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The History of Female Hunters

Although hot pink pistols and Katniss Everdeen are relatively recent phenomena, women have been hunting since the days the Neanderthals roamed the earth.

by Eliza Brooke
Nov 2 2015, 6:15pm

Photo by Leander Nardin via Stocksy

Of the many beautifully staged moments in Mad Men, only one made it onto my Facebook page as a cover photo. It's a still from a closing scene in season one, in which Betty Draper, dressed in a diaphanous nightgown with her hair smoothly curled, feeds her children breakfast, does her family's laundry, and strolls onto the front lawn with a BB gun to shoot down her boorish neighbor's pet pigeons.

Women, like men, kill animals for a variety of reasons: sustenance, sport, an unshakable sense of mid-century discontent. In honor of the fall hunting seasons currently underway (or soon to be), we're taking a look back at the various lives of huntresses, from the practical shooters who hunt to feed their families to those with a feminist agenda.

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Feminism Killed the Neanderthal Star

In 2006, two University of Arizona researchers, Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner, published an article in Current Anthropology suggesting a possible reason for the extinction of the Neanderthals roughly 40,000 years ago: Females hunted.

"Typical!" someone on the internet is thinking. "Women ruin everything, yet again." The theory, spelled out in layman's terms by the New York Times, is that hunting big game animals, as the Neanderthals were wont to do, is dangerous; females, with their strong bodies, probably pitched in. (Kids did, too.) The problem is that this consistently put the future of the species in a precarious situation, and one that might have led to their collective demise. Modern-day humans, on the other hand, were more into hunting and gathering. Presented with diverse sources of food, they divided labor by sex, helping to ensure that the group's baby mamas didn't get trampled by wild bison.

But that's not to say that women haven't historically been hunters.

Sculpture of Diana (Artemis) with doe at Sanssouci, Steffen Heilfort. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Don't Be a Dirtbag

Before we handle that cliffhanger, let's make a pit stop to talk about non-human ladies and hunting. Female hunting deities pop up across a number of cultures—Egyptian, Norse, Inuit—and while some of them are understood to be capable huntresses themselves, they often serve as a sort of regulatory bureau for human hunters.

The best-known goddess in this category would be Artemis, the virginal Greek figure who is both a predator and a protector of animals. In an essay titled "Artemis: Goddess of Conservation," J. Donald Hughes argues that Artemis was an iteration of "the mistress of game," an archetype dating back to as early as the Paleolithic period. (Her Roman counterpart is called Diana.)

I can only take the deer's life because its meat will nourish my own.

"The mistress of game was believed to protect wild animals in general, or certain species," Hughes writes. "And to exact retribution from hunters in case of improper injury or killing."

Not over-hunting is pretty much common sense if you rely on meat as a food source, but it's good to have divine punishment hanging over your head if you're the forgetful sort. According to some versions of the huntsman Orion's mythology, Artemis sent a big old scorpion to kill him after he suggested that he could slay all the living creatures on earth.

Read more: Shooting Women: Artist Shelley Calton Photographs Ladies with Guns

Depending on past grievances, goddesses might also flat-out deny animals to human hunters. Take, for instance, Sedna, the Baffinland Inuit deity who sent sea mammals up to the surface to give themselves over to people as food from her underwater home. Like Artemis, who is sometimes depicted in sculpture laying a protective hand on an animal at her side, Sedna required the local humans to demonstrate a certain level of empathy towards animals. According to George Sabo III and Deborah Rowland Sabo, writing in Arctic Anthropology in 1985, seals' souls were thought to remain with their bodies for three days after they were killed, a period of time during which disregard to certain taboos could result in Sedna sending the hunter "sickness, bad weather, and starvation." Though the specific ways of pissing off hunting deities varies, the message is fairly similar: Don't be a dirtbag. Respect the wildlife.

Annie Oakley in 1888. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Shooting in the Public Eye

Perhaps the best-known gunwoman in the history of the United States is Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860. Though she's known for her career as an exhibition shooter, Oakley maintained a lifelong love of hunting, having first started using guns to bring home game for her family. In the biography The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, Glenda Riley writes that Oakley was vocal about her preference for hunting over commercial shooting, which she described in 1900 as merely "a matter of business."

