Hunting and Shooting Industry Targets Women for the 'Sarah Palin Effect'

PHOTOS: Seen here is 19-year old hunting enthusiast Regis Giles.PlayCourtesy Stacy Pearsall
WATCH Hunting: Not Just for Men

As the key household decision makers, women are increasingly the target of marketing efforts from the food, clothing and health industries. The gun and hunting industry, formerly a man's domain, is no longer the exception.

More women than men took up hunting in the United States in 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Total hunters in the United States decreased by .05 percent, but the number of female hunters increased 5.4 percent, which led to 163,000 new hunters.

It was unclear how much that is translating into dollar bills for the already huge hunting industry. Retail purchases in the hunting industry totaled $25 billion in 2007, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

"Women are buying more handguns, rifles, shotguns. We are the market for the future," said Judy Rhodes, co-founder of Diva -- WOW (Women Outdoors Worldwide), a women's shooting and outdoors sporting organization.

The number of women who hunted rose to 3,204,000 in 2009 from 3,041,000 in 2008, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Women made up 16.4 percent of the total number of hunters, 19,445,000, in 2009.

That number is bound to grow with more organizations like Diva, according to Larry Whiteley, communications manager with Bass Pro Shops, one of the largest sporting goods stores in the countries. He said female customers have grown significantly in the past three or four years but he could not reveal actual figures because Bass Pro Shops is a private company.

Whiteley said more organizations that educate women and media coverage of hunting -- shows like Swamp People on the History Channel -- have contributed to those growing numbers.

"In the past, it's been a men's sport," said Whiteley, who said Bass Pro Shops has added several women's categories in hunting and fishing. "The women saw how much men enjoyed it and wanted to try it themselves. They started joining with their female friends."

When asked if the growing visibility of Sarah Palin and her enthusiasm for hunting is a factor in the sport's growing popularity, Rhodes said she and other women can relate to Palin because, like the former governor, they have been hunting since childhood. A self-proclaimed "rancher's daughter" from Texas, Rhodes received her first BB gun at the age of four.

No Stereotypes for the Female Huntress

While hunting is not new to Rhodes or many women around the country, she recognizes that hunting has traditionally been a man's sport. After fundraising for several nonprofit groups in Texas, including the Dallas Opera, Rhodes realized there was no organization for women and the outdoors.

When she started her organization in 1999 with her husband's support, she said there was a large amount of skepticism from men that has since diminished. She noted that the word "diva" hardly was used outside of the world of opera back then.

"When I talked to men's organizations and told them our name, they said, 'Oh, good Lord. Sure, you're a diva,'" she said with a laugh.

For the most part, she said, men were accepting of the organization but it took about six years to be recognized as a true force in hunting circles. Rhodes said the organization steadily has grown because many women, as social beings, tend to talk about their activities and invite others. There are now 1,500 members in her organization.

"For every woman we brought to the sport, she brought seven," said Rhodes. "And a man still has same hunting partner from childhood through his 70s."

Her group's mission, in part, is to "support, encourage, and teach women and youth the benefits and enjoyment of shooting and outdoor sporting activities in a woman-friendly and non-threatening environment."

Now, Rhodes said, when women from Diva walk through the halls of Shot Show, the biggest gun show in the country, people in their booths and vendors have chanted "diva."

"That was such a big deal. They get it," said Rhodes. "We're not just your typical women. We're Texas women. We wear bling. We're a little louder than usual, and boastful. In Texas, it's tall tales, tall women, big hats, big hair."

Cheryl Long, the group's communications director, said except for Rhodes, the organization is run completely by volunteers, including her, and its members come from all backgrounds.

"We're all different ages, ballerinas, doctors, attorneys, housewives, nurses, retirees," said Long. "There's no stereotype that fits. I'm a girl and I'm petite. I like nice clothes and nice things. I don't like to go rough it. The Holiday Inn is roughing it for me."

Hottest Hunter in America

And younger women are entering the shooting fray as well.

Regis Giles, a 19-year-old college student in Miami, has never competed in a shooting competition but was called one of America's "hottest hunters" by the Daily Mail.

Giles, studying business as a sophomore, started building a brand, "Girls Just Want to Have Guns," complete with mugs, t-shirts and other apparel featuring a heart and pistol. Her own television show is in the works with Pursuit Channel, which is scheduled to air in spring 2011.

Called "Primal Urge," Giles said it will be a weekly hunting and fishing show. She added that she will use different types of weapons and host guests such as hunting newcomers and her family and friends.

Giles, who calls herself a conservationist and a believer in the Second Amendment, tries to practice the "fair chase hunt," in which a hunter does not have an improper advantage over an animal. For example, she has introduced female friends who have never hunted to hunting hogs with spears.

"They absolutely loved it," said Giles. "They were smiling from ear to ear their first time."

Sporting and hunting companies are trying to keep up with the growing segment of women. Apparel is an area in which both large and small operations have become more aggressive and entrepreneurial with women.

Kirstie Pike started Prois Hunting and Field Apparel for Women in Gunnison, Colo., with her husband in 2008.

"Basically, I became frustrated that there were no women's hunting clothes that were performance-driven and athletic," said Pike, adding there were mostly were cotton goods that were ineffective in the elements. "We decided to go after that market and have had great success in doing so."

Pike said sales more than doubled in 2010 and, this year to date, Prois has seen 400 percent sales growth. Prois sells its merchandise online and through sporting retail outlets such as Bass Pro Shops. She said the company has expanded sales into Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Sarah Palin Effect for Conservation

Pike said there is huge potential in the female hunting customer segment, though she is not sure their number will match men's.

"But you are seeing more and more women enter the sport in baby steps, then start to take on new types of weapons, firearms and new species to hunt," Pike said.

She said such expansion includes women joining competitive shooting in archery, pistol and trap sports.

When asked if there the "Sarah Palin Effect" exists, Pike agreed Palin has influenced women in hunting.

However, she was not sure to what degree Palin has become an unintended recruiter for women in hunting.

"I do think Sarah Palin adds a new dimension to the hunting and shooting sports arenas," said Pike. "I believe that any woman can look at her and think, 'I can do that. I can be that,' because she promotes hunting in a way that is without bravado."

Pike and Rhodes said they agree with Palin's approach to hunting through a conservation perspective and the idea of harvesting meat.

"We eat this food every day," said Rhodes. "We're not just trophy hunters. I call myself a social shooter."

Rhodes said she has been to Africa 19 times, but she has never shot an elephant or lion.

"I didn't care to do that. I don't condemn anyone that does," said Rhodes. "I love looking at pictures in homes and applaud them. I have a whole house full of trophies. I'm not into awards. I'm into teaching the next woman that's learning to shoot and be a part of the outdoors."