"Radical Homemakers" Review and Interview with Author Shannon Hayes

It took just over half a century for the U.S. to shift from an agricultural model to an industrial based society. All the while, the balance of societal focus solidly turned toward the view that only through work outside of the home, in an increasingly corporate dominated society, working for the advancement of a commodity or product finely tuned and crafted to ultimately detract from the value of one's home life, could men and women find absolute personal and career fulfillment.

Shannon Hayes, author of the book, Radical Homemakers (Left to Write Press 2010) believes the cause of this major shift lies with the acceptance of the idea that American society exists and thrives for the betterment of the capitalist corporate economy.

Hayes' book (much like Kalle Lasn's timeless 1999 analysis of global consumerism Culture Jam ) functions as a manifesto, a hard examination of the stagnant creed that the "global economy" is the be all-end all of human existence. The book is an historical account of how American women and men came to accept this self-defeating and dehumanizing view throughout the 20th century. But also, in its second half, it serves as a detailed account of couples, singles and families with young children who have renounced this view and chosen homemaking instead, to promote, as Hayes describes, a "life-giving economy based on the principals of social justice, democracy, care for the planet and its inhabitants."

Much more than merely caring for children's daily needs, cooking and cleaning house, being an active participant as a radical homemaker allows one to "take a constructive role in society", a much more fulfilling goal than that envisioned by the 1950's tradition of the mentally and psychologically suppressed housewife. Hayes makes clear time and again that her book is not an attack on the many working professionals whose vocations help cultivate a life-serving economy. Attacks like these, such as the so called "war" between the working mother and the stay at home mother, more often originate from the mainstream media, providing further evidence of how a society that exalts corporate success must undermine the value of the home worker and homemaker in order to survive.

This spring, Green Parent Chicago spoke with Hayes on the origin of her journey into radical homemaking:

How did you come into the idea of homemaking? Did you have doubts about your own abilities to carry out your decision and the merits of this choice?

I grew up in the hills of West Fulton, NY, which lie in the northern foothills of the Appalachian Mountain chain. I loved my life with my family, neighbors and farm, but no one thought that a young family could make a viable living here, as there were no economic opportunities. But I was so physically, spiritually and emotionally connected to this place, the idea of leaving left me in a state of distress. My husband had a job in a nearby town, so we thought we could live here and commute to outside jobs.

Thus, we bought our house while I was still in grad school. I shared an apartment w/another girl, then came home on weekends. Two weeks into this arrangement, when the first mortgage bill came, he was fired. When I came home from grad school that weekend to talk about what we should do next, I saw that he had saved the chicken carcass from the bird we'd roasted the weekend before, and he'd boiled it and made a simple soup. He'd lit the fire, pulled a chair up close for me to warm up (it was a cold November night), and handed me a bowl of soup, saying nothing. I cried and cried, then realized that we'd manage.

We talked a long time, and came to the conclusion that we had been at our most economically vulnerable when we were counting on full-time jobs to pay for the roof over our heads. One angry boss, and the income stream was gone.

We were engaged and had been planning a wedding the next summer. We eloped instead, and used our savings to support ourselves and began working odd jobs and developing our homemaking skills. My parents gave us a wedding gift of $5000 as well, which we figured we could rely on, until we got back on our feet. I still have some of it sitting in an account. We lived frugally, our mortgage was paid off in three years, and we never looked back.

When you talk to people about Radical Homemaking, are they skeptical about the egalitarian nature of it? You write about an egalitarian dynamic between men and women that is one of the cornerstones of Radical Homemaking. What are your thoughts on naysayers that believe this is unrealistic given society's entrenched views of gender roles?

Generally the naysayers aren't directly in front of me. So far, they seem to be far removed, hapless internet bloggers who've read some article about the book, written by someone who hasn't actually read the book, and are coming to conclusions about the book based on, well, as best as I can surmise, e-gossip. I think that people who come into contact with Bob and myself, or who have contact with any other true radical homemakers, or who have read the stories of the folks profiled in the book, understand that egalitarian relationships are possible. For certain, we all know of families where the balance of power is out of whack. But, I think that most American couples have come to see this as the exception, rather than the norm, unless they are committed for some reason to not believing it.

You profiled urban homesteading radical homemakers, Nance Klehm from Chicago and Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen, who live in Los Angeles. What have you found are special factors that radical homemakers must consider in an urban setting?

We rural homemakers have it a lot easier. Many of us living out in the country have family and community traditional knowledge to draw from for support. This way of life also doesn't bear the stigma that "homemaking" in the city does. Lots of rural folks get by using subsistence living skills. It's not unusual. Nance, Kelly and Eric had to rediscover and reinvent technologies and methodologies for working in their unique urban ecosystems. They also have a culture around them that may not support or understand their values (although I hope that is rapidly changing). They must deal with ridiculous city ordinances that keep people dependent on a consumer culture, such as codes that forbid keeping poultry.

That said, I think that this is where things are really exciting. Radical Homemakers in urban areas are coming up with phenomenal innovations, and are doing tremendous work to increase the sustainability of urban landscapes, without requiring that they over-tax the surrounding rural areas. They also must be teachers, writers and spokespeople, active agents of change in our culture, helping urban folks to understand that soil is not dirty, that we all bear some responsibility for supplying some of our own sustenance, without relying on simply the dollar to buy everything.

What has feedback from readers been like?

It has been from rural, urban and suburban folks, and it has come from all over the world. I am surprised by how many people have been living this life for a long time, guided by their ideals, but have felt ashamed or somewhat invisible in this culture, because they didn't bear a "job label" that enabled them to be counted and seen as contributing members of their society. From those folks, I receive a lot of thank yous. I get letters from couples who have used the book as a way to talk about their lifestyles and true sources of happiness, and as a starting point for changing their household dynamics. That's pretty amazing. I also get letters from folks who are Radical Homemaking in situations with even less money, and in even more improbable conditions. Those really make me smile, because they are showing me the great expanse of possibility.

Learn more about Shannon Hayes and her husband, Bob Hooper, and read online stories from readers of the book here.

-photo credit: RadicalHomemakers.com