New Domesticity: Leadership Begins in the Home

As a Gen X woman who has spent a vast portion of the past 20 years, training, teaching and coaching women to play a more robust role in governing, I find the current discussion about the “new domesticity” an interesting one. As the younger generations are coming into early adulthood, many women are looking at once forbidden activities like canning, baking, gardening, and even knitting as essentials for a complete, conscious, and healthy life. Driven by a desire to leave a smaller environmental footprint, control the quality of their food, and keeping costs down these women are returning to domestic jobs long ago driven out of daily life by the innovation and affluence of the post World War II boom.

While the current debate seems to stem around the discussion of if this is a step forward or a step backward for women – it seems to miss an essential point about what these domestic activities truly represent in women’s lives.

Before World War II the day-to-day care of home and family required not only domestic endeavors, it, literally took a village, to care for the needs of a family and was generally addressed by multiple generations using their talents and skills to provide hearth, home, and food for all. With the post-war economic surge, the proliferation of desk jobs for men and suburbanization sending families into neighborhoods away from city centers and services, “women’s work” consisted of grocery shopping, benign housekeeping, and solitary days in pretty new homes devoid of meaning other than catering to the “breadwinner” and his children. The feminist movement freed women from this second-class lifestyle and sent them into the workplace to show that they could compete with men.

And compete they did. While not earning as much as their male counterparts or being equally represented in the top ranks of various sectors, women have proven that they can do whatever a man does be it lead a Fortune 500 company, run a university, practice medicine, law, or fly into space. The question is do they want to pursue these careers if it means giving up a piece of their lives that takes place in the home?

Which brings us full circle, to what domestic activities truly mean to women and to our society as a whole. Are household tasks grueling chores to be avoided at all costs or are they an essential component of our lives that without mindful participation eliminate the joy of life’s simple pleasures? While I am certainly not an advocate for returning to the dark days before dishwashers and washing machines, and I am not suggesting that women eschew professional pursuits to return to the home full-time, I am asking us to think about the ways in which our disdain for “home-making” have perhaps robbed everyone of some peace and contentment we are so longing for in our lives.

Effective leadership is about balancing masculine and feminine qualities, and for sometime we have seen the value of the two in business and the same is true for our personal lives as well. Women who are returning to the care of home and family are bringing needed focus on the quality of food, education, environment, and many other issues that not only “feed” our families they feed our society as well. As mighty institutions are falling around us, perhaps the best protection is not only in knowing how to care for our immediate needs without an over reliance on prepared, packaged, and preserved, but also in enjoying it.

At the basis of the renaissance of home care, is the basic understanding of how to care for self, family, and our society – in other words, creativity, ceremony, and community.

During this holiday season, I will be writing about each of these three elements that are essential for all leaders – in the home and in the world, for if we succeed in creating stronger, happier homes many of the issues in face “out there” cease to exist.

What do you think about the “new domesticity” movement? Please share your comments below.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This trend is fascinating, particularly in light of Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic Monthly piece declaring “The End of Men” and the rise of women. It is also interesting in light of the fact that women rule the internet.

At the confluence of these shifts is a more mobile workforce that should be allowed to work from anywhere. So my follow-up question is: Are women (in government) also driving the push toward telework, recognizing the value of working from home in order to achieve greater levels of balance in their lives – to truly realize a new domesticity? If not, why not?

Peter G. Tuttle

Work-life balance is a good thing – for both men and women. From my perspective, as we age, we need to strive to achieve some balance in our lives to maintain our health, sanity and sense of personal fulfillment. This balance can be very hard to obtain with the ever-increasing job pressures that we face daily combined with the needs of having a personal/home life. Without this balance life gets “out of whack” and usually both work and personal/home life suffer. One example of achieving some level of balance I can provide is that younger friends of mine, who both are employed full-time and have pretty tough schedules, cook together. It’s a home-focused activity that they share and enjoy…and they both clean up too.

Kathleen Schafer

Peter–I like the idea of cooking together as way to achieve balance in our busy lives. I find the act of preparing meals is also a great example for my children. We can talk about healthy eating and the necessity of knowing how to cook and until they see you doing it, it is all just talk. As I have been more engaged in the kitchen, I am see how both my boys are now eager to participate and on occasion offer me a night off so they can make dinner! For me the highest compliment, not because I get to sit down for a few minutes, rather it is the essence of leadership, inspiring others to make meaningful contributions through your own actions and example.