Review: 'Homeward Bound' by Emily Matchar

Knitters and canners and homeschoolers — oh my! They may not be from Oz, but these denizens of modern-day America fill Emily Matchar with a similar mix of wonder and dismay. Who are these crafty creatures? You probably know a few. They're educated and progressive and middle class. They live in Brooklyn or Seattle or Asheville, N.C. And, by a wide margin, they are female. By Matchar's account, they are fed up with workaholic consumerism and frustrated by inadequate health care, dysfunctional maternity leave policies and dwindling career options — and so they have opted out en masse to make their own soap.

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Matchar's new book, "Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity," is her close read of the forces that she argues have conspired to nudge these women out of the workforce and into the arms of Martha Stewart. It's an examination of the cultural implications for women and for society at large. Is this rush to hearth and home empowering? Or is it the same old oppression dressed up on 21st-century togs?

According to Matchar, the "New Domesticity" is an octopus of a trend — a many-tentacled movement encompassing the relatively benign pastimes of crafting, cooking and lifestyle blogging as well as more radical, all-consuming practices like attachment parenting and urban homesteading. In fact, her scope is so sweeping that it's hard to get a handle on who, exactly, her subjects are. Are they grown-up Riot Grrrls or nouveau back-to-the-landers? Conservative Christian mothers or the proprietors of Swiffer-sponsored mommy blogs? But that may be the point. The very diversity of this movement towards home and hearth, Matchar argues, is what gives it cultural weight.

To make her case, Matchar draws on a seemingly bottomless pool of anecdotes and interviews but provides few facts or figures to prove their socioeconomic significance. Rather, as the book winds from talk of Etsy to cupcake baking, gardening and beyond, she returns over and over to the tension between Depression-era and postwar cults of domesticity and today's enthusiasm for all things homey — and the feminist revolution that happened in between — to give her narrative a spine.

"This is not your grandma's homemaking," Matchar declares repeatedly, pointing to her subjects' blogs and tattoos as proof of their distinction. Except, in all but the aesthetics, it is. In fact, this "New Domesticity" sounds an awful lot like plain old "domesticity," albeit with a novel post-feminist spin. Consider this from Claire, a 25-year-old homeschooling mother of two:

My willingness to sacrifice my own career in favor of my husband's may be more June Cleaver than Betty Friedan [… but] my feminism is not squelched, but best expressed through an occupation that I find vital to the authentic sustenance of my family and community.

Claire is one of Matchar's more extreme subjects, but her attitude echoes throughout. Homemaking, Matchar's subjects argue, is a political act: a protest against the latchkey childhoods they remember and resent, and a celebration of women's essential nature to nurture. But while their impassioned defense of domestic pursuits is intriguing, Matchar also finds it a little alarming in the context of a century of biology-is-destiny debate.

In one of the book's strongest chapters — excerpted on Salon in April under the headline, "Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?" — Matchar takes on DIY food culture, blasting the influential food writer and his cohort for pinning the late-20th-century decline in home cooking (and consequent social ills) on the gains of 1970s and '80s feminism and for waxing nostalgic for a rosy pre-Friedan era when women felt a "moral obligation to cook."

"The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove," Matchar writes, adding, "It's easy to forget, in the face of today's foodie culture, that cooking is not fun when it's mandatory."

Because while freedom of choice is one thing, Matchar points out, feminism is about more than just self-determination. It's about forging a more just and equitable society for all its citizens, something in danger of being forgotten in the rush to shore up the bonds of home and family. The dark side of DIY culture is a precious isolationism, one that can privilege the individual over the collective good, to the detriment of all. Homeschool your kids, points out Matchar, and you're less likely to be out fighting for better public schools. Spend your days growing organic lettuce and you may not have the energy to lobby for a safer food system. Or, on a more dire level, refuse to vaccinate your children and you could threaten the health of all the kids in your community.

In fact, the relative lack of community engagement is an underexplored thread here. The isolation of young mothers is particularly poignant, as they confess to Matchar how hungry they are for the validation social media can provide. For all the power of online communities, it's real-world social networks of friends and neighbors that have the power to sustain. If "an increasingly visible subculture of women sees quitting work as not just a personal choice but an increasingly political act," what is going to happen to these 30-something women if, for all their investment in family life, they wind up divorced or otherwise on their own at 40?

Matchar wraps things up with a set of utterly reasonable suggestions for women bent on a New Domestic lifestyle: practice moderation; maintain financial independence; don't believe everything you read on the Internet. But I still found "Homeward Bound" frustrating, not so much for what she has to say but for what she doesn't. (And, here I feel compelled to mention that I took a break from writing this review to weed my community garden and that I own a dogeared copy of "Home Cheese Making.")

The normative "we" of Matchar's analysis is so resolutely young, white, middle-class and married that it's hard to take seriously the claim that this movement has revolutionary potential on any broader social scale. I longed to hear from divorced women, African-American women, single moms. Where are the homemakers of the past? The perspective of the latter — of an actual grandma or onetime '50s housewife — would have enriched the discussion immeasurably. Where Matchar shines is in her ability to track and dissect the pendulum-like nature of cultural trends. And while, ultimately, it may not be possible to both "lean in" and keep chickens in the backyard, it doesn't mean there isn't common ground to be found in between, and tilled with a handmade hoe.

Martha Bayne is a Chicago-based writer and editor and author of "Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time."

"Homeward Bound"

By Emily Matchar, Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $26

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