Mean Girls Pickin’ On Kunstler Again

Sharon October 14th, 2010

I haven’t read _The Witch of Hebron_ yet, but Carolyn Baker’s review suggests to me that Jim Kunstler is still on his “post-collapse women will properly return to their natural strengths - sex, sandwich making and occasional weird Hive Queening” kick. 

As some of you may remember, I had a somewhat jaundiced view of the first book that I expressed after Jim Kunstler published an essay in The Oil Drum saying that women who criticized his book just didn’t get how collapse was going to end all social gains for women.

What’s interesting is that the actual collapse we’re actually seeing has worked the opposite way.  Overwhelmingly, the greatest losses so far have been born by men, not women.  Almost 70% of all job losses have been to men.  More and more men have been cast back into the domestic sphere, without a narrative that allows them to exist there and also maintain their sense of contribution to the community. 

I’m interested to read _Witch of Hebron_, and see if this is just another case of life and art going far astray from one another, or whether Kunstler’s fantasy of a middle aged male dominated world is in fact a narrative that provides an essential counter-fantasy to the extant reality.


30 Responses to “Mean Girls Pickin’ On Kunstler Again”

  1. Urbanworkbench says:

    The stats you quote might be just a transition back to another form of economy and society. Perhaps the jobs that men have held in the past 20 years are the most expendable at this stage, hence the unemployment. But if work is to return to something resembling manual labour in the future, then men will have to get off their collective asses and use the muscles that lay beneath the Twinkie induced blubber. This isn’t a sexist statement, but when it comes to lifting, pushing, pulling - men are better suited to these activities.

    Kunstler’s world is a harsh one, in this scenario, many of the advances that both sexes and society as a whole have enjoyed would be stripped bare.

  2. Brad K. says:


    There is no social message, but _A Brother’s Price_ by Wen Spencer is cut from a different cloth, and lots of fun to read. And re-read. In this one, fertile men with no lethal genetic markers are rare - and kept barefoot in the kitchen.

    I picked up David Brin’s _Postman_ again a few weeks ago. I noticed that some of the cultural vignettes that make up the book range from Amazon warrior to politically correct to Bible-thumping rural village. And included the dreaded Holt “survivalist” mercenary/heavily armed barbarian enemies of society, life, and freedom. Most folk banded against the cannibal, slaving, male predator Holtists to defend a more cooperative and free - and mostly happier - way of life.

    Leo Frankowski (I do enjoy the re-created tech in _Cross Time Engineer_) proposes that deviation from the ancient “marry them young, get the children raised” approach to families is an aspect of poverty. I understand that the average age of marriage in the American colonies was about 12 or 13. Frankowski suggests that affluence opens the door to less strenuously applied (oriented toward survival?) role definitions, both of class and gender.

    Frankowski also opined that more “evolved” cultures tend to select mates on social value - eye candy over skills, connections over experience. People living less affluently tend to look at physical and economic security issues, and health and fertility, rather than appearance. Like one of the soldiers marching with Mulan in the Disney cartoon “I don’t care what she looks like; only what she cooks like!”

    There may well be some gender and class role solidification in the future. I am not sure that the role definitions will be something historical or something new. Hopefully there will be more rational choices made, than using fiction as a blueprint. Else we will all be enrolling in Star Fleet Academy. Or not. lol!

  3. risa b says:

    >an essential counter-fantasy to the extant

    No, I do think Jim’s vulnerable to that charge — short term. But, alas, looking thirty years off (when I would be 91, not very likely to see it) he may well have a point. The “rise” of women in modernism may well be a disguised “rise” of cheap labor that replaced slavery, and we may be at the end of that curve, where offshoring and computers-as-slaves have created a scenario where men have hit the real wall first, and women just haven’t followed them there yet. In the U.S., anyway. I recognize my relatively untroubled life is a form of social capital, for which I’m grateful, and I see signs of this coming to an end, for which I’m preparing. As Musashi would say, a sense of entitlement is the principal barrier to clear sight.

