Interview: "Life Itself Is a Risky Process" A professor explains why she needs to hunt By Reed McManus
TELL MARY ZEISS STANGE THAT SHE SHOOTS like a girl and she'll take no offense. A Western hunter and rancher who is also an associate professor of religion and women's studies at Skidmore College in New York, Stange understands female hunters--she calls them "Mother Nature's daughters"--from scholarly and boots-in-the-brush perspectives. Author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997), Stange believes that women can play a pivotal role in building alliances between hunters and environmentalists. Sierra caught up with Stange as she settled in for the summer at the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch in Ekalaka, Montana, which she has owned with her husband, Doug, for 20 years.
Sierra: What interest do hunters have in conservation?
Mary Zeiss Stange: People who hunt spend a lot of time in the wild, on the ground, observing what's going on. I'm not talking about people who hang out of a truck looking for an animal to shoot. [Hunters] do their homework, study animal populations, scout hunting areas. They read the signs, not all of them terribly positive, about the pressures on wildlife. They have an emotional and a psychological investment, and that is becoming an ecological investment as well.
Here in southeastern Montana, there is an enormous amount of energy development, particularly coalbed methane. This places pressure on game populations, such as the sage grouse and the pronghorn antelope. The issue cuts across political lines. A person doesn't have to be terribly environmentally aware to be concerned that there's a sharp drop in the numbers of huntable species.
Sierra: Are women hunters' motivations the same as men's?
Stange: Women hunt for essentially the same reason that men do: to get more in touch with nature and to get more in touch with their food source. If you look at the various threats to our food supply these days, it's nice to know exactly how that meat got onto your table.
But there are some differences. Women are generally less concerned with competition and trophyism. (Although we've got a couple of very nice heads on our living-room wall that I put there.) And women are somewhat more concerned about hunter-safety issues. Every firearm-safety instructor will tell you they'd rather work with women than with men. It's because women don't bring all this masculine symbolic baggage to the shooting range with them. Because they are aware of the stereotypes they are breaking, and also because women tend to come to hunting as adults rather than as children--the typical male pathway--women tend to approach this ethically fraught activity with their moral systems already in place.
Sierra: How were you introduced to hunting?
Stange: I married into it. I fell in love with a man who is a lifelong hunter. I was raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, and believed a good day's hunting was accomplished shopping at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus.
Sierra: What do women bring to the hunting conversation?
Stange: It's parallel to what women bring to the environmental conversation. Go back a generation and almost everybody who was talking about environmentalism--especially on the theoretical or political level--were men. Factoring out Rachel Carson and one or two others, you had a male-dominated conversation just as if you had gone to a hunting lodge.
But that's changed, in part because of what's going on at the grassroots level. It's been women from Love Canal forward--women who have been involved in the environmental movement as activists, concerned about their own safety and the safety of their families--that have really brought energy and expertise to the environmental conversation.
Sierra: How do you explain the differences between men's and women's approaches to hunting?
Stange: Even before I became a hunter, I was fascinated by the Greek goddess Artemis, whom the Romans called Diana. One thing that struck me was that the goddess of hunting is also the goddess of childbirth. What do taking life and giving birth have to do with each other? They put you immediately in touch with the fact that everything that lives does so because other things die. Life itself is a risky process. Certainly one of those moments is childbirth. Another is the decision to take the life of a big, beautiful, sentient animal so that you can feed yourself and your family.
Sierra: Death and killing aren't everyday topics.
Stange: We are a death-denying society. We don't like death to happen publicly--whether it's the death of a loved one or of whatever animal that is going to be feeding us. If they understood what goes on in a factory farm or a feedlot or a slaughterhouse, most people would think seriously, if not about eating meat, at least about whether they want to buy meat at such cost to animals and human health. Those animals can only survive the feedlot to get to the slaughterhouse by being heavily medicated, eating an unnatural diet, and living in miserable conditions. We're shielded from that in this society.
It's often said that hunting is an intellectually honest way to be a meat eater. I began hunting in part because I thought if I can't at least imagine being actively involved in creating meat, then I don't have any business eating it. Because of industrial agriculture's impacts on wildlife, you can't opt out of your responsibility for the death of sentient beings by simply declaring yourself a vegetarian or vegan.
Sierra: Is it possible to gain hunting's insights from bloodless outdoor pursuits?
Stange: Hunting is a way of being more fully engaged. I'm being what I was designed to be, which is, among other things, an omnivorous predator. You hear people talk about "hunting with a camera." Why isn't a picture enough? The engagement of observing is different from engagement in the life-death-life process.
There's also something troubling about the attitude a lot of people bring to the woods or the shore that it's possible to simply visit nature. We evolved there. That distinction between nonhuman nature and humans is a difficult one. Hunting disallows making that distinction. You are part of the process.
Sierra: Besides a female perspective, what can women hunters bring to conservation efforts?
Stange: Numbers, money, and votes. The number of men hunters has been declining, but the American hunting population has been holding relatively steady because of an influx of women hunters.
An activity like hunting is a way to talk about conservation that transcends not only gender boundaries but also class and political boundaries. When I was researching my book, I hung out with very conservative Christian, Republican women whose politics were 180 degrees from mine. But we had great conversations because of our shared passion for the activity and the environment. The passion and commitment that women hunters bring to their engagement with the natural world could be very educational for nonhunters.