Feminists Don’t Have to Eat Fast Food

Peggy Orenstein’s recent New York Times article ‘The Femivore’s Dilemma’ really struck a chord with feminists across the internets. In the last couple days I’ve seen the term ‘femivore’ (which Orenstein says is a combination of feminist and locavore) defined as everything from sapphic to misogynist cannibalism, and I’d have to agree that it’s an unfortunate coining etymologically speaking.

Orenstein’s concept of femivores arises from her friends who are raising their own chooks, and from Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers, that is, strong, intelligent women (and men, as it turns out) who are choosing to produce food in their own backyards as a way of nurturing themselves, their families and the planet. Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of negative responses to the idea that it is only women who are involved in the locavore movement, or indeed ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’, Slow Food or any other version of ‘slower’, less consumerist lifestyles.

It seems there are three primary threads then that require unravelling: gender, class, and sustainability. On gender, the most compelling argument for home food production and locavorism as intrinsically tied to feminist practice is that women are still by far the majority of the world’s domestic labour force. Before anyone starts yelling ‘my husband does most of the cooking’ (and to wit, my own partner is a regular and good cook, does most of our laundry, and is a passionate home gardener), I am not suggesting that men don’t do these things, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian women in fact still do two and a half times more food preparation and cleaning up than men,whether they work outside the home or not.

One of ecofeminism’s claims is essentially that the patriarchy got us into this unsustainable capitalist mess, and feminism might just be able to get us out of it. Julia Russell puts it quite plainly in ‘The Evolution of an Ecofeminist’: ‘I call it the politics of life-style and I think it is a distinctly feminine politics in that it is both inner and universal, personal and all-inclusive. It is based on the understanding that lasting societal transformation begins with and rests on transformations of the individual.’

Russell’s valorising of individual responsibility perhaps leads us to the heart of claims that there are insurmountable class issues with so-called ‘femivorism’. Admittedly, Orenstein’s ‘femivores’ appear to all be white middle-class women. But Lindsay Beyerstein’s vituperative response “’Femivores’? Spare me.” is disingenuous sour grapes to the extreme. Beyerstein’s argument is tired and reductive. While I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that backyard gardens are equivalent to running a commercial farm, they are apparently important enough as to be encouraged by governments in times of war to address food shortages. Gardening can indeed be as simple as a hobby, but it can also be a significant means of saving money, ensuring the quality and freshness of one’s food, and reduce one’s carbon footprint substantially, and it is certainly hard work sometimes, as well as deeply pleasurable.

Beyerstein even attempts to elide the importance of nourishing one’s children if you choose to have them, with her hyperbolic question: ‘How about figuring out how to share domestic labor more equitably so that SAHMs have more free time to spend as they see fit, even if their hobbies don’t fit the stereotype of maternal perfection?’ Sure, domestic labour should be shared more equally, that’s a given. And of course mothers should have time to themselves without the constant pressure of the Good Mother mythology. But frankly, one’s tennis lessons (mother’s or father’s) are not in fact more important than feeding one’s children. And feeding your children well is at the core of good parenting, not external to it. Taking kids to swimming, tennis, guitar and dance lessons every weekday does not automatically a good parent make. Feeding them healthy food every day so they grow up without chronic illness or obesity is one essential component of good parenting. There, I said it, and now I’ll wait for those who would shrug off this essential duty to our children to attack me for not being a good feminist, because apparently feminists eat fast food.

Is it only middle class stay-at-home mums who ‘have time’ to cultivate a garden and cook wholesome food? Obviously not – families of many classes and cultures engage in gardening and cooking. And in fact, it is often those with the most spare time with partners in the highest income brackets who are least likely to spend their time on food production. By contrast, there are 18 community gardens in Melbourne’s public housing estates, with over 650 individual plots tended by residents.

It is obviously not just white middle-class privilege to have a thriving home garden, it’s for anyone who cares about their own, their families’ (if they have one) and the planet’s well being. It is also not just drudgery, and a new way to chain women to the kitchen sink. Our culture’s sense of entitlement to a life of convenience and uber-consumerism is neither making us happy nor providing our children with a future. Anecdotally, we talk of the Greek and Italian migrants of the 50s and their backyards full of tomatoes and fruit trees, plus the annual sugo making led by somebody’s nonna. For many, these traditions are being lost, whilst for others they are just being discovered.

At a salami making day I attended last winter, a third generation northern Italian claimed that even the ‘Skippies’ are getting into ‘the old ways’ now, and someone else quipped, ‘people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!‘ The excellent group blog Progressive Dinner Party is awash with women one might call ecofeminists (even if they don’t), and the stories you find there make it obvious how much pleasure is gained from growing, cooking and eating their own produce or that sourced from responsible producers. There is unquestionably satisfaction, pride and pleasure in being competent and/or skilled in the garden and/or kitchen.

In my research, I am finding that for those who have the requisite kitchen skills, consciously practising frugality (in terms of purchasing and re-use) is a powerful form of agency, and one that evident across class and culture. One of my interviewees, an Anglo Australian woman in her seventies, is frugal through both habit and necessity, and expresses a great deal of pride at being so. She says it is just ‘common sense’ not to waste or overspend. A Vietnamese-Australian couple who arrived as political refugees in the 70s echo her arguments for common sense, and further claim to feel ‘smart’ about their sustainable and homely practices. And their son, born in Australia, also insists that he feels quite proud about his more frugal habits, such as never wasting leftovers, and in fact ‘ashamed’ when he is wasteful, either in terms of unnecessary consumption or food waste. A key point is that none are expressing resentment at behaving sustainably, rather it gives them enormous satisfaction.

Ultimately, it is not only a feminist issue to engage in homely and sustainable food production, though feminists will have a particular interest in it. The need to provide education and opportunities to develop skills in gardening and cooking is evident in the plethora of issues facing us, from climate change to obesity, and from depression to loss of entire food cultures. And perhaps most importantly, there is an urgent need to understand and promote the intrinsic value and deep pleasures of quotidian ‘chores’ such as growing and chopping your own garlic.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

10 thoughts on “Feminists Don’t Have to Eat Fast Food”

  1. Beeso – I'm deeply envious of your lantanaland and would love to make that move! And I agree about the need to teach our children 'the basics', and have hope that Stephanie Alexander and the other kitchen garden advocates in schools will go some way to addressing that.

    Stickyfingers – agree agree agree! I have managed to avoid a trip to Coles or Woolies for over a year now – our food comes from our garden, cast offs from the organic grocer, stuff we buy inside the organic grocer or our local wonderful Italian IGA, Cardamones, our fruit shop, bakeries and butchers, the Vic Market & sometimes the Preston Market. And although I'm happy to see the bigs promoting organic produce, it makes me feel a bit ill as well given the rest of the rubbish in those places and the impact they have on small growers and sellers. 🙁

  2. Zoe – I completely agree that these homely practices are central to parenting. I think the contemporary culture that suggest if you are home with children you should be playing lego with them all the time is not only impractical (who will keep the house running?), it's creating children without these very skills we're banging on about, and with an inflated sense of entitlement to undivided attention. I want kids who are loved while developing skills and a sense of themselves as active members of a community. On frugality, I use it to mean careful use of money (limiting consumption) and then careful use and re-use of resources once you have them.

  3. Nice piece Tam.

    While I can't comment on the sociology and fem-inology of the post, I can talk a bit about my motivation. I guess we fit the bill, as we're growing a lot of veges and tending chooks.

    For me, the joy and drive of gardening isn't really about cost, nor quality for that matter. I think there's 2 things. 1, Being an engineer I have a psycholigical need to solve problems. I'm a conservationist/enviro nerd as well, and applying these principles to the rolling problem solving of gardening makes me very happy. All sorts of elegant and efficient solutions available all over the yard.

    The other reason is that we've only recently become home owners, and sad as it sounds I think owning, well having control over, land is a privelidge that should be exercised. It would be remiss of me not to grow my own veges and harvest as much water as possible.

    But, as you say, the flow on happiness from living simply is terrific. But personally it's not so much the environmental aspects, because frankly I think some of them are marginal, but the beauty of the solutions to old problems.

    Also, it's to make my Gran proud. She was a keen gardener and doesn't move around so well now. It makes her happy too to see how my chooks are going.


  4. Ev, that's a gorgeous comment, thanks. You've captured a lot in there – pleasure, agency, respect and connection/history/heritage! So many good reasons to live this way. 🙂

    Hope I get to check out your garden & chooks next time I'm in Canberra. 🙂

  5. As an anthropology grad student who studies foodways and is constantly fighting the administration who negates the significance of food in anthropological and feminist study…I LOVE this piece. I shared a link to it on Facebook. I hope you don't mind. Thank you for saying it better than I've been able to.

  6. I liked your thoughtful analysis a lot more than Orenstein's article, but I did also like Beyerstein's take, and I thank you for linking to it. My family can eat healthy food from our CSA box, our tiny garden can be just for fun, and my time while the kids are in school can be spent on my own work, not on caring for chickens or weeding. Feminism is about each woman choosing how she wants to live and work, not creating one model by which all should live.

  7. Hiya Tammy, Finally got to read your amazing peice & like sticky said, hearing your thoughts at eatdrinkblog whetted my appetite for this post to appear.
    I have read all of the excellent comments & responses but Erica Peters pretty well summed up how I interpreted this isuue when she says that woman should be be free to choose how she lives & works.
    Its kinda insulting I imagine for someone who thinks of herself as a feminist to tend a garden & feed her kids homegrown food but then have her feminist credentials questioned by choosing to do so.
    Just goes to show in every movement, strata or push their are those who piously expect and peddle a hardline approach or none at all.
    As I get older its become easier to see a middle ground on so many issues-plus I dont have to prove myself to anybody-neither should any of us actually!

  8. Thanks for sharing, Anonymous, and for the kind words, Amanda!

    Erica & Steve – thanks also, but it's interesting how the importance of feminism in creating space for women to make choices and assert ourselves is conflated sometimes with what I would argue is a sometimes destructive form of individualism, where the collective good is lower priority than the individual's. I know there are many who will caution me of the dangers of pushing women back into a purely nurturing role where our needs are never a priority, but perhaps we sometimes swing too far the other way.

    I would argue that feminism is certainly about choice, and that we need to be responsible with the choices we now have. I agree with you strongly that we don't have to follow one model of a sustainable lifestyle, and that for many people it won't necessarily include growing your own food, though it will mean sourcing seasonal, local, whole foods wherever possible (such as through a CSA).

    A key point I really wanted to make with this piece was that these 'responsible' choices (good global citizen, etc) don't have to be tedious, difficult, etc. They are pleasurable, deeply and intrinsically so, but we have been told/we have said for too long that they are 'chores' we can 'outsource', to the detriment of our families and our planet. So of course there's not one model, but I guess there is a driving shared philosophy, which is very much about the collective good – a more communitarian approach to the world if you will. And of course, as I've said, this is not only a feminist issue, it applies to everyone, but it is a matter of particular interest to feminists.

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