Homeward Bound: A Book Young Women Must Read

I cannot remember the last time I wrote a “fan letter” to an author. I reach out to authors of books I’ve enjoyed with some regularity, to share my praise and to extend an invitation to have coffee or lunch sometime to talk shop. But I can’t remember the last time I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to an author, without any reason other than to say: Your book really, really moved me and I want to thank you.

Last month, I wrote a fan letter to Emily Matchar.

Emily Matchar’s book Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity shines a light on a huge trend that I’m not sure had yet been addressed or debated in a public way. 

Remember the female ideal of the early 2000s? On Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw used her oven to store her back issues of Vogue magazine and spent many nights sitting at her desk at her window, pounding away at her laptop. Sure, she never could have afforded her lifestyle, but the entire show’s narrative—literally—was structured around Carrie working on her newspaper column. In the early to mid 2000’s, popular actresses starred in movies and on TV as female protagonists with demanding, aspirational jobs.  Katherine Heigl alone played an urban upscale restaurant owner, an executive assistant to a CEO, and a TV producer (in two different movies!).  In How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Kate Hudson embodied young female ambition playing Andie Anderson, who had her master’s in journalism from Columbia and was disenchanted with her job as a columnist at a glossy Manhattan-based magazine where her editor wouldn’t let her write about politics. 

Today, author and journalist Emily Matchar makes the argument that young women are passing on cosmopolitans at after-work networking events to stay home uploading lovingly-edited photos of homemade baked goods to their blogs.  Matchar writes of young women who grow their own vegetables in whatever outdoor space they have to call their own, who have learned how to make their own cheese, and who have taught themselves how to can their own food and make homemade fruit preserves. Frequently these young women fantasize about leaving the city for the country, and memoirs by women who have done so are the new chick lit.

I have never made so many notes and exclamation points (!!!) in the margins of a book.  The crux of Matchar’s argument is this: in light of a recession of historic magnitude that has made meaningful jobs harder than ever to find, and in light of a generally scary time for America, young women are “taking shelter” and finding comfort and satisfaction in labor-intensive domestic tasks. Matchar makes an interesting connection that because today’s young people have been raised with so many digital toys—and the workplace is so reliant on computers and email—that young people are desperate to make things with their hands after work.

But there are some big problems here.  If this phenomenon is truly rooted in a generation of young women who feel unsatisfied at work and have lost interest in their careers, knitting by night is an extremely short-term solution.  While it’s critically important to have hobbies—I’ve built part of my career on the importance of this message—we don’t want the calming effects of stewing homemade strawberry jam to deter the next generation of young women trailblazers from thinking big!  Even if they are fed up with their “day jobs” (I hate that term), young women could be using their time after work to make important connections with other talented young women, to write a brilliant novel, or to launch a startup! One caveat: that startup ideally shouldn’t revolve around food products made in small batches or handmade crafts.  It’s not the best business plan.

Matchar explores how some young women are conflating their career ambition and new love of cooking/crafting, and they decide to build careers in domestic tasks that are unlucrative by their very nature. Some young women believe that they could launch their line of hand-sewn aprons, build Etsy stores that will provide full-time employment, or make a living off their “lifestyle” blogs (because Ree Drummond does).  Matchar devotes an entire chapter to the false idyll of Etsy and notes that those who are able to make $30,000 or more annually from their Etsy stores are frequently working Goldman Sachs hours.  Matchar also shares the unsettling truth that “owner of a successful artisanal soap company” (looking at you, Orange is the New Black) is a career path as aspirational as trying to be a Hollywood starlet. 

I would argue that this book is the most important contribution to the debate about young women, feminism, and work in years.  (Sadly, I think Lean In must be excluded from the conversation in light of the organization’s recent intensely paradoxical ad seeking an unpaid intern).  Our society may be at risk of losing members of the next generation of pioneering career women who are becoming too consumed by the (discreetly political) hobbies they use to salve their displeasure about their current situations and the national economic and political situation.  

Matchar says that it’s fine to have homegrown hobbies (which is reassuring: I spent the summer grilling pizza with my garlicky homemade bread dough).  But modern young women need to channel more of their energy to take charge and take action when it comes to finding meaningful work that will satisfy, in the long run, much more than any homemade zucchini muffin.

Seriously, read Homeward Bound.