    In my own little “post-apocalyptic novel,”

    the protagonist, a 16-year-old girl, discovers an enclave in which men and women are equals and working to preserve some semblance of civilization. Their thoughts are full of agricultural and health issues and how to maintain the equipment they’ve inherited from us, and I feel a lot affection for their scheme. But I’m worried for them — there’s a well-equipped right-wing male-glorifying army preparing to to advance on them. What this is a fantasy about, I’m afraid to contemplate!

  4. Lane says:

    I still turn to Ursula LeGuin for new (to me) ways to envision gender roles in different social structures. The stories in the Birthday of the World have a number of intriguing explorations.

  5. EngineerChic says:

    I don’t know. I think that even if every one of Jim’s TEOTWAKI dreams come true we won’t see women fall back to their previous role as second class citizens.

    First - women today have almost as much physical strength as the average man. Not because we’ve grown stronger, but because so many men’s jobs involve sitting. In an office, in a car, even on the assembly lines. Ergonomics and the rise of sedentary careers have removed the need for men to build & maintain as much muscle mass as they used to have. As such, women have become more willing to tackle jobs/chores that were previously unheard of. Comparing today to 50 years ago, how many women know how to repair or replace a toilet? Or clean gutters? Or lay floor tile? Home improvement stores even have classes targeted at women to teach them how to tackle projects that were previously dominated by men. Why? Because it is now socially accepted for a woman to work with her hands, use tools, and be really good at it.

    Second - women have been raised to expect their roles in life to change over time. OTOH, men expect to go to work, climb the career ladder, and retire. Women expect to start a career, maybe take some time to raise children, and then get back in the game - knowing the game will have changed. We don’t expect a linear progression of salary, skills, and stature. Discontinuity is expected, and therefore less psychologically damaging for us.

    Third - We have irefutable proof that we can survive (even thrive) if we don’t have a husband or boyfriend or sugar-daddy. That genie has left the bottle - and it won’t go back. Much like the slaves who escaped to the North via the underground railroad we may face hard times, but we won’t go back to the old life. We won’t become second class citizens again (without the right to vote, own property, have separate bank accounts, or have our opinions heard).

    Obviously, I’m a woman with a strong background in math & science. But these observations are based on my friend’s lives as well - friends who are teachers, librarians, counselors, and SAHMs. It isn’t just my life that has shifted toward doing more of the “men’s work”, it’s the same for most of us.

  6. Brad K. says:


    I think if you go back to the historic times when women were less than citizens - so were most men. The founders of the United States initially set voting - and citizenship - as being (white was assumed) men 25 years of age and owning property. That left out a lot of urban and village dwellers that worked for a living.

    BTW - that is just an observation, not a comment on what you have to say.

    I do think there is some room to consider the role of the Roman Catholic Church in influencing citizenship and gender roles in Europe, and by extension, in the historical precedents that influenced (influence?) the United States.

    The Church’s firm teachings through the beginnings of WWII was that a woman was a responsibility of her husband or father. In some senses, the single man was almost as denigrated, in the view of the Church, as a single woman. Since the 1960′s, marriage and the representative nature of the role of father and husband have been replaced by the rise of individual recognition and participation in churches and in secular community and work roles. It is the legacy of these religious teachings that keeps the relationship of man and wife (woman and husband?) in constant change, legally speaking.

    I think that career ambition - striving to get ahead is an unsustainable artifact of corporate management and marketing in an era of cheap energy. As cost of energy climbs, and availability becomes more erratic, as the era of cheap energy ends, the ambitious will be the first to fail, followed by businesses founded on a principle of unending growth.

    And I think that it is the unsustainable corporate culture that emphasizes career advancement (ambition) as the measure of personal worth, and mistakenly applied to non-corporate roles such as teenagers, husbands, and wives, that cloud the issue. Possibly one of the most devastating and misguided travesties played out against the roles within the informal economy, is the by now familiar Mothers Day fake “salary” computations. In corporate economics, a man takes a woman as a luxury – an expense that gains him support and comfort at home. In terms of the informal economy, of course, that is poppycock. In the informal economy, the husband’s “worth” at home is measured in the chores and guidance, the interaction and comfort he provides. Any money income is secondary or less, as far as importance to the informal economy. It is the home, the raising of children, that assures continuity of culture and society through the generations – not the weekly paycheck. There are (hopefully!) alternatives to paychecks; getting the children raised is the only way that cultures and ways of life are preserved through the generations.

