Friday, October 5, 2012

When she was good, she was very very good! And when she was bad . . .She was hunting?

Perhaps you’ve heard the silly old saying: There are two kinds of people in this world—those who believe there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.  Whatever grains of truth there may be in this play on the idea of “conventional wisdom,” it certainly does seem to be the case that when it comes to women who are hunters, the popular trend is decidedly in the direction of our coming in two distinct “kinds.”  This point was brought home to me this past summer, in a conversation with communications expert, and Orion member, Tammy Sapp. We were talking about the ways hunters are depicted in the popular media these days. Had I ever noticed, she asked me, that  in the popular mind female hunters tend to conform to one of two extremes: girly-girl ultra-femininity on the one hand, and kick-ass one-of-the-guys anti-femininity on the other? And, to complicate things further, it seemed like a lot of women hunters themselves were buying into this binary?
As a matter of fact, I had noticed these trends. And I myself had recently become especially preoccupied with the girly-girl side of the equation. After all, since hunting had so long been portrayed as a man’s activity and women looked like they were poaching on some very exclusively male territory when they crossed that gender line, perhaps it was only natural that many female hunters adopted the “Anything you can do, I can do better” approach to admission into the boys’ club of hunting camp. My friend, Montana nature writer Susan Ewing, several years ago coined the term “Bubbettes” for this group. They’re the ones who, as Tammy put it to me, are “scornful of overt displays of femininity” in the field. “Maybe,” she suggested, “they think that women who are too girly girl cause men to disrespect all women hunters. These women are proud they field dress their own deer and think other women are cupcakes if they don't follow suit.”
I agree. But then I wonder why, lately, the idea of being a cupcake—as well as of providing cupcakes for the whole hunting camp—seems to be enjoying a renewed popularity, both among women hunters and the men who claim to love them? What, for example, are we to make of the recent publication, to positive critical acclaim and strong sales, of three books, each of which in one way or another trivializes women’s participation in hunting and shooting sports? Their titles say it all: Girl Hunter, Call of the Mild, Chicks with Guns.
In the first, celebrity chef Georgia Pellegrini sets out to “revolutionize the way we eat, one hunt at a time.”  Great—locavorically inclined hunter and committed foodie that I am, I can appreciate that. But why be so “girly” about it? Pellegrini—pictured on the book’s dust jacket knee-deep in brush in a pink plaid shirt, with a shotgun in one hand, a frying pan in the other and not a hair out of place—positively swoons over recounting every halting initiatory step she takes into the ranks of the hunting fraternity. And it is a fraternity. All of her instructors are men, some of whom instill in her some pretty bad hunting habits like whiling away the time in a deer stand or duck blind by tossing down a variety of alcoholic beverages, and similar good ol’ boy behaviors. By the end of her year-long quest to “channel the primitive woman” she has learned to wax poetic about the “casual way in which nature treats life and death.” But—when she writes about a turkey filling the scope of her 20-gauge shotgun, or her skill not simply at eviscerating but also skinning and butchering a deer with a pocketknife—well, one just has to wonder about the casualness of her hunting education.
Still, Pellegrini the Girl Hunter comes across as a bona fide Bubbette compared to Lily Raff McCaulou, the thirty-something memoirist who spends much of her Call of the Mild fretting about how dangerous hunting is and how she might really do something terribly stupid, like shoot herself or her hunting partner by mistake. She remembers feeling “relieved” that her first shotgun is a 20-gauge “youth gun.” She says, “It feels safer somehow.” Safer than what? Than a “grown-up” 20-gauge?
The subtitle of McCaulou’s book is Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner—the “mildness” of which she does not explain. I guess she feels she doesn’t need to, it must be self-evident, her being a girl and all. Like Pellegrini, all her hunting lessons come from males. The only stalking she learns from a woman is for mushrooms.
As for Chicks with Guns, a coffee-table collection of photographs of gun-armed women with their personal statements about why they own and use firearms: It is not a bad book, actually. But the title is a tease, as are many of the provocative poses the women are placed in. And the photographic record of women and guns has already been done better and much more forthrightly by photographer and shooter Nancy Floyd, in She’s Got a Gun—a book that attracted far less notice, possibly because it was published by a university press, but equally likely because there is nothing girly about it.
Forgive me if I sound a bit, shall we say, impatient here. But, having come of age as a woman hunter (and, yes, my husband introduced me to it) toward the end of the last century, at approximately the time when women were all of a sudden big news in the hook-and-bullet press—we were going to be the future of hunting, remember?—I have been a part of a generation of women who had to deal with the demeaning displays of cheap guns marketed in sporting goods stores as “ladies and youth models,”  and the shotguns with pastel composition stocks and the cute little pearl handled purse size pistols (Remember Nancy Reagan’s “tiny little gun?”). And being told that if we were looking for hunting clothes, we should check out the boys’ department (even though few of us were shaped like adolescent males). And having to deal with skepticism as to whether we really even filled our hunting tags ourselves. . . as well as about our real motivation for hunting: were we trying to be one of the guys, or maybe to bag one of them in holy matrimony? I thought all of this was, oh, so very yesterday.
And then there is the pink thing. I thought we were over that, too. It was a nice marketing ploy while it lasted, since a lot of people bought into the idea that if an item was pink a portion of the proceeds from the sale must be going to breast cancer research (which may or may not have been the actual case—that is grist for another post).  But apparently pink isn’t just for fund-raising anymore. Browning has introduced a new “High Country Down Jacket” for women hunters. Well, they call it a down jacket, but  it is—as a gear reviewer in Women & Guns Magazine explained—actually filled with polyester “to reduce weight and ensure comfort in all but the coldest temperatures.” It is not waterproof—but hey, what woman would want to be out hunting in the rain anyway? And the real selling point, for the reviewer, was that the zipper and “Buck Mark” logo on the jacket and its matching hat are pink, “which on the Mossy Oak or Realtree AP camo looks sharp.” Really? I think it looks pretty ridiculous myself. But then the reviewer’s name is Scott. Maybe it’s a guy thing.
And maybe that’s what publishers and marketers are picking up on: As a society, we still harbor a lot of ambivalence around the idea of women who are “armed and dangerous,” who can fend for and defend themselves. The idea may go down more easily if it is prettily packaged in pink. Or in girly-girl apologies, like Lily McCaulou’s professed “embarrassment” about even calling herself a hunter.
But it feels to me like a sneaky way of keeping women in their place—as the sexy exceptions that prove the rule that hunting culture really is still a man’s world. And that, deep down, women who hunt and shoot prefer it that way. Funny thing is, none of the female hunters I know subscribe to that view. Nor, and I truly want to believe this, do my male friends who are hunters.  

