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I Have Got a Dun Cow and You Can Make Good Cheese: Are Women Holding Us Back?

“Sukey will you be my bride? Say yes if you please

For I have got a dun cow, and you can make good cheese.

I have got a little pig, and you have got a sty.

Sukey, will you marry me?

Oh aye, by and by!” – Traditional Nursery Rhyme

When I started participating in peak oil and climate change discussions in 2003, let’s just say that the whole thing was much more of a boy’s club than it is now (and in some measure it still is). And one of the laments I most often heard was “we men would be glad to change our lives, but our wives won’t let us – they still want all the trappings of affluence.” Or “No woman will date a man who just wants to farm and grow food.” Whenever I heard these claims, I would laugh and think about how much some women I knew were struggling to get their husbands to give up their creature comforts.

But they keep recurring. Recently Dmitry Orlov wrote about how hard it is to please a woman – in this case, his wife, who wants more creature comforts than a simpler life can provide – and he terms it not so much as how to please his particular wife, but women in general:

“I have thought about this long and hard, and came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a very basic question: “How to please a girl?” After all, any modern, progressive, educated and attractive person begins to scoff if you take away her flush toilet and substitute a bucket, or if she has to go shopping leading a donkey, or if, instead of a shower, she is invited to go and stoke a sauna. From time immemorial status in society has been determined by access to luxury goods. As society becomes richer, luxuries turn into necessities. And when society starts to grow poorer again, it turns out that there is no going back. That is, there is a way back, but it is blocked by the innate tendencies of our clever species. My wife and I spent two years living aboard a very attractive and practical yacht slightly less than 10 meters in length at the waterline, and although the wife understands everything very well, even she cannot stop herself from casting a sideways glance when a yacht like Abramovich’s walks past us, and from making some comment, like “Oh, now this I understand, this is the real thing!” And there is no point in explaining to her that what we have here on board is a very high level of civilization, while Abramovich is just an ordinary consumer. It is very hard, gentlemen, to change the lifestyle, but not change the woman! If someone succeeds in this, then he is a hero and a genius, and we should all learn from him. In the meantime, we are going to live in an apartment, and put the boat on the hard, and install all sorts of solar panels, water heaters, and other technological junk.”

Orlov phrases this in much the same way that many men have phrased it – male attractiveness is tied up in their ability to provide, and women want to be provided with a lot more than men. And that’s probably a fair analysis in some ways – male status is both more and less fungible than female status – female status tends to be heavily tied to physical beauty, and if you don’t have that, there aren’t a lot of ways of compensating. Male status tends to offer a range – you can be extremely attractive, extremely bright, extremely competetive, physically extremely strong and aggressive, or drive a really nice car – but for men who are not affluent and not unusually competetive or attractive, the whole thing rather sucks (I once had a lengthy debate about whether you are most hosed if you are a tall, heavy, extremely bright woman or if you are a beta-male, short, bald male – I concluded in the end that both rather suck if you are looking for love – and that I won the lottery with Eric.)

Now my readership is more than half female, so this sort of thing only occasionally shows up in the comments here – although it still does now and again. But recently I’ve seen this sort of lament elsewhere, and it seems, more frequently - and I’ve seen a new variant of this – people lamenting that more women aren’t like me! I’ve seen it mentioned in several blog posts and essays, and have gotten a few emails from husbands complaining about their wives and comparing them to their (idealized) version of life with me and my canning kettle.

My husband’s comment on the question of whether all women should be like me was “It would serve the men who say that right if they were.” (This is why I am married to my husband, because always says the right – and funny – thing.)

I admit, given that I spent most of my younger years wishing that I was like some other woman (someone beautiful and graceful, ideally), the idea that I’ve set up as anyone’s model partner is just plain funny to me. But it is also a little troubling – it is one thing for someone – male or female – to wish that *they* had my farm life (preferrably without the loud herd of children and probably without a whole of other realities that come with it) or my skill set. It is another thing for someone to wish that their *wife* was like me.

