Friday, June 28, 2013

Dirty Little Secret? Jersey's Mixed Bag

East of the Delaware, there's a tight-lipped secret. Water, industry, sand, alcohol, Pine Barrens, history, fish and family mix together on the higher tides, and find their way into the minds of outsiders when the flow washes out. It can feel like an unregulated collapse of the social and natural worlds. But, I believe, there's order to this chaos.

Where other states work night and day to play teacher's pet--pumping pamphlets and promos about themselves, their this-and-thats, their sights and sounds, one stands alone in its resistance to fight such a silly battle. One state, by keeping quiet, receives the discursive trash. It accepts the stereotypes, the stigma, the put-downs, and the misconceptions. That's all alright...'cause it's full. The doors are only open because these doors are the kind that can't be shut. So you can wander in, but why would you? After all, you've heard the tales, seen the shows, and you're not interested.

There's the absurd vocal mimicry--"Get a kup of kwawfee!" "Put your shoe on, Shoown!" "Have a noice daaii!", there's the "real" (crazy) housewives, the casino capitalism of a phony-haired robber-baron that spawned a ridiculously impractical board game, the sasquatch that inspired a hockey team, the thousands of ghosts of prohibition-era territory wars, the pollution, and let's not forget about those gelled-hair hotties who tan their way down the shore. 

I've got news, and it's good, if you're like me: All of that is just what Jersey wants you think. Jersey don't fight back (make no mistake, the men and some of the women WILL FIGHT YOU BACK) against those thoughts because it knows something you don't. Even after Sandy--which ironically is a word that describes what all the waves look like right now due to beach restoration projects--the fish still swim in Jersey. There are so many fish. Striped bass, bluefish, flounder, weakfish, just to name the inshore slam glam... And they, like their human cohabitants, could care less if you're there. But if you show up, and you cause a stir, they will fight you. Thank goodness they will fight you. Because if you're here, you're here to fight. And someone has to end up with a bloody nose. 

The fishermen of the Jersey Shore have it good. No, it's not a fish on every cast--at least not on this tide, but maybe in an hour or two when it turns around. Tonight a worm hatch, tomorrow a shrimp hatch. When the world is convinced your backyard has nothing to offer, there's just more room for you to run around. And Jersey doesn't mind keeping it that way. 

And when you damned curious folks (like me) do persevere in your quest to stick your nose in their business, to find out if all those things are true, if they really talk funny, if their wives are "real" or crazy or have a name more appropriate for a Gulf Coast gamefish than a Yankee "gweedette," Jersey has a subtle strategy. On your way to the water, you'll have to get through the food--the hot, fresh, soft pretzels, the cheesesteaks, the cannoli's, the powder cream donuts, the sticky buns, the Italian ices, the saltwater taffy, and--oh my god--the pizza...

With so many obstacles, good luck finding the fish. Ooops...I mean, "there are no fish here." Just stay home, wherever that is. 

[P.S. If you go to NJ and want to uncover its secrets, I highly recommend Capt. Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service. Read his reports here.]

Monday, June 24, 2013

6 Things Men Can Do to Increase Gender Equality in Fishing

Last week saw a upswing of talk about women, men and gender inequality in flyfishing (you can read my responses here and here). It was pointed out that women are only 24% of anglers but 51% of the total population. The distribution might be even more men-dominant in industry jobs. Despite all the words written and good arguments made, the focus was on what women do, what they can do, and what they should do. There's another, important side to the gender equation--men. If men share responsibility for gender inequality, then they can and should make efforts to facilitate women's entry and participation in flyfishing. Thinking about some of the biggest difficulties for women within fishing, a number of changes men can make came to mind.

Here is a quick list of 6 things you dude (and women) readers can do right now (and everyday if you so wish) to increase gender equality in the outdoor world.

