Seeing women in a hunting camp these days is not at all uncommon. It happens so regularly, in fact, that their male counterparts simply accept the female member of the party as just “one of the guys”. Indeed, bowhunting is one of our truly gender-neutral sports.
One might assume this is the result of living in enlightened times when women have successfully broken one more barrier into what was once exclusively a man’s domain. But if you do a little research, you’ll find that there’s been no feminist bowhunting revolution. This becomes apparent when you talk to the old-timers as well as when you browse through archery magazines from their time. Both will mention women at camp with no hint that it was in the least bit unusual.
Not only were women accepted into the ranks; they were encouraged. Wesley Blundell, a well known Michigan bowhunter, and his wife Alma were a good example. The Blundells hunted together every fall, and reading between the lines of Wesley’s accounts, he had to work hard to keep up with his wife.
In the fall of ’49, they went on a two-week hunting trip with another couple they had met only a few months previously. The relationship started when Wes’s friend Russ brought his girl friend Catherine over to Wes’s shop to get a new bowstring. Russ was teaching her how to shoot and the Blundell’s suggested taking some practice shots in the back yard with a “beautiful 35# laminate which was strung up and set down near her quite accidentally”.
“After seeing how Cathy snap-shot that laminate,” Wes related, “we told her she had the makings of a good deer hunter.”
When she complained that she couldn’t pull a bow heavy enough to shoot a deer, Wes offered to make her a hunting bow that she could handle if she practiced hard for a month. She did practice, and became quite proficient with it. When opening weekend finally arrived, the ladies were as pumped up as the men.
“It was Alma,”Wes reported, “who was the first to jump out of bed when the alarm went off. Then she opened the tent flap and called ‘Daylight in the swamp. All deer hunters pile out – you can’t shoot a deer in bed’.”
That same morning Alma filled the party’s first tag. Her husband was still scouting for a good place to put a blind when his wife whistled for him. Wes went looking for her and, “There stood Alma with her sleeves rolled up and a small deer dressed out”
Alma had taken the deer with a frontal shot at 38 yards. She hit it in the neck and it dropped on the spot. When her slightly jealous husband remarked about its size, she pointed out that she had passed up smaller deer the previous season, and then never filled her tag.
Before the trip was over, Cathy, the neophyte, had also hung a deer and there was quite a celebration in the camp.
In Ernest “Undershot” Willsher’s account of a hunt back in ’45, he tells how party member Hazel White grabbed the wrong bow in the darkness and spent the morning on stand with her husband’s 70# Osage, which she couldn’t pull, while her husband Harry, armed with Olive’s 46# and his mismatched arrows, had to let several deer go by without shooting. The next day Undershot’s wife had her chance.
“Olive, who up to that time had not even seen a buck and who was deer hunting for the first time, showed remarkable control when a spike horn caught her eye about twenty feet away. She sat still, even as the deer turned and ran through the brush, each watching the other. She shot as he came into the clear forty yards away, but the arrow fell short. “Teddy Bear of the Christmas Tree Blind” as we call her now, thinks deer hunting with the bow holds plenty of fascination and on the way home she began laying plans for next year.”
Euretha Schomaker, on the other hand, was no beginner to bowhunting. She was the state champion field archer and also the first woman in Michigan to bag a deer. On a trip to their former home state of California, she and her husband, Oliver, heard about hunting mountain lions in Utah.
“Visiting Stew Foster at his custom jewelry shop in Los Angeles in April, 1946” Oliver recounted, “my wife Euretha and I were entranced with a bow and arrow lion hunting yarn. Stew really poured on the drama. He told us how their party of four were lucky to come back alive after killing four lions with bow and arrows and how they took a beating from the horseback riding.
“ ‘You’ve gotta be a rugged individual to stand this lion hunting ordeal,’ said Stew.
“Reth’s first question to Stew was ‘Can we make reservations for this trip and to whom do we write?’”
When Foster suggested that such a trip might be a little too rough for a lady, she replied: “The rougher the better. If the horses can stand it, I can.”
When the dogs treed the first lion, the three hunters drew from a deck of cards to see who would have the honors. Reth’s nine of clubs earned her the privilege. Without further ado, she put a couple of arrows into the treed tom and became the first woman in the United States to bag a cougar with a bow.
Other than Stew Foster’s “gentlemanly warning” about the rigors of the trip, there is no other hint of patronization or other indication that she was something special.
Another lady lion killer was Edith Siemel. If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because her husband was Sasha Siemel, the famous jaguar hunter who killed eleven of the dangerous cats with arrows and another 29 with a spear.
They lived in Brazil’s Matto Grosso jungle where they raised their two children and hunted. Edith’s first attempt at taking a cougar with her bow was botched by her native hunter who, after Edith had made a killing shot with her arrow, blasted the beast with a rifle for good measure. On her next attempt the native was instructed to leave his gun with the horses and Edith took her second lion with a shot to the heart.
She is almost apologetic, however, for not killing a jaguar instead of a lion, writing: “Mountain lions we do not consider really big game since they never have the courage and strength of the jaguar.
“I have my hopes set for more big cat hunting with a bow” she concluded “I’m seriously planning to make Sasha stay at home and look after the children while I go out and try my luck alone. Some day I must catch up with his record of eleven jaguars killed with arrows.”
One might get the idea from reading such accounts that lady bowhunters were all descendants of the Greek Amazons, that mythological breed of rugged female hunters and warriors. An account by Anne Keenan, though, shows that her feminine side was never far from the surface. In the story of her hunt, published in the February, 1949 issue of Archery, she freely admits weeping after arrowing a nice buck.
“I didn’t hear the bowstring when I released it, but I did hear the thud of the arrow as it struck home. I’ll never forget the sound it made. The buck took two or three steps before the blood started and as it spread, all semblance of an Indian left me as tears spurted down my cheeks – I was again a woman. I dimly remembered being told to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes before following a wounded deer, and tried vainly to light one but gave up after half a dozen attempts.”
Anne’s deer was soon found but unlike Alma Blundell, she left the cleaning chores to other members of her party. She stood by as “the boys began the gruesome job of dressing it out”, and her distinct lack of blood lust once again became apparent.
“When the knife was plunged into the belly, my helping days were over and I hung over the proverbial rail as Jeanne helped Rial hold the legs and clean out the inwards.”
But when it was all over Anne was elated at her accomplishment, and afterwards claimed light-heartedly that as a successful woman archer, “People stare at me and small children point, men grind their teeth in envy and riflemen vow to shoot me because I killed one of their bucks.”
When I began my research, I assumed that the first females to break into the ranks were something of a novelty and were treated as such; that rather than coming along as hunting partners, they would have been relegated to cooking for the guys until they gradually learned the ropes. If that view seems sexist one must remember that gender roles in post-war America were very different than they are today. Men were the ones who hunted while women stayed home and baked pies.
Perhaps the reason why bowhunting was an exception to the rule is that at the time the sport was starting to becoming popular, women were already well established in both field and target archery. It was only natural that they take a step farther and become members of hunting camps, too. Although men were usually the first ones bitten by the bowhunting bug, when their wives, girlfriends, or sisters saw how much fun the guys were having, they wanted to get in on the action too and nobody could come up with a good reason not to include them. As a result, bowhunting was never a masculine sport with a he-man aura surrounding it. Nor was it ever an exclusive club that women had to break into.
The fact is that they were already among the charter members.