As the firstborn of a sonless outdoors addict, I was raised on hunting. When other kids were learning their barnyard animals, I was practicing gobbles and grunts. I thought every basement was covered in mounts and all girls accompanied their dads to deer camp.
Although my dad always treated me like a perfectly capable hunter, many people didn't. And while I've arrowed deer and hiked the same mountains as the boys, I've still been on the receiving end of patronizing comments in pro shops.
But times — and the bowhunting landscape — are changing. I now work in the archery industry, and I'm proud to count plenty of accomplished and respected female bowhunters among my peers.
By the Numbers
The National Sporting Goods Association reported growth in female bowhunters from 500,000 in 2004 to 800,000 in 2009 — a 60 percent increase. And that number continues to climb. According to a 2016 study by the Archery Trade Association, women comprised 36 percent of all archery participants in the United States — up from 22 percent in 2014. Females also account for 16 percent of all active bowhunters, according to the ATA.
On the Big Screen
In March 2012, The Hunger Games hit theatres, and protagonist Katniss Everdeen catapulted bow-toting heroines into pop culture. Throughout the film — the first of a series based on the fictional trilogy by Suzanne Collins — Katniss uses her bowhunting prowess to provide food for her family and survive while battling her opponents in the "games." Just a few months after the debut of The Hunger Games, Disney released Brave, featuring Merida — the bowfishing antithesis of the typical Disney princess. Merida defies tradition and defeats her suitors in an archery competition to avoid betrothal.
According to the ATA's Teresa Johnson, this is when people began to not only accept archery — and bowhunting women — but expect it in pop culture.
According to a 2014 ATA study, 48 percent of women who increased their archery participation cited family involvement as the driving factor, compared to just 20 percent of men. Bowhunting provides the opportunity to spend quality time with family while sourcing field-to-fork meals — two priorities for many women in the United States.
Organizations such as the ATA and Shoot Like a Girl are working to eliminate barriers to entry for female bowhunters — primarily through education. The ATA's recently launched Bowhunting 360 website provides answers to questions bowhunting newbies are often afraid to ask. According to Johnson, the program demystifies the sport and offers the basic know-how needed to get started.
One misconception education clears up is that bowhunters must possess great strength. Because many states have a legal minimum draw weight — typically 35 or 40 pounds — many women believe they aren't physically capable of having success in the field. For mothers who express this concern, Shoot Like a Girl founder Karen Butler likens drawing a bow to swinging a kid onto your hip — something most moms do dozens of times each day. Through "test flights" — free pop-up events that include a live archery range — Butler's organization introduces women to archery in a controlled environment where they can draw and shoot several bows.
Hold the Pink
The team at ATA also credits the advancement in bowhunting equipment and apparel for women as a contributing factor to increased female participation and recognizes that the industry is only now learning how to market to this growing subset.
In recent years, manufacturers have developed gear designed from the ground up with women in mind, and many female bowhunters are bucking the trend of cosmetic differentiators such as turquoise logos and pink trim. Sitka Gear's new-for-2017 Whitetail and Big-Game lines are not only tailored to the female frame, they also feature advanced technologies based on the unique way a woman's body moves and performs in extreme temperatures. Sitka worked with female designers and hunters to ensure the line is truly functional for women.
Several manufacturers are also refining the approach to women's compound bows. Lighter setups, shorter axle-to-axle lengths and lower draw weights are all making bowhunting more accessible to the typically smaller sex. Industry giants such as Mathews are incorporating flagship technology into dedicated female bows so women don't have to sacrifice performance to choose a size-appropriate rig.
Here to Stay
The ATA's McAninch believes the surge in women bowhunting isn't temporary — it's a cultural shift. "Some of this growth is due to continued innovation and better equipment and apparel for women, but there's also an element of women feeling welcomed into the great outdoors to hunt with family and friends," he said. "Our future market trend analyses all point toward women becoming a bigger and more stable part of our bowhunting market."
From customized education to dedicated gear, the sport is becoming more accessible to women. With women now starring in bowhunting TV shows and partnering with leading manufacturers, new female bowhunters no longer need to search far and wide for strong, positive role models. And this is great for the industry.
Whether you'd like to introduce a loved one to archery or you're interested in trying your own luck bowhunting, take advantage of the available resources and help the sport grow. It's not just for the boys anymore.