(1) Avoid immediately (and in most cases, ever) sexualizing/romanticizing female anglers (regardless of what pictures they post or clothes they choose to wear). A stubborn aspect of contemporary gender relations to overcome is that men still relate to women primarily in romantic/sexual ways, seeing them first and foremost as objects of desire (including evaluating the extent of their desirability). Instead, look to women anglers as fellow anglers first and bite your tongue about how hot she looks in that photo with the redfish. Yes, she's wearing a bikini top--people do that sometimes. Get over it.

(2) Don't immediately assume women know less about fishing, have less experience, or need more help than male anglers. When you see a woman in the fly shop, at a fishing show, or on the river, fight the assumption that you've been doing it longer or that she wants your help. I'm not saying she won't be friendly or that you shouldn't be friendly, but friendship is different than a student-teacher or father-daughter relationship, and adults shouldn't jump into these unequal forms early without a clear mutual understanding. Maybe it is the case that you have more expereince than her--but don't assume it. And don't make her prove her credentials.

(3) Similar to #2, don't speak condescendingly to female anglers. 'Talking down' to women is the enactment of your assumption that they know less and/or have a harder time learning than men. 

(4) Take your daughter(s) fishing as much as your son(s), and take her participation as seriously as sons'. It starts with you. Obviously, if she starts fishing early in her life, she may have the seeds to grow a deeper interest later. And research shows that even when dads do traditionally "manly" activities/sports with daughters, they often do not keep up with this over time as they assume it conflicts with daughters' interest in more 'feminine' things; whereas they are more rigorous with boys. So take her with you and keep at it through the years.

Photo courtesy of - no affiliation
(5) Include women in your fishing plans, trips, events, writings, etc. Keep women 'in the loop,' network with women, mentor women who aspire to careers in fishing, fish with women, and help women get their voices heard. Men as a group are still the primary gatekeepers to knowledge and jobs in fishing, so be sure to open the doors to women as you would to men. Is there a new "bar flies" fly-tying event in town? Invite a lady friend.

And, finally:
(6)  Speak up and fight back against sexist or exclusionary acts. Don't make women do all the work of fighting back--You can be a direct ally in instances where women anglers are being discouraged from participating in fishing or fishing culture. Is a magazine running chauvinist photo contests? Stop your subscription, write them a stern letter, or out them in a blog post. Did a fellow fisherman make a sexist joke about women who fish? Tell him that the joke is no good for our sport.
...but it'd be nice if you were an ally
Many of you are already doing these things, and that's awesome. Keep it up.  I'm not trying to claim that no one does this yet. And I'm not trying to take the fun out of fishing by being serious about this issue. But if your version of fun involves excluding or degrading entire groups of people, then yes, I'm suggesting you get rid of that "fun" for the sake of a more inclusive fishing world. Let's keep the enjoyment of fishing in the fishing itself, and all the fins, fair and foul weather, and friends that come along with it.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Women, Men, and The Everyday Politics of Fishing: A Response

The author of the controversial piece on "chicks with fly rods" commented on my response post the other day. I wanted to reply, but my reply wouldn't fit. So I thought it might be useful to post here for any other prying eyes or eager minds ;) 

Here's his comment:
"Dude- thanks for listening. That Facebook comment was way too long.
But seriously- are women seriously seeking gender equality through fly fishing? ??? Do the terms glass ceiling and equal pay for equal work ring any bells at all? If fly fishing is the battle line then the battle is lost. I get the greater context, but at the same time, if this is all we're worried about, then women's rights are in the stone age.
I made an intelligent argument- that gals who beat the drum too vigorously about being "girls who fish" face the corollary "even GIRls can fish". If they can't get that they are defeating themselves. And you have played into it. Congrats. Good luck on that PhD."

Here's my response: 

Thank you for reading at least some of this post, and thank you for asking questions. Perhaps that's where you should have started--asking questions, not by encouraging the censorship of women who bring up the issue of gender. Your post could have been a stimulating set of questions, but instead made a weak and problematic analysis from very little data. In fact, I and many others remain confused as to who all you were referring to in your post, because you keep adding women to your long-list of good-ones-I-should-have-mentioned, removing them from the pool of women who behave in the way that sparked your tirade. Femme Fatale Fly Fisher is the only one who emerged on the other side of this, and it is apparent that you are quoting her in your complaints. So we really only know of one case of which you disapprove despite your claim that she is “one of a dozen or more.”

