Sunday, March 21, 2010

Feminists Don't Have to Eat Fast Food

Peggy Orenstein's recent New York Times article 'The Femivore's Dilemma' really struck a chord with feminists across the internets. In the last couple days I've seen the term 'femivore' (which Orenstein says is a combination of feminist and locavore) defined as everything from sapphic to misogynist cannibalism, and I'd have to agree that it's an unfortunate coining etymologically speaking.

Orenstein's concept of femivores arises from her friends who are raising their own chooks, and from Shannon Hayes' book Radical Homemakers, that is, strong, intelligent women (and men, as it turns out) who are choosing to produce food in their own backyards as a way of nurturing themselves, their families and the planet. Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of negative responses to the idea that it is only women who are involved in the locavore movement, or indeed 'downshifting', 'voluntary simplicity', Slow Food or any other version of 'slower', less consumerist lifestyles.

It seems there are three primary threads then that require unravelling: gender, class, and sustainability. On gender, the most compelling argument for home food production and locavorism as intrinsically tied to feminist practice is that women are still by far the majority of the world's domestic labour force. Before anyone starts yelling 'my husband does most of the cooking' (and to wit, my own partner is a regular and good cook, does most of our laundry, and is a passionate home gardener), I am not suggesting that men don't do these things, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian women in fact still do two and a half times more food preparation and cleaning up than men,whether they work outside the home or not.

One of ecofeminism's claims is essentially that the patriarchy got us into this unsustainable capitalist mess, and feminism might just be able to get us out of it. Julia Russell puts it quite plainly in 'The Evolution of an Ecofeminist': 'I call it the politics of life-style and I think it is a distinctly feminine politics in that it is both inner and universal, personal and all-inclusive. It is based on the understanding that lasting societal transformation begins with and rests on transformations of the individual.'

Russell's valorising of individual responsibility perhaps leads us to the heart of claims that there are insurmountable class issues with so-called 'femivorism'. Admittedly, Orenstein's 'femivores' appear to all be white middle-class women. But Lindsay Beyerstein's vituperative response “'Femivores'? Spare me.” is disingenuous sour grapes to the extreme. Beyerstein's argument is tired and reductive. While I don't believe anyone is suggesting that backyard gardens are equivalent to running a commercial farm, they are apparently important enough as to be encouraged by governments in times of war to address food shortages. Gardening can indeed be as simple as a hobby, but it can also be a significant means of saving money, ensuring the quality and freshness of one's food, and reduce one's carbon footprint substantially, and it is certainly hard work sometimes, as well as deeply pleasurable.

Beyerstein even attempts to elide the importance of nourishing one's children if you choose to have them, with her hyperbolic question: 'How about figuring out how to share domestic labor more equitably so that SAHMs have more free time to spend as they see fit, even if their hobbies don't fit the stereotype of maternal perfection?' Sure, domestic labour should be shared more equally, that's a given. And of course mothers should have time to themselves without the constant pressure of the Good Mother mythology. But frankly, one's tennis lessons (mother's or father's) are not in fact more important than feeding one's children. And feeding your children well is at the core of good parenting, not external to it. Taking kids to swimming, tennis, guitar and dance lessons every weekday does not automatically a good parent make. Feeding them healthy food every day so they grow up without chronic illness or obesity is one essential component of good parenting. There, I said it, and now I'll wait for those who would shrug off this essential duty to our children to attack me for not being a good feminist, because apparently feminists eat fast food.

Is it only middle class stay-at-home mums who 'have time' to cultivate a garden and cook wholesome food? Obviously not – families of many classes and cultures engage in gardening and cooking. And in fact, it is often those with the most spare time with partners in the highest income brackets who are least likely to spend their time on food production. By contrast, there are 18 community gardens in Melbourne's public housing estates, with over 650 individual plots tended by residents.

It is obviously not just white middle-class privilege to have a thriving home garden, it's for anyone who cares about their own, their families' (if they have one) and the planet's well being. It is also not just drudgery, and a new way to chain women to the kitchen sink. Our culture's sense of entitlement to a life of convenience and uber-consumerism is neither making us happy nor providing our children with a future. Anecdotally, we talk of the Greek and Italian migrants of the 50s and their backyards full of tomatoes and fruit trees, plus the annual sugo making led by somebody's nonna. For many, these traditions are being lost, whilst for others they are just being discovered.