    I tend to think of the tavern keeper and blacksmith, the grocer and farmer as low-ambition, sustainable crafts - once you get established. The union organizer on Cavuto this afternoon, railing about how unfair Wal-Mart is to open smaller stores in cities because they undercut the (union) stores already their - I just cannot wait for that type of economic parasite to gasp it’s last.

    And before anyone denigrates men’s roles or women’s roles - I want to state, as a former single foster parent, that cooking and raising children are every bit as involved (or should be) as any craft, and often harder work. I think one of the reasons that married couple used to be the basic components of communities, is that it takes the wife and children to provide basic support, to keep one worker - the man - functioning. Left to unmated individuals, there would be significantly less energy and time available to accomplish task and craft. Should the support adult be man or woman? I don’t know, I don’t care. Communities and nations require that tasks get done, whether farming or soldiering, baking, milling, or selling herbs. And children have to be raised, or a culture flounders and dies.

  7. Sue says:

    Surely widespread use of contraception is the major liberator of women from the forced need to be in the home. Will they be widely available in the future? Will we again need a large family to provide labour?

    I’m a single mother running a small farm and self-supporting my daughter selling vegetables, fruit and plants at markets. I get in my own wood for heating, do my own fencing, handle the cattle, etc. Can’t think what I would need a man for, and the energy/resources required to keep him would negate any heavy lifting he could help with.

  8. EngineerChic says:

    Sue - you made me LOL. “the energy/resources required to keep him would negate any heavy lifting he could help with” reminds me of why most farms don’t keep draft horses any longer. It’s sad, and funny, and true.

  9. vera says:

    “Kunstler’s fantasy of a middle aged male dominated world”

    Aw, I think Kunstler likes to fantasize about women being back in their place.

    In his first book, it’s not about the muscles at all… the men are depressed, and doing nothing to manage the town, there is a dead coyote in the drinking water… but the women just worry about home-made wine. And he is very careful *not* to explain how this situation came about. Bullshit! Shame on Kunstler.

  10. David Whitten says:

    I haven’t run right out to by Kunstler’s new book…I’ll read it eventually. The best book I’ve read in a long while is Through the Eyes of a Stranger I got my copy from the author himself, Will Bonsall, at the Common Ground Country Fair this year…He’s a wonderful man and he’s wriiten a beautiful story of where we might end up….

  11. Bucky says:

    While the reasons that more men than women have lost jobs in this economic downturn are many and complex, there is one very simple to understand reason, and one that companies are, I know for a fact, taking into account.

    On average, for the same job, men make (made) more money than women.

    So, if you are looking to save money in this economic climate and you have two workers, you fire the more expensive one. Easy decision.

    Finally, making less pay for the same work has an upside!

  12. Traverse Davies says:

    What I am writing is not based on academic theories. My father is a sailor. He’s a hard drinker and strong as hell due to spending most of his life on the water. He’s also an ardent feminist. My current step mother (and I think the one that actually stuck - it’s been more than twenty years) is a native Solomon Islander. She’s also brilliant, has a masters in English from an American university and has served as the minister of culture for the Solomon Islands and the director of the World Wildlife Fund for the south pacific. We used to spend hours and hours sitting up and drinking tea and talking into the night. Now, she is also the founder of feminism for the Solomon Islands, and the first or one of the first women to divorce her husband and have him charged under the newly minted domestic violence laws.

    All of this sounds like a recipe for a very modern relationship, but it isn’t. Jully (my step mom) does most of the cooking and cleaning, although if a wild boar needs to be done on a spit my dad takes on that role. See, they live in the third world, with electricity being chancy at best. Turns out that in that situation we do tend to revert to gender roles. Now, having said that, traditional gender roles haves less in common with the 1950′s idea. Women tend to do more of the field work, men tend to do more of the hunting and fishing. Men do a bunch of the heavy lifting (even the sedentary office works will grow muscles soon, and their children will be strong).

