Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes
In Radical Homemakers, Hayes paints a picture of families that have at least one partner who is not traditionally employed, who farms and homeschools and cans vegetables and builds a community of like-minded people hoping to save the world through this environmentally conscious domestic work. They are not homemakers in the June Cleaver sense of the word, but people who have made careers of their home life through frugality, domestic skills, and ingenuity. In the first half of the book, Hayes outlines the theory behind the choice these people have made, why the American economy destroys families and the environment, and why opting out of it is the best, most sustainable and life-giving choice for these families. In the second half, she describes the practicalities of making this lifestyle work, including the tangible and intangible skills necessary.
I sympathize greatly with the anti-materialist, environmentalist aims of Hayes and her profiled homemakers. She is right when she critiques American culture’s obsession with stuff and status and the family-hostile inflexibility of the modern workplace. There are some passages in the book that are almost inspiring in their depiction of a life free from the “extractative” economy and its depredations of family life. It almost makes me want to follow their footsteps. However, I have no interest in gardening, urban or otherwise, or in any of the crafts that make these people’s lifestyles possible. This kind of work would be more grueling and unpleasant for me than my current job, or almost any job I can imagine having, so I cannot imagine making this choice myself. The book makes me feel kind of guilty to realize this about myself, as if it’s a moral failing of mine. I’m actively participating in making the world worse because I’m too lazy to plant a tomato. Wow.
To me, the most unrealistic part of the book was the discussion of health care. Many of the homemakers have one partner with a ‘normal’ job that provides benefits for the family. Some others buy health insurance on their own. Some of them have obtained health care for their children through welfare programs. But many others have freely chosen to live without health insurance. They are quoted discussing how their all-organic diets are the best preventative medicine available. I think this was the point in the book where I stopped taking Hayes and her homemakers very seriously. For me, the sheer delusion that this choice evidenced, the insane daydream of believing that a catastrophic injury or illness will never happen to you undermined all of the homemakers’ other pronouncements.
This book challenged me and made me rethink some things about my own choices as a worker and consumer. I think if I were to apply this book’s lessons to my own life, it would look somewhat different–and less crunchy–than the homemakers’, and that’s ok.