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


  1. What a smart analysis of the constraints that still affect women, even women who want to be part of the fishing community. Let's hope the conversation continues because silencing it only sends women away...

  2. 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.

    1. Jason, thanks for the comment. My response wouldn't fit here, so I've posted it at the link below: