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Is Urban Homesteading Keeping Women Down?

Back in the kitchen: how does today's woman reclaim her role in the urban homestead?

Earlier this year, a chorus of bloggers accused Michael Pollan of being shortsighted when, in a plea to Americans to cook more of their meals at home, he failed to acknowledge the tangible freedoms many women experienced when they were no longer tied to cooking from scratch. Although the media dialogue came and went, I don't think I was alone when I found myself stepping back, counting the hours I'd spent in the kitchen and garden recently and wondering if I was taking some kind of (albeit thoroughly enjoyable) step backward for womankind.Pollan had a point, and so did his critics. We now know that the promises of the processed food industry were too good to be true; most working people can't, it turns out, have an abundance of free time and put authentically delicious and healthy food on their tables-let alone keep their resource use down.Enter the "urban homestead." Whether it's a trend or a movement we can't yet say, but more and more of my peers seem to be spending what free time they have making jam, gardening, bee keeping, fermenting, or participating in a long list of related DIY activities. Doing things with our hands might just be commonplace again. And while this set of preoccupations borrows its name from the original homesteading era, when both men and women struggled daily to survive, the new homestead-with its free will and fluid gender roles-might be just as complex.K. Ruby Blume, who teaches beekeeping, gardening and canning at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, California, isn't worried about women's roles in this new era home domesticity. For one, she's seen a number of the women in the DIY families she knows act as breadwinners, while their male partners stay home. Nonetheless, she adds, "women have a natural affinity towards a certain kind of caring about our environment and toward homemaking," even when "freed from the feeling of ‘must.'"Erik Knutzen co-authored the book The Urban Homestead with his wife Kelly Coyne and he keeps a blog called He says the couple's roles do play out along standard gender lines at times: he does the building, carries heavy loads, and works on a lot of the technical stuff, like adding drip irrigation to their garden. But he also bakes the bread. He says he thinks a little differently about what it means to be a nurturer than he did before they embarked on their decade-long process of building a thriving, ecologically sound home and urban farm in the middle of Los Angeles."I think men and women both need to be comfortable being nurturers of the land, of their homes of each other," he says. His wife agrees, but adds that domestic gender politics can obscure a larger set of problems."It's important to take the thinking further," says Coyne. "We need to be asking why it takes two adults working 40-hours-a-week to pay a mortgage. From what I've seen, both men and women just work [out of the house] more and more. They commute an hour each way, and when they get home, all they can do is plunk themselves down in front of the TV." Shifting their lives to focus on working in the home, and paring down many of the consumer habits that went along with their previous lifestyle has been enriching for both of them, says Coyne, while allowing more room for their gender roles to overlap.Kateryna Wetmore, who runs Urban Kitchen SF, also believes in expanding the discussion beyond typical gender rhetoric. At the classes she and her colleagues teach, she's seen women and an increasing number of men hoping to fill what she sees as "a critical vacuum left in the American kitchen."Rather than a gender battleground, Wetmore says, "the kitchen is now a space colonized by entities whose objectives are profit over nutrition and convenience over community." The last several decades of advertising, she believes, has "discouraged our participation in the production and preservation of our own food by cloaking it in a veil of 1950s imagery of female bondage."It's hard not to begin unpacking linear ideas of progress. Considering how many of us are slowing down and examining the sustainability of our choices, it's also possible that-without realizing we were doing it-many of us have started believing that its worth the risk to turn back occasionally for the important things we leave behind. It hardly surprises me, then, that so many women are leading the way.Photo courtesy of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne.Guest blogger Twilight Greenaway writes a weekly newsletter about sustainable food for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Her writing can also be found at Culinate, Civil Eats, and Ethicurean. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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