A compelling example comes from Greg Jeffer’s farm blog, in which he rants about the culture of femininity and divorce that keeps farm-wantin’ men in Boca in line. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the compliment, even if I don’t agree with a good portion of his commentary:

So why’d I say “good luck”? I live half the year in Boca Raton, FL, where the poor people have a million dollar net worth, and the rich quite a bit more than that, and I should know – I manage their money! I hear their concerns like a priest in the confessional. Any of those guys even TRYS to move his family to a small holding homestead or ditch the landscaping for a productive garden, or try’s to downsize the familY’y consumption… and it is off to divorce court for his troubles (I truly wish the “Real” American Housewife were more like Sharon Astyk but that that just ain’t the case – America is fascinated by the Reality Show “The Real Housewives of Wherever” precisely because it is, in fact, REALITY). Sorry, but “family law” has left the successful “king of his castle” nothing more than a neutered figurehead, a laboring eunich that, if he so much as steps out of line, will lose his home and life’s savings in addition to the family jewels he lost to the marriage/divorce industrial complex by marrying without a prenup agreement. What is the point of marriage in a society that promotes divorce?

Now my comment would be that maybe Boca isn’t the best place to hunt for the sort of women who dream of farmwifing. But then again, maybe that’s not fair – if the world of even the rich is filled with men panting to get a small homestead and give up their affluent ways, with only wives holding them back with the threat of divorce, maybe there’s hope yet?

So I thought I’d ask the question – are women really more reluctant than men to take on a new way of life? Are women more attracted to creature comforts and more afraid of the future? Is this a gender thing at all? I should note that among me email collection on this subject, I have at least two emails from lesbians, complaining that other lesbians talk about sustainability but don’t really want to live it, and one from a gay man complaining that gay men are all mostly concerned with status and affluence, and don’t want to live sustainably.

My own take on this is that while collapse as a whole, with its radical dislocation of male roles and providers, is probably scarier and more destructive to men than to women; volunteering to live a low energy life probably is more frightening to many women than to men – and for pretty good reasons. Because there’s an excellent chance that the reality is likely to be that the practical burdens of hauling groceries home on a donkey, emptying the composting toilet bucket and stoking the sauna are likely to become the wife’s chores. I don’t think it is an accident that in many cases (and from what I know of him I am explicitly exempting Orlov from this), that the men making these complaints tend to be traditional sorts who don’t share in the household labor equitably. Nor do I think it is coincidental that many women married to more traditional men are unthrilled with the vision of a low energy future, and a return to the bad old days, in which “men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.”

There’s a very funny description of this idea in a 2008 essay in Brain, Child about Shannon Hayes and her forthcoming book on Radical Homemaking (full disclosure, Shannon contacted me about being interviewed for the book, but somehow it never happened – she lives and farms half an hour from me and I can’t believe we’ve never met ;-) ) that probably describes the nightmare vision (and a fair bit of the reality) that haunts most women who think about a sustainable life:

You’re up before dawn. The cow is giving birth in the barn, the turnips are rotting in their beds from all the rain this harvest season, your organic cotton tampon has given way in the night. Your fourth child is teething, and the sourdough starter needs to be turned. You haven’t worn makeup, earned a paycheck, contributed to a 401K or signaled the waiter for another round in five years or more – and you couldn’t be happier. You’re a radical homemaker and loving every minute of it.” (Brain, Child p. 32 Fall 2008 – and thank you Cindy, for sending this to me!)

My laughter was the laughter of recognition, but how on earth would I blame any woman for the bark of laughter that ends with “as if!” Even for a woman with a full partnership with their spouse (and the reality is that women still do a majority of childcare, domestic labor and household management, so radically upping the scale of those chores will, in most cases, fall on the backs of women), in many cases, there is the underlying fear of divorce or widowhood. A society that encourages divorce esssentially requires them to have their own money.

