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Contact: Mary Stange

American Dianas: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

The Past: There are two traditions of Euro-American hunting in North America. (Native American hunting of course constitutes a third tradition, but one outside the immediate concerns of this paper.) On the one hand, from the earliest colonial times through the period of westward expansion, hunting was an essential part of the pioneer way of life; it was a matter of survival. On the other, and in conformity with customs brought over from Europe, hunting was seen as a leisure pursuit of the “landed gentry;” it was by and large a form of recreation. Women’s hunting figured prominently from the beginning in the former pioneer tradition: homesteading women had to be as adept with long guns as their menfolk were, able when necessary to fend for and defend themselves and their children. USAAmong more affluent circles, women were only admitted to the “hunting fraternity” in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. This was in part a result of the “First Wave” of American feminism. But it was also, and perhaps more especially, because hunting itself was under attack due to the rise of market hunting and the resulting near-extinction of species like the American bison. Proponents of the idea of “fair chase” saw it to be to their advantage to popularise the idea of hunting by the fair sex. Outdoorswomen were featured in hunting magazines, and in advertisements for hunting gear and guns. This changed in the Post-WW2, mid-century, as patriarchal gender roles became the social standard, and hunting was defined as a male prerogative. Middle and upper class women were at this point effectively banned from the hunting camp, although some of their rural and working-class counterparts continued the hunting tradition of their pioneer forbears.

The Present: Women’s hunting became a subject of great interest in the outdoor community once again in the late 20th century, when more and more women appeared to be taking up the shooting sports. This was partially a result of the “Second Wave” of American feminism: women were entering into previously male-dominated fields, claiming their equality in economic, social and cultural terms. Simultaneously, and not unlike a hundred years earlier, the presence of women in the hunting community made for good public relations for hunting in general: female hunters challenged the stereotype of the “macho” male in ways that were important at a time when surveys showed the majority of Americans approved of hunting but disapproved of hunters. Growing evidence that women, as a group, tend to approach hunting more ethically and with perhaps more environmental awareness and concern than men, as a group, decoupled with the obvious fact of an aging male hunting population-led to the idea that women might in fact be “the future of hunting.”

But before we go “back to the future,” what do we know about the present? Reckoning the precise number of American women afield today is an inexact science at best, since several states do not specify gender on hunting licenses, and even states that do often neglect to track that information. But according to figures released by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 1995, between 1988 and 1993 the number of women hunting with firearms in the US increased by 23%, with women accounting for roughly 10% of hunters in the US, a percentage that appears to have remained fairly consistent since then. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2006 there were approximately 1.2 million female hunters in the US. However, the National Sporting Goods Association – a trade association with its finger on the pulse of the buying public – puts the figure at 2.5 million women hunters over the age of 18, with another roughly half a million between the ages of 7 and 17. The number of female hunters has essentially doubled in the last twenty years. This bodes well for our future.

Who are these women? The six US states with the highest percentages of women hunters are, not surprisingly, also states with predominantly rural populations: Wyoming and Montana (states where one in five hunters is female), Wisconsin, Arkansas, Minnesota and Texas. North American and European female hunters have in common the fact that they are, as sociologist Thomas Heberlein puts it, “produced by male hunters” – i.e. women tend to be initiated into hunting by significant men in their lives. Heberlein sees this as a potential problem, as with decreasing numbers of male hunters overall there will be “fewer males to socialize [women] into hunting.” However other studies suggest that the socialization can just as readily be carried out by female-friendly hunting skills workshops, most notably the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) Program, founded in 1991 and currently operating in 49 states, 5 Canadian provinces and New Zealand. Over 250,000 women have participated in one or more BOW workshops. They tend to be college-educated, more urban, of moderate to high household income, and in the 35-55 age range. One interesting gender difference between male and female hunters in the US is that while hunting seems to decline among men as their education level rises, among females college-educated women are just as likely to hunt as are women with less, or different, formal education.

The Future: Female hunters today are shattering one of Western culture’s oldest and most firmly entrenched ideas: that women are essentially passive, nonviolent nurturers. They are, thereby, also helping to rewrite the script of environmentalism in the 21st Century. But the growth of female hunting raises questions: How exactly does nature relate to nurture? What might hunting – for sport as well as for sustenance – have to do with being green? Can one be a predator and a steward at the same time? And, as a predator species, do we have any other choice?

Significantly, the divide between hunter/conservationist and green/environmentalist that characterized the 20th-century debate is less pronounced among women as a group. Female hunters therefore offer new, constructive models for envisioning environmental sustainability. Years of researching the ideas and motivations of female hunters have convinced me that as a group, women think, through the meaning of their outdoor life, in ways that help lend deeper, and potentially more coherent meaning to the phrase “hunter-environmentalist.” These women are, intentionally or not, rewriting the story we humans like to tell about ourselves. Female hunters and environmental activists – and there are many women who are both – have a key role to play in the dialogue we as a global society desperately need to commence, about what it means to live, in this ever more imperilled natural world, as very human animals. Artemis – the Roman Diana – was the goddess both of hunting and of childbirth. The simple fact that the hand that rocks the cradle can also wield a .30-06 should tell us something, and not just about the shifting demographics of hunting or about the changing circumstances of women’s lives. Women’s hunting forces us – men and women, hunters and non-hunters alike – to rethink our relationship to and responsibility for the non-human world in some fresh, provocative, and constructive ways.