The ‘femivore’: New breed of feminist, or frontier throwback?

Cross-posted from Grist, where I am serving as deputy food editor (part time).

Have locavores and feminists — factions that a few years ago, some bloggers believed to be fundamentally at odds — become allies?

That’s what Peggy Orenstein suggests in her essay, “The Femivore’s Dilemma,” for today’s New York Times Magazine. The author of several best-selling nonfiction accounts of modern women’s life (and an acquaintance of mine), Orenstein thinks that “the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming [Mad Men housewife] Betty Draper.” Stay-at-home moms — at least four in Orenstein’s Berkeley, Calif., orbit — are these days obsessing less over which high-end stroller to buy (if any) and more about which tomato variety to plant or laying hen with which to stock their backyard coop.

Writes Orenstein:

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place. Given how conscious (not to say obsessive) everyone has become about the source of their food — who these days can’t wax poetic about compost? — it also confers instant legitimacy. Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?

She’s on to something. Look around the food movement — the majority of faces are female, and they by no means belong just to “yoga moms” shopping at Whole Foods and farmers markets. An about-to-be-released new book, “Farmer Jane” by Temra Costa, introduces dozens of passionate female farmers, moms, businesswomen, chefs, and activists who are changing the way we eat and farm.

In the conclusion of her essay, the ever-skeptical Orenstein hints at, but does not explore, the tension that underlies this newest flavor of feminism: “If a woman is not careful, it seems, chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage.”

And there’s where we all have to be careful. The growing pressure amongst educated women to feed one’s family not only home-cooked but now home-grown food can morph into just another form of guilt for women employed full-time outside the home. In an excellent blog post from 2007, Bay Area writer Jennifer Jeffrey pointed out that “this whole ‘eat local’ concept is so not friendly for women who work.” Jeffrey, who is self-employed, recognizes that she can dash out to her local farmers market when she wants and simmer beans all afternoon:

Ladies, when we cluck our tongues at drive-through lanes and packaged convenience food, we are forgetting that convenience has been our friend. The fact that women hold more executive positions than at any other time in history, and can freely choose any career path they like is in no small part due to the prevalence of supermarkets and the availability of easy-to-prepare foodstuffs.

Perhaps the most important element here is that of “choice.” It was feminists like Betty Friedan who liberated the Betty Drapers of the world, not Swanson’s frozen dinners. Processed-food manufacturers were simply smart enough to provide the MREs for an army that was already on the move.

Seems to me that the women who Orenstein and Jeffreys are writing about are in fact the same women. They are simply viewing their time through different value lenses. Women are now waking up to the fact that despite what commercials tell us, cooking does not have to be a stressful nightly chore for the skirt-wearing member of the family. It’s possible to make a meal together from fresh ingredients in about the same amount of time as boiling dried pasta and nuking some sauce. And while no one has to know the name of the farm their eggs came from, let alone the actual bird (as Orenstein mocks), taking the kids to the farmers market on the weekend is usually a lot more fun than dragging them through Safeway, and so is planting carrots in the back yard.

What do you think, readers? Do you ever wonder if growing, cooking, and canning your own food are somehow at odds with your feminist leanings?

11 Responsesto “The ‘femivore’: New breed of feminist, or frontier throwback?”

  1. Janet Huston says:

    Femanism=Sexism. I am a Humanist. Everyone deserves a smidge more respect than Malanists or Femanists allow.

  2. sage says:

    I suggest reading Hayes’ book to get the full weight of the argument that reclaiming the domestic is not a need that conflicts with feminist ideals but one that challenges us (men and women alike) to re-examine our ideas about purpose and work.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Spare us the neologisms, please. Or at least suggest that you are aware of the problems they riase. For me, a femivore is someone who eats females. Now, we mostly do eat females, or ex-males, but that surely is not the point.

  4. Amy says:

    We spent a lot of time talking about this in my Introduction to Women’s Studies Class.  I was trying to reframe this movement as a radical feminist act – but my students were afraid that if women “went back to the kitchen, they’d never get out.”  The truth is that women never left the kitchen, even if the kitchen changed from their own ovens to the drive-thru window, they were still responsible for feeding their family.  But by redirecting their food budgets, they could more effectively “stick it to the man.”

