Not one more winter in the tipi, honey: gender and labor "off the grid"

Via Corrente, another Colorado blogger Michelle Nijhuis writes perceptively about the differences (encore!) in women’s and men’s labor when an idealistic heterosexualist couple decide to live their low impact dream inside a solar-powered yurt or straw-bale home:

Here’s what happens: A couple arrives in our valley, young, strong, in love, and full of plans to build an ultra-energy-efficient house out of straw bales, rammed earth, adobe bricks, or, heck, used bottlecaps. They set to work with equal enthusiasm, buying land and setting up temporary quarters in a yurt or a tipi. The weather’s good, the views are great, and the new house is humming along.

But at some point, the weather turns, or the project slows. Or a baby arrives, and everything gets more complicated. For whatever reason, their brio fades, NOMWITTH (“Not one more winter in the tipi, honey.”) sets in, and what was once a joint project becomes a battlefield, XX vs. XY. In mild cases, help is hired, the house gets a roof, and all ends well. In more serious cases, one person — inevitably XX — splits town for a fully-furnished condo with central heating, leaving XY alone with the low-carbon dream.

So why is it always XX who bails out on “the dream?”  Is it that the solar panels can’t power up their hair dryers and curling irons and they miss watching E! and HGTV?  Hardly.  Nijhuis explains that it’s all about the work–the repetitive, indoor, and ephemeral labor that women do, versus the outdoor, public, permanent contributions their male partners make:

Many scholars — notably Ruth Schwartz Cowan, in her classic book More Work for Mother — have pointed out that the early-20th-century revolution in household technology, despite its many promises, didn’t actually save middle-class women any time. Washing machines meant that people hired fewer servants, had larger wardrobes, and washed their clothes more frequently. Vacuum cleaners led to higher standards of carpet cleanliness. Yet these inventions did change the nature of household work, rescuing women of all classes from at least some of its sweaty, undervalued drudgery.

Too often, modern homesteading asks women to return to the toil so many of their grandmothers left behind. No matter how progressive the homesteading couple, the unfamiliarity and the physical demands of DIY living make it easy to fall into traditional gender roles — to retreat to the stereotypically masculine and feminine skills most of us still learn first and best. The result is that in many modern homesteads, despite highly evolved intentions, men build the houses, and women, like their pioneer-era counterparts, cook over the wood stove. Or scrub the floors. Or care for the babies.

This old-fashioned division of labor means that women are often the first to encounter the worst realities of homesteading. While their partners are outside, impressing the neighborhood with their construction skills, women are inside, confronting the cultural invisibility of domestic work and the social isolation of rural life. Both are working hard, but one gets more public props than the other. Put another way, it doesn’t take too many solo rounds of hand-washing dirty diapers to kill the romance of modern homesteading, and bring on critical NOMWITTH.

That’s why cowgirls Just Say No to housework.  Stall-mucking is as indoor as it gets for me out here on the high plains–messy for sure, but at least horses don’t wear diapers!  We steer clear of the kitchen these hot evenings and grill everything that we don’t eat as-is.  You can get your dishes clean with just a compost pile and a garden hose (or if you’re not even that picky, a dog).  And friends:  be sure to teach your daughters some basic construction skills so that they don’t end up in a yurt washing and hanging out poopy diapers when she could be fashioning a cistern for rainwater or installing solar panels on the roof.

I’ve always found that living well is the best revenge!

34 thoughts on “Not one more winter in the tipi, honey: gender and labor "off the grid"

  1. I’m sure we would have seen a prime example of this syndrome if S.T. Coleridge and Robert Southey had gotten their lecture tour finished in time to head to interior Pennsylvania in 1794 for their “Pantsandsockswashing” collective-experiment. This “farm in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and freak-around all night” trope was always at least two-thirds about outdoor activities and entirely about what the auteur imagined for it, and this was still going strong in the 60s, 70s, and today–as the radio stations like to say.


  2. A good friend of mine told me once that her father wanted to buy an RV to retire and take vacations in. Her mother refused — she said it would be a vacation for him, but just like being at home doing the housework for her. They never got the RV. It’s a more average case of NOMWITTH, maybe NOMVITRVD (Not one more vacation in the RV, dear).

