Sharon October 31st, 2008
So I found this article from Details Magazine on “Preparedness Style” (gotta love that) over at Savinar’s site, and mostly, what amused me about it was the insistent message that this is a guy thing. “Preppers” (I actually hate that term, but what the heck) are “guys in suits” and “most are men.” Then we get some examples of how their wives don’t really understand them. They derive, we are told, from the old Dudes with shotguns awaiting nuclear war, but these are stylish, urban dudes with Starbucks coffee in their storage.
To be fair, it really isn’t a bad article, but I thought it would be fun to explore the question of whether “preppers” as a broad category, really are mostly men. Because I have the suspicion (I can’t prove it, but since the article doesn’t even bother to do more assert it, I don’t know that I have to) that if you look carefully enough, and think carefully enough about preparedness, you’re going to find that women are more present than anyone thinks.
Let’s start on the bookshelves – who is on the library list for most people trying to be prepared to live in a harder future? Well, the hardcore types probably own Matthew Stein’s _When Technology Fails_, James Talmage Stevens’ _Making the Best of Basics_ and Cresson Kearny’s _Nuclear War Survival Skills_ – which would be right on the shelf next to Carla Emery’s _The Encyclopedia of Country Living_, Anita Evangelista’s _How to Live Without Electricity and Like It_ and Kathy Harrison’s superb new classic _Just In Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens_. Heck, they might even own one of my books .
It is true there are more male preparedness authors, narrowly construed, than there are female ones. What do I mean by “narrowly construed?” Well, the thing is, “preparedness” in a lot of ways comes down to and overlaps with a lot of really basic, domestic kinds of things. A lot of preparedness really comes down to food, water, health and safety. And these territories also overlap with an awful lot of stuff people who aren’t preparing for anything do. Cooking, gardening, seed saving, making do, saving money, repairing things, building, first aid, etc… – these are relevant to millions of people who wouldn’t call themselves “preppers.” So the partial list above assumes a rather narrow category of thought – people who explicitly and primarily write and teach how to do things in case of rough times. And it is definitely true that those authors are more often men than women – although there is a solid contingent of smart women involved.
If you add in the range of authors who cover skills you might want even if times aren’t bad, but that are extremely useful to people who might need them, the scales come out a lot more evenly. Suzanne Ashworth, Carol Deppe and Raoul Robinson’s spectucular books on seed saving and plant breeding are well worth the investment – whether you are concerned you may have to rely on your saved seed, or whether you simply want to adapt crops to your conditions and reduce pesticide dependency. Glancing over my shelves, the scales aren’t perfectly balanced – there are more guys in books on building and shelter and more women on cooking – but what you get a pretty solid balance.
But that probably doesn’t tell you much about the ordinary prepper, who, after all, probably doesn’t write books. Is he really a guy? Does he really wear a polo shirt, and if he does, will anyone date him ? Or is it just possible that the gender balance is closer than you think?
Again, I think we come back to this question of broadly or narrowly construed. Obviously, this article is concerned with the style issues of the young, urban professional survivalist. And there’s a lot of references to how cool they are and to all the stuff they buy - their stash of Chilean wines, their Starbucks coffee, their waterproof Ipods and vaccuum packed quail. But sort out the lifestyle stuff, and what you really find are a lot of references to food.
And that I think is what’s really interesting about this. Underneath the cool gadgets, the camo and the wine racks – that is, the things that make this kind of preparedness spiffy enough to make _Details_, (the message being – these are paranoid nutcases, but cool, well dressed ones), the blunt reality is that preparedness is about that uber-chick thing – making sure everyone has dinner.
“Eric, a 32-year-old CPA in Northern California, is so concerned about his stores’ going to waste that he has his wife and children do regular tastings of freeze-dried foods and MREs, so they can decide what they do and don’t like. “Why have it if they’re not going to eat it?” he says. Unfortunately, his family proclaimed all of the MRE fare—except for the chocolate-chip brownies and chocolate-peanut-butter spread—“gross.” So Eric has squirreled away M&Ms in bulk to keep the kids quiet. For himself, he as a case of vodka. “If the shit hits the fan, I might want to tie one on,” he says.”
This is not the article’s first reference to MREs, either. And this seems to be what makes a real guy prepper – they don’t preserve their own food, and they aren’t going to eat dried beans. They’ve got manly MREs, or freeze-dried food, or pallet loads of canned goods from the grocery store. Or if they do preserve things, they are weird things, like vacuum packed quail (a major staple of my pantry, of course) and canned pasta (!?!?!). With the exception of one gardener who makes salsa and something with zucchini, the way we know that these are narrowly construed preppers is, well, that they don’t cook much.
Now consider what would happen if you were paying attention to me, or to Kathy Harrison on this subject. Harrison explores the questions of MREs and dehydrated meals, and concludes that they are expensive and extremely high in sodium. She recommends basic staple foods, most available at grocery stores or coops, and growing and preserving as much as you can yourself. That’s not that different from my recommendations. But underlying both of our assumptions is this – you can cook, at least enough to feed yourself.