  5. Joe says:

    Bonnie claims “Look around the food movement — the majority of faces are female”.  That’s a bold statement – to bad it is completely unsubstantiated with any actual real data.  There are a large number of high profile women in the local food movement, but my gut feeling is that there are every bit as many men.  However, as the owner of a small regional abbatoir, I have been quite impressed with the number of women farmers I work for on a regular basis.  And many of them are not part of a farming couple, as best as I can tell.  Beef, pork, lamb, goats – they do it all.   The emergence of the woman-owned and operated farmer has to amount to a major shift in American farming traditions.  I would love to see some Census Bureau figures on that.

  6. I’m going to have to agree with the above comment that  Femanism=Sexism. What’s more I think I can make a pretty good case that Feminism is anti woman, anti sex and anti life. Seems to me the combined efforts of Madison Ave., Betty F. and Gloria S. have ruined an entire  generation of men, woman and children. History will prove out the foolishness of their thought and work. They should have paid closer attention to the work of Catherine Beecher and the politics Jane Austen. I get emails everyday from young women desperate to find a way to  quite their jobs and stay hope with their kids & kitchens. They want to live a June Cleaver/Elizabeth Bennett life and I sure don’t blame them Ever since the American Woman  abandoned the home fires, garden,  poultry house and her kids to the grocery store and to day care – (all to “bring home the bacon & fry it up in the pan” as the old TV add went), we have had an epidemic of obesity, teen pregnancy, divorce, depression and debt. No to mention exhausted, stressed out women. The best thing that could happen to the well being of people of this country , is for women to get back to the kitchen, sewing room, pantry, garden – and yank their kids & babies out of day care. I’m not afraid of the truth: It’s a full time job to manufacture, raise and prepare decent food, clothing, shelter and children. Feminism screwed us all over.

  7. Marlene says:

    Blaming “obesity, teen pregnancy, divorce, depression and debt” on women completely misses the point. These problems have escalated since women went to work, true. It’s also true that it takes time and energy to nurture the next generation. But the answer is not to deny choices and opportunities to half the population. The answer is to change our value system.

    Betty F., et al looked at society and gave the pendulum a great shove in the opposite direction. That’s what it takes to instigate change. Yes, there are consequences to the extreme pendulum swing. The current “back to nature” movement is a way of responding to that extreme, and the beginnings of an answer to those consequences. 

    What the feminist movement failed to solve was the misplacement of what we value. One could look around and see that all the power and respect and money resided in business or politics. One could easily see that the majority of women were locked out of those areas, banished instead, to the nursery, house, and garden, where her power and respect were restricted to the little tykes in her charge, and where she certainly made no money. This also denied her the chance to contribute to her own social security fund, leaving her dependent on a man who may or may not see fit to support her in her old age.

    The feminist movement got women, more or less, into business and politics. They can now earn college degrees beyond the MRS., and some of them earn a decent living. But we still (as a society) do no value the truly important thing – nurturing the next generation. That’s what all the “back to nature” stuff boils down to: living an honest, sustainable, healthy life that raises strong children and leaves a healthy, vibrant planet for them to live in.  Whether you have children of your own or not, this is where society needs to concentrate its power,  respect, and money. It’s evolutionary common-sense.

    Business and politics are really just tools to aid in our primary purpose. But we elevated them to primary status, and clothed them in a false, glittering imagery, and then sold each other on the lie. THAT’S what needs to change, and it needs to change for both men and women. The new food and nature paradigms must not be restricted to “women” going back to the kitchen and garden.  Men belong there too, and both of them also belong in the occupations that use the tools in support of society.
    It’s this discussion that needs to happen.

  8. Marlene -
    I suppose a point of view and interpretation of  20th century social history depends upon one’s age, life experience and education.
    I disagree with you, but do appreciate your point of view.

    The late John Seymour had quite a bit to say about this topic. May I recommend the introduction to his classic work “FORGOTTEN HOUSEHOLD CRAFTS – A Portrait Of The Way We Once Lived”?

