(Note: Excerpts from the book available from Google Books here)

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I found ourselves in the kitchen in a friendly disagreement about how to properly roast a chicken. It was a simple cooking task that neither of us had ever performed, but wanted to learn. After a few minutes of this-back-and-forth, we were laughing hysterically, incredulous at our situation. Just over a year previously we were both finishing up graduate school, putting in 12-14 hour days of school, work, homework, and volunteering and returning home with just enough energy to cook up some Tuna Helper for dinner. Back then I had no time for or interest in homemaking, which to me seemed a term connected with an era that, as far as women's status was concerned, I had no interest in re-creating. Flash forward to present time and that woman of just a year ago would hardly recognize herself. In addition to debates about which side of the chicken should be placed face up in a roasting pan, the past 9 months have been full of changes and new experiences; making yogurt and homemade bread, shopping at the farmer's market, reading library books about apartment gardens and urban homesteading, purchasing 5 gallon buckets of honey from a local bee-keeper, grinding all sorts of grain I had not known existed, and dreaming with my husband of our future backyard gardens and chicken coop. Earlier this summer I found myself with all sorts of new opinions about food, technology, consumerism, and began to wonder if I had lost my mind.

Seriously, though, beyond my amusement at what I had become (the word granola comes to mind), I was deeply concerned about how my new-found interest in homemaking meshed with my feminist ideals, my expensive graduate education, and my plans to return to the workforce at some point in the future. I felt like I was selling myself short and, at the same time, felt disillusioned with those same feminist ideals that seemed to have nothing to do with my life as a stay-at-home mom of a brand new baby.

That's where Shannon Hayes and her fascinating book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, came to my intellectual and emotional rescue. [1] In these 250-ish pages, I finally had my answer -- the affirmation that "it is possible to be a feminist and to can tomatoes" (p. 6) and more importantly, that there were many other people like me.

Shannon Hayes grew up on a farm in rural New York where she busted her way through school, eventually earning a PhD by the age of 27.  An admitted feminist, she was pressing ahead with her plans for a career and the inevitable two-income family life. As circumstances unfolded, she and her husband found themselves having to choose between moving away from their family's farm and their community to pursue their separate careers, and remaining on the family farm. They chose the latter, and as they began their family, worked the farm, and learned that their "key to success…wasn't necessarily how much money we made, but how much money we didn't have to spend" (p. 11), Hayes began to wonder if there were more people like her and her husband.
She sent out a call through the New York Times for individuals, couples, and families who had "learned to live on less in order to take the time to nourish [their] family and the planet through home cooking, engaged citizenship, responsible consumption and creative living" (p. 15). She received hundreds of responses and, of those, selected 20 very different individuals and couples to interview. These interviews serve as the foundation of her work, which attempts to explain the whys and hows behind this new movement in America -- the return to homemaking.

I was hooked from the moment I read the following on the back cover:

Radical Homemakers is about men and women across the U.S. who focus on home and hearth as a political and ecological act; who center their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change. It explores what domesticity looks like in an era that has benefited from feminism; where domination and oppression are cast aside, where the choice to stay home is no longer equated with mind-numbing drudgery, economic insecurity, or relentless servitude.

Hayes structured the book in two parts; the first provides a philosophical and historical background of political, economic, and social trends that have contributed to the way our society is today. In the second half of the book she describes how the 20 interviewees respond to these trends through their pursuit of homemaking.
The first section of the book is not merely a cursory overview of boring information, but a vital part of her argument that radical homemaking is not just a way-of-life for live-off-the-land hippy-types, but an actual answer to many of the problems that plague our society. Part one is well-written, well-researched, and well-argued, and leaves the reader at least somewhat, if not fully, converted to her views and ready to find out about how to turn her ideas into reality.

Hayes has the ability to take a lot of information from historians, feminists, social commentators, and synthesize it with her own experience to produce very acute observations about the problems that plague our society and how we can move forward. At the core of her argument is the following:             

                  "For about five thousand years, our culture has been hostage to a form of organization by domination…where 'he who holds the gold makes the rules.' By contrast, Radical Homemakers use life skills and relationships as a replacement for gold, on the premise that he or she who doesn't need the gold can change the rules. The greater our domestic skills…the less dependent we are on the gold." (p. 13; emphasis in the original)

To bring readers to this ultimate conclusion, Hayes begins by examining domestic work and how it has changed throughout history to eventually be devalued and delegated to others as it is today. She describes how the industrial revolution replaced the need for home-based skills, distancing the work men and women did from each other, and led to the cultural perception that paid work done outside the home was of more value to society than work done inside the home. Over time, these changes meant that men and women alike both lost the skills necessary to live on a low income. Because they could produce less for themselves, they were all the more reliant on working outside the home in order to earn money to pay for many of those same goods.