And I want to say that I do not disagree with you that the women you say contribute greatly to the sport do contribute greatly to the sport. My biggest problem is with your solution, that is, telling women that they should leave gender out of it. Silence on the issue of gender does not make gender go away, and the problem of sexism falls primarily on men. You have not considered that the absence of gender in some women’s narratives and the mention of it in others might both be strategies for how to best deal with the problem of men’s domination of the sport.  I’ll also add that you have not dealt with the issue of the lifecourse--it seems like Joann Wulff was an attractive spectacle in her younger days, and it might be that today’s young attractive female anglers are not just good anglers but will go on to contribute greatly to the sport.  Second to that, I take issue with you being the one to deliver this message—a man trying control women.

Honestly, I am confused what your stance on gender inequality is. You seem to think highly of your argument that the mention that one is a girl who fishes (which April Vokey did in your interview of her, by the way, although you place her in your good pile) is susceptible to some hypothetical transformation into “even girls can fish,” which you see as sexist. But instead of fighting this sexism, by say discussing how it reinforces biological essentialism (look it up) and that’s why we should do away with gender in all facets of life (look up ‘queer theory’), you make the sexist move to defend the naturalness of men’s place in fishing and tell women to shut up and sneak in with fish pics.

In response to your questions, I'd first say you should ask women who fish that very question—are they seeking gender equality through flyfishing?. To give my own answer, based in both my experience with women in the flyfishing world and in my years of studying the social science literature on gender inequality, I'd say that flyfishing is just one of many fronts in which gender politics in culture and recreation are being fought. In fact, your post is evidence of that conflict. You have to first realize that not all political struggles are the well-organized, large-scale social movements you hear about; rather, everyday life is itself political through the multitude of actions, decisions, interactions, opportunities, and constraints on the basis of socially-defined categories such as gender, race, class, and more. This is what was meant by 2nd-wave feminists who wrote that "the personal is political." It is in this daily minutia that gender politics are played out. And, yes, I'm well aware of the "glass ceiling" and "equal work for equal pay," as evinced by my discussing those very issues in my post above. I am less sure how you are using them here--do you think that the mere development of these concepts in the 1970's equated to the eradication of gender inequality in the workplace? The glass ceiling is still alive and well, unfortunately, and women on average still do not make equal pay despite laws against discrimination. (Have you ever heard of the “glass escalator?” Look it up.) Inequality--both material (e.g. $$) and immaterial (e.g. respect, power, prestige)--continues to exist between men and women in the workplace, at home, and in recreation/sports. So yes, flyfishing is just one place where this often invisible and scattered "battle" is being fought. I still have men today tell me it's not a good idea to bring my wife fishing with me--they want to see the sport remain male-dominated so they have a homosocial (male-only) 'escape' from women. Why should this sport be men’s? Why do they feel so entitled to it? Similar issues arose when I interviewed and observed men for my Master's thesis about masculinity in fishing. Men would use fishing to get away from the house, where their wife was, and where she had some (shared) authority (this was one of several findings).

I don't belabor the point about gender inequality in order to make it seem that women are intrinsically inferior or to treat them as poor victims in need of men’s protection.  I am merely describing the current state of affairs, applying a context to the conversation. And I've even left some things out that might be relevant. But I do think that within this state of affairs, a sustained participation in a male-dominated sport that has men actively defending the masculinity of it comes with a host of obstacles and perhaps outright negative experiences for women.  These struggles make it more respectable that a woman fishes than the fact that a man takes it up.

