Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

[You can read my article about women and DIY, which uses quotes from this interview, here.]

I first found Emily Matchar’s website, New Domesticity, in the aftermath of my DIY-wedding-related frenzy. Now, three months after getting my PhD in English, I handcraft greeting cards, raise chickens, make my own marshmallows, and fantasize about abandoning my academic job search to become a DIY wedding planner. I emailed Emily because I was curious about her take on the gender politics of DIY, and she emailed me back that she could relate to my situation: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.” After she sketched out the basic history of the DIY movement, from Kathleen Hanna to Martha Stewart, we started getting down to how contemporary DIY culture affects women’s lives.

Faux mercury glass candle holders, in process.

ME: You talk about your own relationship to DIY. Did that change over the course of writing the book?

MATCHAR: I think it probably confirmed some things that I thought, which was that DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular. This sort of domestic DIY is very much a women’s movement. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from that, because it’s not like, oh poor you, you’re doing DIY, you’re spending too much money! But there’s a sort of growing extreme DIY ideology of simple living or radical homemaking, this sort of idea of, why would you work in an office to make money to buy things that you can make yourself? That’s the driving ideology behind some of these extreme DIY movements, and I think ideologically that’s so flawed. Because, one, there are a lot of reasons to work besides making money, and two, it’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Yeah, I would rather make all my own bread to avoid having to work on an assembly line. But would I rather bake my own bread to avoid having a potentially more fulfilling and socially important job? And there’s very much, in this ideology, a very heavy strain of “working sucks,” and the workplace is terrible. It often seems like it’s just irredeemably terrible for women, and that it’s a feminist act to reject it and do things yourself. And I’m pretty wary of that.

ME: That’s really true. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Second-wave feminism was so predicated on getting out of the house and having a meaningful career, which, thank god, right? But there seems to be among women of my generation this kind of irritation with, why isn’t work fulfilling? For 90 percent of men, their jobs are not super fulfilling either. But I feel like women of my mindset and political inclinations view it as something that is going to be super fulfilling intellectually and psychologically and emotionally, and most of the time, let’s face it, it just isn’t that. But when you bake bread, you really feel an incredibly strong connection to that work. 

But why housework? Why does it have to be women’s work, why does it have to be girly crafts, why does it have to be baby clothes? What is it that we crave about that stuff? Why does it have to be weddings? Why aren’t we building shit? DIY is also a hardware store thing. So why is it that the things we make have to be these stereotypically gendered things, do you think?

MATCHAR: Well I mean sure, there are tons of women who go to the hardware store and build houses, but you’re right, it’s not part of this whole aesthetic. I think for girly stuff, there was already a pre-made script for that. And these are the kinds of things that women make, women make baby hats, and women do their wedding invitations and calligraphy and stuff like that, so there’s much more resources and learning available. I think when women officially started to reclaim this stuff as a feminist act, the very idea of it being so traditionally feminine was appealing. Hey, this was denigrated because it was traditionally feminine, so let’s do it. These are areas of life that have a sort of natural space for DIY – like a wedding, you’re making all this stuff, having a party, it’s a big transition. That said, there is a fair amount of DIY that sort of has nothing to do with that . . . I know lots of women who make IPod cases. And, you know, tampon holders.

These vintage pillboxes with homemade lip balm were my bridesmaid gifts.

ME: Okay, but the cute aesthetic is so predominant in DIY. I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a lot of women in their early twenties, and cute is just what they do. They make their own stuff because that’s what cool, and to me, there does not seem to be a trace of irony, or if there is irony, their relationship to it is completely different than mine. I don’t think it would occur to them to be like, why am I spending my time doing this? Why do I like cutesy things? Where did that come from? These are smart, well-educated, and often super successful and self-confident women who have just grown up with the assumption that baking cupcakes is a really cool way to spend your time. Which it is! But it seems like kind of an unquestioned assumption, whereas women closer to my age got into it via ironic appropriations of women’s culture. When did that shift happen, I keep trying to figure that out.