At this point in the book when Hayes turns her attention toward the commodification of domestic labor, her writing takes on more force, but she remains successful in being both persuasive and credible. Hayes paints a stark picture of what she calls the "extractive economy" -- an economy that relies on consumption and depletes the life energy of its participants. We have, she argues "come to believe that the viability of the corporate world is integral to our social and individual progress. Corporations provide jobs that pay us money to buy food, houses, cars, new clothes and radios and televisions and movies and vacations…and this has come to be how we define progress" (p. 54; emphasis in the original).

She continues to describe that the sacrifices we have made "at the altar of the extractive economy" (p. 55) are our time (to work on our marriages, spend time with our families, guard our health or pursue creative pursuits) and the vitality of our local communities. "What is the economy for, anyway?" she asks. We have too eagerly outsourced  the work of our lives -- dependent on our cars and on big box stores for the necessities of life, we find ourselves overworked, time starved, isolated, stressed, depressed, and unhealthy. Our quality of life, despite all of our nation's wealth, has not improved much in light of these changes. In fact, Hayes includes well-known research that demonstrates that beyond a certain level of modest income, happiness does not increase.  If our society can be so ill, so depleted of the things that could bring us the simplest of genuine joys, such as sharing a home-cooked meal as a family at the end of each day, even as the end-all to all economic indicators (the GDP) says we are well-off…well, isn't there something wrong with this picture? [2]

An emphatic yes, she argues. In contrast to the world described above, Hayes lays out a path where, GDP-be-darned, families create a life-serving economy that places importance on production over consumption, interdependence over independence, and work done inside the home over work done outside the home. In this construct, the home becomes a life system and a place of creativity and production.

Hayes frequently refers to Betty Friedan's famous work, Feminine Mystique, and Friedan's diagnosis of "the housewife syndrome." Although Hayes accepts Friedan's observation that the typical housewife of the 1960s found herself feeling empty, depressed, and dissatisfied, Hayes' solution to the problem is profoundly different from Friedan's. Rather than advocating that women should seek for their fulfillment in the workforce, Hayes argues that placing value on paid work can be very damaging for society and only increases the already-present contempt for domestic work. Hayes' ultimate thesis centers on changing the way the home is viewed and valued in the world and turning the making of a home into a socially, economically, and culturally important pursuit for men and women alike; one that provides ample opportunity for self-actualization and creative fulfillment (p. 45). The debate here is not about whether women should stay at home with their children.  While Hayes does discuss issues like child care and homeschooling, she frames it in the context of increasing the importance of home life and being self-reliant, rather than in the context of traditional "mommy wars." Women with children staying at home may be one manifestation of restoring the home to a prominent place in society, but there are other manifestations as well. Each individual, couple, and family would decide how to provide for their own temporal needs while keeping the creation and maintaining of a warm, creative, self-sustaining home environment the primary purpose for their existence.

What is so completely refreshing about this argument is that Hayes is not "advocating a throwback to the 1950s" but is envisioning an entirely different type of homemaker (p. 17). In fact, as one reads about how the people she interviewed created their homes, started learning domestic skills, and went against the grain of some of the communities in which they lived, it becomes clear that there are is a group of people in our society who have begun to reappropriate the word "homemaker." Perhaps we Latter-day Saint women (and men) could learn a lesson from that. There are virtually no women of my acquaintance, except perhaps some of my grandmother's generation, who refer to themselves as homemakers. I have certainly never heard a Latter-day Saint man use the word homemaking in relation to himself in any capacity. It is interesting that this "cultural disdain for affairs of the home" (p. 26) has permeated so much about our modern life that nobody uses the term 'homemaking' in everyday conversation. What Hayes offers in her arguments and analysis is a vision of homemaking of which I, and many others, could certainly be proud; one where "homemaking is not something that stands in the way of our deeper fulfillment; it becomes the fertile ground that feeds it" (p. 250).

