A friend recently sent me an August 1949 issue of NRA’s The American Rifleman because she knew it would intrigue me. The cover depicted a young woman wearing a shooting jacket and holding a firearm. A blurb inside the magazine explained the suede-trimmed shooting jacket, modeled by designer Lois Agee, was created with “eye appeal in view as well as practicality.” It went on to say the coat wasn’t commercially available yet but they were hoping for manufacturer interest.
So our quest for fit and functionality in outdoor apparel began as early as World War II, though likely way before that. I imagine the pioneer women who helped settle the west in the 1800s wished for something more serviceable than the cotton dresses they wore to raise a garden, keep house, herd livestock and hunt small game for the family table.
Flipping through the pages, I was surprised to find this 1949 issue of The American Rifleman carried an article about a female shooter. Ethel Edwards was an eight-time winner of Colorado’s women’s smallbore championship. And she went on to find another true passion, teaching young people how to shoot.
Ethel reported that she got her start with pistols and rifles in the shooting gallery her husband had opened in Denver in 1932. She was quoted in the article saying she “took to shooting with the police and detectives who came into our place to practice. And did I take a beating until I settled down to really learn how to shoot a pistol. Finally, when I began to get good they wouldn’t shoot with me without a handicap.”
History is a great teacher, and I was reminded yet again that throughout time, women have shattered stereotypes to do what they needed and wanted to do. While the level of social acceptability for female hunters and shooters has seesawed throughout America’s history, the presence of strong women has not.
Today, though, many Americans have lost touch with our collective rural past, a time when survival depended on a person’s woodsmanship and shooting skills. Those who now live in cities are often disconnected from the land. Their only brush with wildlife occurs on the National Graphic Channel or Animal Plant. To them, modern sportsmen and women are as embarrassing as the hairstyle they wore in high school.
Even though I have been told since I was a little girl growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s that women could do and be anything they wanted, I’m not sure that holds up in today’s politically correct climate. That freedom sometimes seems reserved for female math professors, nuclear scientists or secretaries of state, but not women who hunt and target shoot. So, it was a thrill for me when I recently saw positive media coverage about women who didn’t let conventional wisdom dictate their life.
First, someone forwarded me a February 2009 article from Southern Living about the Annie Oakley Shooters, an all-woman shooting club outside of Atlanta, Georgia. According to co-founder Mary Huntz, the group grew out of an annual sporting clays tournament to raise money for charity. Only a handful of women who signed up for the Annie’s had ever held a gun before but they had fun learning something new. Now they meet once a month to shoot at one of several shooting ranges near Atlanta. In addition to the fun of shooting, the 150 Annie members build friendships and network with women from different professions and walks of life, much like what happens on golf courses across the country. Plus, they’ve raised about $200,000 for The Trust for Public Land.
Another recent media portrayal of outdoor women almost blew my hunting socks off…a positive look at a group of female duck hunters showed up in the New York Times. When a friend sent me the link, I prepared myself for the worst. This was the New York Times after all. But what I read was a delightful article about a group who call themselves the Swamp Witches.
Strains of the novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and books about the Sweet Potato Queens, floated through my mind as I read about the half-dozen women who duck hunt twice a year in the Mississippi Delta. The account of these ladies, who became the Swamp Witches a decade ago, is a refreshing look at women who are sophisticated and fiercely independent.
One of the Witches, Susan Williams, 52, an importer from Clinton, Mississippi said “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, sure, women hunt, but there are men putting out the decoys for them.’ We have our own dogs, we put out our own decoys, we do it all without power, we canoe in.”
My favorite quote in the article, though, was delivered by group leader Allison Crews, 42, an owner of a small insurance company in Canton:
“We’re not out to prove anything,” she said. “We just like it.”
I’ve long thought that women were the key to the sustainability of hunting and shooting in the future. And these articles validate that belief. Women can replace that Bubba image that so many uninformed citizens seem to have about hunters. The good news is that even though positive mainstream media coverage of hunting and target shooting is rare, polls show 75 percent of Americans still approve of legal, regulated hunting. And like Ethel Edwards, the female hunters, shooters and trappers I know are not only shattering barriers to pursue their own passions, they’re also serving as powerful role models to pave the way for other outdoor women.
Check out the New York Times story here: