Monday, 12 September 2011

Focaccia and Feminism

This weekend we had two birthdays; City Boy's friend on Friday, for which we ventured to a pub in Borough, and a barbeque at one of my best friends' house on Saturday evening. We were very English and stoically babequed through torrential rain showers, sheltering under a gazebo.

I had brought along tomatoes from the garden and baked a rosemary and sea salt focaccia. I also brought along a jar of the vanilla honey peach butter I made last week and freshly baked oat chocolate chip cookies because they're the birthday girl's favourite. I had knitted a hot water bottle cover for a birthday gift.

When the other girls complimented my homemade efforts I shrugged them off, saying that I'd spent the last few months on the sofa with not a lot else to do with my time (why women, including myself, so often dismiss their efforts in this way is a whole other post). But when I left, a girl who I hadn't seen in a few months, who is in fact very lovely, said something that has stuck in my mind ever since:

"I hope your back gets better soon, so you can stop all this domesticity shit and go back to work and use your brain again - otherwise soon you'll open your law books and not be able to understand a word."

She didn't mean to be nasty in anyway at all, and yet this comment has been bothering me. Perhaps not so much on my own behalf - I bake and cook because I enjoy it, because I like to eat and feed my loved ones good food. I sew and knit in my spare time because I find it relaxing, fun and because I can have custom fit clothes and hand knit scarves and gloves to wear. Because I can't sit in front of the tv without some yarn and needles in my hands. Because my job leaves little room for creativity, so I choose to fulfil that need at home. Because, despite what well-meaning friends may think, deciphering a lace chart or drafting a pattern for cabled gloves can be mentally stimulating. I can do all this and be proud of my professional acheivements.

But what about those women who don't have a professional life? The women whose life's work is raising children and homemaking. Do other women, including my successful, independent friend, value this work done in the home so little? Is her passing comment indicative of a wider view?

This is clearly a much wider topic than I intend to give room to here. Feminism and domesticity have always been uneasy bedfellows and it's been discussed many times before, far more eloquently than any thoughts that I have to offer. I was reminded of the controversy stirred up by Jane Brockett's book a few years ago.

I've always been interested in feminist theory and in fact completed my masters dissertation on feminist legal theory, but I'm not sure that I've ever been so directly forced to consider my own choices and the notion that I may be hindering rather than helping the feminist cause.

The easiest argument for homemakers to fall back on is that feminism allows women to choose how they spend their life, and they can choose to spend it in the home. This is partly true, in that feminism has opened paths that were not previously available to women, but just because a choice is now available to women does not mean it's a helpful one to make. Being female certainly doesn't make mean you are automatically a card carrying feminist. I also think the argument that it's all a big sisterhood and women should stick together and respect each other's choices rings false - I'm afraid I'm not going to hold back on criticism simply because someone has boobs.

I think, ultimately, valuing the work women do in the home is more complicated than being solely a feminist issue. As a society we will always hold some jobs in higher esteem than others and I'm not sure that many parents of my generation would wish for their child to grow up and stay at home. But we don't necessarily value jobs by the salary they command: someone who works for charity for a pittance is perhaps held in higher esteem than a solicitor, a teacher deemed more worthy than an estate agent, so why do some  people view the role of a homemaker, who works for no salary, as less worthwhile than a job in the city?

I think people don't like to see wasted potential, which is why parents strive to give their children the best education possible. But if someone who could have been a successful career politician chooses to stay home to bring up their children instead are they squandering their potential? And even if you can answer yes to that question, does it matter if it means they are happier? Do women have some sort of duty to put the feminist cause above their own wishes?

I do think that women have to be mindful that the choices they make have the capacity to affect other women and I feel that the current vogue for domesticity should be approached with caution. It certainly makes me a little uncomfortable when women who have grown up as beneficiaries of the women's movement proudly proclaim that they are content to stay home and make it pretty. It touches on issues of class and privilege as well; I am yet to read a blog espousing the virtues of snuggling under a homemade quilt in a clean warm house by someone who has to support their family through paid domestic labour every day. There are more than a few women out there writing from a  position of privilege, supported financially by men, who hold up their way of life as an ideal.

Women certainly haven't won the fight for equality yet, and we can't afford to lose the ground gained at this point. Neither can we afford to take those battles hard won by past generations for granted. I do find it distasteful that so many clever and articulate women seem to want to play at being fifties housewives when our grandmothers and great grandmothers fought so hard to be valued outside of the home. I don't feel that women who are simply lucky enough to have the time and money to make beautiful homes and raise well-dressed children should be held up as role models. There are far more important things that women have to offer. But there are also many talented, inventive, smart women out there who make beautiful things and whose work shouldn't be devalued just because it's traditionally done within the home.

I am finding it incredibly difficult to come down on one side of the argument or the other. I think, like so many other things, the trick is finding a balance that you're comfortable with and I don't think that a life can be lived based on a point of principle. I enjoy cooking an elaborate meal from scratch but I expect City Boy to load the dishwasher after. I often yearn for a few quiet hours at home with my knitting needles but I need the stimulation of the work place as a counter point. I can ice a cupcake but I can also hold my own in the board room. Where the balance lies is a personal decision for every woman, but I think we have to make that decision thoughtfully and not neglect our own ambitions in favour of those of our partners and children, which women seem to do all too easily.

As for tonight, I'm going to finally knit the inch and a half of ribbing on the sleeve of this orange cardi so I can start knitting what I really want to be knitting.

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