During the week before break, as the Humanities 7 class and I were reading and discussing Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons, they asked if they could use their hand looms and work on their last “Art and Culture” project. I’ve always felt, and I know that research shows, that some people actually concentrate better on discussions when they are engaged in some task that does not require their full attention (doodling, squeezing a rubber ball, listening to music, knitting, etc.), so I readily granted their request. It led to a heightened sense of calm and community even as we had some of the longest and deepest conversations of the term. They asked Sara (their art teacher) and I whether they could continue the practice once art class was over, and Sara not only agreed but also quite generously offered to provide supplies. I of course was only too happy to grant their request.
One by-product of our school’s involvement in the Rays of Hope walk for breast cancer has been an increased interest in knitting as students work to help create pink scarves to be donated to cancer survivors, and some of the 7th graders had already been bringing knitting projects to class to work on during discussions. Meanwhile, a student survey showed that one of the top-rated topics in our new “Life Skills” course was cooking. As someone who enjoys cooking and used to enjoy knitting, I know firsthand the usefulness of these skills. Moreover, I’ve long felt that one can be feminist and still advocate for schools offering units and topics associated with Home Economics as long as one doesn’t associate those skills with only one gender. So I have been secretly glad to see these interests building, and I am quite happy to support them.
The day before we returned from break, Rachel Simmons posted a tweet linking to an article by Emily Matchar at “The Washington Post” entitled “The New Domesticity: Fun, empowering, or a step back for American women?” I clicked on the link and found the account of a young woman in the midst of canning, musing why she and “half [her] female friends… were heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.” Fair enough, I thought to myself. It would be hard to argue with any of those goals. And in recent years I have read a good many articles noting, with one degree or another of bemusement, how there’s something about the holidays – perhaps nostalgia or a sense of tradition – that leads people (often women) to devote much more time and attention to cooking than they do at any other time of year.
However, Ms. Matchar continues to ask, “But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, ‘reclaiming’ domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this ‘new domesticity’ start to look like old-fashioned obligation?” She muses on whether this trend is a reaction to or an evolution of feminism, steadfastly refusing to settle on a single answer but rather presenting different perspectives on the question all the while leaving it open-ended.
I want all my students to be able to take care of themselves and to value caring for others. For those who marry or settle into partnerships, whether or not they start families, I would hope their life partners would share those attributes. I also want them to grow into their own authentic selves. So where does all this leave us? I find myself wondering if I taught at an all-boys’ school whether we would even be having this conversation. Merely to raise that question, of course, puts us instantly in familiar territory of the intersection of biology, culture, and our own individual values. Ultimately, as Ms. Matchar implies, there is no easy answer.
Or is there? When we get caught up in questions of what it means to be female and male, we entangle ourselves so deeply in a web of conflicting evidence and opinions that it is almost hopeless to unravel it and sort it out. If, on the other hand, we look at domestic skills simply as “life skills” that can serve all of us, then perhaps it becomes less complicated. I would have the same goals for my students wherever I taught – all-girls, all-boys, or coed. I have the same goals for my son. I would imagine a great many teachers and parents feel the same way. So why must it become so complicated?
In the end, as with so much we do in our school, it comes down to the culture in which we live. It’s one thing to ensure our students have the skills they need to be successful in life and that they know and can act as their own best selves. It’s quite another to ensure that our culture is ready to receive them on those terms.