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Friday, July 2, 2010

When my daughters wake up this morning, they will make themselves a fresh breakfast of homemade yogurt, topped with blueberries we froze last summer, and drizzled with honey from their Dad’s bees. My oldest is six, and we will probably spend a few minutes reviewing her math while my three-year-old plays with the dog. If anyone rushes out the door, it will be them, chasing after each other on a quest to find the most interesting bug in the garden.

I might be one of Hirschmann’s worst-case scenarios—women who seemingly have “turned their backs on the social resources invested in them” (I hold a PhD from Cornell). And perhaps even more distressing, I am an uncertified teacher, homeschooling my children. According to Hirschmann’s argument, I am failing in my responsibility to myself and my community in my refusal to join the conventional workforce. I would argue that I am fulfilling it to the greatest extent possible.

I’m part of a growing movement across the United States, Canada, and many other industrialized countries. We are the Radical Homemakers, and we work to promote four ends: ecological sustainability, social justice, and family and community well-being. We see ourselves as building a great bridge away from our existing extractive economy—in which corporate wealth is the foundation of economic health and ravaging our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors are accepted as simply the costs of doing business—and toward a life-serving economy. In a life-serving economy, the goal, as the activist economist David Korten says, is to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few. Our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air remains pure, and families can lead meaningful and joyful lives.

We build this bridge by resisting—as much as we can—involvement with the extractive economy (including many forms of conventional employment) and by making up for the personal financial shortfall by turning our homes from units of consumption into units of production on a local scale.

This means growing our own food or sourcing it locally, cooking it from scratch rather than relying on highly processed and packaged foods, fixing the material goods we own rather than discarding them, creating our own entertainment rather than relying on a steady supply from corporate media, investing in relationships and community interdependence, accepting responsibility for our own and our children’s education (yes, sometimes that means homeschooling), caring to the extent possible for our children and loved ones, decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels, and slowing our lives down to a pace at which we can be involved deeply with our families and communities.

My brothers and sisters in the movement are stay-at-home dads and moms, single parents, and childless individuals and couples. We live in rural communities, the suburbs, and urban centers. Some of us have diplomas from prestigious universities; some of us are self-educated. Sometimes a member of the household works outside the home at a job that promotes the four ends; sometimes income is derived from home-based businesses.

Worrying about the fight for equality in an extractive economy is like attempting to save a sinking ship by mending a sail. Neither sex is winning the fight.

Unlike many post-industrial feminists, we do not see the home, and its care and upkeep, as a symbol of oppression. We see it as a starting point for social change. A few feminists might view us as a scourge upon progress. However, we see ourselves as beneficiaries of feminism’s best lessons about gender equity, balance of power, personal autonomy, and the importance of creative fulfillment. We’re eager to carry those lessons forward to build a socially just, ecologically sustainable society unlike any we have known.

The argument Hirschmann puts forward—that women should “care less” on the domestic front in order to compel male household partners to step up to the plate, thereby enabling the “fight for equality” to play out more favorably in the marketplace—is perfectly reasonable, if one believes the marketplace is the ultimate manifestation of human achievement. I bristle at that idea.

Worrying about the fight for equality in an extractive economy is like attempting to save a sinking ship by mending a sail. Neither sex is winning the fight. While some may succeed in bringing in more money, our true wealth—which includes happiness, health, a clean environment, natural resources, genuine creative fulfillment, and meaningful relationships—is being whisked out from underneath us. Dollars are handy to have in one’s pocket and are a necessary part of any economy, but we can’t eat them, drink them, or keep warm in a blanket stitched of them.

The race to see who can bring home more of them has left us bereft as a nation. We lead the world in reckless consumption, we are in the midst of a depression epidemic, we are no longer one of the healthiest populations, we work more hours than residents of most other industrialized countries, and we have one of the highest school dropout rates in the industrialized world.

The sad irony is that as we worry about who gets to climb higher and earn more money, income disparity grows larger, and, for most, the bottom line never seems to improve. Household net worth dropped dramatically in recent years, and Americans’ personal savings rates currently hover at just above a paltry 3 percent.

I agree with Hirschmann that negotiation for shared domestic responsibility is important. But it seems that the scorekeepers are always authorities external to ourselves—especially employers who stand to gain from our struggles to prove who will be the more loyal slave. With these concerns in mind, Betty Friedan warned in her final edition of The Feminine Mystique of the dangers of becoming too deeply ensconced in gender politics:

The sexual politics that helped us break through the feminine mystique is not relevant or adequate, is even diversionary, in confronting the serious and growing economic imbalance, the mounting inequality of wealth, now threatening both women and men.

When we realize that our wealth is greater than mere dollars—that it lies in the well-being of our planet, families, and communities, as well as personal fulfillment and happiness—it becomes clear that the stakes are even higher than Hirschmann suggests. Balance of power and shared domestic responsibility are important. But the “battle of the sexes” is a hazardous diversion from the real battle for a just and sustainable way of life.