Because of its emphasis on the importance of self-reliance and centering life on the home, the crux of Hayes' work has powerful implications for Latter-day Saints and their way of life. Hayes argues that the major work of society is performed in the home; a statement that most Latter-day Saints would agree with. [3] But she takes that belief a bit further by also arguing that we need to put homemaking at the "vanguard of social change" (p. 46). This idea is what sets Hayes' work apart and what makes her resounding call to return to the home so convincing. Radical homemaking is not a lifestyle for survivalists or isolationists because it places so much value on community engagement, social justice, and family relationships. Hayes noted that the radical homemakers she interviewed followed a three-stage pattern, the third stage being rebuilding, where homemakers used their skills and passion to go out into the community and make contributions toward rebuilding a new society.  Thus, radical homemakers are not just content to have vibrant, healthy, stable homes for themselves -- they feel compelled to go out and help create that for others. In this vision, women move with ease between home and the world, "with energies for both" (p. 48). This is only possible, Hayes points out, if men return to being full partners in domestic life.

Egalitarian relationships are another aspect of radical homemaking that can and should resonate with Latter-day Saints. Throughout her interviews, Hayes noticed that a hallmark of the partnered radical homemakers was a healthy, strong marriage (p. 121) characterized by shared authority, responsibility, and interdependence (p. 17). The radical homemakers believed this was because of all the time they spent together, working side by side toward common goals. [4] The author was very successful at emphasizing this throughout her work, that homemaking is a pursuit for men and women alike and needs to be an endeavor taken on in the spirit of partnership, whether or not a partner is employed outside the home. This idea is perfectly in keeping with Latter-day Saint doctrine, although regrettably not perhaps as much with Latter-day Saint culture. In a worldwide leadership training meeting conducted in February 2008, church leaders discussed the idea of homemaking in the context of male-female relationships:

Sister Susan W. Tanner: I think as we talk about making a home, we need certain principles, we need certain skills, and the lack of homemaking skills—and I don’t just mean baking bread—has created, I think, an emotional homelessness…we have an opportunity, mothers and fathers working together, to create an environment, to be homemakers, to create an environment that will make a home. Home is not just a place; it’s a feeling, and it’s a spirit.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks: I’m glad you speak of homemaking because homemaking is a word of disparagement in the eyes of some, and it should not be. But we may need to define it. Homemaking is not just baking bread or cleaning a house. Homemaking is to make the environment necessary to nurture our children toward eternal life, which is our responsibility as parents. And that homemaking is as much for fathers as it is for mothers. [5]
Finally, what I find so attractive about the radical homemaking lifestyle is it appears to truly facilitate spending time on the things that matter most. All the radical homemakers Hayes interviewed embraced simplicity, cast aside the pressure to consume, and were generally resourceful, hard-working, and humble. They may be somewhat poor as to possessions and prestige, but they were all wealthy in relationships and time spent "laying up treasures in heaven " (Matthew 6:20).

As much as I am convinced that radical homemaking is in keeping with gospel principles and could provide a framework for modern Latter-day Saint men and women to reclaim lost domestic skills and move forward with a deep sense of purpose, I do find myself questioning whether Latter-day Saints are up to the task. Have we too easily been drawn into the lifestyle of overworking, overscheduling, and overconsumption? To borrow the words of the famous poet, William Wordsworth, is it possible that as Latter-day Saints, "the world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers"? [6]

Many of Hayes' observations about our society had me yelling an emphatic "YES!" as I read, and frequently reading passages aloud to my husband. She excels in her ability to tie many problems together, articulate precisely the damage they are doing to our families and our communities and our own self-fulfillment, and prescribe her solutions in a convincing manner. As much as I found Hayes' arguments both intriguing and convincing, however, I could see some points that were weaker than others (some of which the author acknowledges in her writing) or left me wishing for a more in-depth exploration. [7]

First of all, the word radical did not seem to adequately capture the concept Hayes is writing about. As I have tried to explain the book to family or friends, by the end of my explanation they almost inevitably state "oh…I wouldn't call that radical. It seems like a lot of common sense." In her introduction, the author does acknowledge that she lacked a better word for the "different type of homemaker" she was looking for; "someone who wasn't ruled by our consumer culture, who embodied a strong ecological ethic, who held genuine power in the household, who was living a full, creative, challenging and socially contributory life" (p. 15). It is difficult to criticize too strongly her choice of wording as I myself do not have a better suggestion, but I must acknowledge that the title can initially be off-putting to readers who might enjoy the book despite its title.

Along similar lines, despite the diversity of the 20 individuals and couples Hayes interviewed, many of their lifestyles can also intimidate the reader. She purposely interviewed "radical homemakers" from all walks of life, from people without traditional employment living in solar-powered cabins in small communities to people living on postage-stamp sized lots in the suburbs with regular jobs. Some had spent years living out of a car, working on farms, renting rooms with friends in a trailer home. Others had graduated from prestigious universities with high levels of education and had left high-paying jobs due to stress, starting a family, or health problems or were already pros at radical homemaking and had written books or blogs on the subject of homesteading. As a reader, at times I felt I had a lot in common with the interviewees, and other times I felt they were not like me at all. Whereas I gobbled up part one with the philosophy and background, part two left me feeling a mix of affinity and distance toward her subjects. As a solution, I wish she had included a few more stories from people with average backgrounds who had taken up radical homemaking.