And that’s important, I think, because preparedness, at its root, is more than anything about making sure people get dinner. Yes, we can prepare to fight off zombie attacks, build earth shelters in case we lose ours (although odds are most of us will move in with a friend or relative), learn how to handle background radiation – but the first tier problems most of us face – and the ones most people prepare for first, are the ones we’re familiar with – what will we eat? How will we cook it? How will the hungry kids get fed? How will we keep the food and water coming in a supply disruption, or when we’re too poor to buy it? It isn’t that no one needs a gun or potassium iodate – it is that generally speaking the first question you will encounter in most crises is “Is there dinner? Do I get any?”
And that question isn’t traditionally a guy question. Historically speaking, most of the people figuring out how to make sure everyone gets food, and that there’s enough to go around and that it keeps coming in are women. Most of the cooking in the US is still done by women. I suspect a lot of the emphasis on the manliness of these guys is to cover the fact that preppers are really doing something quite feminine – they are worrying that the time might come when they and theirs go hungry – and they are trying to ensure that it never happens. Not just by abstractly providing money, but by getting down and dirty with their food – by finding ways to fill the pantry, by canning or buying or storing – by taking over those roles their wives don’t want to handle. And where they haven’t quite made the connection is at the ultra-central point of cooking. Because that’s a survival skill – kids who won’t eat MREs can’t live on M&Ms. And those who don’t have the money to spend 10K on preparedness, as one person in the article did, need to know that you don’t have to. You just have to be able to cook.
But cooking is the preparedness skill probably least recognized. Matthew Stein’s terrific _When Technology Fails_ has the best bibliography around. It has sections on identifying edible worms, making bowls from pottery, spearing fish, and a host of other useful skills, along with a fabulous bibliography of relevant materials. And it contains not a single section on how to cook, nor any bibliography of cookbooks. The assumption presumably is that that’s too basic to be a survival skill. But unfortunately, that’s wrong. We’re a nation who doesn’t cook very well in general, and men particularly often lack that skill (let me be clear, I’m talking statistically – my husband is a superb cook, my father is a superb cook , I’ve always lived around men that cooked, and don’t in any way diminish their gifts.)
The inability to cook in both men and women is the single greatest factor driving us towards hunger – our immensely destructive industrial food system is in very large part a product of a society in which most people don’t cook. The processed food industry, the markets for corn syrup and continuous soy and corn, the reduction of nutritional value and taste in produce varieties – all of these things are the product of the way we eat. The reason most of us need preparedness is that we face disruptions in the industrial food supply that depends so heavily on fossil fuels. The dangers we face cannot primarily be prevented at the agricultural level – averting the disasters all of us are preparing for depend on a society in which most people either cook or eat in restaurants that use sustainably produced, local whole foods. And since most of us can’t afford to eat out or buy dehydrated food, that means both preparedness for a disaster and averting it in the first place depend, in large part, upon how we eat.
And that’s why I suspect that if there was some useful way to establish who all of the “preppers” really are, you’d find that there are a LOT more women than people think there are. Not just hanging around my site, but stocking up at the grocery store and filling their pantries because that’s what they always did, and what their Moms and Grandmas did. They probably don’t wear polo shirts, and they live everywhere, not just in the city, and style magazines probably won’t ever profile most of them because their work is too ordinary to be counted. Maybe they do this because Mom always had a big garden and canned a lot, or because their grandmother remembers the old country ways, and they do too. They are cooking from scratch – and keeping extras around. They are teaching their kids to eat from their pantries and what Mom or Dad sets in front of them. They are canning and drying and pickling, and sharing recipes over the internet. They are the 30% of American women who really cook – they bake bread and make soup and fill their pantries. And yes, some of them are men – about 15% of American men also really cook.
Now most American cooks, male and female, don’t store food – but a surprising number do keep some extras around, just in case. They probably don’t even think of themselves as “preppers” – maybe they call themselves homesteaders, or traditional, maybe they are tied to an ethnic, religious or cultural tradition that suggests that some kind of reserve and self-sufficiency are essential. Around me the Hmong, Somali, Russian and Polish families are out there with the Mennonites, Amish, Quakers and Mormons, the farm families, the homesteaders and those who are a little worried about the future, filling their pantries every year. They do it for different reasons – because they can remember hard times themselves, because they always have, because their faith or their culture requires it, because they aren’t so far removed from an agrarianism that reminds them that this is how it always was. Maybe they do it because they aren’t ever going to see their kids or grandkids go hungry, or because the food is better.
And if you decided to define “prepper” as “someone who is prepared for uncertain and difficult times by having a reserve of basics at hand” I think what you’d find is that close to half – maybe even a majority of this nation’s and the world’s preppers are women. Look at the bunkers, and the yuppies, and you’ll see a lot of guys. Check the kitchen, however, and the story changes.