New Domesticity

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
New Domesticity

This blog is a look at the social movement I call ‘New Domesticity’ – the fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising, etc. Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off? Why has the image of the blissfully domestic supermom overtaken the Sex & the City-style single urban careerist as the media’s feminine ideal? Where does this movement come from? What does it mean for women? For families? For society?       



my mom, my gma and grgma never shrugged it off and they're  or were "feminists". my grgma was a suffragette even. i own my own business. have been a single mom  for 10 years and i cook i can i bake bread and been known to look after MY DAD"S chickens. i think in my case it's because the women in my family consider(ed) themselves eco-feminists long before there was a term for who they were. it's all part of conserving the environment and social sustainability.

+ you control your own means of production and food quality.

my aunt could knit crochet and sew like a seamstress. she also built-plumbed-wired and finished an addition on their home.

i don't really like the pigeon holing of women as having shrugged off domesticity and  are now regaining it. i think  what's happening is that women and men are accepting diversity in gender roles and are doing whatever the fuck they like to do. my dad canned long before my mom took it up seriously. she was too busy working and going to university.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Meh.  Can't get worked up about it.  I know how to sew, but translated that into advanced courses in costume design when I took theatre in university.  I even know how to knit (which I pick up now and then) and even embroider (life is too fucking short).  I love to cook and I make a mean batch of jam.  I can strain jelly, I can can tomatoes.  My Sunday roast is superb and my pies are to die for.  I toy with the idea of beekeeping (I don't like chickens - they're still dinosaurs inside those teeny little skulls and wish they could crush you) and might just take it up one of these days.  I love the idea of trying to make cheese.  Does this make me blissfully domestic?  Well, no.  I'm also a CEO who would not be happy doing domesticity full time. 

I think part of the attraction is that these things are creative and they take skill.  They've also been denigrated because they were gendered activities, so it can feel like you're reclaiming something.  On the other hand, making it the be all and end all of your existence?  How many people really do that?  And for the priveleged few who do ('cause the aspirational home-making a la the blogs usually means there's a partner covering the mortgage) aren't doing in quite the way that it was done back in the day - out of necessity.  This is not your grandmother's home-making, even if some of the actions involved are similar - this is the aspiration to the artisanal. 

Is that a bad thing?  I dunno.  Maybe only if you're pretentious about it and irritate others who can't or choose not to.  A dose of self-righteousness in any context, whether it's as a home-maker or someone working outside the home, makes it hard to be likeable.  Maybe it's not so much the domesticity as the "one true path"-ness of it all.


Several of these activities are only gendered as female if they are done for "free", within the household. Until recently most professional bakers were men, to say nothing of élite chefs and whole categories of cooks, including those in working-class male milieux such as logging and railway building. (Many Chinese restaurants on the Prairies have their origin in the latter).

Timebandit, I have embroidered sometimes, but my own designs.

My mum, who was in the labour market from teens to elderly, was an excellent seamstress (one would say tailor if she were a man). She could make tailored suits, including trouser suits - making good-fitting trousers is harder than good-fitting skirts, and we are of the so-called "womanly" build - that is hips much larger than waists, so it is really working in three dimensions.

I confess I rather resented sewing, because she had attended art college as a young woman, but it was impossible at the time to envisage continuing that, with no family resources whatsoever. I do wish I had learnt to sew better, because the quality of garments available for an affordable price is just dreadful

Isn't it just as much a change that young women are now doing some of these crafts professionally? There are a lot of women in boulangerie courses now, and doing both haute cuisine and cooking and planning menus for hungry workers in "remote" settings.

And that I know a lot of men who do all these things - perhaps sewing and knitting are not as common, to say nothing of chicken husbandry, but they aren't as common among urban women either. In the countryside it is logical to keep chickens or a pig to consume leftovers.

I certainly don't see the Sex and the City chix as any kind of model for women working in major cities. They are very sad consumers of throwaway garments and other stuff, including throwaway relationships. And their lifestyle is absurd in major metropolitain areas, even for women with a good income, due to the price of housing and other necessities.

I think our real problems are elsewhere - precarious work, not enough time for working parents, dismal retirement prospects for many if not most of us.


Timebandit wrote:
aren't doing in quite the way that it was done back in the day - out of necessity.  This is not your grandmother's home-making, even if some of the actions involved are similar


Actually, I do think that some people are learning these skills out of necessity, just as I'm sure that there are some who are also doing it to reclaim them, and others out of ironic hipsterism. Steady employment is something that continues to elude many people of my generation, now in our 30s and early 40s. The need to be thrifty has definitely been one of the main reasons why many people I know have taken up canning, knitting, sewing, and gardening.


I'd say it is one thing when it is an afternoon's diversion taken out of Martha Stewart living, and quite another when you have bushels of produce to process and it is a significant part of your diet, or if you are doing this because you are committed to a philosophy of reduce, reuse and recycle, and strongly dislike seeing stuff go to waste.

