Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Environmental Impact of Feminism

On a discussion board I frequent, there is currently a largely civilized debate about the value of what used to be called "women's work". Since nowadays, either partner can choose to be a stay at home spouse, that phrase has gone by the wayside. But the reality of the situation is that this work, that of the "homemaker" is largely devalued by society. Some people have put forth that a person with no children, or children old enough to be in school have no business even staying at home, and that such people are not paying their own way in life.

This has been going around and around in my brain all day, and even though it doesn't really apply to me (homeschooling/unschooling is more than a full-time job!), it got me thinking of not just the economic value of such work (replacing everything I do would probably cost a fortune, even if one could find someone with the diverse skills of chicken midwifery, robotics coach, and violin tutor, LOL), but of the environmental value and impact of this work.

Now before I say another word, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way advocating for some return to the June Cleaverism of yesteryear. I don't think a societally enforced imprisonment of women in the household with an apron and a copy of Betty Crocker is the answer. And I fully understand that for many families in this era of haves and have-nots, having both parents work is a financial necessity (and that of course is a whole 'nother topic, on the Walmartization of the workforce where so many people are not paid a living wage). But I do think it's imperative that we look at the true value of this work, and the repercussions that abound when homemaking is farmed out to the likes of McDonalds, Eggo Waffles, and Swiffer.

I was shifting some stuff around in the freezer today, and looking at the neat packages of frozen blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries that fill half of the shelves. They stand next to the meat I picked up from the butcher (a local 1/3 pasture-raised organic beef), and the baggies of pancakes and waffles that I make up ahead of time so the kids can have healthy easy breakfast on days when we have little time. This is one small microcosm of the environmental value of a homemaker.

If I hadn't taken the kids to the berry patches and roadside fields and fruit stands this summer to get local organic foods to fill our freezer, we'd be buying more fruits trucked to a plant, packaged, and trucked to our local supermarket. If my husband or I didn't have the time to find and build a relationship with the local people who supply our raw milk and organic meat, pick it up when needed, and then thaw and prepare nutritious meals for the family, we'd be driving through a McDonald's like so many Americans on the go. I did that once last year, when we were on vacation and I was completely staggered by the sheer amount of waste products generated by one fast-food meal. And that doesn't count all the trucking and non-sustainable agriculture that went into producing that meal. Likewise, if I wasn't cooking nutritious sprouted whole-grain wafffles and pancakes with our own organic eggs and raw milk, I might be opening a pack of Eggos for the kids before we rushed out the door to get to our respective jobs and school. I won't bother typing in the ingredient list, but suffice it to say that they barely resemble food and I can't even imagine the environmental impact (let alone the healthcare and economic impact) of so many of the nation's food choices being such pre-packaged dreck.

Of course, we shouldn't ignore transportation. Although I'd like to think that most two-income families go merrily carpooling out the door, this isn't the case for most in America. Our old neighbors were a prime example - both parents and the teenage child left the house in three separate cars each morning, bound for three separate places, all less than five miles from each other. But their hectic schedules were too overwhelming to coordinate, so three cars it was. And for two-working parent families, it might be completely necessary for either parent to have to drive kids to after-school activities or daycare.

There are many more incidental environmental impacts. As the hours spent on the job by members of the workforce creep up steadily, less and less time is available for simple household tasks. Thus something like the time it takes to wring out and clean a mop becomes so stupendously valuable that products like Swiffer hit the marketplace with a bang. It seems there is nothing out there that can't be made disposable. Diapers have been around for a long time, but now you can simply throw your baby's bibs away without having to take the time to wash them. Facial washcloths - who knew that they made them disposable? After all, taking the time to throw in four or five more washcloths to your laundry could be the straw that broke the overworked camel's back. And not only fast-food meals are served on disposable dinnerware. People are sometimes so time-crunched that paper plates and plastic forks are used for regular family dinners to save time on washing dishes.

All of these seemingly disparate things don't cause us to blink our eyes when taken one at a time. These things you might look at separately and say "what's the big deal, if someone wants to use a Swiffer instead of cleaning a mop?" but when you take them together, when you take them on a national scale, it's clear that the environmental impact of the absence of homemakers in so many families becomes huge. And there's no easy answer or quick turnaround (though the rising prices of fuel in a post-peak economy may turn around the Swiffers, multiple cars, fast food and such all on its own). As such things no longer seem "cheap and easy", the work of a homemaker becoms much more apparently valuable in a monetary sense.

