Women hunters: a new look at hunting in America

Guest Post

By Stacy Keogh, Professor of Sociology, Whitworth University
Originally published in Backcountry Hunters and Anglers‘s Backcountry Journal and reposted here with permission from the author.

I am not a hunter, but I have been around hunting my whole life. I grew up in northern California where my Dad hunted frequently and strongly encouraged his kids to participate from an early age. My sister and I took the hunter’s education class at the ripe ages of eleven and twelve, despite our marginal interest. We were the only girls in the class and the youngest students by at least a couple of decades. That group was not unlike the composition of the hunting camps we visited, where campfire conversation wasn’t exactly women-and-children friendly. It was obvious to me, even as a young girl, that women were significantly under-represented in hunting culture. The magazines, catalogs, celebrities, images and other cultural icons reiterated this thought: hunting was a man’s sport.

I have lived all over the western United States: From California to Oregon, from New Mexico to Montana. I now live in Eastern Washington where I continually find myself making friends with people who consider themselves avid hunters: both men and women.

In recent years, I have noticed the growing recognition of women hunters through: Larger women sections in sporting goods stores; women taking to the internet with blogs such as “Camo is the New Black” and “Women’s Hunting Journal.” Hunting magazines began devoting more space for women to share stories from the field. In May 2014, Field & Stream featured Eva Shockey, a young female TV hunting host, on its cover – the second woman ever to appear solo in a photograph on the cover of the 119-year-old magazine. Clearly, women have successfully made their presence known in the hunting world, challenging its reputation as a male-only sport.
 
I am a sociology professor at a liberal arts college in Spokane. I earned my doctorate by analyzing subcultures around the world: political subcultures, religious subcultures and even sporting subcultures. So naturally, the surge of attention given to women hunters caught my attention. I decided to look into the ways in which women experience hunting and how their experiences may differ from mainstream perceptions of hunting culture.
 
The Data
 
Undoubtedly, women in North America have always hunted: they hunted alongside men in pre-industrial, tribal societies. A Native American family could not drive to the closest grocery store to buy steaks for dinner. Hunting was necessary for survival. But as Europeans began to colonize, North America gradually shifted from a traditional hunter/gatherer society and into a post-industrial model of social order, where earning capital in exchange for goods became the primary way to provide for families. Anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios argued that the “sexual division of labor” in the modern era kept women from being more involved in hunting.
 
But that didn’t stop some women. While data on hunting is still fairly new, the numbers do tell us that women have always been a part of post-industrial hunting culture. According to the General Social Survey, from 1973 to 2006, the number of hunters overall has declined 11 percent. To break this down further, the percentage of participation of men hunters has declined, yet the percentage of women hunters has increased by three percent. This means that while the number of women in hunting has not necessarily risen significantly, they do make up a greater proportion of the entire hunting population, from 11 percent to 14 percent.
     
A number of research groups and surveys (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation) have reported that women are the fastest growing hunting demographic in the country. The National Shooting Sports Foundation reports the number of female hunters increased from 3.04 million in 2008 to 3.35 million in 2012.
 
It is evident from the figures above that the women have always participated in hunting, and are continuing to find interest in the sport. However, the fact the women are the fastest growing demographic population is a trend worthy of discussion. We first need to recognize that women do hunt, and that they are important and valuable assets to the hunting industry. Secondly, we need to understand how the increase of women hunters is affecting hunting specifically; starting with understanding who they are and what cultural elements they bring to the sport.
 
Statistics can only tell us so much, so I gathered interviews from thirty-nine women, representing eleven states, from a variety of ages, asking them: “What it is like to be a woman hunter?” The information I gathered was from only women. I do not mean to suggest that men do not share some of the same values as these women. Yet, to pose the question to women only gives us a unique insight on a culture that has historically been male-dominated. Here is what some of them had to say about being a hunter:
 
It’s kind of cool because not every girl does it…like when you go out in camo—like your coming in from a day of hunting and you’re in all camo—people look at you like, “Oh, you must be a hunter.” It’s kind of a cool feeling.
 
It makes me proud just because the majority of hunters are men I would say, and so it’s nice to know that I’m pursuing something even though it’s not very popular with my gender. And it’s nice to have that set of skills.
 
Sometimes people who don’t participate kind of look up to you like, “Wow that’s really cool that you’re doing that.” But some male hunters look down to you, like “Oh she’s a girl, she isn’t as good or anything.”
 
I have never really thought about the question before. I don’t see myself as different from any male hunter. I have also been in situations that were not typical for women… I am not a “woman hunter” I am just a hunter like everyone else.

Women have a variety of personalities and interests, so it should not be surprising that they experience hunting in a variety of ways as well. However, I did find some common trends and themes that emerged from the interviews that give us a closer look at hunting culture from the perspective of women hunters.
 
Women hunters recognize that they are challenging traditional gender norms.

As more women begin to hunt, some feel they have to validate their participation in the hunting world. The fact that women are recognized as legitimate hunters is a huge leap forward, compared to the last few decades. Nevertheless, there is still work left to do so that women are treated as complete equals in the hunting community, rather than as anomalies or deviants of gender norms.