We've come a long way, baby. Or have we?

Mary Zeiss Stange is the author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997), Gun Women (New York University Press, 2000), and most recently Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (University of New Mexico Press, 2010). She also edited Heart Shots: Women Write about Hunting (Stackpole, 2003) and Stackpole Books' "Sisters of the Hunt" series of classic works about hunting by women, and has published widely on women's and environmental issues in both the commercial and academic press. 
A professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, she teaches in the gender studies, environmental studies and international affairs programs. She divides her time between her "town job" in Saratoga Springs, NY, and the bison ranch in southeastern Montana that she and her husband Doug share with six Peruvian horses, two Springer Spaniels, a tuxedo cat and various wildlife.


  1. Mary - thanks for the thoughtful post. Vermont has one of the highest percentage of woman hunters in the US. Overall they are very safe and ethical, and seem to keep their male companions that way also. The only difference I have noticed is many really want to bring home some meat. They love the hunt but they like to eat at the end of the hunt.
    Next week I'm moose hunting with my wife. She drew the tag and named me as the second shooter. (I suspect not naming your spouse would be clear grounds for divorce) But based on the focus she is showing in the preparation for this hunt - I'll be sure to get out of the way if and when a moose shows up because it is going down.
    I've run into a few of the macho women and the girly types, but most are just like me - folks who love and respect nature and want to be part of the cycle of life, which includes eating wild free range meat.