At a salami making day I attended last winter, a third generation northern Italian claimed that even the 'Skippies' are getting into 'the old ways' now, and someone else quipped, 'people are calling them 'foodies', when all they are is wogs!' The excellent group blog Progressive Dinner Party is awash with women one might call ecofeminists (even if they don't), and the stories you find there make it obvious how much pleasure is gained from growing, cooking and eating their own produce or that sourced from responsible producers. There is unquestionably satisfaction, pride and pleasure in being competent and/or skilled in the garden and/or kitchen.

In my research, I am finding that for those who have the requisite kitchen skills, consciously practising frugality (in terms of purchasing and re-use) is a powerful form of agency, and one that evident across class and culture. One of my interviewees, an Anglo Australian woman in her seventies, is frugal through both habit and necessity, and expresses a great deal of pride at being so. She says it is just 'common sense' not to waste or overspend. A Vietnamese-Australian couple who arrived as political refugees in the 70s echo her arguments for common sense, and further claim to feel 'smart' about their sustainable and homely practices. And their son, born in Australia, also insists that he feels quite proud about his more frugal habits, such as never wasting leftovers, and in fact 'ashamed' when he is wasteful, either in terms of unnecessary consumption or food waste. A key point is that none are expressing resentment at behaving sustainably, rather it gives them enormous satisfaction.

Ultimately, it is not only a feminist issue to engage in homely and sustainable food production, though feminists will have a particular interest in it. The need to provide education and opportunities to develop skills in gardening and cooking is evident in the plethora of issues facing us, from climate change to obesity, and from depression to loss of entire food cultures. And perhaps most importantly, there is an urgent need to understand and promote the intrinsic value and deep pleasures of quotidian 'chores' such as growing and chopping your own garlic.


Another Outspoken Female said...

*swoon* Wonderful piece. If my head didn't hurt so much right now I'm sure I could make a more insightful comment. I get very excited whenever I see the words "voluntary simplicity" - it's part of my philosophy....must talk about it next time.

Feminists can also resists the smug charms of George Colombaris trying to seduce them into to buying sausages from the supermarket chain he endorses. Good as his mum's? Pigs arse.

Anonymous said...

I could cry. Brilliant. Thank you Tammi.

Tammois said...

Thanks Gill & Helen! I reckon it's important to spread the word on the pleasure of living a sustainable lifestyle. :-) xo

@silverbeet said...

Whether the label is femivore or ecofeminist doesn’t matter. The issue is around women and ecology, or sustainability, particularly via the deliberate use of local produce, so local in fact, as to be from one’s own home. Yes it is gender weighted, for the reasons you give. Class may be a contributing factor, but your observations are interesting. And sustainability is obviously core. The good parenting component is at root non gender specific, yet I suspect mothers in general spend more time in active parenting than do fathers. And choosing to be home-based frees one up to be not just an ecofeminist, but a more active parent.
I particularly like your final sentence, about intrinsic value and deep pleasure. Obviously there are very sound reasons for the ecofeminist choice, but these are grounded in the intrinsic values of family, health, the earth, and providing for the future. And the pleasure is certainly so deep that it makes acting on these grounds not bearable but enjoyable. Many women (and men) have been distanced for too long from earth’s sensory delights. For many people, years of daylight hours spent at desks, keyboards and in sterile conference rooms wears thin. One does not then easily give up the newly rediscovered feel of a freshly-laid egg in one’s palm, a hen’s warm body under one’s arm, the smell of moist soil, tomato leaves, fresh herbs. The joy of sun, sweat, dirt, and productive exercise. The visual delights of fruit and vegetables still connected to their foliage. The resistance of dough under one’s hands. The instant gratification of baking, as an endeavour not only nourishing, but creative. These aspects shouldn’t be underestimated, nor undervalued.

naomi said...

Great post, lots of thoughts and questions swirling. You are right about resenting the ecofeminism tag - too many bad memories of doomsayers preaching separatism for my liking. I can also quash allegations of gardening/chook rearing being something SAHMs do, because I am a single mum who works full time and I still do that.

Growing food and caring for my hens is a combination of many things. I grew up with chooks, so having them around is natural and comforting (plus I love animals and they provide fertiliser).

It is good raising my son to know where his food comes from. I like reducing food miles by gardening. I waste much less food, because I can harvest as I need it. I enjoy the gluts, because packing them into the freezer or making jam is happiness itself.

