Is the DIY movement empowering or shortchanging us? That’s the provocative question Emily Matchar tackles in her new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. Matchar describes a homespun rebellion taking place, as twenty- and thirty-something women (and some men) “embrace the domestic in the service of environmentalism, DIY culture, and personal fulfillment.” From backyard chicken coops to making your own soap or selling quilts in an Etsy shop, Matchar looks at the ways young people who feel failed by a stagnant economy and the corporate world’s inflexibility are trying to build purpose-filled lives.
To this movement, we at Etsy tip our hats. We agree with Matchar’s argument that people today feel let down by big institutions and mass culture and are seeking a more meaningful life and livelihood. We don’t see that trend limited to young people; on Etsy, the average age of a seller is 41, because the opportunity draws makers across generations. Like Matchar, we’ve noticed the explosion in artisan businesses across sectors, and that “the handcrafted look is actually beginning to be co-opted by big-box stores.” Where we part ways with Matchar is over the conclusions she draws, specifically about the political implications of pursuing domestic enterprise.
Matchar dedicates a chapter to Etsy and the rise of the craft entrepreneur, and she levels some criticisms we’ve heard before. Matchar suggests that Etsy is peddling a false dream: “Ironically, what started as a movement to empower women seems to inadvertently morphed into another low-margin pink-collar industry — enjoyable for many, lucrative for few, but ultimately falling far short of its promises.” Success at entrepreneurship has never been easy; but access to entrepreneurship is getting much easier. Etsy doesn’t have a position on what success looks like; that’s for our sellers to determine for themselves. Our data shows that Etsy is a factor in economic independence — while most of our sellers don’t earn their primary income from the site, the income they earn helps cover household bills while providing security and flexibility.
Matchar argues that by returning to the home in hopes of finding a more pleasant work/life balance, these women are stepping out the workforce and the public eye — to the detriment of society. As Matchar puts it, “While we want to believe that ‘all change begins at home,’ this is not necessarily the case; even if it were, all change needs to not end at home… If women cut back on their ambitions en masse, institutional change will never happen and the glass ceiling will lower. We need to be [in the workplace] to demand the equal pay, mandatory maternity leave, more humane hours.” We think that by participating in this revitalized economy of small business owners, empowered women (and men) are creating a new, strong, and visible alternative. The communications revolution brought to us by blogging and social media has given individuals a bigger megaphone than ever. Luckily, political power today doesn’t only reside inside traditional institutions like corporate workplaces.
We also disagree that running a domestic enterprise equates with less ambition. Across the board, Etsy sellers want their sales to grow. In a recent survey, we learned that the vast majority consider their shop a business, not a hobby — even those who have barely had any sales, yet. That is ambition.
The traditional workplace is changing, whether we like it or not. Jobs are not less secure because certain women are choosing to “drop out”; trends like the increased cost of benefits and technical automation are impacting a much broader swath of the workforce than the generation and sub-culture Matchar focuses on. Anyone who wants to be involved in collective efforts to change policies impacting solo entrepreneurs should get in touch with Etsy’s Public Policy Director, Althea Erickson.
That’s our take; now we want to hear what you think. Have you read Homeward Bound? Do you identify with the movement Emily Matchar describes? What do you consider success and ambition?