    1. Thanks, Eric--

      The "civilizing" influence of women on male hunters has long been remarked--and in fact, historically, the argument that women are a positive force afield has come in handy, when hunting has been under attack--two noteworthy instances being fox hunting in 19th century England, and the "Nature Faker" attack on sport hunting in early 20th century America. While I think it is obviously problematic to place women on a higher moral/ethical ground than men in this regard, I do believe there is an important difference in attitudes toward hunter ethics displayed by the two genders. And the difference tends to be largely rooted in the fact that most males in our society learn hunting as children, when ethics take the form largely of a set of dos and don'ts--which unfortunately can lead to the (childish) assumption that hunting has to do with what one can get away with, not necessarily with what is right. By contrast, most females take up hunting as adults, with already fully-formed personal ethical systems. Women thereby tend to approach hunting--and gun use in general (as every firearms safety instructor will verify)--with somewhat more seriousness of purpose.

      As to bringing home the meat: A variety of studies have suggested that, while women mostly hunt for the same reasons men do, as a group we do tend to put relatively more emphasis on hunting for food, and less emphasis on collecting trophies. But note that I said "relatively" there: there's still something quite compelling about the connection between the meat in the freezer and the mount on the wall . . .

      Best luck on that moose hunt!

  2. Wish I could speak more to the women's experience, but all I have are my own observations... and they're all over the place. As a guy who started hunting in childhood, my point of view is skewed whether I like to admit it or not. I don't think I knew more than two women who hunted until I moved from NC to California in the late 90s.

    To be honest, I never gave it a heck of a lot of thought. As far as I was concerned, if you wanted to hunt, come hunt. Man, woman, or whatever... I never felt, personally, that the field was gender-specific. At the same time, it never occurred to me the difficulties a woman might have entering the sport. The "girl hunters" I knew back in NC just came to camp with their dads, just like I did. They wore hand-me-down clothes, just like I did. And they got picked on and teased by the old-timers just like I did. In fact, the only thing I can remember being different was that they were allowed to use the indoor bathroom at the clubhouse, while us boys were relegated to using the spider and wasp-infested outhouse... or the bushes.

    It wasn't until years later, when I started to introduce my girlfriend to hunting, that I started to really see roadblocks. Some were overt, such as the attitudes and snide comments from some old-timers at the gunshop when she was looking at rifles. Some were self-imposed, as she was uncomfortable hanging out at the campfire with the guys during a weekend hog hunt. And others were just practical, such as trying to find a place to pee during a duck hunt on a CA waterfowl refuge.

    If nothing else, it made me realize how much I'd always taken for granted. This was really driven home in 2001, when I took her to her first SHOT Show. I was there to cover the show for an outdoors eZine, and had brought her along to take a look at women's gear (I never understood the value of having men do reviews of women's hunting gear). Despite the noise in the hook-n-bullet media about women representing the future of hunting, the actual market was sorely lacking... not only in product, but in motivation to develop product. The most honest comment I heard was from the folks at Browning, when they told her that the demand for women's hunting clothing simply wasn't high enough to justify the cost of manufacture.

    Well, obviously, if you take a look at the Browning catalog, or most outdoor clothing and gear catalogs, you can see that times are changing. As I've spent more time in the field with both men and women, I've got say this is true outside of the marketplace as well. Things are changing.

    But they'll change slowly.

    Hunting has been a male-dominated sport for ages. One could argue that, with small exceptions, this has been the case for all of history. Comparatively, I'd be willing to say that the acceptance of women in the sport is at historic levels right now. It's far from perfect, but then, in our society at large there are still huge equality gaps between the genders... even in environments that were never as distinctly segregated. It should be no surprise that the hunting community still lags far behind.

