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MUCC's Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine

Of Women Who Hunt

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

Last year, for the first time in 37 years of marriage, I considered going deer hunting with my husband.

When it became apparent that none of the men in my husband’s deer camp would be hunting after the first day or two of rifle season, I worried about him hunting alone afterwards.  But, I didn’t offer to tag along too quickly.  After 37 years of marriage, I had a good idea of what I’d be getting into if I did-a lot of walking, for one thing.

Two years ago, for example, while my husband and I were staying in Manassas, Virginia, for a family wedding, we took a sightseeing day trip to Washington D.C.  Jerry and I parked our car and walked around the city for hours to visit as many buildings, monuments, and memorials as possible.  As the day wore on, and I wore down, he chided me that I’d never be able to keep pace walking with him during deer hunting.  I suddenly realized why most of his deer-hunting group laughingly groaned about and avoided his walks.

I hesitated for a couple other reasons.  In my 50s, still working, back in college classes, fairly in tune with the times, I remained uneasy crossing gender lines of the primarily male hunting world that I’d always known.  I also couldn’t imagine myself harvesting animals for food.

As it turned out, my husband’s deer hunting dilemma resolved by November 15.  But by then, I was on a “hunt” of my own to learn about women hunters.

I think that author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), who wrote The Yearling, is responsible for me even considering tohunt with my husband.  In her 1930s and ’40s letters to Max Perkins, her editor at Scribner’s, I noticed she increasingly mentioned how much she enjoyed hunting.  I could certainly identify with her enjoyment of writing, but not hunting.  Finally, when I read another letter where she mentioned hunting, I asked my husband, “Why in the world would Rawlings want to hunt back then?”

He looked up from the book he was reading and considered my question.  Then he smiled and told me that other women were hunting in Rawlings’ time.  He reopened Legendary Deer Camps by Robert Wegner to point to a group photo of 1930s women deer hunters.  One was cutting off a section of shirttail of another who’d missed a deer.  I recognized the hunting tradition from years of repeated stories by my husband and others.

My husband reminded me to think about my female farming ancestors and current friends who have harvested family food from livestock.  He recalled that, for the past decade or more, I’d mentioned meeting increasing numbers of women hunters around town.  Finally, he showed me articles written by and about women in some of his recent outdoors and hunting magazines.  He grinned and said, “Check it out!  You like to research things.”

Soon afterwards, I received unexpected guidance in August 2004 from hunting author and publisher, John Howard of St. Hubert’s Press.  In an e-mail thanking him for a hunting book I’d ordered for my husband, I mentioned that I was reading about deer hunting too.

In a reply, Howard supported my husband’s remarks and included a gallery of historical women hunters, hunter/authors, and their writing: Phaedra in the 5th Century BC play Hippolytus by Euripedes (she went to the pine forests to hunt spotted deer with hounds and lance); Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt (Artemis in ancient Greece); Agnes Herbert’s Two Dianas in Alaska (1909) and Two Dianas in Somaliland (1908); Paul (Paulina) Brandreth’s Trail of Enchantment (1930); and Dolores Cline Brown’s Yukon Trophy Trails (1971).

Howard suggested that I start with a more modern book, Woman the Hunter (1997) by Mary Zeiss Stange, director of women’s studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. In the book, she notes increasing numbers of female hunters in America (more than two million female hunters in 1996), includes examples of her own hunting experiences, and examines varying facets of women’s relationship with hunting.

Stange includes subjects involving religious, anthropological, historical, and cultural viewpoints as well as environmental and feminist movements.  She reminds readers that as humans we have the ability to think, so we need to be responsible and use our intelligence when relating to nonhuman nature—our food.

It doesn’t matter, writes Stange, whether we hunt for meat in the outdoors, purchase it in a supermarket, or eat only vegetables from farming land that has been cleared of multitudes of large and small nonhuman life. We are all still a part of destroying nature.  “We live because others die,” Stange writes.  (Discussing this more with my husband, he reminded me that fresh vegetables we eat are still living—comparing them to flowers we cut that are alive until they wither away.)

In the final chapter, Stange explains how the Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) program is helping women to gain confidence and skills in outdoors activities including hunting.

