removing the locus of control of our lives outside our home (and outside our selves and our families) we have come to a point where we are no longer able to take care of ourselves—or our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities. As Hayes puts it:

We have lost the innate knowledge and traditional crafts essential to countless functions for our daily survival, with the end result being a disconnection from our communities and our natural world. So complete is this detachment that we are unaware of the ecological and social damage created by mass production for our daily needs.
Now, confronting the twenty-first century challenges of dwindling economic and career opportunities, resource depletion, and climate change, women and men have hard choices to make—and some people are making them. In an effort to learn what alternative strategies might break this cycle of loss and displacement, Hayes interviewed twenty women and men from across the United States whom she identifies as "radical homemakers": self-reliant people who are focused on living, earning, learning, creating at home. Some of these people earned a great deal of money in the consumer culture; others were already living simply. Some were single or coupled; others had families. They were young, middle-aged, elderly. But they all share a vision: a sense that what is important now is to be empowered in place, to be both self-reliant and community-focused, to be at home in the world.

In Part Two of the book, their stories are told briefly (perhaps too briefly, for some readers) and thematically, around such "housekeeping" issues as redefining wealth, resetting goals, rebuilding housing and living arrangements, and reimagining such basic life-long needs as health care, child care, education, and retirement. The foundation for all of this, these Radical Homemakers have learned, is the importance of reclaiming domestic skills within a nurturing context of family and friend relationships.

At the heart of the Radical Homemaking "movement," Hayes writes, is the recognition of the importance of recreating a food culture that is sustainable and just, a recognition that begins with seeing our dietary choices in relation to the local and regional soil and water resources, the plants and animals we choose to eat, and the climate—as well as the energy inputs that are required to produce that food and put it on our tables. This is both metaphor and practical truth, for there may come a time when our industrial agriculture can no longer feed us and we will have to feed ourselves. Her focus on this fits neatly into the current concern for sustainable, homegrown food, described in such books as Barbara Kingsolver's recent Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

For me, the realization of the importance of returning home, gaining control of my worklife, moving toward a sustainable diet, and creating a community of like-minded people came at midlife. When I made that choice, in 1985, I had little guidance and few helps, other than my own urgent sense that I had to transform my life, and that if I did not do this, I would be lost. Making a home and becoming a homemaker is a practice that has taken me many years to learn. I hope for you that the process will be shorter—and it can be, if you let this book help you.

Shannon Hayes is the host of GrassFedCooking.com and author of The Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet. She has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell and works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Learn more on her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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