In the latter half of the book the author organizes a chapter on home life around six "impossible things": 1) nobody cares what (or if) you drive; 2) housing does not have to cost more than a single moderate income can afford; 3) health can be achieved without making monthly payments to an insurance company; 4) child care is not a fixed cost; 5) education can be acquired and not bought; and 6) retirement is possible, regardless of income.

A lot of the points made and accompanying illustrations about driving, housing, child care, and retirement were logical and reasonable. On the other hand, the parts about the education system and health insurance were inadequately explored, partly because they dealt with such large, nation-wide problems. One would be hard pressed to find many people who would deny that there are serious problems with health care or education in America. Hayes describes the different ways radical homemakers deal with these problems (almost all interviewees who were parents home schooled their children and about half did not have traditional health insurance) but I found the cursory discussion of these problems and their options unsatisfactory. Often, Hayes or her readers had benefitted from the system they were criticizing (Hayes acknowledged she had a lengthy public education and many of the families who did not pay for health insurance took advantage of government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare), putting themselves in the awkward, and somewhat hypocritical position of not being to offer a better option to the status quo besides "don't participate in public school or health insurance." One glaring omission was the lack of a discussion on the fact that many people must hold traditional jobs in the extractive economy for the simple reason that a family member has an illness or chronic condition requiring health insurance.

Another area that felt undeveloped concerned employment. Hayes makes frequent mention of the four tenets of radical homemaking: ecological sustainability, social justice, family well-being, and community engagement. Many of the 20 interviewees -- if they worked outside the home at all -- only took jobs that were aligned with these values. What I would have liked to see in Hayes' work is a discussion about how to balance and prioritize these interests. Is a job that honors three of the four tenets not worth keeping? For example, what about a public school teacher who works at a school that serves lunches containing unhealthy food (harm to the community) in large amounts of packaging (unnecessary waste and damage to the environment)? What about a public defense lawyer whose caseload is so high he/she misses a lot of family events in the evenings? I am not convinced it would entirely benefit society if we all adopted such an all-or-nothing approach to employment or that there are enough of those ideal, meaningful, not-too-stressful positions to go around. But I suppose if our society was comprised of a lot more radical homemakers than currently exist, the culture at these more traditional workplaces would begin to reflect the values of the people who lead the companies and organizations.

Speaking of leadership, one final issue that warrants further exploration is what happens to society after the loss of mothers' voices in traditional places of employment. If more families were to wake up to the idea that two incomes are not necessary to live well and decide to pursue a lifestyle more in keeping with the radical homemaking philosophy, we would see a huge exodus of women and mothers (some men as well, but the majority would likely be mothers) from the workplace. As the author points out throughout her work, in many ways, this would be very healing for families, the environment, and our society's health. But what was not addressed is how this would affect other aspects of society. Hayes' book seeks to offer another alternative besides the "gilded cage" (silent, invisible women in the home) or the "glass ceiling" (women entering the workforce in an effort to address inequalities between men and women) (p. 38). Radical homemaking is not about staying in the home as almost all the radical homemakers Hayes interviewed were very engaged in their communities. In fact, they testified to the fact that their position and influence was in many ways stronger as a radical homemaker than in the workplace. It is encouraging to see just how much good and how much voice these men and women have, despite their lack of formal positions or titles. In that respect, radical homemaking does present itself as an attractive alternative to traditional employment. What remains unresolved, however, is the gap between the ideal world and reality. The fact is society still needs lawyers, teachers, doctors, politicians, scientists, journalists and more. It is difficult, if not impossible, to serve in many of these positions without obtaining a substantial education, working full time, and building credentials from which to speak. How can there be adequate representation of the voices, experiences, and values of women and mothers if they leave the workplace, likely never to return?

I am sure that Hayes would have interesting responses to the issues discussed above, but one thing I can say in her defense is that Hayes book feels as if it was meant to be more of a confirmation that this type of lifestyle is desirable and possible rather than a prescription for exactly how we should all live. In fact, the 20 interviewees all had approached the issues of transportation, housing, education, health insurance, retirement and child care in very different ways. Hayes seems more than comfortable with the idea that as people adapt the principles or tenets of ecological sustainability, social justice, community, and family, they will be able to work out the details of everyday life in a way that fits their unique circumstances. 