MATCHAR: That’s a huge question. I don’t know exactly how that happened or to what degree it has happened. I’m 29, and when I was 18, it would never have occurred to me to make cupcakes, I would have thought that was really, like, embarrassing.

Or really girly . . . I would have worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For the longest time that was one of the reasons women didn’t do that stuff, because it was denigrated as girly and there was a lot of sexism toward it. Women shied away from it because they wanted to be taken seriously. And then there was that reappropriation. I think now if you’re 18, you have the privilege, and that’s wonderful, of not having to worry that if I wear, you know, glitter cupcake earrings people won’t take me seriously.

ME: But do you think that’s true? Does it really not undermine their ability to be taken seriously in the world? Speaking to my friends who are in careers, they still have to scrap for every piece of respect they can get, do you know what I mean? 

MATCHAR: I think you’re totally right that yes, women still have to work hard to be taken seriously, and not being too stereotypically girly is part of being taken seriously. It’s just a luxury of growing up now that they don’t realize that, because it’s much more subtle, so that you grow up thinking, sure I can do cupcakes. And yeah, you will run into, a little bit later in life, people who aren’t going to take you seriously. But also I worry a little bit about just the sort of . . . how to phrase this . . . the . . . not to knock cupcakes, and we use cupcakes for so much symbolism beyond their actual meaning. But there is this idea that like . . . There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery.  I’m not saying it’s not. I mean if you’re a serious baker, that seriously wants to be a baker for life and you know what that entails, good on you. But the idea that that would be a cultural ideal.

Embroidering handmade cards is my favorite way to ruin my eyes.

I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, “God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,” or “I just want to start a bakery.” And I’m like, but you don’t really! Which I get, and people should do whatever they want to do. But the idea that work is hard and demoralizing, and that it’s maybe better to focus on the small things, is a little bit of an insidious cultural thing right now. I see a lot of people on blogs say, you can’t reach for too much. One of the ways people always introduce themselves on blogs is you know, my name is Anne, and I like pink cardigans and kittens and copper teapots. And there’s something very childish about it. And I’m not criticizing the people individually, but just the idea that you’re the sum of your whimsical interests. Does that make sense?

ME: So, do you have a magical answer for me about whether I should stop doing DIY and invest all my time in starting to earn income for my family?

MATCHAR: Well, how broke are you? [Laughs.] I mean you know basically as long as people are doing it for fun, and fulfillment, or people are doing it to make money but they have a very concrete goal in mind, and they have a very good idea of how that actually works, that’s great. I think it’s when we get into the slightly delusional space where we’re like, oh, we’re saving money. You are saving money, but at a really big cost of time. So as long as you’re enjoying growing all your own vegetables, and it’s not taking away from your ability to earn a living, if you, say, had to move somewhere else, or your vegetable garden got eaten by bugs . . . when you start going, well I’m spending three hours a day gardening and raising chickens,  and therefore  I don’t have time to do other things. I think that’s probably not a solid financial plan. But most people figure that one out pretty quick. You should check out that book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter [by Jennifer Reese]. She talks about that exact topic.

ME: I definitely need to check that out. In the mean time, don’t forget to look me up on Etsy. I have some great handmade cards.

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10 thoughts on “Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

  1. […] I recently talked with Austin-based writer Amy Gentry about DIY culture, feminism and the history of “women’s work,” and Amy has excerpted some of that conversation in an interesting piece on the subject she wrote for CultureMap Austin. She also posted longer excerpts of our chat on her own blog. […]

  2. A great perspective, and needed one. I have the DIY dream as well, but when I do the math on what I’d make on craft versus what I make at my “real” job, it just doesn’t add up–at least not at this point in life.

  3. So happy to have found your blog through Emily’s! I write about women in food over at TheFeministKitchen.com and hope our paths cross in Austin. We have a monthly FK book club, and we’d love to have you join us sometime! Next meeting is April 10 at Thrice, where we’ll be talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Looking forward to more of your posts!

