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Radical homemaking, radically enriching

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I first heard about Shannon Hayes work through Laura McKenna's blog nearly two years ago. I was already disposed to like the sorts of localist, agrarian, and traditional causes that Hayes urges us to consider when I first read about her (after all, Melissa and I vaguely aspire to that sort of lifestyle ourselves), but it was Laura's concluding line--"There is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism"--that really pulled me in. When I finally got a copy of Hayes's book, Radical Homemakers, I confess it wasn't what I expected--rather than a serious, theoretically grounded critique of consumer culture, family life, and the structural obstacles that often stand in the way of adopting a simpler, more communal lifestyle, I found an often sloppily researched but nonetheless impassioned instruction manual-cum-rallying cry. A cry and a manual for what? Very simply, for rejecting the economic demands which insist of dual-income households (p. 17), for relearning how to grow and preserve your own food (pp. 78-83), and for refusing the economically and environmentally devastating materialism of modern American life (pp. 93-94). And I thought to myself: now, wouldn't this make for a great Relief Society lesson?

Relief Society, for those who don't know and actually care (a pretty small number, I'll admit), is the historical label given to the Mormon church's women's organization--the general principle being to bring together the women of the church as a charitable, educational, and service unit. The organizing conceit here was, of course, very much a thoroughly 19th-century gendered assumption, an assumption which remains--for good and for bad--a part of Mormonism's official doctrinal rhetoric: namely, that women are more naturally empathetic than men, and so will of course find greater fulfillment through the providing of "relief" to their community and others around them. The history of the Relief Society is, in fact, a pretty fascinating and revealing guide to how the Mormon church as a whole first struggled against, then later struggled to acclimate to, modern American life. But what most attracted my interest was the parallel between, on the one hand, Hayes's (often flaky, but also often insightful, and always passionately and persuasively stated) arguments which reject much our media-drenched, money-and-gadget obsessed consumerist world, and embrace the ideal of the homemaker as someone able to help produce healthy, sustainable, durable goods and services for themselves and their community, and on the other hand, the long-standing Mormon Relief Society practice of "enrichment".

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a panel discussion (at this conference, with the wonderful people you see on the left) which took off, in many different directions, from Hayes's insistence upon thinking seriously about just what "making" a simple, sustainable, spiritually-edifying "home" truly consisted of. What I wanted to do was plant some seeds of discussion (seeds which grow in surprising directions in Hayes's book), presenting the "home" as something other than a unit of consumption, other than a place where individuals rest their heads and eat their meals and watch their television shows, all of which require ever-increasing (and often debt-driven) economic participation to keep going. In preparation for that, I asked a Mormon audience exactly what kind of "homemaking" and "enrichment" activities their local congregations still participate in, if any. The answers were, to say the least, revealing. And they should be--for some decades, extending for many years out beyond Mormonism's 19th-century pioneer period, the ability to live frugally, to share resources and skills with family and friends so as to become self-sustaining, to basically dissent from the pursuit of wealth and growth, was an unstated principle of a great deal that Relief Society did. Enriching the home meant making it more tendable, more nuturable, more amenable to (one might say more "organic to", but such language is unfortunately foreign to most American Mormons, whether in the 19th century or today) the work and production and play of those who live there, rather than more dependent upon the size of the paycheck brought home and the caprice of the market in general. That distant ideal remains a half-life existence throughout much of Mormon culture (and not just Mormons--Laura McKenna, who confessed herself highly attracted to much of Hayes's call, has made clear her own disposition to the "pioneer virtues" of "making do or doing without" before as well).

Part of this story, of course, can't be told without talking about Mormonism's ultimately mostly abandoned effort to develop a truly alternative--more communitarian, more egalitarian, more localized--culture and economy in Utah. This is part of why I'd love to see Hayes's book be the centerpiece of a Relief Society lesson: because in the mostly conservative, mostly middle- and upper-class white American Mormon church, Hayes's righteous attacks on capitalism as an economic system which drives us to debt and competition, invades the sanctity of the home which consumer values and fears, and commodifies and individualizes our most intimate and emotionally connective choices...well, it might not go over too well. But then again, if it was stated by way of quoting 19th-century church leaders and passages of scripture which make essentially the same point, maybe some real enrichment could be possible.

The other elephant that would be present in the room, which any Relief Society taking up my challenge ought to consider, is why should be the Relief Society that thinks about "homemaking" and "enrichment", as opposed to any of the men's organizations in our church? It's an important question--for Hayes clearly envisions to inspire both partners in any family unit to turn aside from the rat race, return to the home, and engage in the sort of practical work necessary to achieve real sustainability, simplicity, and health. When she rants (and she often does) about how "[w]e have lost the innate knowledge and tradition crafts essential to countless functions for our daily survival, with the end result being a disconnection from our communities and our natural world" (p. 83), none of her words pertain to the female partner over the male, or vice versa. But she's no stupid; she's fully aware of how her call to reject the rewards of the market will go over with most of the second-wave feminists among us--feminists who, she believes, have traded in the birthright of building freer, cleaner, more beautiful and more just homes for the cash rewards of the workplace:

In running the homemaking banner up the flagpole, I understand that I may garner two different salutes--one with a full hand lifted respectfully at eyebrow level, and a second where only a single finger is raised. For generations now, the homemaker banner has come to represent two primary struggles. In the first, the homemaker is viewed as a subservient loser in the battle of the sexes, where a man has presumably gained power over a woman if she stays home. In the second struggle, woman faces off against woman; the struggle for autonomy, self-fulfillment, and economic independence is pitted against society's need for nurturers (p. 23).

Tweak a few words here and there, and you can could find words like these coming from the mouth or pen of any one of a dozen well-known female "backlash" authors, including Mormon ones--concerned women who think, like Hayes, that modern American life and modern American feminism are serving the family wrong. But how many would recognize the way in which these ideologies and practices are disrupting the very simple, very conservative, very traditional ideal of the home? Would they see, as Hayes does, that exploring and defending the construction of the home obliges one to stop thinking so much about the behavior of those within the home--which is their preferred route--and instead to contemplate more about the ugly fact that we our complicit in a system which places a price tag on all those behaviors, both good and bad? Well...maybe if the Relief Society instructor was a particularly good one, they would.

My fellow panel participants opened up the discussion of "making" a home to all sorts of considerations--personal, sexual, and theoretical; they talked about church programs, economic resources, psychological growth, and political justice. I think Hayes's would have been pleased with their "radicalness", even if she might have wondered about some of their conclusions. Asking the questions she asks is, after all, the first step. Now, getting someone to make Radical Homemakers--with all its sometimes-crazy-but-just-as-often-insightful suggestions regarding transportation (p. 126), home ownership (p. 130), health care (p. 139), child care (p. 154), education (p. 160), and savings (p. 176)--a manual for an Enrichment lesson...well, that would be the next one.

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