Have you heard of “bargaining with patriarchy?” This concept originated to describe how women used aspects of their oppression to gain short-term or small-scale benefits in the context of larger-scale constraints on their power and agency (ability to act out of self-determination). For example, women may play up their sexiness to get free drinks form men or control the frequency of sex in a relationship in order to guide a male partner’s behavior (such as getting them to do more around the house). These strategies may reinforce ideas of women as sexual objects, but they also give women power within that context. It is easier than toppling the entire gender regime. And honestly, gender is so much of who we are that it also makes us feel good to be validated in that gender, even if we consciously want to revolt against gender inequality. Women may want to have waders that are also feminine (just like men like masculine waders), and they may put work into their image to look more womanly, sexy, what-have-you in order to get noticed (but consider also that men who make industry decisions turn these women into sexy products, too). 

Social issues are complex. As I alluded to above, our actions and words not only have political implications, they may have more than one implication that work against each other. This is “duplicity.” We make headway at the same time that we create new traps or use old traps to do so. Not every aspect of our participation can be revolutionary. Change, even revolutionary change, is slow and incremental. And flyfishing has been reformist at best, but oftentimes has stood idly by as women try to enter (e.g. Anglers Club of New York). Fortunately, things are starting to change. But let me ask, what do you think of women-only fly fishing groups? Are they sexist? Have you stopped to consider why they exist?

More importantly, you need to realize that your argument for the removal of language about gender is actually a gender-political act--one that reinforces the masculinity of the sport by suggesting everyone blend into the status quo, meaning that women disguise themselves as men. What else is the status quo but men, and particularly white men, in our 75% male sport? The simple censorship or removal of explicitly gendered language--such as the term "woman"--doesn't result in some gender-neutral reality. It just solidifies and makes invisible the entitlement of the dominant group to their position—of men to flyfishing and the outdoors in this case.

Realize that most of this is not about YOU. Sure, I am talking about men, a group to which you belong. But I am not talking about individuals. I am talking about groups, trends, and averages that may have implications for individuals. Likewise, I not just posting this stuff to respond to you. I am writing this to disseminate information and a perspective on the topic of gender in fishing.

Because you mentioned here and elsewhere that I brought up my educational credentials, let me ask you a rhetorical question. If you were going to fish a new body of water, would you rather fish with a guide, who is on the water day in and day out gathering and sorting through the tons of information to make the best predictions and is experienced in teaching people how to make use of that information, or some other angler who has simply seen some pictures of the body of water? I don't know your credentials on the issue of gender--all I know for sure is that you have a Facebook account and a blog, and I can guess that you've had some relationships with women. On the other hand, I spend hours daily reading empirical research about social life and especially about gender, and I have for the last 8 years. I've read thousands of pages of peer-reviewed scholarly analyses of nearly every facet of society from the individual to the organization to the country to the globe. I personally have done multiple research projects on gender including research involving fishing. I am qualified to speak on this issue. I don’t say these things to pat myself on the back, but to suggest that you should open yourself up to the possibility that I--or many others--might have something to teach you (and I usually get paid to teach, by the way). I have learned all of these lessons from women and men with far more experience than I have, and I’m still learning. But I learn by asking questions. I don't argue with Lefty Kreh about casting or April Vokey about BC steelhead--I listen and I grapple with putting the information into practice. Knowing where you are in the journey of understanding a topic is important. 

This isn’t about me, though. The goal here is to defend what is right, which is women’s right to express themselves how they wish and to keep matters of inequality from being hidden. In the process, it is also important to get the available knowledge out there, however lengthy and complex, so that all parties can make informed conclusions.  I disagree that the “battle is lost;” there is still ample time and momentum for things to change. And the best weaponry for change is knowledge.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why I Won't Shut Up About Gender in Fishing

 Well, it happened. I thought we were doing well. I thought, perhaps, fly anglers are enlightened and open-minded folks when it comes to gender. But, alas, not all of us are.

Two days ago, a popular fishing blogger (whose name and website I will not mention so as to not promote him) made a long rant about women in flyfishing. He argued, basically, that there are 2 kinds of women in flyfishing right now: (a) the bad ones--the young, model-looking, fashionable, ones that just popped up on the scene and occasionally mention that they are women; and (b) the good ones--the middle-aged and older women who originally broke the gender barriers of the sport and continue to out-cast and out-fish many men...and oh yea, and they don't flaunt that they are women. He went so far as to tell these young women (and I guess all women) to shut up about their gender.

