“Domestic stuff—our couch, our dining table, the bathtub, the dishwasher—don’t just serve as the backdrop to my life; they are the tools we use while engaging with one another, and ourselves.”
– Elissa Strauss
I was surprised to read the allegation in Experiences Over Stuff Is a Tired—and Sexist—Idea, by Elissa Strauss, that minimalism is sexist. As a woman who considers herself a minimalist and a feminist, I think Strauss’s argument that minimalism devalues stuff because society sees women as preferring stuff and men as preferring experiences is poppycock.
First, with few exceptions, minimalists are not anti-stuff. Rather, we believe we should keep the stuff that makes us happy or is useful, and jettison the rest. This is a far cry from devaluing stuff.
In fact, who values stuff more? Those who own only what they use and love? Or those who have stuff they don’t remember owning because it’s lost in a sea of boxes in the garage?
Second, I’m not sure why Strauss equates domesticity exclusively with stuff. Some of my favorite hobbies are domestic. I love to knit, bake sourdough bread and make soap. All of these are more about the experience than the stuff.
Plus, for many, the main draw of minimalism is having more time to spend in our own neighborhoods with our family, friends and neighbors. Chatting, playing games, gardening, sharing a potluck meal, visiting the local playground.
“Whether women are being encouraged to rid our homes of useless belongings, or urged to shop for new ones, the result is the same: Society continues to associate women with the home and the material, men with the outside and experiences.”
– Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Strauss draws from Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s article, Bros Before Homes. Maltz Bovy writes about “Tony,” who says in his article in Toronto Life that he makes good money as a pharmacist, but lives at home with his parents rent-free so he can spend his time and income on things like luxury travel, expensive wines and fine dining, leaving his mom home to do his laundry.
Maltz Bovy asks whether patronizing “the rooftop restaurant featured in The Hangover Part II” and getting “the obligatory Thai massages” is more admirable than having one’s own place.
It’s easy to agree that favoring experiences over things sounds sexist if you’re relying on your mother to take care of all your stuff while you go out and have fun, but I don’t believe “Tony” is a typical example of someone who values experiences over things. And he’s certainly not a minimalist (in fact, he refers to one of his trips as a “bacchanal”).
Maltz Bovy’s article mentions Ruth Whippman’s essay, Do men even know who Marie Kondo is? “While men are conditioned to dream big – to see their happiness in terms of adventure and travel, sex and ideas and long nights of hilarity,” Whippman says, “women are now encouraged to find deep fulfilment in staying home to origami our pants.”
Kondo is famous in part for her folding techniques, but I’m pretty sure that neither she, nor the readers of her book, want to find fulfillment in tidy drawers. The whole point of the initial hard work of decluttering and organizing is to free up time later.
The less we have – especially if we downsize our homes – the less time we need to spend on housework. The more organized we are, the less time we waste looking for lost items. Owning less also frees women up to travel more if they wish (definitely one of my goals).
“Even without vertical folding, time-use surveys show women do approximately twice as much cleaning as men, while men take a staggering five hours more leisure time than women each week to relax and pursue their own interests.”
– Ruth Whippman
Perhaps Strauss, Maltz Bovy and Whippman aren’t aware of the richness and variety of minimalism. After all, you’re a lot more likely to make the news if you live out of a backpack than if you live in a modest home with your family.
But most minimalists have homes of their own. Many popular minimalist writers have children (e.g., Tsh Oxenreider, Leo Babauta, Courtney Carver, Joshua Becker, Francine Jay, Dave Bruno and Brooke McAlary).
True, some minimalists are proud to own nearly nothing so they can travel the world full-time. But most of us are simplifying to have time for more experiences with our families and friends.
“There are great men living lives inspired by minimalism, and there are great women too. These are women living full lives with big responsibilities who have discovered a better way to live and take care of themselves and the people they love.”
– Courtney Carver
Although I disagree that minimalism is sexist, these writers do make some excellent points. It’s just that they don’t contradict what most minimalists believe.
Strauss notes that stuff facilitates experiences. Minimalists don’t question this. We question why you’d have skis when you don’t ski. Whether you really wear all 50 shirts hanging in your closet. Why you have your photos in a box in the attic instead of in a scrapbook where people can enjoy them.
Maltz Bovy notes that we can’t automatically assume experiences always trump stuff. I imagine few minimalists would disagree with that. After all, minimalism is about seeking a more meaningful life, not hedonism.
Whippman hopes women can dream bigger than an organized sock drawer. I think we minimalist women do dream of a lot more than an organized sock drawer. Personally, I loathe housework. That’s why I chose to have less stuff.
The real problem, as Whippman points out, is women have less leisure time than men. Even if this is primarily attributable to women being told to keep clean homes¹, continuing a consumerist lifestyle isn’t the solution.
Do you think minimalism is sexist?
¹ The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use survey shows that women spend more time than men caring for others and doing “household activities” like cooking and cleaning. Men spend more time on paid work and on leisure.