A confused tribute to women’s traditional roles.
Nostalgic for a past she never experienced, Zimmerman (Raising Our Athletic Daughters, 1999, etc.) sets out to document the “dying art” of domestic science. The author’s grandmother, born in 1913, was “the last of the old-fashioned American homemakers,” she states; her mother rejected sewing and time-consuming cooking but was still a fairly typical 1950s housewife. Zimmerman herself initially disdained all things domestic, but now she proposes that women “take back” domesticity. Since women have entered the workforce in large numbers, she argues, the domestic arts have taken a nosedive—cooking especially, but also housecleaning and sewing. “The fact is that men never responded to feminists’ demand that they do half the household chores,” which means, in her view, that they remain women’s tasks. The author doesn’t examine class- or race-based perspectives on homemaking; her focus is entirely on white, middle-class women, though she never says so explicitly. Conflicts abound. Zimmerman laments the death of baked goods, yet serves her guests strawberry cake made with prepackaged cake mix and occasionally gives her daughter an Oscar Mayer lunch kit to take to school. She is “shocked” to see a woman at the grocery store buying pre-made cookie mix and frozen strudel, yet her own dinner fare includes taco dinner kits and boxed macaroni and cheese. Some of the chapters are sharply focused and provide detailed histories of domestic science. The author chronicles the rise of home economics as an academic discipline, noting that many women were able to springboard from home ec to the hard sciences and careers in teaching or manufacturing. A chapter on the evolution of processed food is also well researched and illuminating. It’s a shame, then, that Zimmerman overromanticizes homemaking as a “source of personal strength and dignity” to all women and lets melodrama overtake logic in declarations such as: “The loss of our homeways portends the death of the home itself.”
Exasperating and thoughtful in equal portions.