    And, yes, there’s nothing like grilling out on a summer evening! (Or maybe just a nice salad…)


  3. I asked my grandmother once about the dust bowl. They were in Western Oklahoma at the time. Today’s article (really plural; the linked documents from the original blog post are a good read) put her answer into a different perspective. I’d always thought her answer was a little evasive, something to be expected from a woman who didn’t dwell on the past – but now?

    She said it made a big mess.


  4. Interesting! It brings to mind my stock answer when someone cranks at me about how working mothers are somehow “new” in our current time, and are ruining the kids:

    “Have you ever read the instructions for making soap?”


  5. Teaching your daughter basic construction/home repair skills is certainly handy, but teaching your son how to do some f-ing housework would be more beneficial correcting such heterosexual domestic imbalances.


  6. I swear that this gendered division of labor has driven much of the plot and commentary on the PBS “House” series. You know the ones where reality TV participants are whisked back to colonial New England, the Montana fontier, an English manor house etc and cut loose with the cameras running. Invariably the women realize with lightning speed that “This f’ing SUCKS!” This was in fact the verbatim asessment of a new bride on the Montana series. I would second Historiann’s exhortation to learn how to swing a hammer. Your labor may not be less backbreaking but it will be infinitely more gratifying. (unless of course one is repairing the damage imflicted by younger memebers of the tribe)

    I’m intrigued by Cowan’s assertion that technology only raised the bar for middle class women. Is part of the “problem” that there is no way that this bar is ever going to be applicable to a yurt, even if one had unlimited time and energy to try to make ones tent ready for a Better Home and Gardens photoshoot ?


  7. We’ve been reading the Little House on the Prairie series, and I took a gander at the Wikipedia page for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    I decided the Ingalls were just a little bit nuts. Good strong pioneer stock, but that whole moving someplace unsettled right when you’ve got the current place settled… not my cup of tea. I got the sense that Ma Ingalls put her foot down that they needed to move to town after they lost their son (of course, that turned out to have problems too with the winter and supply chain disruptions).

    In any case… yay for a/c and washing machines and microwaves and husbands who are willing to do the majority of diaper changing.


  8. Never was there a more attractive complete failure of a man than Charles “Pa” Ingalls in all of American literature. He comes off as the fun, attractive parent in the books, which are written from Laura’s perspective, but reading those books as an adult recently has given me a whole new perspective on him and on Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. All she ever gets to say is “Oh, Charles. . . ” when contemplating his newest (doomed-to-fail) scheme, their latest crop failure/swarm of grasshoppers/drought/near economic death experience.

    Job had nothin’ on that woman, who IMHO was portrayed rather ungenerously by her daughter in the books considering the tremendous draughts on her labor and patience that each of Pa’s schemes required of her. She (and Mary too) get to stand for the forces of “sivilization,” which is just no fun compared to playing the fiddle and singing “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” like Pa.


  9. Yes, I’ve never understood the homesteading thing. Any historian ought to know that the old ways involved backbreaking work. And I suspect that contemporary homesteaders have contemporary standards of hygiene, 19th c technology (at best), and none of the help that a 19th c homesteader would have, whether siblings, children, or perhaps (rarely) servants. That’s the worst of all worlds!

    But I don’t even go camping. I like my running water and indoor toilets.


  10. The music in the Little House books is one of my favorite parts. Wilder paid such close attention to the songs in her books, and almost every example is historically accurate. See: the famous minstrel show scene. Laura would never had access to the fiddle (as a woman) or the piano (as a subsistence farmer’s daughter). But, she loved it.

    Unless I’m misremembering, and she does play the fiddle. I reread these as an adult (for teaching), but I don’t remember that detail.


  11. Thanks, Michelle, for your insights. Cowan’s book is an important one.

    Fratguy reminds me of those PBS “1901 House,” the “1884 Homestead,” and the “Colonial House” series from the early 2000s. He’s exactly right–the women were the first to rebel because of the restrictions put on them as well as the labor, and those who were working as female servants were righteously resentful. In the 1901 house, they had female domestics who kept quitting. And very poignantly, in the “Colonial House” series the one man to quit was the African American man, who said that he was able to understand the attraction of exploiting human labor in a world that ran on human and animal labor rather than petrolium.

