The REAL Opt-Out Revolution


Written by MOTHERS volunteer Kelly Coyle DiNorcia (
I recently took a ride down to Princeton, NJ to see a talk given by a woman named Shannon Hayes. It was about what she calls Radical Homemaking, or Enlightened Homemaking. Radical Homemakers are those who eschew many modern conveniences (“necessities”) and choose instead to live a simple, low-tech lifestyle. In her research that led her to write a book about these Enlightened Homemakers, she has found that people can follow this lifestyle anywhere – in a city, in the suburbs, on a farm, in a highrise. It is not necessarily about being a “back-to-the-land” type (though I’d say that those types are well-represented among the members of this movement), but about finding ways to practice self-sufficiency whenever and however possible.

The life of a radical homemaker is appealing to me, though not in the extreme. More like Radical Homemaking Lite. I like growing my own food, cooking from scratch (baby food and all), making do with less, but I do still enjoy having a telephone and paying someone else to change the oil in my car. I have friends who are totally off the grid and would be considered “homesteaders”, I don’t know that I’m up for that. Yet.

Several individuals in the audience, and Hayes herself, expressed some of the tension between feminism and Radical Homemaking. We worked so hard to get OUT of the kitchen, many women would say, would we choose to go back? I don’t think Hayes would argue that this lifestyle is an inevitable next step in the feminist movement, but I think it is definitely not necessarily ANTI-feminist. In fact, her argument in favor of homemaking as the newest expression of feminism is compelling – that we should make the family a unit of production rather than a unit of consumption and take back our lives from the consumer culture.

In these “enlightened” families, carework generally IS shared, sometimes along traditional gender lines but not necessarily, and if so only because that is where the members’ inclinations lie. Hayes, for example, has a Ph.D. from Cornell University and supports her family as an author while her husband does most of the house- and care-work. Her family also has a farm which they tend with her parents, the products of which they sell for additional income. In my own family it is I who takes care of home repairs and yard work, and my husband who does laundry and much of the other house work, simply because I am more mechanically-minded than he is and enjoy being outside while he does not. For these families, concentrating on the home and family instead of a career outside the home is a choice that is based in personal and political values. It is not an adherence to traditional roles and constraints but instead a way of taking full responsibility for one’s choices and life.

As Hayes said in her talk – “He who has the gold makes the rules, but if you don’t need the gold you can change the rules.” In other words, these people are choosing to protest against the status quo, against a workplace culture that frequently forces them to put money-earning above all else, by simply opting out of the whole system to the extent that is possible for them. I (as a self-described feminist) like that, and I also like the feeling of empowerment, as well as the fulfillment of my creative urges, that come from doing things myself.


  • EveryWoman

    Even more significant to me is the choice I make to do some things myself so that my children will feel empowered when they grow up to try canning, sewing, or law school with 6 kids. I believe we tend to act out what we have seen our parents do. I don't want them to be afraid to try anything! They will know it isn't any big deal because they saw Mom do it first.

  • Nicole

    I have mixed feelings about radical homemaking. For one, I love traditional women's crafts like knitting, embroidery, etc. I love to cook and bake. I am trying my hand at a vegetable garden. I get great joy out of making things my family can use and enjoy. However, I also see these trends of women in the home (opting out, radical homemaking, etc.) as troubling. We are retreating, rather than trying to make the outer world better for our families and others. When we opt out and stop working for family-work balance, we leave the work undone. The workplace will be no friendlier to parents and families. We will not have better child care options. So sure, we may be fulfilled and happy in our cocoons of self-sufficiency, but the world remains as it was. And was that what we all have been fighting for?

  • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

    Nicole, thanks for so clearly and succinctly describing the tension between radical homemaking and feminism! I agree that there is a continuing need for people to get out there and try to change the system, and we are all strengthened by those who do.

    But, in my darker and more discouraged moments, I also sometimes feel like we're trying to repair something that is fundamentally flawed in its design. As long as the purpose of corporations/employers is to make the maximum profit for the owners/shareholders, then the progress that women/caregivers will make will continue to be limited in its scope. I don't think this is limited to women, but to all those who have obligations outside the workplace – it just happens that most of those people are women.

    I keep coming back to the idea of being a unit of production instead of a unit of consumption when I think about this tension. Whether we produce canned tomatoes, handmade clothing, or a more family-friendly workplace by requiring our employers to be flexible and supportive, it is incumbent on us to try to leave things better than they were when we arrived!

  • DJ

    Women, mothers are shareholders and stakeholders in our economic system,too. For perhaps centuries, the family was, indeed, a unit of production. While we have lost our senses on many fronts – consumerism run amok – women are not bound to the home or silenced by it as an exclusive unit of production and can pursue interests and careers outside the family unit.
    We could all incorporate aspects of the self sufficiency implied with 'radical homemaking.'
    Should we look to a day when "home" is the center of existance, production, goods and services?
    It seems unlikely that society will become less complex; goods and services, distribution, the need to provide more than just subsist create complex systems. We can't make the world less complex by leaving it, only our own experience of it.
    We can enjoy our time more, find satisfaction and a living to a degree. But women belong at the table of complex systems and organizations; we belong everywhere.
    Feminism is about equality; if there is equality in radical homemaking, then great – men and women sharing the burdens and benefits of production equally! Ma and Pa on the prairie. (remember, though, Ma couldn't vote).
    Isn't this about valuing other things besides corporate life, culture? Valuing caregiving and homemaking?
    A mother can make great canned goods, provide unlimited value and products to her family – make the family dependent on her labor – and the family can be dependent on a family production income –but, in the end, the questions involve economic security.
    "Radical homemaker" implies many skills, and a huge investment of time, but it may not be a good job description for a resume or the insurance policy, or the home's title or loan.
    The home is already a place of production. Families, and mothers, produce human capital – if women aren't involved and engaged – how much longer will it take for our culture to see that it needs to invest in this activity through policy? If we are home canning our own food, growing our own veggies -we take charge, but only while we can.
    If only women, together, owned their economic power, had the time – cared about and valued themselves enough to speak clearly about what they expect from public and private policy.
    This "radical homemaking" may be a protest to an untenable situation. Hopefully it will not be silent – silenced – or silencing – because it is in the home.