And frankly, plenty of those women who did this way back when were the ones keeping their families together, and sometimes providing for a good many others, just like today.

There are plenty of reclaimed arts which are either not so gendered, or not nearly so fashionable, like hanging laundry, re-using old bread, using a cold room, reclaiming rain and grey water, some of the finer points of composting, and battening old houses down down for winter.

I guess all I am saying is to try and avoid taking a superficial, revisionist view of these household arts. Back in the day people did them out of necessity, and many of those reasons are as relevant today as they were back then. Plus in some cases, it is simply better, less wasteful and less harmful  technology.  Having worked both in and out of the house, I do try to keep the mental arithmetic in my head regarding the cost of doing stuff for yourself, and paying someone to do it for you.

I think some of the urge to turn them into fashionable pastimes is the same marketing bullshit that was used to induce people to give them up, and pay for "modern" solutions in the first place. In that sense, I think the conflict is in part an illusion.


ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture


  Interesting questions.  This is something I've thought about a lot over the past few years because I've found myself willingly and desiring to learn and embrace many of these traditionally gendered 'domestic arts.'  It's not something that years ago I would have seen myself doing to the extent that I am.   From the outside looking in I would look like a stereotype of a 'housewife.'  This actually bothered me for quite a while until I realized some fairly significant differences from eras before.   I call it domestic 2.0. 

The main one which I think is the most important is choice.  In eras past, knowing and doing all of this stuff was expected. It was something that women were required to do whether they wanted to or not. Sometimes as requirements for survival and sometimes just cause that's what women did.  It was women's work and predominantly gendered work.   I do it now because I choose to and am interested in it not because anyone or society is telling me I have to. 

Another thing which I've found in myself and in many blogs is what is new found respect for the skill and knowledge that many of these arts use. They are truely arts and skills that have value and not just something easy that anyone woman or otherwise can pick up one day and get it right.  This sounds so obvious now but I think when these things were relegated to 'this is what women do' many fell into the realm where womens work as a whole was and still is valued as somehow less then. 

  My most prominent teacher is my mother.  She grew up on a farm and learned many of these things growing up.  To her they're second nature.  I was exposed to this in my own childhood but it is only over the past few years that I've really tried to learn a lot of it.  There is an aspect of continuity involved which now older I can appreciate. Many of these arts have been passed down through the women in my family for generations and some passed down through community.  My Mom learned to crochet from a neighbor that was well known in her community as a teacher which many yound women went to to learn from.  I think that is pretty cool.  

Now a lot of times when I'm canning I think of my Grandmother who I vaguely remember canning when I visited.  It's through learning from my mother that many stories have been passed on.  When my grandmother got married she was a 'citygirl' and moved to a farm that for many years had no electricity. Something that many in her family apparently weren't happy with.   She had to learn many of these skillls her self and as the stories go she went to her own family members and friends in her new community to learn many of what then were necessities for life on a family farm.  In a way history is repeating itself with me and it's through my own learning that I've garnered a whole different type of respect for what she did and her strength in doing so.  It's no wonder that her daughters and I like to think her granddaughters are such strong and independent women.  I've found an emotional connection to these 'arts' that I didn't ever think would exist.   In turn this has fostered a deeper understanding and interest in women's history both domestic and socially as a whole.  


A couple of people have touched on some of what I personally find appealing.  One is the ecological underpinning, waste not, want not, as well as more self efficiency.  I moved to a rural area so taking up things like canning, gardening and even chicken keeping is something that fits right in.  I'm also really into cooking and learning about it for a number of reasons, health, ecological and with budget in mind.  The money part is interesting because I don't think I'm spending a lot less on food then when I didn't cook as much but my food is much much better.  I've learned to make things from scratch that I couldn't afford to eat all the time if I was only buying pre-made versions.   Things like really good basic cheese and even hummus which I live on daily. 

My aquiring of skills has also gone beyond what has been traditionally considered women's realm.  I've learned how to fix a roof, basic plumbing and a whole lot of other handyperson skills. Pretty much anything to do with having a house (and an old one) is something I will willingly will take on.   This has been driven with cost in mind, it's just cheaper to do it yourself but there is also the independence aspect.  It's quite satisfying that if something needs fixing or changing to be able to do it yourself rather then depend on someone else man or women to do it. I find this liberating beyond just a gendered view of liberation.

Another aspect is creativity and something I've started to explore more.  I think this might be one of the reasons that women and to a certain extent some men are taking this up more.  I've always been an artsy person and have discovered that many of these arts have a creative aspect that is really satisfying on a personal level.  I'm no Martha Stewart and find much of her schtick to be 'ugh' but I can appreciate the underlying creativeness in what she a persons like her do and pass on as something at it's foundation to be good.   It's a matter of sorting through the droll and finding the things that are actually useful and not just fluffy trendy stuff.   


