Crashing the Gun Club
At an all-female outdoors weekend, our writer pulls the trigger on a .22 and reflects that sometimes feminism is where you find it.
By Michelle Chihara
JUNE 14, 1999: WOODS HOLE -- On a soggy Saturday morning on Cape Cod, a few dozen women, median age about 40, share a gourmet breakfast. Clustered around long tables draped with white tablecloths, they enjoy two kinds of quiche, fruit salad with seasonal berries, and fresh-baked croissants and scones. They compare the ham quiche to the spinach. They swap stories about trapping and tranquilizing polar bears. These women, clad in jeans and anoraks and fanny packs, are getting fueled up for target practice.
They're here on a weekend program called Becoming an Outdoorswoman (BOW), dedicated to helping women acquire basic outdoor skills. The program, run and subsidized by the state, is held two or three times a year around Massachusetts. Here in coastal Falmouth, there are workshops in kayaking and canoeing, as well as classes in hunting, fishing, and edible plants.
Massachusetts is one of 44 states that offer BOW courses. By the end of this year, 50,000 women nationwide will have participated in a BOW weekend, according to Christine Thomas, the founder of the pilot program and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Thomas organized BOW in 1993 to help introduce women to activities that have traditionally been handed down from father to son -- part of a culture that thrives in the boys'-club atmosphere of fishing lodges and rod-and-gun clubs.
The idea that women might like to slog around outdoors getting just as grubby as men may seem like an offshoot of women's lib, but the word "feminist" is pretty much taboo at BOW. Many of the women here are wives or girlfriends of hunters, less interested in gender equity than in figuring out what the men in their lives are doing out there in the woods. And liberal feminists would make strange bedfellows with BOW's sponsors, which include the National Rifle Association, Federal Ammunition, and Smith & Wesson.
Whatever its politics, BOW seems to work. Thomas says that in a study of the first 600 program participants, women significantly increased their participation in almost every activity they tried at BOW. In other words, BOW is ultimately empowering women to make inroads into very male-dominated terrain. You say "feminism," they say "ladies' weekend."
I've come down to Woods Hole at the invitation of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Since the program does no advertising, good press is essential. They don't usually have to ask twice: politics aside, girls with guns tend to attract reporters.
In this case, the reporter is the girl with the gun. Soon after I arrive, my guide drops me off at the Woods Hole Rod and Gun Club, where five women are already sitting at modified picnic tables, shooting at paper rifle targets. The two instructors introduce themselves: Carey Murphy and Jack Frasier -- the former thick and bearded, the latter wizened and wiry. They seem consummate hunters; Frasier can reel off technical details about guns the way some people tick off baseball statistics. He points me to one of the .22-caliber rifles resting on a table.
With the barrel steadied by a small sandbag, I squint into the sight. Murphy tells me how to breathe. "Take a deep breath," he says, "and then release it halfway and hold it. Then pull the trigger. That'll help you keep steady."
The cross hairs seem tiny. Lining them up with the target is an exercise in concentration, and a surprisingly delicate one. Pulling the trigger also takes finesse: a controlled finger-bend, not a reflexive snap. The .22 caliber, which Frasier says is dangerous up to a mile away, is light and has a gentle kickback when fired. Loading the bullets is a lot like loading a Pez dispenser. After my second shot, Murphy looks through a telescope set up to scrutinize the targets. "That was a bull's-eye," he says matter-of-factly.
The routine of shooting a rifle -- of breathing, holding, pulling -- brings to mind a yoga class. The whole experience is oddly peaceful. It's easy to forget that rifle practice is preparation for killing animals. The back-slapping, beer-guzzling swagger you might associate with hunters also seems a world away. Hunters who take classes, whether they're male or female, tend not to be the "bozos with guns"; the majority of these hunters eat what they kill, with gusto and respect.
Still, to derive pleasure from the pursuit and slaughter of a warm-blooded animal strikes many as barbaric. It also strikes most people as masculine. But in a world where much of the packaged meat in supermarkets comes from animals raised under wretched conditions, it's not easy to condemn the act of felling a deer that has lived its life out in the wild. The ethics, like the gender dynamics, are not so black-and-white.
My guide this weekend is Ellie Horowitz, the chief of information and education at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Compact, energetic, with short white hair, she is the kind of effusive person who will insist, within minutes of meeting you, that you just must take a bite of her chocolate croissant, and in the same breath return to an anecdote about trapping squirrels and tagging them by lopping off their digits.
Horowitz also avoids the word "feminist" when she talks about Becoming an Outdoorswoman, but she clearly believes that BOW exists to overcome certain inequities. One of them is that women are taught "never to be idle." Instead, she says, they are brought up to work -- in the home, in their careers, in their communities. But men are taught to play, and their sense of entitlement makes it easier for them to relax into a sense of connection with the outdoors.
