Female Competitive Woodchoppers Are Axing Gender Stereotypes

"I remember one person saying to their husband, 'If she beats you, don't you bother coming home.'"

by Sophie Barclay
May 18 2017, 3:20pm

All photos by Cinzia Jonathan

Ever since settlers arrived in their boatloads and set about taming the wild, forested hills of New Zealand, wood-chopping has muscled its way into Kiwi culture.

Nowhere is this more concentrated than the Agricultural and Pastoral show (A&P), a rural gathering where all things farm-related are celebrated—and the crème de la crème of agricultural athletes are put to the test.

According to local legend, the first competitive woodchopping match in New Zealand was held in a pub, organized to settle a booze-fuelled, campfire bet. Now, annual competitions are held up and down the country, with axe-wielders hacking through former tree trunks that can cost upwards of $5,000 [$3,448 USD].

Do we get the recognition? I think not.

As sports go, woodchopping is probably the most stereotypically gendered of them all, comprised largely of muscled, sweaty, bearded dudes. Peppered among the axemen, however, are an increasing number of axewomen, who love wood-chopping for its strength-building capacity, rich history, and the support network that comes along with being part of a club.

All photos by Cinzia Jonathan

Sheree Taylor (pictured above), 63, has both national and international awards to her name. She's been chopping and sawing for nearly 30 years, first introduced to the sport by her husband after she was injured playing netball.

She started competing internationally before the national female team was officially created, then back home she competed alongside men in the open races. She went through, by her own admission, a lot of "difficult and awkward times."

They just didn't really want a woman in their midst.

"I remember one person saying to their husband, 'If she beats you in the single sawing, don't you bother coming home.' I thought, I feel really sorry for him. I was also asked at one stage if I had men's genitals.

"My being there offended some of the guys, which I wasn't there to do. They just didn't really want a woman in their midst. Some of them were really good and supported me, [but] some of them didn't and they really made me feel quite uncomfortable.

"But in the end I thought, That's their problem, not mine. So I carried on with the sport."

Inspired by Sheree, more women started joining, and, 14 years ago she established what is now called the "Axeferns." The team has eight women from all over New Zealand, and is captained by Alma Wallace (pictured above), a dairy farmer who competes in her spare time.

"We're very proud and we train hard, just like any other athlete," says Alma. "Do we get the recognition? I think not. Do we deserve it? I think we do. We bring a lot to the table. We pull the crowds."

Read More: 'You Can't Deny Us': The Artists Showcasing the Power of Female Athletes

Darcell Apelu (pictured below) is 26-year old, half-Niuean, and has been competing for 12 years. Historically, says Darcell, women were viewed as token competitors within the sport. Competitions centred around men's events—except for the "Jack and Jill Saw" competition, where husbands would drag up their unsuspecting, and often formally-attired, wives to saw through a log with them.

"There's always this idea that women competing is a novelty and that we don't take it as seriously as the guys," Darcell says. "But we pay just the same amount of money to get here, and we pay the same fees to chop."

Darcell is also an artist and a lecturer. With titles like Saw, Chop and New Zealand Axemen's Association: Women's Sub Committee President, her video works show Darcell cutting through blocks dressed in traditional Niuean clothing—reframing wood-chopping as a form of cultural dance. She also uses the sport in her artworks to explore perceptions of otherness, with each chop or saw cutting through "stereotypes about her perceived Pacific identity".

She hints at the sexism and homophobia within the sport, particularly among some of the older axemen. "We've had a lesbian couple that have been in the team, and sometimes that caused a few issues with some of the older axemen. It's very old-school.

"I also remember having an experience when I had just turned 16 and I was competing over in Sydney in the women's team," Darcell continues. "I thought, I'll go in the age-16 group and cut in the underhands [an open event], and have a go, but they didn't put me in with the other young guys. They said, 'You've got your women's events.'"

This disparity is also reflected in prize-money. The top women's event at the Rotorua A&P is $100 for first prize; two of the male competitions, on the other hand, award winners $1,000. This ultimately comes down to a lack of sponsorship, says Darcell.

The Axeferns have initiated a cadetship to encourage younger women coming through the ranks. Current cadet Mikhayla Tainui-Mclean was dragged into the sport by her partner Christopher, who also lent her his old gear (new axe heads retail at around $700, and saws between $2,200 and $2,500).

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Now in her third season, the 21-year-old and recent teaching graduate (pictured below) is proving to be a top athlete. She won the annual Achievement Prize at the Sydney Royal Easter Show 2016, awarded to female wood-choppers.

Donning her chainmail socks, essentially butcher's gloves worn over your feet to avoid injury, Mikhayla says that although wood-chopping is perceived as a "man's sport," most of the men are really supportive, as are most of the Axeferns' partners. "I think I had three guys come over to me yesterday saying 'Maybe try this,' 'Put your axe up like this,' 'Maybe cut your lines like this.'"

Once the day is over, the saws are brushed down and tucked in their cases and glinting axes are stored away in their boxes. But the women of wood-chopping aren't going anywhere. "We want respect," says Alma. "We earn it, we deserve it, we're very proud, and we've trained hard—just like any other athlete."

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