When I asked a friend to name the first famous hunter they could think of, they replied ‘Ted Nugent’. When asked for the next, they replied: ‘Dick Cheney’. ‘George Bush’. ‘Teddy Roosevelt.’ And so on. What was and is very clear is that hunting has traditionally been associated with white1 men who are politically conservative. The mere sight of a liberal president shooting a gun creates a buzz. Plainly, liberals are not associated with hunting and many conservatives seem to like it that way. Lots of liberal groups actively distance themselves from hunting by either not supporting the activity or by denouncing it, turning hunting into a divisive political wedge issue. Must hunters be conservative and male? The simple answer is: ‘No’. There are very good reasons for both liberals and conservatives and men and women alike to support and take up hunting.
At its core, hunting is about procuring food for the table. Hunting should not be a politicized issue, any more than eating beef versus eating chicken is a politicized issue. There’s also no reason for hunting to be gendered in the 21st century. Yet, it is both politicized and gendered. I’d like to discuss a bit about why I think hunting has become both of these things, how the broader ideological and cultural divides surrounding hunting can present a real barrier to those who want to start hunting (especially liberals and women), and the reasons why we, regardless of political ideology or gender, should support — and even embrace — hunting.
Barriers to Becoming a Hunter
Feeling like an outsider is a real psychological barrier to starting any activity — but especially an activity with as much requisite background knowledge as hunting. If you want to learn to hunt, the best way is to befriend a hunter. This can be really difficult if you either don’t know any hunters because your social networks don’t overlap with theirs or if the hunters that you do know don’t share your values. Unfortunately, the way the hunting identity has evolved, many Americans have reason to feel like outsiders looking in.
Guns and Politics
Guns, guns, guns. Guns are certainly part of hunting, but unfortunately ‘gun culture’, which is conceptually distinct from hunting, has been melded into a stereotypical part of hunting culture. I wanted to avoid talking about the NRA in this post, saving the topic for another day. However, when it comes to the politicization of hunting, there is simply no avoiding the lobbying behemoth that is the NRA. And the NRA is all about guns, specifically it claims to be and is “the foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.” Because most hunters use guns to kill their quarry, hunting and guns are intimately linked. But, guns also are used to kill people. Guns are used in war-zones, in quasi-war-zones like the streets of some city neighborhoods, in mass attacks, and in suicides. As a result, a lot of Americans have developed an ideological aversion — and in some cases fear — of guns. That the NRA stridently promotes guns while also claiming the de-facto authority to represent hunters and hunting seems to be a big turnoff for many would-be hunters.
While a detailed discussion of the evolution of my thoughts on gun control and the Second Amendment will have to wait for another day, I can succinctly say that I think the NRA does do some useful things in their Second Amendment work. However, I think that on-net, the NRA provides a disservice to hunting.
While the NRA helps to preserve access to guns, which are a vital tool for hunters, they have become not merely a gun-rights group. They have aligned themselves with political conservatism, ensuring that their protection of hunting is seen as a conservative imperative — and only a conservative imperative. The protection of hunting should be a conservative imperative but it should also be a liberal imperative. By being as openly politicized as they are, the NRA creates a cultural identity around hunting. If you’re not a conservative, you shouldn’t really like hunting. Supporting hunting means supporting unfettered access to guns, which means supporting tragic loss of human life. Or so goes the logic.
Yet, the NRA is not the only culprit in the politicization of hunting. Popular conservatives more broadly have all too often painted hunting as an activity not to be undertaken by liberals. And, all too often liberals use hunting as a tool to malign conservatives. And man, does the vitriol drip between the two groups when hunting is caught in the middle. Quotes like “I hope someday they open season on stupidity because I would like to see some uneducated liberals haning[sic] from our deer pole.” and “I truly would like to hunt the hunters and collect their heads for my freezer.” are far from uncommon comments around the web.
All this divide does is ensure that hunting is no longer considered an activity — as it should be — but instead turns hunting into an identity, full of concomitant values and beliefs. To hunt, you should ‘be a hunter’, and unfortunately that’s effectively come to mean ‘be a conservative who wants guns, guns, guns… everywhere’.
Men and Machismo
Something else often comes to mind when thinking about gun culture. While there are a few women that enjoy guns and shooting, the activity is dominated by men. And, though this is changing somewhat, hunting is also dominated by men. The notion of hunting as a predominantly male pursuit has existed for millennia. In most ancient hunter-gatherer societies, men did the hunting. They still do it — for the most part — today. However, this fact can be intimidating for women who would like to get into hunting. There’s really no reason that a woman can’t be an excellent hunter, and many women are quite proficient at the activity. However, there really aren’t many women-oriented hunting groups. A group of guys might get together to go hunting, just the guys. It’s a lot more rare for a group of women to do the same. Most women who hunt do so with their father, their brother, or their significant other — a man.
