1950s housewife in kitchen
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

The uneasy politics of being a ‘volunteer’ housewife

She’s tied to the kitchen, by choice. Indigo Paul ponders how she ended up filling her days with domestic labour – and why she’s cool with it. 

The term came up after chatting to a friend about what I’d been keeping myself busy with. 

“Oh, I’ve just been at home, working on the garden and making food, fermenting things…” 

“So, you’re like a housewife.” 

“I guess so, but without the financial backing.” 

“Being a housewife is your… passion project?” 

“Yeah, I’m a volunteer housewife!”

It’s a fun job title, but not without its political implications. After generations of women trying to get domestic, unpaid labour to be viewed as valuable and necessary, it seems a tad trite to be doing it on a “volunteer” basis.

But, what else to call myself, an underemployed theatre maker who spends her time baking bread, growing food, and cooking dinners to be shared with her partner (who, to be fair, does a lot of the cleaning-related chores)? It’s all stuff that I enjoy and choose to do, but it’s also domestic labour that benefits my partner, allowing him to work 50- or 70-hour weeks without having to worry about what there’ll be to eat when he gets home. Which might be an ideal setup if we shared financial resources, but we don’t. I’m… a volunteer housewife.

When I was in intermediate school, we studied the colonisation of Aotearoa, but, like, the fun parts. My teacher never covered the many creative ways that lawmakers legally stole land from tangata whenua, but I vividly remember learning that new immigrants’ soap was made from whale blubber. We watched a strange reality show in class where a “normal” New Zealand family reenacted landing on Aotearoa and setting up a home. All family members faithfully fulfilled their expected gender roles, the dad building a tiny A-frame and the mum labouring in corsets and long skirts, baking the family’s bread and heating the iron on a wood stove. 

It was the bread that did it for me. The next school holidays I followed each step of the Edmond’s recipe and made a white bread that must have only been eaten by my family out of pity.

I have always enjoyed crafts, cooking and the idea of self-sufficiency, but as I get older it only becomes clearer that my hobbies are highly gendered, and the line between household labour and personal leisure has blurred more and more.

The bread thing never went away; after a couple of years living with a professional baker, I was hooked on her sourdough. So, when I moved out and no longer had access to her mouth-watering boules, I started my own yeast colony. The thing about sourdough is that it takes forever. And not like a forever in which you can go off and do other things; it’s a forever that requires approximately two minutes of your time every half hour. Making sourdough ties me to my kitchen like nothing else I know of, and while I’m there, I may as well do the dishes and prep tonight’s meal and mentally plan what my partner and I will eat for dinner the rest of the week and make the shopping list, right? This is, undeniably, gendered domestic labour. But… it’s also a hobby. 

Photo: Miguel Morejohn from Pixabay

And I do these things not only for fun, but because doing them aligns with my values, not to mention that it allows for me to live more inexpensively. Buying bread at the supermarket means plastic packaging that needs to be shipped to Australia to be recycled, the emissions of the bread truck that delivered it to the supermarket, and eating foods that are less healthy than what I can make at home. Or there’s the $8 artisan-sourdough-in-paper-bag option, which isn’t really an option when you’re an unemployed theatre artist. With a 5kg bag of flour, $6.70 at Countdown, I can make 10 loaves, working out at $0.67 per loaf. In a way, all this domestic labour pays for my underemployment.

It hasn’t always been this way – there have been periods of my life when I’ve worked stupid hours at multiple jobs, letting me save up enough for this experiment with housewifehood. At the jobs, I liked the people and liked getting to witness what my work had made possible, and I definitely liked the regular deposits into my chequing account, but the work itself? I mean, does anyone truly enjoy sitting in front of a computer for eight hours replying to snarky emails and filling in spreadsheets? It’s really not much of a competition between that and staying home to cook, bake, ferment, and garden.

Unfortunately, the tiny climate change activist in my head can’t be shut up with regular paychecks spent on dumplings in styrofoam, delicious as those dumplings may be. When I think about our food chain and what I still buy from the supermarket, it occurs to me that the only way to access plastic-free, deforestation-free, pesticide-free tofu is to grow the plants, pick the soybeans, and process them into curd myself. 

But so often I hear the opposite message from purported feminists (or at least, companies trying to profit from feminism); that the truly liberated 21st century woman orders UberEats instead of cooking and outsources labour in the home to lesser-paid workers so she can focus on her career. This conflict makes me uneasy, and I can’t help wonder if it’s just another incarnation of white feminism, where liberation is for the few and privilege based on race and economic status is left unaddressed, as are the environmental consequences of these “acts of liberation”.

The truth is, I enjoy being able to spend the time to grow, bake, cook and ferment food. It contributes to my mental and physical health and my attempts to live ethically in our era of ecological disaster. Plus, it’s fun. I love getting to say “All the vegetables in this meal I either grew or foraged!” But it’s not financially rewarding and I can only eat through garden veggies and savings for so long. So, what’s the solution?

Maybe the real revolution isn’t telling women that success is a narrow box in which they get to work the same jobs as men for the same three-house-owning employers and the same wages (though income equality would be a great time that we should continue striving towards!). Maybe it’s encouraging people to find a way of living that sits right for them, regardless of their gender, and communities figuring out how to support people to contribute their unique gifts, whatever they may be. 

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