One of the ways BOW goes about instilling a connection with the outdoors in women, Horowitz says, is by cultivating a noncompetitive, supportive environment. "We try to make sure they know that you don't have to be good to have fun," she says.
In archery class, the overall atmosphere is indeed supportive. Archery, which might seem less macho than rifle shooting, is actually much harder. We all whoop it up whenever someone else scores, but we don't stop putting pressure on ourselves -- 20-year-old Carabeth Connolly, an art student at Massachusetts College of Art, offers words of encouragement to her neighbors, then declares emphatically, "I suck!"
Archery strains generally unused back muscles. It can be hard to keep your arm steady after the third or fourth shot. But no one shows any signs of stopping, or even slacking off. "Takes practice," says instructor Jake Jacobs, whenever he catches the slightest frown of frustration.
I ask him how long it takes to get good at this. "Well," he says, "my wife is more serious about it than I am. I just do it for fun. But when she started, she learned in about a year. She was out there practicing every night. Then she won the state championship."
Jake's wife, Joyce Jacobs, is also an instructor, and she's not the only one who's driven: one of the angling instructors is rumored to have lost his wife because he was so married to catching striped bass. But to me, it seems that I'd have to work hard to make this even a hobby, as Jake has. All the outdoor activities taught at BOW do take work -- time, money, commitment. It's not easy to convey the satisfaction and the rush of mastery in an introductory session, especially to an audience predisposed to finding these skills foreign and difficult. And the point of the weekend, for me, is the novelty of it all. Until I meet Paul Caruso.
Caruso is a wiry and energetic man in a pink shirt, braided belt, and aviator sunglasses, with a pale mustache that makes him look like Paul Newman. He hides a receding hairline with a beat-up, olive-colored Fisheries cap. A biologist for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, Caruso is teaching us to surf cast.
Standing at the center of our attentive semicircle, Caruso asks us about our past fishing experience. I used to cast, proudly, with an orange plastic Snoopy fishing rod. I even have memories, if slightly ambivalent ones, of catching my first fish -- a small, pale animal that whacked itself violently against the boulder we were sitting on before I threw it back in. But I take one glance at the back of Caruso's truck full of lures, tackle boxes, six-foot rods, and other equipment that I cannot name, and decide to say that I've never touched a rod.
Caruso starts by talking about ideal fishing outfits: waders, fleece, slickers, hats, sunscreen, sunglasses. (The longer you spend at an outdoorswomen's weekend, the more you realize that this is not just a lifestyle, it's an excuse for a new wardrobe.) He continues, discoursing on the importance of flashlights, bug spray, surf bags, and sand spikes. Then he launches into lures: bucktail jigs, white lures, colored lures, diving plugs, surface plugs with pork rind -- marinated, dyed slivers of pig skin that give the lure "color and action." Whipping a rod to imitate fighting a bluefish, he skims over different strengths of line. He talks about trolling with live eel. It is completely absorbing.
Finally, Arlene Gibson from Vermont, a plainspoken grandmother who has her blue pants tucked into her socks, holds a rod while Caruso uses her as a model to demonstrate the act of casting. He explains how to keep from getting your line snarled. Gibson has fly-fishing experience, which puts her ahead of most of us. Caruso shows us that if you reel the line in with too much slack, it gets tangled. "Yeah," Gibson adds helpfully. "And then your husband cusses at ya."
We head to the beach. Caruso points to a distant buoy as though he's calling the corner pocket. He squares his hips, turns sideways, and lashes the lure out over the water. His lure plunks down right next to the buoy. "Release the line at 9:30," he says. "You've gotta aim."
He spreads us out at a safe distance from each other along the water. I raise an eyebrow at Caruso while he shows me how to flip the latch on the reel. He smiles, tells me I'm going to be his best student, and steps back to watch me cast.
Caruso is a biologist who fishes. My mother is a biologist who used to fish every once in a while. The similarities end there, but nonetheless, something in the surf-casting lesson triggers memories of fishing when I was a kid. At age eight, in a wooden lodge high in California's Trinity Alps, I breakfasted on a grilled trout pulled fresh from the glacial runoff. At BOW, with my sneakers slipping in the sand, this all comes back to me. Fishing had been filed away with other outdoor childhood memories, collecting dust in the back of my mind with kick-the-can and capture-the-flag.
I find myself realizing that, somewhere along the line, I had come to associate fishing -- the grown-up version -- with a tweedy appreciation of trout, discussed over martinis at the college alumni club. But now I am imagining how it would feel to aim for the eddies where the sandbar meets the current. With Caruso in front of me explaining the importance of a well-stocked surf bag, I can suddenly envision spending the several hundred dollars that it takes to buy the average guided fishing excursion. Anything to feel the pull of a fat, shining bass at the end of my line. Anything for another trout breakfast. I'd even like to try "conking a nasty little critter" of a bluefish on the head, as Caruso puts it. The feel of the exertion and the memory of the taste of fish now seem inseparable from the irresistible notion that my efforts might put a bluefish on the table. It's intoxicating.