Yet, that hunting is dominated by men isn’t the real source of the barrier. It’s the specific culture that men have fostered around hunting, one designed to amplify the maleness of the activity to hyperbolic proportions. Hunting is all that is man, or so it seems many hunters would have you believe. Hunters should be hardcore, tough, macho, muscle-bound warriors intent on the kill. Their chest hair should be flowing out the top of their shirts, intermingling with their hearty beard. Think Paul Bunyan mixed with Daniel Boone and you’re getting close.
The underlying message: if you aren’t one of these types of men, or a woman who seeks to mirror manly virtues, hunting is not for you. Discussions about compassion, empathy, understanding… these are not cornerstones of the male hunting culture, though I think they should be. The simple fact that hunting is male-dominated need not be a barrier to women joining in. However, the notion that hunters have to espouse the hypermasculinity that seems indelibly linked to hunting certainly provides an insurmountable obstacle for some.
Negative Hunter Stereotypes
This image of the herculean hunter contrasts starkly with the — exaggerated — conception of hunters themselves by many non hunters. Stereotypes abound of hunters as fat, lazy, inconsiderate, rude, stupid, and backwards. These stereotypes, correct in some instances but inaccurate in most, are an extra barrier for prospective hunters. A related stereotype of hunters is that of the cruel heartless “murderer”. Why wouldn’t someone want to join an activity associated with such lovely adjectives? You may ask yourself, what would people think of me if I became a hunter, tacitly linked with these characteristics? I had and still have similar concerns. If my colleagues learn that I hunt, will they consciously or subconsciously link me to the negative stereotypes associated with hunters? While this certainly could happen, in all cases thus far I’ve found little evidence that taking up hunting has caused people I know to think negatively, especially once they learn of the thought process that led me to hunt.
Finally, I’ve noticed that another barrier to hunting might be found in the fervent religiosity that many hunters link with their hunt. ‘God gave man dominion over nature; man is not part of nature, but instead is exercising his right to lord over it as a hunter.’ I think this is a somewhat common notion among conservative hunters especially. It also can be off-putting to those who come from a less religiously fervent background. It’s again an instance of ideology linked to an activity; if you don’t share that ideology, then maybe the activity isn’t for you. I don’t think this is the case at all: religious and non-religious alike should be able to find hunting enjoyable.
Reasons to Embrace Hunting
Hunting is many things. It is a way to commune with nature. It is a way to gain woodsy skills. It is a way to provide food for one’s family. It’s a way to eat meat that wasn’t raised in an inhumane environment. It’s a way to understand intimately the death that is concomitant with carnivory. It’s a way to continue to uphold traditional values. And it’s a way to develop new values. Because hunting is just an activity, it is what you make it to be. There are reasons for people from almost every ideology and background to hunt, to learn to hunt, or to support hunting. The reasons that conservative men hunt are well-known, but less frequently discussed are the good reasons for why women and liberals should also hunt.
Progressive reasons for hunting abound. First, hunting — through the dollars hunters pay to state fish and wildlife agencies — supports most of the animal and habitat conservation efforts nationwide. Environmental integrity through the preservation of habitat has liberal written all over it. Environmentalists often refer to hunting as an ‘extractive’ activity — typically derogatorily. And it is. However, the simple fact is that in many cases the habitat that hunters extract animals from would not exist if it were not for hunters. Hunters and environmentalists have a lot in common, though they might not like to think so.
Second, the progressive local and organic food movements have given rise to a new generation of thoughtful eaters, those focused on knowing how, by whom, and where their food was grown or raised. Hunting animals that live on public land will satisfy these requirements. I’d say that responsible hunting is about as direct and suffering-free as animal consumption can get.
Third, by becoming hunters, progressives will have a more convincing say in some of the less progressive aspects of hunting. For example, I support a ban on lead ammunition in hunting (as long as manufacturers will make decent non-lead ammo available). It’s a smart environmental move. However, the majority of hunters oppose a ban on lead in hunting, thinking it’s yet another way for state governments to curtail their ability to shoot and hunt. If non-lead options aren’t widely available, there is certainly some merit to this argument. However, all too often hunters claim that there aren’t any negative repercussions of lead ammunition on the environment, a scientifically dubious claim. Having progressives hunt also could lead to pressure for more sustainable land management and for a greater push to understand how climate change will alter habitats and wildlife. Though climate change poses the largest threat to the continuity of hunting in this century, it seems most hunters have at best low levels of concern and at worst denial of the problem. (There are a few exceptions.)
