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.


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