This is where I find Jeffer’s analysis most troubling – and where I least want to be held up as a model for women. Those women in Boca may just be concerned about their nails, but for most women who aren’t millionaires, the fear of adding domestic chores is this – there are only two ways to do it. First, you give up sleep, freedom, time off and do the work at night, after the kids are in bed, after you come home from your job. Or two, if you can and have that luxury, you give up the job – and know that if your spouse is disabled, if they die or, most likely, if you get divorced, you will be radically impoverished, and often left with the kids, if any. Women with children suffer more after divorce in terms of loss of fiscal security, and they recover more slowly, and to lower levels (do not get me wrong, I know that men often lose full access to their children, and that the stakes are high on both sides).

The culture of divorce is dangerous for both sides of the coin – and a tough nut to crack. No one wants people in abusive or destructive marriages trapped there – which is what you get when you stigmatize divorce, or make it more difficult. But no one wants what we’ve got now, either – it isn’t good for men, for women, for children, for families, or for the hope of the kind of deep and stable communities that we need going forward. I don’t disagree wholly with Jeffers on this point, but I don’t quite know what to say about it either.

And this is why I don’t particularly take it as a compliment to hear people say “oh, I wish women were more like you.” Because the only way it works to be more like me is to be more like me *AND* Eric. Right now, I’m working, and today is Eric’s day off. Tonight we’ll be having dinner guests, and this weekend we have more guests coming. While I work, Eric got up, fed the kids, milked the goats, dressed the kids, did dishes. Now he’s taking the three kids to Agway to buy goat vaccine and chicken feed, stopping by a farmstand to pick up brussels sprouts (mine are still small), coming home, reheating last night’s dinner (which he made early in the morning before going to work) for lunch, homeschooling, rebuilding the sukkah that blew down in the wind, grinding cornmeal and making cornbread for tonight’s dinner and sweeping and tidying the house, before taking all four kids to Hebrew school, and trying to sneak some paper grading in around all this. Like me, the man has a full time job, and a farm, and four kids.

Now this is awfully impressive. I’m impressed with him, and very few people meet us without realizing that I’m no wonder woman - I have a wondrous husband and a very fortunate marriage.

The work that he is doing, I did yesterday, when it was my day for the farm and the kids with the kids – but the fact is that you cannot offer a call to arms to women to come back to the kitchen unless everyone else goes with them. If all of this domestic labor were entirely my responsibility, there is no freakin’ way that I’d be able to do it alone – my husband is a full partner in our domestic arrangement – and not a traditional partner, who does the heavy “guy stuff” but isn’t there for the endless daily cycle of chores. I’m not afraid of laundering the cloth diapers, because I know my husband will change the diapers and rinse them out first. I’m not afraid of taking on canning, because I know he’ll be homeschooling the kids.

Moreover, I’m able to take on not-very lucrative jobs like farming and writing because I can trust my husband deeply – I know he’s not going to leave me for another woman, I know that I can trust and rely on him. So if I don’t contribute to a retirement account or pay that much into Social Security, I know barring death or disability, he’ll be there with and for me. He’s not going to pick a pretty face with an air conditioner or a nicer farm – this is a permanent marriage. I can’t say how I know this, merely that I do. But if I wasn’t sure, if I wasn’t really sure that I’d seen his worst parts and he mine and we could do this, I’d be afraid to give up more reliable sources of income and take risks. And no matter how deeply I trust him, trust isn’t really the operative issue when it comes to death, illness or injury, which can happen to anyone. I am taking a risk – and a lesser one than a woman who doesn’t write and doesn’t have a foot in the formal economy.

I think any man or woman, but especially a man, who dreams of a homestead needs to ask himself who he thinks will be doing the canning, the washing of the chicken manure off the porch and laundering those cloth diapers. I do not claim that all men dream of a homestead where the domestic work is magically taken care of by a perfect wife, just like someone’s insane fantasy about who I am (which bears little resemblance to the actual me), but it is worth making sure you don’t have that dream – and making sure that your spouse, male or female, feels absolutely sure that you have done everything you can to ensure that this life will be secure.