By Oakley's time, a pioneering spirit and the image of the hunter had helped to define the nation's identity, and though many women on the frontier certainly knew how to use a gun, it was typically a masculine pursuit. "Given the patriarchal social structures that shaped American society, those women who did venture afield, whether with the men in their lives or with other women, were more often than not judged by most of their peers to be displaying 'eccentricity of conduct,'" writes Mary Zeiss Stange in the essay "Women and Hunting in the West."

But Oakley helped open up the world of shooting to women, owing in part to carefully managing her public image. As she engaged in typically male activities, Oakley maintained an air of femininity and Victorian formality, dressing in modest, elegant skirts and electing to ride horses sidesaddle. She came off as charming and unassuming, making her more palatable to anyone who might doubt that women should be traveling the country and performing shooting tricks.

Screengrab via The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 trailer

Hunting and Modern-Day Feminism

As Amy Fitzgerald points out in her essay, "The Emergence of the Figure of 'Woman-the-Hunter:' Equality or Complicity in Oppression?" hunting remained a male-dominated pastime for much longer than many other sports. In the 1990s, however, the number of female hunters in the US roughly doubled to two million, and women went from representing three percent of the total hunting population to over ten percent. Mary Zeiss Stange and Carol K. Oyster note in their book Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America that gun manufacturers in the 80s had started marketing heavily toward a female customer—one with an increasing amount of disposable income—and released models designed specifically for women.

Stange and Oyster are hunters themselves, as well as feminists. They make that clear in the introduction to their book, the stated purpose of which is to bring the millions of women who own guns into the public eye and to demonstrate the ways owning and using firearms has benefited them. They're also seeking to cast gun-friendliness in a new light, believing that the media at large hasn't been fair to organizations like the NRA.

"It is, in fact, possible to be politically progressive and vigorously pro-gun, just as it is possible to be politically conservative and determinedly pro-choice. Yet most people, whether scholars or laypersons, like to equate gun owning with conservatism, and feminism with liberalism," Stange and Oyster write.

One might argue that women gaining equality with men in the sport of hunting not only fails to challenge patriarchal ideology but may become complicit in the violence of the patriarchal system.

Both women hunt in part for sustenance. Oyster speaks of filling her family's freezer with venison. Stange gets a little more poetic: "I can only take the deer's life because its meat will nourish my own. I cannot afford to forget the responsibility I bear toward the animals who help keep me alive." When she started hunting in her mid-20s, she liked the reasoning that the activity is an "intellectually honest way of eating meat."

Of course, not all modern-day huntresses possess the same noble gloss, at least not in the public's eye. (Some do: See Jennifer Lawrence's soaring popular and critical success after playing young women who hunt to sustain their families in The Hunger Games and Winter's Bone.) Remember Kendall Jones, the Texas cheerleader who incited a wave of outrage last year after posting photos of herself holding big game animals she'd killed in Africa? How about Axelle Despiegelaere, the Belgian soccer fan who won a L'Oréal contract after being spotted in the crowd at the World Cup—and then had said deal yanked after posting a photo of a dead oryx she'd hunted?

Jones, at least, seems to be carrying on just fine. She's now selling T-shirts through her Facebook page, and they're emblazoned with slogans like, "I hunt, it's legal. Get over it."

Women as the future of hunting

In a 2005 essay titled "Obits for the Fallen Hunter: Reading the Decline—And Death?—of Hunting in America," Charles Bergman surveys a number of texts dealing with what many perceive to be a decline in status of hunters today. What had once helped fashion the United States' identity as a bold, heroic nation—after the Revolutionary War generally, and emphatically while Theodore Roosevelt was in office—now smacks of what some see as the country's failings: "its celebration of machismo, weaponry, and death."

"One might argue that women gaining equality with men in the sport of hunting not only fails to challenge patriarchal ideology but may become complicit in the violence of the patriarchal system," Amy Fitzgerald writes. In other words, some hope that women will rush in to revitalize hunting. Others aren't so sure they should.