Recently an essay in the New York Times Magazine introduced me to a new word. Evidently, if you are a highly educated woman who left the workforce to be a stay-at-home mom, and you keep chickens and grow a garden, you are a “femivore.”
The writer, Peggy Orenstein, is responding to a new book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes, who suggests that the still-blooming interest in sustainable living has provided, as Orenstein puts it, “an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.” Hayes’s book, she writes, is “a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning feminists.’” Then Orenstein snarks, “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.”
It’s not her sarcasm that troubles me. It’s her cynicism. Orenstein almost — but not quite — uses the word “precious” to describe the endeavors of living more simply and sustainably. Ultimately she warns that the chicken coop can become like the gilded cage — just as much a trap. If the femivores are doing all the work and their husbands aren’t carrying their share (Hayes seems to think they do, while Orenstein sounds skeptical), there goes all our hard-earned freedom.
I am a tomato-canning feminist. But I’m not married, I don’t have children, and I have a busy professional career doing things I enjoy. Which, I suppose, knocks me out of the “femivore” category. But I keep chickens, grow a garden, preserve my produce, knit, make my own laundry detergent, and bake my own bread because I love doing those things, I love good food, and I’m as much an environmentalist and a cheapskate as I am a tomato-canning feminist. I don’t think Hayes is questioning your feminist cred if you don’t do them. I would still be a feminist even if I didn’t can tomatoes.
I can’t speak for stay-at-home moms (in my neighborhood, I like to think of them as the Powermoms, and trust me — they are awe-inspiring), but none of it feels like a trap to me. It feels like freedom. Empowerment, even. Mastering skills, lessening your environmental impact, and achieving greater self-sufficiency have that effect on some people.
And it’s an act of renunciation of a certain sort of consumer culture, as Hayes advocates. That, to me, also feels like freedom and power. While Orenstein implies — but again, doesn’t quite say — that my pursuits make me a kind of agrarian dilettante who “dabble[s] in backyard farming,” until the City of Decatur makes it legal for me to keep a herd of goats in my backyard, it’s what I can do, and it’s what I want to do. I’m grateful that I am able.