    • amyegentry says:

      Thanks Addie! I will check out your blog, and I’m sure we will have occasion to meet one of these days. You’d be surprised at how many times I’ve been corresponding with someone and then it turned out we were sitting across the room from each other at Cherrywood. (Never mind, if you live here, you will not be surprised at all.) I will totally drop in on your LIW meeting, though I might have to brush up first . . . wait are you talking about food in those books? Did you see the Hairpin post about that a while back? (http://thehairpin.com/2011/08/ill-have-what-that-characters-having-foods-we-want-to-try)

  4. Hello, copying and expanding on my other comment.

    I think the thing for me is that there are parts of my primary needs that overlap with things I find fun – like growing some of my food (SOME) and cooking it and making clothes. These are things that I give up other fun things to do, but also sometimes have to pay others to do for me because I don’t have time, because of working. So there are some things that I totally would swap hours at work for, but I’m also aware that that has limits. And while I would kind of like an etsy store to validate the time and effort I put into my hobbies, I also don’t want my hobbies to be supporting me, because then they are not for FUN.

    Basically, crafting things rarely if ever saves me money. Except it sort of does – I knit and I could easily buy three jumpers for the cost of the yarn to knit one jumper. Plus the cost of the needles and pattern. If you factor in the cost of my time, it’s probably a $1,000 jumper. But it’s more like, I have this hobby that costs me supplies, just like any hobby. And at the end of it I get a bonus product! And sure, I could buy a similar shaped one for much less, but not one of a comparative quality. That has value for me. I feel strongly that I should be able to buy the basics – I get cross when, as a fat person, I get told that I could ‘just make it myself’. Yes, I could, but I shouldn’t HAVE to, not in a capitalist freaking society. But sometimes I want to, and I find it upsetting that my job makes me unable to do that. But all in all, I’ll take the job that gives me options over making my own bread – which I prefer, but if I had to do it all the time, without exception, I would stop enjoying and appreciating it. As it is, doing real things with my hands is a nice balance to my job, where I make virtual changes to pretend products. They have real value too, but sometimes it’s disheartening.

    Ideally, I’d like a 3-4 day a week job that was a leeetle bit more intellectually stimulating, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a career that fulfils all of me. I don’t expect that. I just want to find the balance point where I work enough to enable me to do the things that DO fulfil me, without taking up all the time in which I could be doing those things.

    • amyegentry says:

      Yeah, I’ve been through that whole knitting calculus thing too. Even when I was doing my wedding stuff, I was like, let’s be real here, I’m not exactly saving money on invitations. Not when you count the cost of the embosser and the special little glitter and the fancy paper and the hours and hours of embossing little birds on envelopes. But you’re right, what you’re paying for is the feeling of having done it your way, customized, not mass-produced. (And I do think that I wouldn’t have been able to afford the invitations that I made, just like you wouldn’t be able to afford the hand-knit sweater if it were in a boutique or something.)

      I was particularly ripe for Etsy fantasies a couple of months ago, because I recently finished a big long degree program and didn’t have much hope of a job on the other end. So I was looking at a terrifying mid-30s career change anyway, and it was very easy to be like, maybe I’m going to make birthday cakes and handmade cards for a living! Since I get insurance now through my husband, it seemed even more plausible. By which I mean, a tiny tiny bit plausible. By which I mean, not plausible at all, especially with globalized Etsy prices driving the price of handmade goods way down below where they should be.

      Maybe the feeling that you do it so much you “might as well” try and make a living is an early warning sign, your brain trying to tell you something. “Spending too much labor on this, must get paid.” Maybe it’s a good sign.

  5. […] ran across this article this morning and it really made me consider the reasons I do crafty things. I’ve always been […]

  6. […] read this article and the full interview to try to understand what they were saying about this new diy craze and “the new […]

  7. I bookmarked this article a while back and was just re-reading it, and I just wanted to say it’s great! It hits on a lot of things I’ve been thinking about women, DIY, Etsy, Pinterest, etc. and has given me a lot to think about.

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