It's unfortunate that these skills have been gendered.  My current and favourite husband does his own sewing and mending (well, sometimes I'll do a bit, but I really suck at sewing ... my grade 8 Home Ec blouse earned me a failing mark).  He's canned his own spaghetti sauce, pickles, etc.  

These are practical skills, whether you live in a city (as we do) or in a rural area.  They're also (as someone mentioned above) creative activities and are immensely satisfying. Here in the privileged West, almost everything we buy is manufactured.  For me, anything handmade is a treat, and making it is even more fun.

I have a friend who loves to knit.  She's also probably forgotten more about cars and small engine repair than most people know.  Not too long ago she decided she wanted to learn how to spin wool, so saved up for a spinning wheel, a hand-cranked carding machine, and is now considering raising alpacas for their wool. I mean, how cool is that?



I think that "New Domesticity" blog is something else again, because it does seem to focus on the cultural rather than the technical aspect - neo-domesticity as a pop culture phenomenon.

And although I didn't read too far, I didn't see anything about men learning those arts, or indeed challenging the gender aspect of those roles at all. There was just that "End of Men" piece which, although it points out that women are sometimes earning more than men, isn't quite the same thing.

Some of the links seem okay, but on the whole I'd say it's not really a take that interests me, though it doesn't outrage me either. Plus, it's a personal, small-scale effort, and as such, I'm disinclined to stomp on it.

I have seen some sites which, although they may talk about lipstick, still have the analysis there. In this case, the jury's still out for me.

I'd say there is an argument to be made that promoting women going back to the kitchen and sewing (rather than diving under the hood of a car) as fashionable is a step backwards. It's not really for me to say. But I'd say that it is all in how you do it.

Where it does get outrageous is when women aren't allowed to leave the home like their brothers because men can't be bothered to cook or clean for themselves - something which still happens far too often.



Timebandit Timebandit's picture

anvils, the blogger is talking about a particular subset of lifestyle bloggers.  The Gwyneth Paltrow-y types.  So she's talking more about the fashionable adoption of these things, not revisiting them out of necessity.  It's not about the thrift but the style of it.

Eliza, I thought of you after posting.  I really enjoyed your post.  I think the big difference is what you said:  "I do it now because I choose to and am interested in it not because anyone or society is telling me I have to."  I also don't get the sense that you're competitive or self-righteous about your choices, either. 


sorry, I didn't realize the subject and discussion was quite that limited

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

It's not, necessarily - I was just trying to clarify what I was talking about.  More that my comment was limited, not the scope of discussion.

ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture

wrong blog


TB ya caught it with the 'one true-path-ness of it all".

doin 'things' from scratch no matter what it is takes skills.  or can fulfill an artistic bent. it could be welding or gardening. i think do it yourself skills have all been devalued. and i mean across gender lines.

lagatta- i think our real problems are elsewhere too.

i moved from city life back to rural 'cause in the city there's no family time if you commute. "disposable relationships" don't happen too much in rural communities.  or in 'cultural' communities. at least the ones i know. then again i after  thinkin a bit 'bout here some segments are forever having disposable relationships. the pentacostal evangelical crowd are always starting a new church. they don't like something they leave and start a new one.

EQ- having skills from your families learned knowlege is priceless IMV. never thought too much 'bout until my late 20's. over the last 5 years have  been applying the skills. i remember more the more i do. i do it from choice  and because i was forunate to have the skill knowlege.

RW- people i know love to get canned jams and jellies for gifts. i've a friend who crochets. we trade str8 across for our products to give as presents to our family and friends. neither of us wants to do what the other does. and we avoid retail world of the same old crap. doing what we love and have skills for makes create gifts.

i think people are are burnt out of retail world and what we're seeing is a revaluing of life skills that were supposed to become outdated.

ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture

Timebandit wrote:

anvils, the blogger is talking about a particular subset of lifestyle bloggers.  The Gwyneth Paltrow-y types.  So she's talking more about the fashionable adoption of these things, not revisiting them out of necessity.  It's not about the thrift but the style of it.

Eliza, I thought of you after posting.  I really enjoyed your post.  I think the big difference is what you said:  "I do it now because I choose to and am interested in it not because anyone or society is telling me I have to."  I also don't get the sense that you're competitive or self-righteous about your choices, either. 


 Thanks. :)   I think the only time I ever approach being self-righteous about it is on the rare occasions that I've been on the recieving end of some critique that even being interested in it and on one occasion that horror upon horror I actually like it isn't somehow supporting 'feminism'. That somehow it's setting women back.  Again the difference to me is the choice.  I could easily choose not too with full support from my partner if my mind changed tomorrow.   I've been known to get rather ranty when that has happened. lol