So what can be done to jump-start this change? For one thing, think about the homemakers you know and make sure that when you talk to them you do not disparage their role, even inadvertantly. They are valuable, not just to their families, but to our society and to the earth itself. They play perhaps the most important job on the planet. If you hear someone else act dismissively to someone with a homemaking role, bring the issue to discussion. It's often a very quiet discrimination against people who are "just" housewives or homemakers or "just a stay-at-home mom". It seems that official job titles working out of the home carry so much more prestige and importance, and anything we can do to reverse this trend will be better for our communities, our society, and our environment.


Movie Mum said...

I'm a homeschooler myself and I love your blog, but I do disagree with this post. I think you live in a unique area -- where I live, there are many SAHMs (practically all homemakers in my suburb) who are driving SUVs, having huge lawns that are doused in pesticides, and not gardening. They are driving their kids from activity to activity and using fast food. Not all -- I've venture not even most -- homemakers garden, raise food and cook from scratch, and not all working parents drive a zillion miles a day and eat at McDonalds. I don't think feminism can be blamed for the environment??? Environmentalism is important to me, and trust me, it is an uphill battle here, even though most of the women are SAHMs. They are not interested in doing any of the things you talk about here. And what if the spouses of the SAHPs are driving many miles a day, eating fast food, and working for an oil or transportation company? Then how can you say the environmental income of that family is less than of another family? There are way too many variables here to make this kind of generalization. I wish it were true that homemakers (and everyone else) were making these great environmental choices but sadly I do not think that to be the case.

Robin said...

Those are good points, Movie Mum. And I know that not all SAH parents are home baking or canning or gardening. But I do think that kind of work used to be valued more for the important family contribution that it was (used to be, if you didn't garden, can, etc. you didn't eat in the winter, so it's easy to see why it was valued). Somehow, we (as a society) have come to see this work as trivial, or not of much worth. I think that the devaluing of this work is one thing contributing to SAH moms not wanting to associate themselves with it. I used to live in a suburban area where most SAHMoms I knew had maids, while they went to the tennis club to work on their serve before picking up kids to shuttle them around. The work at home was devalued enough that they wouldn't want to have been seen to have to do it, if that makes sense.

So I think you're right, we really can't lay all the environmental woes at the feet of feminism, but I do think that the devaluation of homemaking is a contributing factor. And certainly, if we, as a society, begin to once again ascribe worth to such activities, it will have a positive environmental impact.

Elizabeth said...

Wow. This is the post I've wanted to write for a long time, but didn't have the words! Thank you. I'm going to link you in my blog since you said just what I wanted to say. :-)

And I suppose that re: blaming this all on feminism....that's why I've distinguished between different kinds of feminism. I consider myself an earth-mother feminist, not a high-powered kind of feminist.

lisa (lost pezhead) said...

i enjoyed this....interesting to think about.

Gemma said...

I agree that knowing how to run a home, grow and use food is totally essential and environmentally friendly; it should be part of children's education, but not just for girls. However, a lot of those skills are all but lost (my grandmother could make clothes, jams, etc, but I can't). and the thing is that I don't want to.. I do want to live as sustainably as possible, but I want to spend my time working with words and ideas, not doing quite complicated practical things (I have a baby and do a lot of practical things and it's already enough!). As the other poster said, it's not just about working mums, since a lot of non working mums are just using instant foods and not particularly going back to any of these traditional skills. Without a doubt, women working outside the home has had some negative impacts, but we have so much freedom, and a lot of women only did those tasks in the past because they had no alternative, and they did them while men made a mark in the world and had time to think and write (I'm talking about middle classes here!).

In summary I think that yes, those skills are important and that they should be taught in elementary schools, so that kids whose parents don't know about it get a chance to learn, but I don't think it should be made the responsibility of the woman to be the homemaker, I've got in mind more of a lovely situation where both sexes get some outside glory and get to make marmalade too!