Professor Christine Thomas of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources launched BOW in 1991.  By 1996, it had spread to serve about 20,000 women nationwide in 40 states and three Canadian provinces.  Michigan’s program began in 1994 (for information, see the Department of Natural Resources Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr/

Women’s involvement in deer hunting in America and Michigan is evolving with women’s roles in society.  Sport hunting among women is not new, but more accepted.

Women’s acceptance in public sports began in the late 1920s, when society started to enjoy women’s participation in exciting and glamorous areas of culture, according to Susan Ware in American Women in the 1930s: Holding Their Own (1982).  Sports heroines like Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel in 1926, and Amelia Earhardt, who crossed the Atlantic in 1928, gradually broadened women’s sports roles.

During Rawlings’ 1930s, Ware notes, the traditional leisure-class sports of tennis, skating, golfing, and riding were considered “compatible with ideals of feminine grace and demeanor.”  In 1936, in a Reader’s Digest article entitled “Women in Sports Should Look Beautiful,” sports writer Paul Gallico concluded that of 25 possible sports, only eight met his standards for women.  He especially advocated archery, shooting, fishing, riding, flying, and skating because they teach graceful feminine movement—and because “the women wear some pretty cute costumes.”  Gallico rejected ball games because they cause women to perspire.

Retail outdoor recreation stores encourage women hunters by offering specially designed, proper-fitting firearms, bows, and hunting apparel for their use.  Some stores support BOW programs.  Many publish catalogs and offer online ordering.

At Duncan’s Outdoor Shop, a large gun shop in Bay City, Charlie Duncan, a retired Saginaw police officer of 31 years, said women increasingly and routinely receive firearm training and certification and target practice on the shop’s gun ranges.  He also described, with obvious pride and pleasure, some past hunting experiences with his wife and daughter.  His wife, who has accompanied him hunting for many years, is a successful hunter in her own right.

Several Michigan women living between Clarkston and Harrison reveal a high level of acceptance in hunting.  The women hunters, ranging in age from their 30s to near 70, attribute family tradition and marrying or dating hunters as important reasons for their own hunting.  They also share a deep respect for the outdoors, and most mentioned the importance of teaching the attitude to their children.  The women harvest not only deer, but buffalo, elk, bear, wild boar, turkey, goose, duck, pheasant, grouse—and snapping turtle.

Jill Thieme, a restaurant-bar owner from Bridgeport, laughed about the odd or annoying comments she receives from men about her hunting.  “And I love it!” she said. “Some comments are made in jest.  If men give me a hard time, I offer them a bow shoot-off to see who does better.”  Then, more seriously, she added, “I hunt for the same reasons that men do, and basically they think it’s great.”

Carlene Davis of Harrison recalled that she once was often perceived by males as being along on the hunt “for decoration.”  Now, she said, “It’s usually, ‘You hunt!  Great!  Get anything?’” Kathy Poet of Clare remembers some remarks about her being the camp cook, “But they’re joking,” she said. “Most men I hunt with are very supportive and want to see me be successful.”

Jeania Canel of Clare agreed. “If you can prove yourself, you’re in,” she said.

In her late 60s, Jan Cable of Clarkston has never heard any odd remarks. “Everyone’s been very nice to me,” she said. “Actually, men sometimes mention that they wish their wives or girlfriends would go with them."

Bonnie Walters of Clare, who also is in her 60s, believes that women hunters are well accepted in the area where she lives and adds that after she usually gets her deer on opening morning, “every one of the others brags about it to anyone who’ll listen.”

Poet says women uncomfortable with killing something can try shooting skeet or target shooting with a bow, which she describes as great stress relievers.

“Don’t be afraid to step out into the hunting world,” she added. “Most women don’t hunt out of fear of doing something they are not familiar with—shooting firearms, climbing trees—and don’t be afraid of not being as good as your hunting partners.  Like everything else, the more you do it, the better you get.”

Canel believes women should be involved in hunting, citing the significant number of single women raising children.  She thinks outdoor sports are better for children than video games, television, and “pounding the streets.”

My perceptions about hunting have changed significantly since I began my hunt for information about women hunters and hunting. I don’t know if I’ll ever hunt, but I do know I won’t hesitate because I’m female.  I’ll hesitate less about the act of hunting because I understand it better.  In my search for information, I have been deeply impressed by male and female hunters who have gently and generously shared their knowledge about the sport of hunting.It’s been a good hunt.


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