But, if I was to be honest, I really don't think I save that much money by doing all this. At least I haven't thus far. Capital expenses in the first two years have included around $700 on coop/wire, plus $60 on chooks (one of whom went AWOL). They cost at least $10 a week to feed, and they don't consistently produce $10 a week of eggs, or even poo enough to justify their existence.

Veges aren't cheap either, even if you do plant from seed (and I mostly do). To buy and run my freezer, assuming 10 years life, is $700. The timber and fixings for my six raised beds cost about $300, and it's too scary to add up tools, hose fittings, lime, blood and bone and compost bin materials. If you need new soil, that costs too, as does manure. As I can't yet afford a tank installation, I pay extra water bills. Then there is the time, and time is money. My fruit trees cost $800, a suburban block can't provide enough mulch/fertiliser for them, and they need water too. Of course it feels like I am eating for free during peak production periods, but if I am to be brutally honest, it's not actually saving me much money.

So it's not REALLY about frugality. Maybe I feel frugal sometimes, but I can't delude myself for too long about that. Feeling skillful is part of it (something you've written about before) and it is awesome waggling my green thumb for all to see, while I steadily close the carbon cycle on my little block. It's also great for my boy to see all this, and be involved in it.

But, if I'm to be really honest, gardening is my leisure time. It's my time out in the sunshine, out of the office, away from whatever writing task I've signed myself up to and away from my kid. I get fit doing it, and the pay off is better tasting food than you can get anywhere else. The best days ARE the ones where I spend the day in the garden, then wash dirt off my hands to cook. But I really think all that's much more about me showing off and feeding my own face than anyone else.

Forgive this long ramble. It was a roundabout way of getting to the point of being able to say that what's missing in both these articles is any sense that, actually, gardening is fun and recreation and really not like any sort of work at all and certainly not like being cooped up in a house with a couple of cranky kids. So maybe that's why those SAHM mums are out doing it?

Another Outspoken Female said...

ps: like silverbeet said (but without a hangover:)

beeso said...

Great post. I find it interesting on a few levels. I think that soon we might have domestic equality, but not because men will learn the skills but because women will lose them. We have already lost to a large extent the unthinking productive backyard. Now it is people who think and care about food who have chooks and fruit trees, it wasn't that long ago that those things were more
common than a family car.

For all the talk in this country about what version of history to teach there is precious little zeal to teach people the basics of cooking or growing. In the long run what will be more important.

I know what I think, that's why I bought lantanaland, plant as many fruit trees as I can, grow my own eating chooks, keep bees and am saving for a cow. I try to and will continue trying to expose as many people to it as possible, I'll feed anyone, in the hope that they'll go away with a sense of satisfaction they won't get going thru a drive thru takeaway

stickyfingers said...

Thanks for that great post. I think we discussed the genesis of it on twitter and in the flesh over the weekend, so it was great to see it manifesting as a post.

In my opinion the ecovore philosophy is most often played out by educated, nurturing souls. Many of these are women who have the instinct to nurture others. I don't think it is by coincidence however that most of them are also feminists; no more than you could believe that it's merely a coincidence that educated women are also feminists.

Eschewing the multinational convenience food ethos can be derived from higher learning and intellect, or from being raised in a culture that embraces sustainable, local and ethical eating practices.

Certainly for some, the notion of pursuing an ecovorian lifestyle doesn't kick in until children have come into one's life, but for others it comes as a natural extension of respecting the world's resources, animals, fellow human beings etc and the desire to establish a positive food legacy to leave to future generations.

As someone who works in marketing and advertising I have long been aware that supermarkets and Quick-service-restaurants perceive the ecovore movement to be a trend on which they wish to enjoy the benefits of the ripple effect. Consequently there is evidence of them falsely pushing the barrow of Sustainable, Organic, Local & Ethcial (SOLE) produce, which I find totally hypocritical.

The notion of celeb chef's on TV ads inferring that the mass produced commercial fare available at your local food megapolis has an excellent provenance, brings a little bit of vomit into my throat. It is pure hypocrisy, especially whilst supermarkets continue to send local producers to the wall with their cut-throat commercial policies and intricate remuneration system.

Zoe said...

This is a wonderful piece, Tammi. I think one of the really central things that critics of feminist domesticity don't register is how often we do that stuff either with our kids, or in a way that keeps them company - there are some great comments on that in response to a Marion Halligan quote about doing complicated cooking when her children were small that I posted on PDP.

