If a daily trip to the vegetable patch to harvest vegetables and to the chicken coop to gather eggs means a woman is a femivore, then so be it, though I think the term is rather silly. Historically speaking, folks who did those things were just called "farmers," at least if they sold their produce or eggs. Otherwise, they were called "gardeners who kept chickens."
Every day I visit our hens, check their feed and water, and collect eggs. In the summer I freeze, can, and dry fruits and vegetables, and this year hope for a good honey harvest from the beehives. I never thought I was "radical" (see Shannon Hayes's 2010 book, Radical Homemakers). Rather, I've been inspired to live a little more like my grandmother did. I always admired her and her simple farmer's life.
In last week's New York Times article "The Femivore's Dilemma," Peggy Orenstein describes the trend among educated women in the West to leave successful but unsatisfying careers to reconnect with nature by keeping bees and chickens and growing vegetables. While the term is a play off of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Orenstein uses femivore to describe women who are taking "the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove [them] into the work force in the first place," and applying them in the home.
Orenstein cites four women who gave up careers to build coops in their backyards, and she connects coop-building to the women's search for meaning. We didn't find it as homemakers in the 1950s, and we haven't found it in a paycheck since. Orenstein thinks keeping chickens is another way women are searching for meaning; if they can be productive and connected to nature, life will be fulfilling. Yet she worries that the coop may become one more cage for women rather than a path toward meaning—one more expectation for women who want to have it all.
Pollan's books speak to a growing movement of folks paying more attention to their food. Many are motivated by health and/or the planet's, and/or because they want farm laborers and animals to be treated fairly and respectfully. Many who have read Pollan's books or Barbara Kingsolver's latest, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and who watch documentaries like Food, Inc. are eating more locally produced and naturally grown and raised food, and a fair number are learning to grow and raise their own. The movement is partly a response to consumerism, rejecting the crazy notion that buying stuff will bring happiness. We have always had counter-cultural prophets reminding us that we are part of nature rather than above it, and that living simple, gentle, and connected lives brings a deeper satisfaction than can another pair of shoes.
As a sociologist, I've been following the back-to-the-land movement for some time. I don't see a strong link between chicken keeping and gender issues. The explosion of backyard gardens and chickens is part of a larger effort to reclaim food sovereignty found in the rise in community gardens, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmer's markets, and food co-ops. It is a rejection of corporate agribusiness and a desire to do a better job growing healthy and just food. As we've discovered wasteful and harmful aspects of the corporate food system, we are returning to more local choices (sometimes as local as our backyard), and finding meaning living with limits and within the seasons of harvest.
For the record, I know as many men as women who are raising chickens and tending gardens (though my data are as anecdotal as Orenstein's). Mostly I know couples who are making the choice to produce more of their own food. Yes, some educated high-achieving women disillusioned with work are quitting their jobs to create a homemade home. But I suspect a good number of men would appreciate the same choice. If more women than men are leaving careers to create more meaningful lives at home, it may reflect the greater freedom women have to do so.
I look beyond gender and find hope in this movement—in being mindful of our place in God's creation, of our responsibility to represent God by being good care-takers that consume responsibly (and less), so that all God's creation might flourish, including our neighbors and our own souls.
Lisa Graham McMinn's next book, co-written with her daughter, is Walking Gently on the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter and More (InterVarsity, August 2010).