If you’ve ever lived in a rural area (as I did growing up) and spent time around actual pecking, squawking chickens, you probably think of them as mean, stupid, filthy animals that get into more scrapes than an unattended Roomba left to handle a fringed rug. Which is why my first reaction to this article by Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times Magazine about rich housewives raising organic chickens was to laugh for a solid 30 seconds at the ridiculous accompanying photo. In it, a slim woman in a shawl standing under an arbor of roses clutches a chicken fondly. Said chicken looks for a means to escape, while probably thinking about going to find some hole to get stuck in. Only after laughing until I let out an unladylike snort did I actually read the article, which was yet another one of those expensive NY Times pieces about how some rich ladies found an out from the supposed demands of feminism, a space where they can stay at home without being so bored they have to subsist on Valium.
It’s a disappointment to see a usually strong feminist writer like Orenstein get sucked into the Times vortex of finding any and every way to suggest that women in the workplace was just some weird ‘70s lark that can totally be rectified, that there are ways to keep the little ladies occupied without tempting them to emasculate their husbands or male colleagues by drawing paychecks. And I say this as someone who actually loves organic gardening and idly considered chickening up when I had an organic garden back in Texas.
The operative word here is “garden.” Orenstein tries to fend off boring feminists like me who point out that most women aren’t married to wildly wealthy men who have to pay you alimony if you leave-and therefore most women need to have money of their own, which is why employment is such a good idea-by trying to recast the craftiness and organic gardening that many housewives get into as a hobby to fill their hours as a legitimate form of economic empowerment. She describes a subculture of people out there where housewives make clothes, grow and can food, and otherwise supplement the family income with their projects. And yeah, I’ve known lots of people who live like that in my time. They all lived in rural areas and owned enough land to make the difference between gardening and farming hazy indeed. But for most organic gardeners, even those with chickens, the income you get from your hobby won’t even bring in as much as light part-time employment.
I had the uncomfortable image of Marie Antoinette playing peasant creep into my mind as I thought of wealthy, idle housewives starting a beehive and buying a couple chickens and thinking they were Farmer John, gaining real employment and fulfillment working the land while the actual income that comes into the house comes from the very modern world in which their husbands live. Orenstein also suggests that the image of a man engaging in intellectual labor while a woman stays at home doing manual labor might not be the panacea for the misery caused by sexism that you might think. Her feminist housewife guru admits that women who don’t feel their husband’s partnership in the tasks at hand get bored and drop it after awhile.
But demanding that the man who actually pays for the whole enterprise joins in as an equal partner strikes me as wanting it both ways. Either the work of tending a garden with chickens is so time-consuming and fulfilling that it can occupy a housewife’s day and give her meaning, or a man can be an equal partner in the task in the hours he has on the weekend and after work. But if a man can do 50 percent of the work in his leisure hours, it’s just not that much work. In my experience, plenty of couples and even single people I know do just fine with elaborate organic gardens in conjunction with their full-time jobs. As with me and my cooking , their gardens gives them respite from a day of earning money and having an impact on the world, a place where they can drink a glass of wine at sunset while laughing at their stupid chickens do comical things.
My final question is this: What do they do with the chickens? We never do find out if they just use them to poop in the garden and provide eggs, or if the lovely, romantic housewives have gone the next step and learned the art of wringing a chicken’s neck and then cleaning and dressing it for dinner.
Photograph of woman and chicken by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.