Like running for this mother whose hobby is apparently acceptable because she does it by herself, my domestic practices help keep me sane. It seems that Beyerstein sees cooking and gardening as performances, and cannot accept that they might actually be considered practices. No fecking cake for her:)

As for the frugality aspects that Naomi raises, yeah, it can be expensive, particularly in the early days. But I read frugality here as something different to cheapness or meanness with money, and see it more of an efficiency in maximising what you do spend.

naomi said...

Most def abt sanity Zoe, most def ... with frugality, is it something you could describe as rational spending? That is, an investment, especially when compared to an irrational item (both environmentally and economically) like a giant plasma tv? In that sense, the capital outlay makes cents, and sense ...

Tammois said...

@silverbeet Thank you for your beautiful comment - I couldn't agree more – I was trying to keep a somewhat 'academic' tone so didn't properly wax lyrical about the many joys of getting one's hands stuck into rich soil or spongy dough. :-) And as I tried to say in the post, I don't think in the least that the importance of such sustainable and pleasurable practices is limited to women, or indeed, mothers. Certainly in our house we are both equally practitioners of gardening, cooking, and limiting consumption and waste.

Tammois said...

Naomi – thanks for backing me up on working mums and dads still being able to garden/raise chooks/cook good food – and for adding that you're even able to do it as a single mum. All kudos to your excellent efforts! I think you make important points about the set up and maintenance costs, but at the same time, some of that is related to the things I've already said about good and regular cooking – skills are paramount here, and actually, the size of your household will also affect things.

To explain: Stuart has amazing skills at building and sourcing stuff for free. He built our chook tractor for under $100 by collecting most of the materials from the hard rubbish. If I had done it, I suspect I would have ended up spending more out of a mixture of lack of skill and less knowledge of process. We spend less than $2/week to feed the 12 chooks we currently have (ssh, don't tell the local council we have more than 4). That's because they get our scraps, plus Stuart picks up a box of cast off vegies from out the back of our local organic grocer every second day or so. In fact, we fill our fridge with such cast offs quite regularly as well.

Growing vegies is not that cheap, even if you grow from seed (as we usually do as well), but it's still mostly cheaper than buying them, plus as you say – food miles, flavour, freshness, pleasure! Again, when we've had raised beds in previous rentals, we've sourced materials from hard rubbish to build them. Even our hoses were hand-me-downs! The only blood and bone in our compost comes from our scraps – we even compost chooks who die before we can eat them. ;-) Our compost bins are made from upended rubbish bins with the bottom cut off, again, from hard rubbish! We don't buy soil as we create plenty of compost (family of 5, of course) and we move the chook tractor around to do the digging, weeding & fertilising.

We almost never water our garden as Stuart set up a grey water system out of our bathroom with a $30 pump & little holding tank from, you guessed it, the hard rubbish. Oh, and maybe $20 worth of ag pipe to run through the vegie garden. In this house we've been fortunate to have inherited an orsm plum tree and an apricot tree as well. For other fruit and olives, Stuart and the kids urban forage – either at the school or elderly neighbours who are delighted to have us harvest their pesky bounty.

So, again, I would argue this stuff can in fact be very very cheaply done – but skills are really important, and much of it is assisted by the scale of a larger family. Having two of us to share the load between gardening, cooking, and doing the rest of the normal domestic duties and parenting obviously makes it easier as well, especially since we both work/study full time (or more!).

I love your point about it being your 'leisure time', because you don't mean it in that dismissive 'only middle class SAHMs have the leisure time' way. Although gardening and cooking are both leisure and labour, it's about recognising the pleasure/leisure in the necessary labour! One has to cook daily at least for one's entire life, so you may as well love it, I reckon! Same for gardening and caring for chooks. :-)

Tammois said...

Beeso – I'm deeply envious of your lantanaland and would love to make that move! And I agree about the need to teach our children 'the basics', and have hope that Stephanie Alexander and the other kitchen garden advocates in schools will go some way to addressing that.

Stickyfingers – agree agree agree! I have managed to avoid a trip to Coles or Woolies for over a year now – our food comes from our garden, cast offs from the organic grocer, stuff we buy inside the organic grocer or our local wonderful Italian IGA, Cardamones, our fruit shop, bakeries and butchers, the Vic Market & sometimes the Preston Market. And although I'm happy to see the bigs promoting organic produce, it makes me feel a bit ill as well given the rest of the rubbish in those places and the impact they have on small growers and sellers. :-(

Tammois said...