Fourth, by hunting, the progressive person is taking a small step to disassociate any particular ideology or background with hunting. Many of the barriers I listed above are broken down by the people who choose to overcome them.
It is not uncommon for women to take up hunting so that they can enjoy the activity with a family member. A woman may want to spend more time with her father, or her brother, or her male partner. Getting out into the woods hunting, especially when those men spend significant chunks of their time hunting, is a particularly good way to do that.
Other women take up hunting precisely because it is seen as a sport for tough men, something women shouldn’t be good at. Outperforming or keeping up with the guys is appealing. Certainly there are some expert women hunters, and they are exceptional indeed. Though I think that what makes them seem so exceptional owes more to an incorrect expectation — that women should be bad at hunting — than to personal prowess. If more women hunted, seeing good female hunters should be as common as seeing good male hunters.
Yet, I think there are other reasons for women to take up hunting, reasons that are rarely cited as justification for taking up the activity. One of the main reasons should be — in my opinion at least — to strip away the machismo too commonly associated with hunting. All people can hunt, even and especially if they aren’t stoic, mustachioed brutes. Hunting involves the killing of other sentient beings. This act can be done coldly, or even hostilely. However, I think it’s best that the act of killing for food be conducted with compassion, with empathy, and with reflection — traditionally feminine characteristics. These values do not need to be jettisoned in order to hunt. On the contrary, I think that they enable the type of hunting that just about everyone can support. The femininity of women is exactly why more women should hunt.2
In order to bring new hunters into hunting, a few things have to happen — both on the parts of current hunters and prospective hunters. Hunters should realize that the continuance of hunting in America is fully dependent on recruiting new hunters into the activity. If hunting continues to be solely a tradition handed down from father to son, political support will eventually wane, and our ability to hunt may eventually disappear. Demographic forecasts for America in 2050 leave white male conservatives as an even smaller minority of the population. And while most people do support hunting for meat, ardent anti-hunters are working hard to change that fact. Hunting needs new hunters.
In order to ease new hunters into hunting, current hunters need to start to tear down the cultural barriers that prohibit new hunters from wanting to join the ranks of hunters. If you’re conservative, be conservative. But remember that hunting itself need not be a conservative-only activity. If you’re a man, and you’re the tough stoic type, remember that while toughness is a useful value to a hunter, hunters don’t need to be tough to be successful. Compassion and emotional connection to the hunted animal are very important parts of the hunting experience. If you’ve got a religious connection to your hunt, realize that this need not be the case for everyone. More than anything, being open and helpful when asked for advice is critical. You’re in possession of valuable information that is hard to glean by the outsider. Share your tips and experience with anyone who is curious.
For those who feel they ‘don’t fit in’ with the hunting identity as it has evolved, I’d like to emphasize that it is totally possible to learn how to hunt without having a mentor… the internet is a beautiful thing. And, hopefully, this website can help you along that path by distilling the information we’ve gleaned from all over the web into one place. Simply put, don’t let ‘not fitting in’ be a barrier between you and hunting. Find one of your friends who also is interested in learning to hunt and do it together. It can be intimidating at first, but becoming a hunter in adulthood is totally doable.
So, if you’re a prospective hunter, let me know if there are any other cultural or ideological barriers to becoming a hunter that I’ve missed1. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts!
A reader recounted a number of other reasons why she and other women enjoy to hunt. These include an affinity for tracking the animal, gaining a sense of self-reliance from the outdoors, and expanding her comfort zones. I’d add in that these benefits are likely to accrue to both genders and are certainly important additions to the list of reasons ‘why to hunt’. Our reader also suggested a few books that prospective hunters interested in the above topics might like to read:
- A Different Angle – Fly Fishing Stores by Women – Holly Morris
- Reel Women – The World of Women Who Fish – Lyla Foggia
- Women on Hunting – Pam Houston
- I recognize that race is likely a large player in the cultural divide between stereotypical hunters and non-hunters in America. Hunting is associated with white conservative men, after all. The racial and ethnic barriers to becoming a hunter are something that ought to be addressed in detail. If you would be interesting in writing a guest post on this topic, please let us know! ↩ ↩
- “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” is the generic title of many state-wide programs offered to prospective female hunters. I’m not the only one that has realized the barriers to women learning to hunt. From what I’ve heard, these programs can be quite useful to women just starting out. However, I think many (most?) of the volunteers that run these programs are still men. It’d be great to see a broad, in-person, women-taught-by-women introduction to hunting. ↩