  9. Bethany from Maine says:

    As a full-time farm worker and an active feminist (and a woman) I find this discussion weirdly frustrating, and I call shenanigans.  The fad of foody-ism is on many levels wonderful.  It is great that people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from, how they can opt out of the industrial food system, and hopefully, how to support farmers who are essentially small business owners in their communities.  What irritates me to no end is the constant and obsessive search for meaning and righteousness in the movement, and that is where this whole discussion of feminism and chicken coops ruffles my feathers.  First off, lets start with the assumption that there is any homogeneity between moms and families deciding in anyway to incorporate locally or self-grown food in their lives.  In my view on of the most important tenets of feminism is that women, like all humans, are diverse, complex actors. Can we please stop acting like all these women have drunk the Michael Pollin cool-aid and give them a little credit.  I live in a rural area that houses a wide variety of people from from newly settled “yoga moms” (who despite the snarkiness of this author, I would argue are wonderful and interesting people) to women and families who have lived on their land for generations.  The recents surge of grow-it-yourself attitude has not been lost here as laws governing chicken keeping etc. fall by the wayside, and yet as a farmer I can tell you the people joining the CSA I work and those in the area starting to keep chickens at are amazingly variable.  Not every woman who gets chickens does it simply to be the most organic mom she can be.  Some women have issues with animals rights, some with health and industrial agriculture.  I know quite a few women who have started keeping chickens to maintain a constant supply of eggs for their small business.  So let’s not condescend to women who make a choice that happens to be in fashion, it’s really really really old hat.

    Secondly, I cannot speak for other “third-wavers,” but enough of this crap about  women having to “justify” their decision to stay at home.  And so loud and proud as a through and through die hard feminist, I proclaim, sister, if you want to stay home with your kids, for whatever reason, power too you.  I judge you not, and I hope against hope that no other self-proclaimed feminist will either.  The writer of the NYT piece reveals more about her own judgements against women who choose not to work outside the home than presenting any objective feminist analysis (if such a thing is possible).   A woman does not need a chicken coop to legitimize her decision to work from home or not take outside employment.  A chicken coop, in fact would not make such a decision more or less feminist.  If you find it personally rewarding, economically efficient, or ecologically sustainable to raise your own chickens (or bees, or garden, or compost, whatever) then do so, I think that is awesome and a step in a great direction.  But I find it again diminishing to the range of women (and families) to suggest that they a) need to justify their familial decisions to feminists and b) are making these choices based on feminist guilt.  I really hope that feminism has reached the point where it can be broader and more inclusive and support women, rather than force them to justify their life choices.

    All this isn’t to say that farming and ecological living are devoid of feminist undertones.  Personally I find great feminist strength in doing physical tasks that I would have never thought I could complete as well as using my energy to pull back from an ecologically and economically exploitative system.  But let’s cut the classist, sexist crap.  For generations we’ve seen women and their choices analyzed in ways that diminish women’s autonomy and agency, and as a feminist farmer, I will lay down on the tracks before I see farming be used in this way.

  10. sara says:

    Going into the kitchen (or into the kitchen garden, or growing the kitchen garden in the first place) and doing things like planning meals, cooking and preserving foods is more about life skills than it is about gender roles.  I am getting really tired of reading verbiage that explores whether this is a step back for women, or why women need to justify doing this, or doing that.  No, women (and men) are reclaiming life skills that went by the wayside with consumer culture, moving into cities and then suburbs, etc.  I’m 37.  Did my mom do all these things?  Well, I saw her make jam once, but she did cook.  My grandmothers on the other hand did all of these things and more.
    In my household we both work full-time.  We both garden and cook full-time when we’re home.  It is a challenge at times.  But it is good for us, so we continue it.  We keep chickens because the eggs at the market are produced under horrible conditions, and because we never want to have to buy manure again (and you know, the chickens are quirky and entertaining, too).  We might get meat birds this year, who knows.  It is a challenge at times, but again, it is good for us, so we continue it.
    I guess some women might need to put a bit of spit polish on that and say, “Well, I find it empowering to have this kind of control over what I eat, therefore I’m not selling out and turning into June Cleaver…”, but how about we just cop to doing these things because they’re the right thing to do at the time.  Self-sufficiency and June Cleaver hardly inhabit the same space, because remember, June was relying on Ward’s paycheck…  Why give women grief when they tell consumer culture to shove it, and decide to be more self-sufficient and then take whatever they’ve defined to be the next logical step?  It accomplishes nothing.  What’s more, it makes it difficult to pass these life skills on to our children.  I don’t have kids yet, but when I do they’ll be organic gardeners, chicken looker-afterers, goat-herders, and they’ll learn how to preserve foods and cook.  At the very least. 

    Am I a feminist?  Sure, I guess so.  I do what I need to in order to get by and be happy, and don’t let labels and stereotypes hold me back.  Same goes for the man in my life.  At this point I am more concerned about the planet than I am about what other women might think of me.

  11. Jackie says:

    I want to be neighbors with Bethany and Sara.  To them I say, amen sisters.