    To the woman who blamed the wage gap for the disparity in unemployment: It has more to do with what industries got hardest hit. Construction is the number one area of job loss, and is predominantly male. A huger percentage of the guys who lost their jobs are actually the guys who will do best in a more widespread collapse.

  13. vera says:

    After reading your first review, Sharon, I must say you make some powerful points, and Kustler comes across as defensive poor listener.

    It’s one thing to claim that gender roles have become more traditional, and quite another to claim that the women have no interest in how their town is run, or play no public role. This is not even true in tribal situations, why should it be true after collapse? Moreover, Kunstler showed no interest in providing a plausible story of how this situation came about in Union Corners… a town hit by depopulation and grief but coping with daily life.

    Kunstler likes to play the bad boy, and maybe, just maybe, these novels are his way to stick it to women. He sure seems to show very little respect for those in the book. I think I’ll pass on the Witch of Hebron.

  14. Glenn says:

    Not having read Kunstler’s fiction, I’ll just comment on gender roles. The ones we have in the U.S. and Europe come from our specific roots in “Western Culture” from ancient Egypt and Greece on down through the present. Starting with Greece, the culture has been male dominated (for whatever reasons you please, but it certainly has been) and has continued so to this day. I am not one to believe in the pleasant fantasy that our current repressive patriarchy “must have been” preceded by a benevolent matriarchy that these evil men overthrew. That is rather simple dualistic thinking, the same that would regard death as the opposite of life. Death is part of life, the sterility of the lab or the factory is the opposite. But I digress.

    Our view of all other cultures in the world though, has been filtered through the lens of our male dominated history. I have read iron curtain era Eastern European history books that attributed modern communist/collectivist behaviors to 19th century commercial fishermen and sailors; modern femenists posit glorious female dominated (but undocumentable) past cultures and the characters in far too many fantasy novels speak and act like modern people who happen to be wearing wool and carrying swords.

    My point is that we tend to see the world through our own cultural preconceptions. For this reason, I don’t suppose any one person has an “objective” view of the variety and possibilities of the cultures of the world and the gender roles, or absence of gender roles there are now. The only truth is that women and men are required for us to survive as a species. How we do so is up to us, our intelligence, compassion, ability to work hard and our devotion to justice.

    But I do think the current decline in U.S. male employment has to do both with the housing crash killing the construction trades _and_ the fact that 72 cents still doesn’t equal a dollar.

    Marrowstone Island

  15. et says:

    I think you forgot basket weaving as a potential female job market… if I recall correctly it was part of the future for women in A world made by hand.

    Kunstler’s writing leaves a bad taste (racist, sexist, narrow minded) - I’ll pass on his books from now on.

  16. Susan says:

    I’m not sure what Kunstler’s fiction says about his real feelings, but while he does throw out a lot of negative statements about modern architecture and tattooed culture both, he does not throw out much of anything denigrating women in his pod casts or the available talks I’ve listened to via the internet.

    His books in my opinion are somewhat immature in that characters aren’t fleshed out very well, and motivations aren’t really alluded to. So I didn’t find them that worth buying; I got the first one from the library and was glad I didn’t spend money on it.

    There are a lot of men in our society who have thinly disguised disdain for the idea of women as equals and are merely looking for any reason to not have to play that game any more. There are a lot of them who happen to be survivalists and believe in peak oil/economic collapse. They can be found in every economic class and social situation. Just bear that in mind. If it wasn’t for our government being wealthy enough to enforce equal access/rights they won’t be around long; a law only means something if it’s enforced. I used to do a job traditionally considered to be a man’s job, that’s how I found out that not all men bought into the equality thing.

  17. Tree says:

    I’ve had the same experience, Susan. A Lot of “survivalists” see women as taking a very subservient role- if they consider their role, at all.

    I would take Kunstler’s books and other men’s attitudes as a cautionary tale: If women want roles in future society other than the ones depicted by Kunstler and others, they’ll have to take action now to ensure their places.

    It’s disgusting, but the role of women in Kunstlers books is how far too many men see the future playing out. I agree that a great many women will resist such oppression, but I see a fight on their hands in some locations, and some areas of the country will force such roles on all women. Violently.