There's no trout breakfast at BOW, but we do have fish for dinner. Over herb-encrusted salmon and prime rib au jus with pasta salad, I speak with a wide range of women. Wendy runs a medical taxi transport company and can't stand those newfangled nose rings; Lee Roscoe works for Cape Outdoor Discovery and calls herself "of the flower-child generation." She gives me a broadside of her own poetry.
The majority of the women I speak with have husbands who hunt or fish. A relative stranger to NRA-sponsored events, I feel that I should ask these women how they feel about the gun lobby and the Second Amendment, or about animal rights. But the hours of shared effort, combined with the petits-fours and coffee, have created a strong undercurrent of acceptance that I don't want to disrupt. The tacit understanding is that we are all here to learn to hunt and fish and camp and nothing more. Politics would seem rude.
When a group of us are in line for coffee, I ask why they chose an all-women event, and the women joke about not having to impress anyone. One-on-one, however, they tend to admit that they are in fact more at ease in a single-sex environment. The lack of politics contributes to that sense of ease. As Nanette Citron Schwartz, a ruddy woman of 50, puts it: "I've made friends here who are on the opposite sides of a lot of different issues."
Politics in its conventional form rears its head only once during the weekend. A storyteller whose stage name is Norbert Twitchell has been hired to provide the evening's entertainment. With a soft, fire-engine-red hat flopping in his eyes, he smacks his lips and launches into a routine of mildly off-color farmer jokes delivered in a broad Maine accent. He uses the names of people in the audience. In the middle of a punchline having something to do with a loud fart, one BOW participant across the room springs up, almost knocking over her chair.
"I'm offended," she says. She points at Twitchell. "I won't hear this. This is offensive -- this is degrading to women." She stalks out and slams the door. Twitchell takes a step back, blinking. A murmur of disapproval rises from around the room, along with a swell of half-voiced reassurance for Twitchell.
"At least she felt comfortable expressing herself," says Wendy later.
"Yeah," says Kelly, a schoolteacher from Hyannisport, "but she should have just gone up to Ellie afterward."
The disruption is particularly jarring in the ideologically neutral environment of BOW. There are a number of outdoors programs, in New England and across the country, that do focus specifically on boosting girls' self-esteem through outdoor education, but none of their brochures are distributed here. Horowitz says, in so many words, that they avoid "anything political."
"I don't see us, or myself as an individual, as being militant about any of this stuff. We're being open, making things available that were unavailable. We will attract a great variety of women. Some of them will style themselves as feminist with a capital F, others will not."
When I ask if she would consider BOW to be empowering for women, Horowitz says, "Yes. Empowering is the way I would prefer to see it."
Founder Christine Thomas insists that BOW came about as a response "to an almost academic question" -- do women have or want these skills? -- and had no agenda beyond getting more people to care about the woods.
"Am I now passionate about women having an opportunity to do these things? Absolutely," she says. "How I got to this being a passion was teaching in the workshops, seeing people make actual personal transformations over the course of a weekend. That's the rush, seeing someone who doesn't know how to do something, who may even be afraid of something, come to the point in the space of three days where they're self-confident and excited, and raring to go out and try a lot of new things."
It's no surprise that the person who's most adamant about the non-feminist nature of this program is Melinda Bridges, the manager of women's issues for the National Rifle Association. Of the NRA's sponsorship of BOW, she says: "It's just an activity that we wanted to introduce women to."
She is not being disingenuous. The overall number of hunting licenses has gone down slightly in recent years, and women represent the only real growth segment. Hunters spent $20.6 billion in 1996, according to Bridges, and only 10 percent of those hunters were women. If all the male hunters get their wives to take up hunting, well, that's another $20 billion for the gun industry. The NRA has even launched its own series of "ladies only" shoots, with 50 events last year and more planned for this year, including an all-woman feral-pig hunt in Virginia.
To be fair, the NRA isn't allowed to propagandize at BOW (although Federal Ammunition was allowed to fly a banner). There are no Second Amendment brochures, just as there are no brochures for women's organizations. Most of the information that BOW leaves you with is about where to buy gear and take lessons, how to find other BOW participants, and when the tide is coming in. It's all strictly practical, skill-based, and useful. But in a world where these particular skills are still passed down largely from father to son, and from good ol' boy to good ol' boy, every woman who leaves BOW feeling authorized to buy a compass or a sleeping bag or a surf-casting rod is swimming against the current -- in what she practices, if not in what she preaches.
Sometimes political is as political does.
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