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 â€œ’Femivores’? Spare me.â€ 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 â€“ 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.