'New Domesticity' Is a Step Backwards for Women

Making a fetish out of female domesticity harms the progress women have made.

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Reader, beware the seeds of a pseudo-retro trend sown on the Washington Post Outlook pages about a week ago by a 29-year-old woman:  a "new domesticity" which elegant writer Emily Matchar hopes will come to a kitchen or garden near you.

When I say you, I mean my female friends. Men, you have nothing to lose or fear from this new cultural bugaboo. A few chickens in your backyard, maybe, but the eggs are just so perfect for Sunday brunch. It all adds up to beautiful nonsense.  

What, haven't you heard of  "urban homesteading" in Brooklyn and other places where the cool congregate?  Matchar paints a snug picture of her own jam-making, her friend's bee-keeping and the DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit she sees sweeping across America's younger households. To be clear, Matchar means knitting, baking bread, growing and drying herbs, and raising sheep. She did not specify alpacas but I'm sure they fit into her pastoral vision of "reclaiming" women's work at home. 

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"Suddenly, learning the old-fashioned skills of our great-grandmothers seems not just fun, but necessary and even virtuous," Matchar wrote in a lead Outlook essay. Up close, her disarming portrait idealizes social history and would actually take womankind a leap backward. The prevalence of "stay-at-home moms" who are educated professionals tends to sideline women as well.

Ironically, Matchar went to one of the nation's top universities, Harvard, where it may be easy to take social progress for granted. The retreat she recommends for women into deep domesticity is more like a defeat of what women like the suffragettes fought to gain a century ago.  

Hold the line there for a contrast.  At 50, born the same summer as President Barack Obama, I belong to a generation that witnessed so many barriers to women coming down. Some Ivy League universities and select colleges such as Amherst opened their doors to women, as did the military academies and professional schools, all during the '70s.

[See photos of Obama behind the scenes]

As a girl, I remember my avant-garde mother, a professor, subscribed to Ms. magazine from the inaugural issue, as a symbol of the women's movement. The daughter of a traditional homemaker, my mother gave her daughters a great sense of scope and possibility. But the bittersweet struggle for equal rights was handed down, too. 

I might add that home schooling also tends to sideline women. Every so often a cultural kissing cousin comes along as if to undermine the progress made since 1920, the year "Votes for Women" finally gave us a place in the public square of American democracy. The Roaring '20s were like oxygen to women, but the dance wasn't supposed to stop there.

Don't get me wrong, I love making my grandmother's ginger cookies (with bacon grease!) and the chocolate cake recipe from the days she and her three sisters baked for the men working summers on their Kansas ranch (roughly when Alice Paul was working for woman suffrage). The quilts in her bedrooms speak worlds to me. And yes, she canned a mean glass of jam from my grandfather's raspberry garden.

[Read Washington Whispers: USDA Aide Joked About Obama Garden Failure]

But there's no need to make a fetish out of all that. We must pursue progress for women, given all we have been given.  A retreat to privileged domesticity may not be all it's cracked up to be.

Finally, a word about Michelle Obama, who arguably exemplifies the trend Matchar heralds. Have we heard a word about her education at Princeton or her career as a Harvard trained lawyer? I don't think so. Her vegetable garden is hip to "new domesticity" and her focus on her two children has apparently kept her from speaking out on anything more controversial than childhood obesity and military families. Jacqueline Kennedy, first lady when I was born, had two small children, but made much more of lasting impact with the White House restoration. Mrs. Obama has spent a lot of time on her wardrobe as well, but curiously, she's not a game changer as a champion of women's progress.

Just don't take this retro trend any farther, please, Mrs. Obama. Hold the line.

  • See photos of Michelle Obama
  • See photos of Hillary Clinton in Myanmar
  • See photos of the first lady with military families