Are we drowning feminism in home-made tomato-sauce and breastmilk?

When I walk into my kitchen these days I want to weep. And, no, it’s not because we’ve started much-needed renovations.

Canning season is over us, and the Canadian summer/early fall doesn’t give you much rest these days. It’s now or never for so many products from the farmer’s market; the tomatoes are at their best, I may still get last-minute peaches at a good price; wild blueberries still abound, as well as pears, zucchini and soon also apples. My special headache is the great quantity of tomatoes I’m dealing with this year.

I wish I could say they’re all home-grown, but far from it. My 6 plants have yielded a few kilos, but definitely not the quantities needed for canning. The local farmers, on the other hand, have had a good year, and I’ve been able to buy amazingly sweet, perfectly red, organic  San Marzanos. Almost too many amazingly sweet, perfectly red organic San Marzanos.
Whenever I walk into the kitchen I feel attacked by the remaining baskets of tomatoes, realizing that each of them will bring hours of work, and that I need to take that time from my already packed schedule.

There’s a host of good reasons to can veggies and fruit:

  • It lessens dependency on imported, far-travelled greens in the winter.
  • It limits waste since you can preserve what you’re not able to eat at the moment.
  • It gives you control of what’s goes into the tomato-sauce, relish, jam you consume.
  • It’s a way to live the seasons in a more natural way.
  • It’s a more sustainable alternative to freezing food, and consumes no energy after it’s been produced.
  • It’s a great way to support local farming.

According to Michael Levenston of City Farmer, “the canning comeback is tied to a do-it-yourself food movement that has seen vegetable gardens sprout up everywhere from “the White House to Buckingham Palace to the Vancouver mayor’s front lawn.”A shadow from the past?

Though this may be true, I must say that on my side of town, I do feel pretty lonely when I stand in my kitchen at night, trying to ladle tomato-sauce into Bernardini-jars, without spilling too much. And as the time passes, I also start thinking about how sustainable living, even in my own, imperfect, patchy way, eats huge chunks of free-time out of my life. Not just the tomatoes, but the line-drying of clothes; the spot-cleaning of laundry prior to washing it; the organization of alternative transport solutions to the car; it all seems to have landed on my table, making my life more complex.

I’m certainly not the only person who’s thought these very thoughts. The paradox that environmentalism and feminism sometimes seem to be on a collision course has been pointed out by a few writers.

In a book  I only leafed through (realizing my French wasn’t up to level where I could comprehend the finer details), but that has still been widely talked about in the English-speaking world, Elisabeth Badinter strikes back with a vengeance against the pro-breastfeeding movement, and ecologists of all sorts. The book’s title is Conflit, la Femme et la Mere (Conflict, the Woman and the Mother),

Mrs Badinter makes the claim that there’s a “holy reactionary alliance” of green politicians, breast-feeding militants, “back to nature” feminists and child psychologists that is turning Frenchwomen into slaves to green “fads” like re-usable nappies and organic food.

In an interview with The Times she  goes on to describe the change she’s seeing in France in the following terms:

“If you don’t want to breastfeed, you are asked, ‘But Madame, don’t you want the best for your child?’. It makes you feel terribly guilty.” So most mothers breastfeed anyway, and many go on to do so for months or years. “This worries me, because we are creating another model of motherhood where the mother is with her baby 24 hours a day for at least six months. This is a model that eats the personal part of each woman as an individual,” she says.

Thinking about my own past, I’ve “wasted” even more time breastfeeding than Ms. Badinter’s horrifying example from France, and even if I don’t regret one month of it, I do realize that having children, firstly, and choosing a parenting model that was intense, secondly, certainly made me less competitive on the labour market, and probably will have adverse effects on my pension – if and when  I’ll be able to retire.

However, Badinter sharpens her argument and goes on to state that:

““Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear,” she continues.  “It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.”

And at this point I don’t follow her any longer. I see that women gained more freedom to join the capitalist way of production by using all of the above environmentally unfriendly alternatives, but would argue that being tied to a  model  of production that uses the male biology as its prototype, isn’t much more free (if at all) than being tied to your baby. I also find it astonishing how she can see the organization of industrial society as primary and nature secondary.

Last time I checked, neither women nor men could live without air, food and water. Seeing women’s equality (within a consumerist and industrial context) as primary, and nature as secondary, seems like social science gone off its reels (and I say that as a somewhat trained sociologist). Some of her arguments can also be dismantled by simply applying statistics. If it were, as she claims, that green practices and breastfeeding correlate with more inequality for women, one would expect that the higher the breastfeeding rate, the worse the inequality. Based on European statistics, this is far from true, French women breastfeed far less that Scandinavian women, but are much more unequal to men in political representation and labour market participation.

However, the fact that Badinter’s line of thought demonstrably has some flaws, doesn’t resolve the basic problem of women taking the main part of the burden of environmentally friendly behavioral change. Neither does it change the fact that I spend many nights alone canning in my kitchen.

As part of the debate around Badinter’s book, head of France’s Green party,  Cécile Duflot responds, “She has completely missed the point. The real issue is to find out why today there is still inequality between men and women on pay and domestic chores, not to consider that today having a child is a problem,” she said. “She blasts washable diapers as an extra burden for mothers, without thinking for a second that a man could put them in the washing machine. What she completely forgets is the notion of pleasure. One can take pleasure in raising one’s baby – that goes for men too.”

Since I’m past breastfeeding and diapers a while ago, I need to implement the same rationale on tomato-sauce production, looking up transit schedules and hanging clothes on a line.

The rest of the family is going to wonder what hit them!


~ by Hege on September 11, 2010.

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