No matter one's circumstances, radical homemaking is within reach, making one change at a time. Using the principles contained in this book, Hayes recently wrote a blog post outlining 10 easy steps anyone can take toward becoming a radical homemaker [8]: 1) Commit to hanging your laundry out to dry, 2) Dedicate a portion of your lawn to a vegetable garden, 3) Get to know your neighbors and cooperate to save money and resources, 4) Go to your local farmer's market each week before you head to the grocery store, 5) Do some spring cleaning to identify everything in your home that you absolutely don't need and donate it, 6) Start carrying your own reusable bags and use them on all your shopping trips, 7) Choose one local food item to learn how to preserve for yourself for the winter, 8) Get your family to spend more evenings at home, preferably with the TV off, 9) Cook for your family, and 10) Focus on enjoying what you have and who are with. Stop fixating on what you think you may need, or how things could be better "if only."  

Because Radical Homemakers deals with everyday life, one would be hard-pressed not to find at least a couple of ideas worth pondering. But this book is particularly fitted to individuals and couples who question the status quo and have contemplated pursuing a simple, creative, home-based life with less emphasis on money, position, and things. If you believe or suspect that two incomes are not necessary to a full and satisfying life, that our consumption-obsessed culture is detrimental to our physical and mental health and that nothing is as liberating as self-reliance, then this book is for you.  

Radical Homemakers sheds light on a current movement and inspires individuals to reclaim domestic skills and create a home-centered life that, combined with modern feminist and egalitarian ideals, can heal the environment, create social justice, and strengthen families and communities across the country. The ideas and lives of Hayes and the people she interviewed are not only fascinating but revolutionary. Ultimately, Hayes' book convinced me that radical homemaking has the potential to transform and heal our society. Radical homemaking is about men and women and communities joining in partnership to create homes in which they can be frugal, self-reliant, free from possessions and free to create. Hayes is not offering a one-size-fits-all model of homemaking. Rather, she is arguing that we adopt the principles mentioned above, center our lives on the home, and not be afraid to be a little different, a little more…radical.



[1] Curious about Shannon Hayes' book and want to learn more about her ideas but don't have the time right now to read Radical Homemakers? Check out Hayes' blog at YES! Magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org/blogs/shannon-hayes/or read some of her other essays online, like "Old Fashioned Homesteading is the New Feminist Career" at http://www.learnvest.com/living-frugally/current-events/old-fashioned-homesteading-is-the-new-feminist-career-109/. [Back to manuscript]

[2] World News with Diane Sawyer aired a fascinating news piece on Thursday, October 13th, about the country of Bhutan and how it places emphasis on Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. Although it has one of the lowest GDPs in the world, Bhutan ranks in the top 10 "happiest" nations as opposed to the US, which ranks 23rd despite having one of the largest economies in the world. [Back to manuscript]

[3] I love this statement by C.S. Lewis, quoted in A Mother's Book of Secrets by renowned LDS author Linda Eyre and her daughter, Shawni Eyre Pothier: "[Motherhood and homemaking] is surely, in reality, the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, mines, cards, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?...[The homemaker's] job is the one for which all other's exist"  (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 580). [Back to manuscript]

[4] Hayes makes the case that one of the prices of high pressure jobs is family time and healthy marriages. This reminded me of a marriage preparation course my husband (then fiancé) and I took at BYU a number of years ago. The well-respected professor, Brother Barlow, told us that one of the most important things he wanted us to remember is that stress is the number one killer of marriages and to keep that in mind as we go about deciding what to fill our time with as a married couple. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Roundtable Discussion, Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting: Building Up a Righteous Posterity, 9 February 2008, available at http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,8027-1-4404-4,00.html (emphasis added). [Back to manuscript]

[6] William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us," 1807. [Back to manuscript]

[7] One minor side note -- some of the environmental language used throughout the book did not resonate well with me. Although I am a big supporter of "green" efforts -- reducing waste, pursuing sustainable methods of energy and production, etc., I found references to the "Earth Community" a little off-putting, perhaps because that is not a part of my every day conversation. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Shannon Hayes, "Live Dangerously: 10 Easy Steps," Yes! Magazine, 28 Jun 2010, available at http://www.yesmagazine.org/blogs/shannon-hayes/live-dangerously-10-easy-steps. [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for this Article: Hulet, Lindsey (2011) "Book Review: Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Culture of Consumerism, by Shannon Hayes," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHuletRadicalHomemaking.html , access date [give access date].

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