Part one in a series on feminism, community, and the organic food movement
by Cynthia Spring
My roommate Nadine and I spent a week helping out on an organic farm in the Okanagan Valley this summer. Five of our close friends are spending six months learning how to farm organic fruits and vegetables as part of a paid apprenticeship for young farmers. While the main purpose of our visit was to catch up with our hardworking friends, we quickly came to appreciate the feeling of collectivity that working together fosters. We were also struck by the fact that our friends are gaining the skills and knowledge to grow and sell their own food, maybe on a farm of their own someday. This promise of a future filled with hard work and sustainable living has become quite appealing, at least for me, when it is compared to a future of uncertainty, unpaid internships and freelance work.
But I also have some reservations about the organic food movement, specifically when viewing it from a feminist perspective. Women and whole foods are both conducive to reproduction and nourishment, but are also bound to histories of exploitation.
If we examine the representation of women in relation to the organic food movement we could conclude that the two are complimentary to each other: when circulating your local farmers’ market, you might notice more women selling and buying organic produce and products than men. When signing up for your CSA box, the website you visit will likely show images of women holding produce or women holding children holding produce. You might also be familiar with the abundance of pintrest boards, “mommy” blogs and new women’s magazines inspiring and instructing women to take the time to buy and cook with whole foods to enrich their lifestyles and happiness. But despite these images of women happily growing, selling, purchasing, preparing and consuming organic whole and local foods, it is hard not to question the comforts promised by this popular return to the domestic. Are these women really so happy? Does preparing fresh organic vegetables for our family and friends somehow grant us more integrity than serving microwave dinners and store bought cookies? Have women in Canada come so far that domestic work is no longer oppressive but in fact liberating? I for one am skeptical.
Perhaps this skepticism is an inheritance from our mothers and grandmothers—women who struggled to get out of the kitchen to find meaningful and gainful employment. Feminist movements in the 60s and 70s were motivated to dispel the myth that women are collectively inclined to find happiness in the domestic sphere. Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1965) famously identifies the happy American housewife as an image that conceals the exploitation of women’s labour under the façade of happiness. If the housewife is happy, then women’s uncompensated domestic and reproductive labour is not exploitive but just. Inspired by second-wave feminists like Friedan, certain demographics of women began to pursue waged-work outside of the home. And thanks to the increasing abundance of industrial foods at the time, these women were better equipped to spend less time preparing food and more time pursing their careers.
Second-wave feminism is easily associated, then, with the industrial food movement, now popularly identified as the root cause of childhood obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. As Emily Matchar, the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity, aptly points out, feminism has been held partly responsible for America’s love of convenient, unhealthy, and unsustainable processed foods. To prove her point, Matchar quotes food activist writer Michael Pollan, author of the widely cherished The Omnivore’s Dilemma: “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists throughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”
Let’s consider Pollan’s strike against second-wave feminism for a moment. We now know that by entering into the workforce women have not overcome gender equality. Rather, our exploitation has simply changed its form. Women who are able to pursue both their professional and domestic lives are in fact working twice as hard to be successful professionals, homemakers and mothers. And while one woman is at work, another underpaid woman is often filling in either at a daycare centre or in the home as a nanny or housekeeper.
Considering the unstable economy and serious lack of well-paid contract jobs, women today are increasingly tempted to return to domestic work in search for more meaningful and fulfilling occupations. As Pollan and other food activists would suggest, choosing to prioritize the growing and preparation of food over a professional career allows individuals to alleviate their dependence on the global economic market and an unstable food system. Forgoing a professional career in order to tend to backyard chickens, sell crafts on Etsy, and be a stay at home mom can thus be framed as an empowering decision. If going to work hasn’t made women’s lives easier, why not try embracing the domestic once again, not as an exploited and powerless group, but as liberated individuals actively choosing to pursue our unique interests?
The obvious problem here is that this decision to give up the office job in order to embrace the DIY lifestyle is reserved for those within a position of privilege. And the organic food movement has, in many ways, relied on supporters able to make this choice (granted, for many people, it is a choice that does require real sacrifices and thoughtful budgeting). Those who recognize the real value of nutritious food and creating from scratch might choose to prepare organic local foods and sell hand-knitted scarves. But such consumer-based options can only be the result of individual choice. When a co-worker gives up her job to return to domesticity in 2013, we might understand her choice to be dependent on her particular interests—to embrace domesticity, in this instance, is a personal decision. Freidan’s reading of the happy housewife, then, is still partly relevant in Canada today where women’s domestic and reproductive labour is blindly accepted as a matter of personal vocation and choice. If we ignore the material conditions that influence this decision, the exploitation of women both within the workforce and within the home remains merely a personal matter.
Continue Reading The Farmwife’s Dilemma here