Not 'That' Kind of Housework
But the lure of earning money by photographing and blogging their intensely "art-directed" DIY lifestyles while escaping the rat race isn't the only thing motivating New Domestics. Many of them, Matchar found, firmly believe that they're changing the world by changing how they live at home. It's not a new concept; 19th-century magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale argued that it was through domesticity that women could be enormously influential by teaching their children and gently guiding their husbands with respect to moral decisions. Harriet Beecher Stowe, herself a believer in the power of the domestic sphere to shape society, was nonetheless intent upon exercising her influence far beyond the walls of her household, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with her most famous contribution to American literature knows. Likewise, gurus of the New Domesticity—Matchar found that most adherents point to Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers as the book that motivated them toward extreme DIY—emphasize that exercising influence ("rebuilding," in Hayes's words) through teaching, blogging, and community organizing is an essential component of the DIY revolution.
Despite this turn toward activism (if teaching classes on food preservation could be called activist), Matchar is not convinced that New Domesticity, as popular and attractive as it may be, is entirely benign. "So many of the values of New Domesticity are wonderful: an emphasis on family, a DIY spirit, a concern for the environment, an unwillingness to be beholden to corporations." Still, she says, "an emphasis on DIY as a solution for social problems can disenfranchise those who don't have the time or money to DIY it." After all, startup costs can be high, and with Etsy increasingly flooded with cheap products from around the globe, it's the rare "Etsyian" that earns a living through selling his or her handcrafts.
Inviting the World Inside
Adherents of New Domesticity tend to think that their largely self-sufficient lifestyles are the answer to a range of social, political, and environmental ills. Matchar concludes, however, that by assuming that the world would be better if more people lived as they do, they ignore several important facts. For virtually all New Domestics, their lifestyle is made possible by class privilege. The labor involved in cloth-diapering, attachment-parenting, gardening, beekeeping, and home canning is a luxury that many people simply cannot attain while keeping a roof over their heads.
Matchar is also concerned that practitioners of extreme DIY are often in danger of "neglect[ing] the social good." While Matchar gives a nod to the fact that many DIYers do in fact fight for social change, she still finds that the "overall attitude of 'screw the government, I'm going to grow my own food," is dishearteningly common," a criticism that strikes me as particularly apt. Jennifer Margulis, an outspoken critic of vaccination, offers a scathing critique of American maternity care in her new book The Business of Baby, but her solutions are strikingly private, limited to suggestions on how the individual parent/consumer might make choices outside of the money- and power-corrupted mainstream. What about the people whose Medicaid doesn't allow them to choose homebirth, the people who can't afford a camera good enough to photograph their handcrafts for Esty, and the people who, far from being able to fuss about eating organic, struggle to get any sort of vegetables for their children?