Sociologically speaking, by challenging gender stereotypes women are seen as deviant and therefore doing something that – from an outsider’s perspective – seems to be innately wrong. One woman described how difficult it was in her own family to be accepted as a hunter. She said:

I think that [my mom’s] idea of it kind of changed a little bit when she saw how passionate I was about it, and how thankful I was for the experience and how respectful I was. And it’s not that you know, just because you love animals doesn’t mean you can’t be a hunter. I still love animals, I just have a different level of respect for them.

A common stereotype many hunters – men and women – face is that they are inhumane to animals; that any person who would kill a deer lacks respect for nature. Women hunters especially have had to face this stereotype, given that it goes against the more “feminine” traits we expect of women: to be nurturing, peaceful and non-violent. As a result, many women indicated having to face tough accusations.
Elk Tracks, a blog sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, published an article in April 2014 called, “When Anti-Hunters Attack” which details the ways in which hunters experience these threatening accusations. The article states, “Some of the attacks are getting bolder, more frequent, and much more abusive – especially when it comes to women.”

Contrary to this belief, however, in every interview I conducted the women demonstrated the utmost respect for the animals they kill. Not only are their personal hunting ethics clearly articulated, but they are very clear that pausing and reflecting after a kill is an integral part of their hunting experience.

Women hunt for food.

In every case, women claim to hunt for the primary purpose of gathering meat. A woman harvesting her own food is, in part, a result of the localvore movement. Localvores are men and women who limit their food supply to locally grown and produced goods as a way to reduce carbon emissions, thereby becoming environmentally conscious, ethical consumers; be it through gardening or hunting as a form of “ethical” killing. One woman I spoke with stated it perfectly:

I think that’s one of the cool things about women hunters: Being able to garden, being able to put dinner on the table, being able to be completely self-sufficient. Your actual needs … I think hunting is a lifestyle.

In the promo video “Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time,” Georgia Pelligrini says, “Sometimes I’m a lady, sometimes I run with the boys” as if a woman cannot be a lady and a hunter. But that’s not necessarily the case to many women; they aren’t just “running with the boys” when they take up their guns and march into the woods. Women may be challenging traditional notions of what it is to be “lady-like”, but that doesn’t mean it is an inherently male activity. Rather, women hunters are claiming hunting as their own, fusing the traditional domestic virtues of putting food on the table, with contemporary women’s empowerment movement that encourages women to be providers for themselves and for their families.

Women hunt with men.

Ninety percent of the women I interviewed hunt with another person (10 percent report hunting alone). Of women who hunt with a partner, 100 percent of those hunting partners are men. Seventy-seven percent of women reported hunting with fathers. Of those women married or in stable relationships, 95 percent reported also hunting with significant others (boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands).

We should use caution when interpreting these statistics. Sociologists typically nuance their conclusions recognizing that there are always exceptions to the general norms we see. However, it is clear from this study, that women’s participation in hunting appears to be contingent upon “male entry” into the sport. Even in cases in which women reported hunting alone, they were first introduced or taught to hunt by a father or significant other. Women may participate in hunting, but a close bond with a man is what usually initiates interest and participation.

Another important footnote to add to the above statistic is that when women did describe their interest in hunting as “social”, they described how they appreciated time with family or spouses. While most women may not see hunting as a way to connect with their girlfriends, they do see it as an opportunity to share time with family. In fact, most women reported that the family-focused nature was what made a good day of hunting, rather than actually shooting an animal. In the words of the women themselves:

When I go hunting, I count the day as a success if I get to spend it with my kids.
My favorite part of hunting is spending time with my kids, and having a home cooked dinner that night.

It’s definitely a family thing for me so I love spending the time with my dad and learning from him.

A good day of hunting for me is having my family with me in the blind or field. We take our boys, six and eight, hunting as much as we can. I love walking out to the blind in the early morning, the dogs running past you because they are so excited, and listening to my boys talk about what the day holds. It’s nice to shoot a limit of ducks but mostly it’s the memories that we make when we are hunting.

Despite women hunters challenging traditional gender roles in their families, their focus on the family still reiterates a “feminized” domestic approach to the sport than reported by men. Elizabeth Covelli, a professor at the University of Montana, found that statistically, women are more motivated to hunt by family time and meat gathering than men. Many respondents rejected the “sports hunter” label, but rather emphasized its provision, and cultivation of relationships; hunting provides food for the family, keeps the family engaged in healthy outdoor activities, and increases father-daughter and/or husband-wife bonds.
 
Clearly, women hunters are still the minority in a predominately male sport, but we need to recognize that women are not just “acting like men” when they hunt. Rather, they are just hunters, though their approaches and experiences may look different from their male counterparts. One woman explained her desire to be respected as a hunter in this anecdote:
 
A lot of people can be surprised when they hear that you are a woman hunter and I think that sometimes it can be perceived in a negative way … So I think sometimes it can come across negatively. The stereotype of a woman hunter, sometimes I feel like when you’re in deer season out hunting and you try to hide your long hair some hunters can be rude to you because you are a lady out there, but most of the time, I feel like it’s a badge of honor. I’m very proud if somebody’s like ‘Oh you hunt?’ Yeah! I hunt, I’m awesome for it.

I am not a hunter, but the women I have met through this study have encouraged me to see the benefits of participating in the sport, how it has empowered them personally, how it has cultivated stronger ties in their most important relationships, and how the label “Hunter” can worn as a badge of honor.

Want to know more about Stacy? Check out Hannah’s post about Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Women in Hunting and Fishing Panel here.

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