But while that gives a sense of why women might be less inclined to choose a low energy life, I’m not sure it really answers the larger question posed – are there more men out there who dream of living a low energy, sustainable life? Are women more attached to their creature comforts, even adjusting for their perfectly reasonable fear of being stuck with all the work, or getting covered in dirt and then being dumped for some nice clean woman?

I can’t run a statistical analysis here – my own readership tends slightly towards the female, and the stories I hear are much more about the trouble of getting husbands to change than wives, but I know it works the other way too. It is certainly women who do the majority of the shopping and consumer culture – one study found that women either made or influenced 90% of all purchases – and not just the things stereotypes would assume, like food or clothing, but also cars, tools and homes and home repairs. The culture of shopping is, in a large measure, a female culture. In that sense, there’s certainly some truth in this.

But so is the culture of making a stable home, of feeding people, of tending to basic needs. For women, much of that has been integrated deeply into a consumer culture – you feed and clothe the people you love by shopping, perhaps by careful bargain shopping. You make a home by buying products and researching good schools. You tend needs by having the right things on hand. But I think the reason this is so deeply tied to consumer culture is that the other, more traditional ways of doing these things have been taken from us – and disdained. Retail therapy exists, of course, but I think it is worth asking to what extent it is a response to a gaping absence in our way of life, rather than an ingrained gender distinction.

The same might be worth asking about women’s preoccupation with male status and affluence – it is probably true that we see in affluence a measure of a man’s ability to supply stability and to provide for our family. But do we see that in status symbols like cars and fancy houses because we are anthropologically cued to respond to any kind of flashy affluence, or because the traditional symbols of the ability to provide – a piece of land, a healthy body, gentleness with children, a goodly number of goats ;-) , facility with a spear, good mammoth barbecuing skills – are mostly gone, and we are using false cognates to substitute for something we could instinctively find superior? That is, money is only status in a society that has discarded self-provisioning – will more women like men with dirt under their nails if self-provisioning makes a comeback?

What I do think is that male status markers change much more rapidly and fundamentally than female ones do – to use one example, think about the degree to which modern society largely eschews male violence. Male physical prowess hasn’t been entirely overcome – but male aggressiveness has in some measures. Instead of physical aggressiveness, status markers for men now emphasize economic aggressiveness, and domestic violence, while still a painful reality, is no longer as normative as it once was – in fact, most of the women I know believe that men who are gentle to women and children are more attractive than those who aren’t – something not up for discussion when violence between spouses and by parents was concealed as normative. The rise of geek culture contains in it a truly radical overthrowing of masculine models – now some people may argue that this is emasculating, and certainly there are still plenty of women attracted to the physically aggressive alpha type. But I still would argue that there is a fundamental shift under way – we are selecting for gentler men as a society. This is non-trivial, if only partly underway.

Female status markers are much more fixed – standards of beauty have changed over time, but the fact of female beauty has tended to eclipse other factors - much as I’d love to see intellectual brillance and the ability to make good cheese as major drawing factors for dating women, I’m not expecting it anytime soon. If there are to be changes, I think that it is more possible to change markers of male status – that is not to say that this is easy, merely that it is more viable.

The really good thing is that we all exceed our genetic programming sometimes – witness the fact that I have an adorable, wonderful husband who thinks I’m beautiful, even though I’m not, and also really likes that I’m smart and mouthy. I know a number of poor, short, bald men married to women who like them just that way, and find affluent guys with nice cars to be assholes. A big part of the problem is finding the match – if you married on grounds other than your mutual taste for digging carrots, the discovery that digging carrots is part of the deal is going to be problematic. Nor do we want this to be another unattainable standard – as in “Now I’ve got to be sexy, blond *and* milk a cow?” Or “Now I’ve got to have ripped abs, provide her with a lovely home and get up at 5 am to pick rutabagas?”

Such a process will take a long time. And since most of us didn’t pick our spouses on the grounds of their agrarian gifts (I have got a dun cow, and you can make good cheese), I suspect there will, for a long time, be men and women, each of them lamenting that men in general, or women in general, or the ones they meet or marry don’t seem to value the same things they do.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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