Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem by Jennifer Bernstein
Not so long ago, technologies like microwaves and frozen foods were understood to be liberatory. Along with washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and a host of other inventions, these household innovations allowed women to unshackle themselves from many of the demands of domestic labor. It didn’t all work out as hoped. With labor-saving technology at hand, cleanliness and other domestic standards rose. Today, women still perform the lion’s share of domestic work, even among affluent couples, and even within a rising share of dual-income households.1
But it is also true that domestic labor demands upon women in affluent economies have declined dramatically. In the 1960s, women spent an average of 28 hours per week on housework; by 2011, they averaged 15.2 These gains are all the more important as wages in the United States stagnate and the number of single-parent households have grown.3 With many women taking on more than one job, facing longer commutes, and working irregular hours to make ends meet,4 the technological progress that has enabled something so handy as a 30-minute meal only eases the burden of the “second shift,” those unpaid post-work chores that still fall overwhelmingly to women.
And yet, today, a growing chorus of voices argues that to be proper environmentalists and nurturing parents, each night should involve a home-cooked meal of fresh, organic, unprocessed ingredients. “We’re doing so little home cooking now,” food guru Michael Pollan says, “the family meal is truly endangered.”5 Chastising the typical household for spending a mere 27 minutes a day preparing food, Pollan champions increasingly time-consuming methods of food production in defense of the allegedly life-enriching experience of cooking he fears is rapidly being lost.6
The juxtaposition is jarring, if not much remarked upon. At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor, prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women.
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