    Personally, I'd love to see an end to the gender gap. I hate that women feel less than equal in certain settings, and I hate that a common response is to create equally exclusive settings where men are not allowed, such as women-only hunts or clubs. (I understand why they're created, I just hate that anyone feels the need to do it.) Integration through segregation simply doesn't quite make sense to me.

    But the gap is real, and it's as old as history. Closing it is going to take time, patience, and some major paradigm shifts in the way we perceive gender roles. No one can expect it to simply dissolve, no matter how advanced we may think we are as a society (or as a species).

  3. Mary you have done a really good job. Keep it up.

  4. I have no problem with Lily's book - I find her to be authentic, sincere and keenly interested in her new pursuit, and that's the bar I set for earning my respect. Perhaps I should re-read the book, but I didn't feel Lily trivialized the role of women in hunting; nor did I feel she was ever being cutesy-girly to make a buck (or a name for herself). I think "Mild," aside from being clever wordplay, was far more a reflection or her and her family's politics than her gender.

    That said, are women hunters the flavor of the day in the publishing industry? Could be. Or maybe I'm just bitter because when I pitched a serious book about hunting philosophy to an agent, he said something to the effect of, "That's great, but if you made it more about how women like you could learn to hunt, it would be better."

    Don't get me wrong; I put a lot of time and effort into helping women get into hunting. (I also think - PHILLIP! - we need to tend to an overlooked segment: adult urban males who need guidance and mentoring every bit as much as women.) But this is an area in which I prefer direct action over publishing.

  5. I just found this website, and was excited to see find a new author I hadn't heard of yet. However, I was disappointed in this post.

    As a female whose currently learning to hunt, I've also noticed some indications, especially in the hunting media, of categorizing women who hunt as hot babes (girly-girls) or forcing them to being "just like the guys." Both attitudes are annoying. The pink camo drives me nuts. I can be pretty feminine, but I don't like pink so why is that my only option. The pressure to be a bubbette also strikes me as ridiculous.

    Still, this post lost me in how it looked at Lily's book. It never struck me as girly at all. Just a normal adult taking on a new, somewhat overwhelming hobby. The quotations provided are interpreted completely different than how I would interpret them. Lily confesses that the youth gun seems safer somehow, she's not actually saying she thought it was safer in fact, but simply that it made her feel less nervous. It's not logic, it's emotion. Same with the "embarrassed to be a hunter." I don't think this has anything to do with being a girl--but simply about being an adult, whose still learning, and doesn't feel that her status as a hunter is as authentic as those who've been doing it since they were children. Sure, I wish she had talked more about what she enjoyed as well as her challenges, but I found it a refreshing look at how a new hunter, completely foreign to the pursuit, might see it. Perhaps this author couldn't sympathize with Lily because she never felt ambivalent, nervous, or out of her element when learning to hunt? I'm really eager to learn to hunt, but while my first few trips out have been exciting and they have also been a nerve-wracking and difficult at times. Being a woman is part of that, but so is simply picking up a dangerous item, learning lots of little important things, and then trying to hit a moving object--all with other people watching.I don't feel exactly as Lily did, but I can appreciate her perspective and honesty.

    I couldn't agree more with the first commentor that most of us just want to be ourselves instead of categorized as macho or girly.

    1. Dear Krystal,
      I appreciate your feedback, I really do. Two points, in quick response:
      1)At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I'd just like to point out that I have written quite a bit about my own hunting experiences, in both scholarly and popular venues. You might want to check out my WOMAN THE HUNTER or the anthology I edited, HEART SHOTS: WOMEN WRITE ABOUT HUNTING, both of which take up the question of the range of complex emotions surrounding the hunting experience.
      2) To be candid, re McCallou's book, something I did not like about it is the fact that she writes as if everything she narrates--every flash of insight, every halting discovery--originated in her own experiences. Perhaps this is so--but there are so many echoes throughout her text of other writers--some of them hard to dismiss as mere coincidence--that as a reader, as well as a sister-hunter, I wish she had been more generous in citing her pretty obvious resources. Even Pellegrini does this. An excellent example of what I am talking about would be Tovar Cerulli's THE MINDFUL CARNIVORE, which takes up so many of the same or kindred issues as McCallou's book, but does it with a clear sense of being rooted in a complex, and rich, tradition of writing about hunting, by both women and men.