Zoe – I completely agree that these homely practices are central to parenting. I think the contemporary culture that suggest if you are home with children you should be playing lego with them all the time is not only impractical (who will keep the house running?), it's creating children without these very skills we're banging on about, and with an inflated sense of entitlement to undivided attention. I want kids who are loved while developing skills and a sense of themselves as active members of a community. On frugality, I use it to mean careful use of money (limiting consumption) and then careful use and re-use of resources once you have them.

Evan said...

Nice piece Tam.

While I can't comment on the sociology and fem-inology of the post, I can talk a bit about my motivation. I guess we fit the bill, as we're growing a lot of veges and tending chooks.

For me, the joy and drive of gardening isn't really about cost, nor quality for that matter. I think there's 2 things. 1, Being an engineer I have a psycholigical need to solve problems. I'm a conservationist/enviro nerd as well, and applying these principles to the rolling problem solving of gardening makes me very happy. All sorts of elegant and efficient solutions available all over the yard.

The other reason is that we've only recently become home owners, and sad as it sounds I think owning, well having control over, land is a privelidge that should be exercised. It would be remiss of me not to grow my own veges and harvest as much water as possible.

But, as you say, the flow on happiness from living simply is terrific. But personally it's not so much the environmental aspects, because frankly I think some of them are marginal, but the beauty of the solutions to old problems.

Also, it's to make my Gran proud. She was a keen gardener and doesn't move around so well now. It makes her happy too to see how my chooks are going.


Tammois said...

Ev, that's a gorgeous comment, thanks. You've captured a lot in there - pleasure, agency, respect and connection/history/heritage! So many good reasons to live this way. :-)

Hope I get to check out your garden & chooks next time I'm in Canberra. :-)

Anonymous said...

As an anthropology grad student who studies foodways and is constantly fighting the administration who negates the significance of food in anthropological and feminist study...I LOVE this piece. I shared a link to it on Facebook. I hope you don't mind. Thank you for saying it better than I've been able to.

Erica Peters said...

I liked your thoughtful analysis a lot more than Orenstein's article, but I did also like Beyerstein's take, and I thank you for linking to it. My family can eat healthy food from our CSA box, our tiny garden can be just for fun, and my time while the kids are in school can be spent on my own work, not on caring for chickens or weeding. Feminism is about each woman choosing how she wants to live and work, not creating one model by which all should live.

Amanda said...

What an excellent, thought-provoking piece.
Many thanks.

steve said...

Hiya Tammy, Finally got to read your amazing peice & like sticky said, hearing your thoughts at eatdrinkblog whetted my appetite for this post to appear.
I have read all of the excellent comments & responses but Erica Peters pretty well summed up how I interpreted this isuue when she says that woman should be be free to choose how she lives & works.
Its kinda insulting I imagine for someone who thinks of herself as a feminist to tend a garden & feed her kids homegrown food but then have her feminist credentials questioned by choosing to do so.
Just goes to show in every movement, strata or push their are those who piously expect and peddle a hardline approach or none at all.
As I get older its become easier to see a middle ground on so many issues-plus I dont have to prove myself to anybody-neither should any of us actually!

Tammois said...

Thanks for sharing, Anonymous, and for the kind words, Amanda!

Erica & Steve - thanks also, but it's interesting how the importance of feminism in creating space for women to make choices and assert ourselves is conflated sometimes with what I would argue is a sometimes destructive form of individualism, where the collective good is lower priority than the individual's. I know there are many who will caution me of the dangers of pushing women back into a purely nurturing role where our needs are never a priority, but perhaps we sometimes swing too far the other way.

I would argue that feminism is certainly about choice, and that we need to be responsible with the choices we now have. I agree with you strongly that we don't have to follow one model of a sustainable lifestyle, and that for many people it won't necessarily include growing your own food, though it will mean sourcing seasonal, local, whole foods wherever possible (such as through a CSA).

A key point I really wanted to make with this piece was that these 'responsible' choices (good global citizen, etc) don't have to be tedious, difficult, etc. They are pleasurable, deeply and intrinsically so, but we have been told/we have said for too long that they are 'chores' we can 'outsource', to the detriment of our families and our planet. So of course there's not one model, but I guess there is a driving shared philosophy, which is very much about the collective good - a more communitarian approach to the world if you will. And of course, as I've said, this is not only a feminist issue, it applies to everyone, but it is a matter of particular interest to feminists.