    Susan, our recent camping trip permitted me to see once again how little water and how few possessions we can live on, compared to living in a house which (albeit un-air-conditioned) has a D/W, W/D, 2 full bathrooms, PLUS an in-ground sprinkler system. It’s really embarassing to think about our profligacy compared to camping (although of course, we’d eventually have to have showers or baths and do laundry).


  12. Wini–someone learns to play the piano, and I think it’s either Laura or Mary. (Maybe Mary learns at the school for the blind?) I don’t remember Laura learning to play fiddle, but I may be mistaken.

    That’s an idea for an American Studies or Cultural Studies paper: “The Fiddle as Phallus in the Writings of Laura Ingalls Widler and Rose Wilder Lane.”


  13. After 2 years of trying to grow a vegetable garden that resulted in exactly one radish and a couple of leaves that might have become spinach with enough encouragement, I decided practical gardening wasn’t for me.

    I didn’t have much luck with a CSA either, so I’m 0 for 2 in my efforts.


  14. Miranda: I did a CSA last year, and was disappointed by the monotony of the veggies and overwhelmed by the volume of food that needed to be sorted and processed each week. I can’t tell you how many effing vats of spinach/chard I blanched last summer, how many pans of beets I cooked to freeze, or how many winter squash I cellared and ignored last fall until I composted them in the spring. And I didn’t see a damn tomato until September, and they were all tasteless mush anyway. And the less said about kale, the better. The horror! The horror! It was like an Edgar Allen Poe short story, “The Delivery,” with the chilling thud the CSA box made as it landed on our doorstep, week after week.

    Bottom line: it was exhausting, and it made me feel guilty about going out to eat because we had already paid for the CSA. Patronize your local farmer’s market, and buy from the local growers/producers. That way you’ll save money, you won’t waste food you didn’t want, and you’ll still have some cash left over to enjoy a “sivilized” night out at a restaurant.


  15. Greens are nasty (we give them away to the vegetarian daycare lady who actually likes them). But our CSA was totally worth it just for the heirloom tomatoes we got every week. (They have a greenhouse. Definitely a plus.) And the new CSA has half-shares and delivers directly to our door. Much less of a commitment. And we can order the jam and salsa and honey we like to get at the farmer’s market, saving a trip across town.

    Not all CSAs are created alike!


  16. I wouldn’t mind trying to build a sod house one time, or maybe making a few “waxed” translucent windows, but I think that would pretty much do it for any _Giants in the Earth_ tendencies i may have retained. It was fun reading about in the 8th grade, I have to say. “Tish-ah, Tish-ah,” as Rolvaag put it.


  17. The man in these relationships is always the one who gets the book deal and the spot on NPR as well. And a lot of these guys (No Impact Man, if I recall, No Air Conditioning Man from last summer) aren’t even building houses or doing anything remotely as strenuous, but you can bet that the women are still scrubbing floors and changing cloth diapers if there are kids.

    Here’s an oldie but goodie: No Impact Man mansplains about how you shouldn’t use tampons.


  18. Good point, the15th. However, it’s a *little* unfair to say that No Impact Man engages in mansplanation, when it looks like there are a lot of users of those menstrual cups in his comment section who are big fans of the solution. I think it’s perfectly fair for him to write about this–although I think it’s irresponsible to suggest a link between tampons and CANCERZOMG11!!!! when there are so many other sources of dioxin in our environment.

    Whatever works best for the individal menstruator is good enough for me. Any kind of living human body puts a “burden on the waste stream,” and I hardly think tampons are the biggest source of non-industrial pollution in our landfills.


  19. Must recommend Wendy McClure’s THE WILDER LIFE, on her preoccupation with all things Little House. In the course of churning butter, making snow candy, and visiting a range of Wilder tourist sites, McClure notes many of the points being made here.


  20. Oh, Charles.

    I have just been rereading the Little House books and I think your take on it is exactly right, except I would add that Laura did learn some basic construction skills from her dad, and they served her well when Almanzo was ill.

    The washing machine is the best invention of all times. Yes, standards are higher, but I would rather run 20+ loads of laundry in a machine than do one load by hand. Washing clothes by hand is miserable sucky hard work. And someone else’s clothes? No way.


  21. I split a share with a friend, so we weren’t overwhelmed by the quantity…especially since the amounts of each vegetable were tiny and the quality poor. It wasn’t hard to figure out what to do with a baseball-sized cabbage. It was a little harder to figure out what you do with one bunch of tiny radishes other than just eat them raw…and there are limits to how many raw radishes I want.

