I’m excited to be kicking off a new Q&A series on the blog! I’ll be interviewing women from all corners of the outdoors industry, and posting a new conversation about twice a month.
First up is author Laura Browder, whose most recent book, Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America was reviewed by F&S deputy editor David E. Petzal a few months ago. Released in 2006 and out in paperback in March, it’s a history of women and shooting from the interesting perspective of someone who is relatively new to guns.
Laura was happy to make time for the blog to talk about old ads, President Theodore Roosevelt, and turn of the century trap shooting.-K.H.
FSHUNTRESS: I understand you weren’t raised around guns. How did you first get interested in firearms, and what was your first experience of shooting a gun like?
LAURA BROWDER: Yes, I grew up in Providence, RI, where the guns laws are much stricter and where I was very ignorant of gun culture. Moving to Richmond, VA, was a real eye-opener. I guess my interest in guns began developing my first New Year’s Eve in my new home, when everyone on my block — kids, middle-aged homeowners, and even the senior citizens in the old folks home across the street — fired their weapons into the air at midnight. I quickly realized that I was no longer in New England — and that I had a lot to learn about guns and gun owners. When you grow up in a Northern city, it’s easy to demonize gun-owners. In Richmond, I began to realize that many of the people who I liked and respected a great deal were very attached to their guns. That’s when my research began.
The first time I shot a gun, I was incredibly nervous — it was such a taboo for me. I really enjoyed the adrenaline rush it gave me, though.
FS: What gave you the idea for this book?
LB: I started thinking about how closely gun ownership and American identity are tied together in our popular culture. Yet guns and masculinity are closely associated as well. So where did that leave women? When I began doing research, I had a couple of people ask me where I thought I was going to get enough material to write a whole book. On the contrary, the problem I had was in paring down the incredible wealth of stories I found about gun-toting women on both sides of the law.
FS: In your research, what were one or two of the most surprising things you learned about the history of women hunters?
LB: I was amazed to learn how popular hunting was among women at the turn of the twentieth century. If you look at gun ads from that period, many of them feature a woman out alone in the woods with a rifle and hunting dog. My website has some wonderful ads from this period. And I was surprised to learn that President Theodore Roosevelt publicly urged women to hunt — he saw it as a great antidote to the city living he thought was making women sickly and was weakening their characters.
FS: How have the ways in which advertisers market firearms to women changed over the decades?
LB: Advertising in the 1880s through the early part of the twentieth century assumed that women were competent with guns. Ads from the 1950s included women only as adoring bystanders, if at all. Then we got the bimbo ads of the 1960’s and 70’s. Since then, many gun ads have promoted the idea that good mothers and responsible single women needed guns to protect their families and themselves. My favorite ads really are those early ones, though. They even feature little girls out hunting — something I can’t say I have seen in any recent ad.
FS: What accounted for women’s enthusiasm for hunting and the shooting sports at the turn of the twentieth century?
LB: Actually, trap shooting was the first sport that was open to women and men on equal terms. In its early years, the National Rifle Association worked hard to change the image of shooting from a macho, drunken activity to something that anyone could enjoy. There were even all-female trapshooting clubs at that time. And hunting was seen as a great way to get some exercise and enjoy nature. Annie Oakley did a great deal to popularize shooting for women at the end of the nineteenth century.
FS: Do people tend to be surprised when they hear about that historic involvement?