    2. I too have felt some annoyance with the ham-fisted attempts at characterizing female hunters. But then again this is not new in human nature as a lot of, if not most, people are uncomfortable outside of their normal social ‘scape –at both ends of the exchange. I suppose it’s why there are women’s fishing and hunting organizations, as well as why girls often did less well in science and math when they are taught in mixed gender groupings (Not sure where this last lies nowadays).

      Most of the women hunters I’ve met, actually all, started following their husband’s or boyfriend’s lead. You would know far better than I how common it is for women to pursue hunting out of their own volition, and why. I started “hunting” when, at age 9, a neighbor gave me a BB gun he didn’t want anymore. I was a small town boy who at the time didn’t know anything at all about “hunting”, (save the asinine and deceitful protestations of Bambi), but was automatically attracted to the excitement inherent in the use of projectiles, the athleticism, and the flirtation with probabilities nature presented. It was an autonomous attraction, not a “mindful” one. It became a “mindful” one when that first sparrow choked on a BB. I cried or 2 days. When I subsequently moved to a rural area I found most of the other boys didn’t cry over such things. I knew such things bothered many of them, and saw it disguised in bravado and laughter. Girls simply didn’t hunt. I had one girl, sweet on me, say she’d like to hunt with me. She said we could eat cookies she’d baked while we watched for deer. Needless to say I didn’t invite her. She also said she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t shoo the deer away.

      It will be interesting to see how female participation in hunting develops further. In my limited experience, it tends to follow a man’s lead, and is very much associated with food. Adding pink, or machismo, to the milieu points out the extremes, once again a ham-fisted grasp at portraying the identity “woman hunter” apparently, from what you describe, from both ends of the exchange. Center will probably be found as more women enter the pursuit and share their own reasons and experiences.

      Along with a few other commenters above, I too was a bit uncomfortable with the tone of criticism of McCallou's book. I saw her diffidence as understandable considering her urban background -who she has to explain things to in her life. None of us live in a cultural vacuum. And this is certainly not gender specific.

      Her fears of carrying a gun for the first time I fully understand. Guns scare a lot of people. And good safety instruction must impress upon the new user the real dangers that exist, and how “accidents” actually happen. In the state of New York, where I received my hunter/firearm safety instruction years ago, graphic demonstrations of hunting accidents resulted in dissuading many people not to pursue hunting, and so the policy was to back off a bit, helping people find the appropriate balance between apprehension and respect.

      I also understand her discomfort at the term “hunter”. Such discomfort, although ranging from bias to bigotry, many hunters commonly face under the scrutiny of a culture that has lost such connections. Scoffing at such feelings will only widen the gap. And we are the minority by a large margin. Most of our urbanizing culture is troubled by death in any form, as it is with sex or just about any other bodily function. In a public space, such as a published book, such discomfort (fear, embarrassment, …) is understandable. It represents a first step into a scary place for most people nowadays. I applaud Lily for candidly giving it a shot.

      Also, comparing Lily’s book with Tovar’s is not really a fair comparison as the first is a pretty simple memoir, the latter a scholarly treatment as well as memoir following university study resulting in a Master’s degree focused on human relationships to hunting.

  6. One thread in all these comments hits a nerve with me, the "embarrassment" of calling oneself a hunter. If we continue to be embarrassed by who we are, no mater what the pursuit, how can public opinion or impression be changed? Like when the civil rights movement began to say "I'm black and I'm proud," shouldn't hunters, whether male or female, be proud of who they are? I have not read Lily's book, but I know that when it comes to me, myself, and I, I don't feel compelled to explain who I am or how I choose to define myself, even to my urban, urbane friends.

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