I found such domestic pursuits very fulfilling, but in 1963, the same year that Deluxe Reading, produced the 176 piece Topper brand Dream Kitchen that is now a holy grail worth as much as $600 to 1:6 scale collectors, Betty Friedan published a book challenging the idea that women were destined to find their greatest life satisfaction in their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Deluxe Reading’s 22” Suzy Homemaker doll and the extensive range of working appliances branded with her name exemplified the prevailing ideal of womanhood. In contrast, Friedan argued that confining women to the domestic sphere reduced them to a child-like state of emotional development. Her analysis of The Feminine Mystique is often cited as one of the most influential books of the 20th century and credited with sparking the second wave feminist movement in the United States. In 1966, two years before I received my Suzy Homemaker oven, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women.
From our 21st century vantage point, the gender role stereotyping in this vintage Suzy Homemaker commercial is laughable. As feminists of the 1970s pointed out, these toys trained girls for traditional roles as housewives. The miniature washers, dryers, and vacuum cleaners indoctrinated us into accepting housework as our primary responsibility. Yet the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics reports that by the mid 1980s, when most of the young girls who grew up playing with Suzy Homemaker toys were old enough to enter the workforce, more than 50% of women with children under the age of six worked outside the home. By the turn of the millennium, when the little Suzy Homemakers entered their forties, more than 75% of mothers with children between ages 6 and 17 worked outside the home.
Indeed, the manufacturer of the Suzy Homemaker toys went out of business in 1973, just about the time that feminists were vociferously attacking the social and economic pressures that forced women to conform to Suzy Homemaker roles. Friedan had identified consumerism as part of “the problem that has no name.” Denied opportunities to pursue fulfilling careers outside the home, the primary function of the suburban housewife was to purchase goods and services. Thus, for a time some feminists came to regard traditional domestic pursuits like sewing and cooking, as well as crafts like knitting and other needle work as emblems of servitude rather than as productive work or as outlets for creative self-expression.
Yet, many of the traditional domestic skills I learned through child’s play empowered me to resist consumer culture while creating a lifestyle that Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books and website have identified as “simple abundance.” I learned to sew by making doll clothes and transferred those skills to making clothes for myself because I never had enough money to buy the kind of clothes I liked. The things I made fit me better and also lasted much longer than anything I could have bought off the rack. The little cakes I had made with my Suzy Homemaker oven gave me confidence to start cooking for myself when I realized that my extreme lactose intolerance meant I could not comfortably eat most processed foods available on the market. Over the years I have continued to delight in giving home sewn or home baked gifts as tokens of my regard for all the special people in my life.
In these challenging economic times, more and more voices are recognizing that employing the domestic arts to create and delight in such simple pleasures has great spiritual value. Radical homemaker, Shannon Hayes earned a Ph.D. in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development from Cornell University, then came to the conclusion that she and her husband could create a more fulfilling life by remaining on her parents’ farm. They calculated that while their combined incomes would have been high if they had moved to the city and become a typical dual career household, the social, ecological, and financial costs would have been even higher. In her book, Radical Homemakers, Hayes describes how she and other families across the country have been able to: “eat locally and organically, support local businesses, avoid big box stores, save money, and support a family of four on less than $45,000 per year.” (quoted from "Meet the Radical Homemakers" Yes magazine accessed 031012)
Most Americans are now several generations removed from farm life and the homemaking skills that once enabled families to function as units of production rather than consumption. While we may not all become “tomato canning feminists” like Hayes, every woman remains the queen of her home, able to profoundly influence the direction of society through the decisions she makes (with or without a partner) about how to manage her household. I hope the tutorial on baking salt dough pies below will introduce some budding radical homemakers to the joys of making and playing with homemade toys.