    I like greens, but the CSA greens were generally bug-eaten, covered in worms, and generally nasty. I did learn to cook kale, however, and I like it, so that was good. It’s the farmer’s market for me.


  22. Your CSA/Poe greens story: “A Descent into the Garden Maelstrom”? “The Tell-Tale Box”?

    As Feminist Avatar says, Mary learned to play the piano while away at school in Iowa, and Laura gave Pa all the money she’d earned teaching school so that they could buy Mary an organ. That’s the scene in which Laura out-Ma’s Ma in being noble and unselfish.


  23. Wow, undine FTW! I love “The Tell-Tale Box!”

    Excellent twitter-length read of the school/piano/organ scene, too. As I recall, Laura outgrows her Half-Pint scampishness pretty quickly once she’s introduced to the world of work. She joins with the other women in the story, except for disabled Mary, in having to labor hard in order to help support her family.


  24. I once heard a lecture by an anthropologist who studied Berbers in Morocco. They had a fairly typical gender-divided labor system, and of course while everyone worked their a$$es off, the women worked longer and harder (mostly because the men’s work ended at dinner time and the women kept on working). Anyway, these Berber men had enormous respect for the hard working strength of their women, and often talked about how tough they were, and way stronger/tougher than any of the men. So, they didn’t *help* equalize the labor, but I found it somehow gratifying that they at least *acknowledged* it, unlike USians past or present.

    I was once over at a thread where everyone was just tearing Ma a new one for being so uptight and rules-oriented. People pointed out how uncharitable Laura/Rose was in their depiction of her, but everyone seemed to agree. I was incensed, thinking of all the things Historiann mentions above. Yeah, Pa was great fun, but he dragged his family into isolation, poverty, even desperation. Remember the scene in Little House on the Prairie when they’re “visited” by some local Native Americans? Yeah, Ma was definitely the more racist of the two, but I can imagine being totally alone as a woman with three small children in the vastness of the prairie with no husband or gun must have scared the life out of her.

    I too love greens. Chard more than kale. But I don’t do CSA, and where I am now, I don’t even do the farmer’s market (long story). But menstrual cups – well, that’s another thing altogether.


  25. Just had to say “me too” in response to H’ann’s CSA rant above – we had such good intentions, and were completely overwhelmed by far too much bok choy, chard, etc. Plus it all arrived AT THE SAME TIME and very ripe, so if we didn’t eat all of the heirloom tomatoes, apples, etc., the very first day, we ended up throwing most of it away. We lasted two months, trying to tweak our delivery program, but never managed to get it to a point that actually matched our eating style and habits.


  26. I also wanted to mention a memoir that portrays a similar issue of women “bailing” on rural experiments in living – I haven’t read this, but it got a decent review in the NY Times Review of Books:
    This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, by Melissa Coleman (2011), about life in Maine on a farm adjacent to the Nearings, who were mentors and models to Coleman’s family.
    As the review reports: “Ms. Coleman’s mother, Sue, always called Mama here, does a lot of laughing and smiling in the early stages of the story. But she also does a backbreaking amount of physical work, and it takes its toll. Mama has mood swings. She writes worrisome things in her diary. She takes too much refuge in fasting…”

    Personally, I have taken a phrase I read somewhere years ago as my catch phrase – Roughing it is no room service!


  27. I wonder if it’s also the case that if the asymmetry goes the other way — it’s the woman who’s really enthusiastic about, and committed to, building a yurt or cordwood house — her partner is much more effective at saying hell no, not in a thousand years, and so they never even make it out there for a trial period after which the guy bails for civilization. No way to know, I suppose, but I really can’t see a similar number of women insisting that their male partners move into the wilderness with them. (I can more easily see women doing it on their own.) And that would make the stereotypical asymmetry seem, or be, more prevalent…

    But yeah, boy. I’m pretty hippified (I used menstrual cups for years), but the odds of my moving with a male partner in support of an all-consuming living project that he clearly wanted to own: zero.


  28. I’m guessing that usual narrative template applies as much to homesteading as to any other grand project–He is Doing Something Grand and She is Helping Him Do It. I am more familiar with the Great-Arteest variant, but it’s all the same story.


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