    Forewarned is forearmed, hopefully.


  18. Lee says:

    I was greatly offended with the rape, mutilitation and murder scene in Kunstler’s Witch of Hebron book, and that he chose to showcase that specific excerpt in his blog.

    I’m sure that it was titilating to many men, but it’s a real heart wrenching fear and concern to women, and to choose to sell his book with that scene was an astonishing lack of thoughtfulness and sensitivity. I’ve been questioning his judgment every since. I certainly won’t be buying it and even don’t enjoy his Monday morning rates as much.


  19. Pearls says:

    Sue -

    Congrats on your self supporting, but how much more could get done, sold, stored, expanded with another set of hands - and hands that are plenty strong?

    My husband brings more than a great set of arms, but a hard to quantify aspect of someone else to do all this for and with…. A strand of 2 chords not quickly broken kind of thing.

    I think Kunstler gets it wrong - a man wont be able to rule it all with women shrinking back into the background - on the contrary, we will be much more needed as true help mates.

  20. Sharon says:

    Traverse, I don’t disagree with you - in fact, one of the points that I’ve made over the years is that divisions of labor may become more traditional *in some ways*. Speaking as someone who was pregnant a lot, that has a way of pointing up the realities - especially on a farm. I’m an unusually tall and strong woman - but I do see the material differences in body strength, pregnancy and childbearing, and other things emerge from time to time.

    But you also point out that even if the physical roles are at times more traditional, that doesn’t mean that women receed into passivity. Moreover, because dishes need washing a lot more often than boar need spearing, there’s a lot of flexibility, even if semi-traditional gender roles emerge ;-) . One of the things found in most traditional subsistence societies is that men just have a lot more free time than women - the old “men work from sun to sun” and a culture that doesn’t see that as natural can have a much more equitable division of labor in many ways.

    I would observe, also that feminism takes several generations to penetrate. My mother’s generation was first generation of feminists - and my father and other men acknowledged the point, and did more than their fathers, but they had a hard time overcoming the basic acculturation to some work being “women’s work.” My husband and male friends, raised in families where these issues were at least on the table, assume much more responsibility, much more naturally - it simply doesn’t occur to my husband, raised by a single mother and historically responsible for cooking and doing laundry for both of them that this is my job. My sons, raised in a house where equity is taken very seriously simply can’t imagine that there are women’s jobs or men’s jobs in the domestic world.


  21. TJ says:

    @Pearls - thank you for replying to Sue, being male, I did not feel right piping up myself. One thing I would like to add - I don’t even think it matters if your partner is a man or a woman - what is important is that you can rely on someone to help in a pinch.
    Children might help some but in that equation they are on the “responsibility” side and we all need (feel better with) someone on the “responsible” side of it besides ourselves.

  22. Hamster says:

    Relax, folks. “World Made By Hand” was a western set in a dystopian future. Readers, particularly readers here, seemed to take it for a prediction of the future. Or, if not a prediction, at least the hopes and dreams of the writer.

    Kunstler himself said that once he started with an assumption of zero oil available and set a western in that framework, the world started to take a life of its own. I haven’t read “The Witch of Hebron” yet, but he said that it was even more influenced by the internal dynamics of his pocket universe.

    Readers also seem to miss the fact that Kunstler apparently belongs to the Salmon Rushdie School of Marketing: pull enough people’s chains and a buzz ensues. If you let him pull your chain, who’s that on?

    I almost never read fiction, particularly not Westerns and absolutely not dystopian novels. (There’s already enough drivel in real life.) I actually had no idea that Kunstler is a novelist, as well as a critic of urban planning, until I got “World Made By Hand” from the library. I thought it was a thumping good adventure story. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel. A nice change from “Handbook of Utilities Engineering”.

    And to the rootin’ shootin’ radical feminist librarians who jumped on my case the first time, sorry to tell you, I am a grandmother, a retired reserve officer, and have always worked in traditionally male occupations.

  23. Sharon says:

    Hamster, as you’ll see if you read my original review, I’ve made that point. But the reality is that even the conventions of westerns change with the recognition that women are people, but Jim didn’t get the memo ;-) .