While I offered a lengthy response in a Facebook comment to this blogger, he chose to ignore it for its length. I basically said that women face unequal constraints in both fishing and other realms of life, and that I didn't understand why he would use his time, effort, voice, and cyberspace to tell some women to shut up and ignore their gender. A great first blog response to all of this is this post by Dan Nelson of Adventures Northwest. In his response, Dan reminds us that women are 51% of the American population but only 24% of flyfishing participants (I showed something similar in this post from February). Perhaps more importantly, at the level of decision-making power in our industry, it may be even worse. A recent meeting of fishing editors was over 90% male.

As a sociologist PhD-in-training who has worked directly with some of the best gender scholars out there, I think several things are missing from this discussion. While I can't enumerate and elaborate on all of them here, I think the following are important.

1) It is usually those in privileged positions that say "hide all the categories," because to bring up the categories makes their privileged position more obvious, and therefore more precarious or susceptible to power struggles that might make them share the throne. Men, like the blogger in question, don't feel comfortable when an issue that gives them undeserved rewards is brought to light. The same goes for inequalities of race and socioeconomic class.

Men have gender, too, so men and masculinity should be brought into question. If we are all going to talk about the place of women and how women should behave, we should also talk about the place of men and how men should behave. WHY have men dominated flyfishing? Why do we still see an overrepresentation of men anglers in fishing media? Is men's gear not designed to appeal to men's fashions? Don't men have stupid photo poses that show how masculine they are?

 Gender-neutral language only hides the privilege/power of the dominant group--still today, that's men. The privileged category becomes the norm, so everyone else and their experience becomes the "other." THAT is a big reason why women's being a woman is so often mentioned--not because they simply want to flaunt it.

This is not yet a popular sight (found this on a French website), so I doubt the tables have completely turned.

2) Women and men still live different lives and face different constraints based on their gender category, which makes it valuable to mention that one is a woman or a man or intersex. I'll never say that all men have easy lives. They don't. Life for most everyone involves struggle, hard decisions, and day-in day-out work that often is not enjoyable and doesn't give us enough time to do what we love with who we love. But women face pressures that men don't, and men often get rewarded for things more easily than women do. Mountains of social science research continue to form confirming this.

We teach women these days they can be anything they want to be, but we still expect them to want husbands and children and to devote themselves dutifully to those things, which involves a lot of time, energy, emotions, and housekeeping. Fortunately, men are starting to pick up the slack when it comes to parenting and housekeeping. But we are not yet beyond the time of men's advantage at home or work, despite what some undereducated prospectors think. Women, especially mothers, still get less pay, less chance at/consideration for promotion, and are encouraged to work in female-dominated jobs that pay less than male-dominated ones, on average. Amidst these constraints, women still face accountability for their looks--they 'need' to look and act feminine, which involves countless hours and dollars spent on hair, makeup, skin treatments (lotion, pedicures, manicures), shaving, etc.

What does this have to do with fishing? Well, where do you think those flyfishing gals come from? They are our sisters, daughters, mothers, nieces, and aunts. They live in the same society that male anglers do, yet they face additional constraints.

3) Sexist acts are acts that reproduce or reinforce the existing unequal gender arrangement. Therefore, when someone says, "Girls kick ass," it is not sexist; instead, it is a tiny act of resistance against a system pitted against girls. Of course, girls and boys can both kick ass, so boys/men shouldn't feel so threatened by such a statement in the first place.

I'll wrap it up now...that's a lot to digest for a single post. In sum,  I don't think it's so terrible that there are women in flyfishing who state that they are women or are proud of being a woman. Being a woman is a lot of work for little pay. I do think it's terrible that some grumpy middle-aged white male fishing bloggers don't have empathy or any understanding of gender inequality and feel it's their place to tell women what to do. Gender doesn't disappear simply because we don't mention it. I'm glad we're talking about it.


P.S. See my follow-up post here