Recently, we rewatched The Stepford Wives (on VHS on a tiny tv because that’s just the vintage way we roll at our cottage) and I was struck by the distaste that the protagonist, played by Katherine Ross, has for basic domestic tasks. Her goal in life is to become a photographer, despite an obvious complete lack of talent incidentally, and all of the tasks that are involved in running the huge, gorgeous house she’s been saddled with are anathema to her. She realizes, eventually, that the other Stepford Wives who “dabbled in women’s lib” as she did in New York have all become, literally, slaves to domestic routine, taking obvious pleasure in baking bread, keeping their kitchens sparkling clean, and ironing with spray starch, she eventually realizes that it’s all a bizarre technological conspiracy involving the replacement of real humans with robots. Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you, but, in the words of Holden Caulfield, there’s nothing to spoil, for christ’s sake. It’s kind of a terrible movie, to tell you the truth.
But what really struck me about this movie was the deep contempt with which all of the non-robotic characters regard domestic duties and how degraded and trapped they all feel by the demands of running a house and raising children. I mean, yes, yes. I get it. It wasn’t exactly an equal domestic partnership in those households and, certainly, if I were trapped in the Connecticut countryside, married to Walter, and thwarted every time I tried to express myself, I’d probably hate making jam and cooking a kick-ass arroz con pollo too. I’m also aware that this is, after all, a Hollywood movie and not a primary historical document, but I think it did somewhat reflect the zeitgeist of the age, and the low status and respect accorded to “homemaking”. Going by this movie and my fuzzy memories of the mid-70s, all strong, self-aware and conscious women should be out finding themselves , hot-tubbing and eating fondue or whatever. We’ve come a very long way in our attitudes toward domesticity, and I found myself a little offended by the lowly status of jam-making and biscuit baking. That shit is not easy, man! I still can’t make particularly good jam.
So, I’m glad there’s a name now for the movement that I was a part of before I even knew there was a movement: radical domesticity. As in Shannon Hynes Radical Homemaking I really believe that refocusing much, if not all, of your energy toward your home, family, and community can be a political act of defiance. It’s not defiance of feminism, at all; I’ve considered myself a feminist since I can remember thinking about such things, and my interest in the latest styles of floor tile or the best way to get your whites really really white doesn’t diminish that identity in any way. In fact, in my worldview, it enhances my feminism because, you know, I’ll make my own choices, thank you very much. If I want to teach at a university during the day or write weird stories and then make brownies at night, or take six months off from work to renovate my house, that’s what I’ll do because to reject any of those things as “inappropriate” for some political reason is to deny parts of my identity and personal history.
Some of my favourite famous cooks are fully grounded in the radical domesticity world. I think of Jack Monroe at Cooking on a Bootstrap (https://cookingonabootstrap.com/) who seamlessly fuses political commentary with conscious and inexpensive food prep and consumption. Her blog is full of both, as is her more personal Twitter feed. She’s fearless and tough, and I’m definitely going to try her Aubergine and Lentil Vindaloo (https://cookingonabootstrap.com/2016/01/29/aubergine-and-lentil-vindaloo-vegan/)