  24. Hamster says:

    Sharon, good point. I suppose if I read Westerns, past or contemporary, I would have noticed that…

    What I do read is history and biography. The European history of this corner of the world is from the 19th century, rather than the 17th century, so the first hand accounts of pioneer days are a bit more accessible to the modern mind.

    I got a kick out of “World Made By Hand”. I had just read a history of beekeeping in British Columbia, published about 1925, (it contains a surprising amount of politics for a book on bees) and Kunstler’s recreation of a self-organizing pioneer town was spot on. He didn’t have to make it up, he just lifted the whole thing from the voices of the people who lived through it. Whether that construction is a prediction of the future or a convenient way to frame a wildly comic, rip-roaring novel is a different conversation.

    I really liked the way he stuck to the “zero oil” premise. No bicycles, no steam punkt laptops, no magic hoarded antibiotics, just a self-consistent background which became part of the story. Of course, I’m an engineer, so I think about geeky infrastructure stuff that the general public doesn’t even notice.

    Collapse of empire has spawned feudalism before: the Dark Ages in Britain, mediaeval Japan, China’s warlord periods deja vu all over again, etc. If a person were to imagine how the Roman manor system would evolve without Rome and without a universal currency, they quickly arrive at feudalism. The lack of a monetary system requires the substitution of labor for currency as the medium of exchange. Feudalism was a response to a particular set of conditions. The slow establishment of modern banking, finance and national currencies did in feudalism. Kunstler tackled that head-on, including the tension between the pioneer town and the manorial system next door.

    There was a lot of excitement about the middle-aged protagonist’s 23 year old girl friend in “World Made By Hand”. That happens all the time in the real world now. It happened all the time in the 19th century, very that way. Years ago, when I was teenager contemplating my options, I was struck by a diary entry from a young Canadian woman in 1910, writing about her life in the Northwest Territories. Her brother died, leaving her alone, and she had to get married or leave. The women of the town would not tolerate a single woman.

    I blew past Kunstler’s occasional snide remarks (pull more chains, raise more flap, sell more books) to focus on how he had pulled together so many strands to envision “The Long Emergency” as a novel.

    I thought the book was cool.

  25. Hamster says:

    Oh, and the sequel is supposed to have even more supernatural elements. I thought that the magical element was weird, coming as it did in the first book, a novel so strongly grounded in physics and salvage engineering.

    Then I got it: the Enlightenment Bites the Dust. Well, that too has happened before, although we have difficulty reconstructing exactly what went down in 5th century Britain because everybody was so busy surviving it that almost nobody stopped to write it down.

    If nothing else, the supernatural elements signal to the reader that this is a STORY. And if elements of the framing are uncomfortably familiar and stimulate excited discussion, well, that’s the point.

  26. Trace Willans says:

    Sherri S Teppers, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall gives a much more intersting new world.

  27. Rebecca says:

    I’m doing a catch-up reading of your blog and sang out a little “hallelujah!” after reading this post. I just finished Witch of Hebron and wondered if I was alone in feeling ever so slightly nauseated.

    I had read World Made By Hand, found the eating-pumpkin-by-hand-dipped-candlelight part appealing and the portrayal of women appalling. Perhaps I had over-read the misogyny, I thought, so I gave W.o.H. a chance. That was a mistake.

    When the downturn of whatever description comes, I’m assuming we’ll need all hands on deck. I hope I have something to contribute besides a bizarrely metaphysical sexuality!

  28. Top 10 peak oil stories of 2010 — Transition Voice says:

    [...] The Witch of Hebron suffered slings and arrows from peak oil writers including Carolyn Baker and Sharon Astyk, as well as our own reviewer, a sympathetic male, for picturing women as second-class citizens in a [...]

  29. Top 10 peak oil stories of 2010 — Erik Curren's blog says:

    [...] The Witch of Hebron suffered slings and arrows from peak oil writers including Carolyn Baker and Sharon Astyk, as well as our own reviewer Cliff Garstang, for picturing women as second-class citizens in a [...]

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