Book Excerpt: How Hunting Turned Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne Into A Feminist
What exactly does it take for a woman to embrace the idea of being a feminist? Two of our favorite writers, Courtney E. Martin (who wrote Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) and J. Courtney Sullivan (the lady who brought us Commencement), have joined forces to answer this question. In their awesome new anthology Click: Young Women On The Moments They Knew They Were Feminists, the Courtneys have collected essays from 30 young, female writers. After the jump, read one of them—Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne’s description of how hunting made her realize she was the f-word.
“Killing in the Name Of”
By Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne
For the men in my family, one’s eleventh birthday was a momentous occasion. At that age, the state of Tennessee considered a child old enough to hold a firearm to his shoulder, squeeze the trigger, and kill an animal. Girls weren’t excluded from this rite in any strict, statutory respect, but, in practice, eleven was just another birthday for the female children of Tennessee. As the state goes, the family goes. Pictures of my older brother holding his first deer, shot when he was eleven, adorned our house—the deer’s blood smeared down his forehead and nose in a testosterone-fueled rite of passage.
My father was a small-town lawyer who sometimes got paid in old trucks or dental visits. He remains one of the best-read people I’ve ever met, as well as a devoted hunter. In the style of Southern gentlemen of old, he is Atticus Finch and Larry the Cable Guy all rolled into one charming package. He’d grown up hunting and continues to hunt every year—and not just deer. He also hunts quail, turkey, pheasant, and even elk. We had grown up eating the fruits of his hobby, and my brothers could barely wait for their chance to join him.
What was never imagined was that the girls might want to come along. My sister, four years older than me, had allowed her chance to pass blithely by and the men thought I’d do the same. My younger brother was already included in eager conversations about his first hunt. It was assumed that he would hunt. And I would not.
Growing up in a family with four kids, you become acutely aware of what is or is not yours. “Mine. Don’t Steal” might well be the motto for my life, much to the dismay of my husband (mine, don’t steal)—a man who is committed to the principles of sharing, particularly of food. In this hunting discussion, the men had taken my answer for granted, without bothering to ask. They had stolen MY opportunity. I was furious.
“I want to go hunting,” I said at the next conversation about my younger brother’s impending eligibility to go kill stuff, a few months before my eleventh birthday. My brothers laughed so hard they fell out of their chairs. It was preposterous, inconceivable, that I, a girl, would ask to mar their man time.
“You can’t do that!” they cried, united against the affront to their masculinity.
“I want to,” I said. My father, who, unlike my brothers, understood the need for sensitivity where the feelings of women were concerned, merely nodded his head.
“You know, there is a class you have to take,” he said. The hunter safety course. I knew I had to pass it to get a license.
“And the guns are heavy. You’ll have to lift it on your own,” he said. I nodded again. If they thought my little brother could do it in a year or two, then I would be strong enough, come hell or high water.
“And there will be blood, Elizabeth,” my father said. I rolled my eyes at that one and stuck out my chin defiantly.
“I want to do it. I want to go hunting,” I said.
The boys kept up their mockery for months, but my dad soon realized that I was serious. He found a class, looked up the days for the youth hunt, and was as encouraging to me as he had been for my older brother, albeit in a quieter fashion.
The hunter safety classes were held over several evenings in the local high school. The first night, I walked into the room and ran into a veritable wall of camouflage, as if at any moment these men and boys expected to be called upon to brave the wilds of our company town in pursuit of animals in need of killing. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, and got more than a few looks that plainly wondered if I’d gotten lost on the way to the sewing class that was also offered that night.
We spent the nights going over basic safety lessons designed to keep us from killing ourselves and others. We learned how to recognize a loaded weapon, how to engage and disengage the safety, how to climb into and out of a tree stand (a platform up in the trees, fifteen feet off the ground) without blowing our heads off, along with some vague hunter ethics and training in marksmanship. The last consisted of teaching us, via a cardboard cutout of a deer, that the best place to shoot one was right behind the deer’s shoulder. A bullet in that spot will go through a deer’s heart, killing it instantly.
There was also a live practice day out on the shooting range. Of the twenty or so odd guns my father owned at the time, he brought a Winchester .30-30 rifle, the same one I’d be using the day of my hunt. I’d gone out to the range before, but there had never been so much on the line.
My first shot was atrocious—only God knows where that one went. I lowered the butt of the gun to the ground and clasped my right shoulder. I felt the gun’s kick reverberating through my shoulder to the top of my head down to my waist. For a four-foot, seven-inch girl, a rifle packs a powerful punch.
As I gripped my shoulder, aching with a pain I’d never before felt, I felt a trickle of fear. What if I was wrong? What if a girl, this girl, couldn’t do it? What had I gotten myself into?
Then my brothers’ faces, mid-laugh, came to mind. My stomach flashed hot with anger, and I gritted my teeth and hoisted the gun to my shoulder again. I was ready. The kick hurt even worse this time, but I didn’t let my grip slip for a minute. The bullet sliced through the target a couple hundred yards away, a perfect shot.
The day of the hunt finally arrived. At four AM, to hide my scent from the deer, I took a shower with no-scent soap and dressed in thick long johns, all freshly laundered in no-scent soap. I could hear my brothers snoring as my dad made coffee downstairs. We packed the guns into the back of our old Suburban and stowed the two thermoses, one loaded with coffee for my dad, the other full of my mom’s hot chocolate for me.
We stopped at Hardee’s for breakfast. Full of camo-dressed grizzled old men and their sons and grandsons, the restaurant was the only place open early enough to accommodate the hunters’ need to get into the woods before the sun rose and the deer emerged from the undergrowth where they’d bedded down the night before. I yawned over my biscuits and gravy and smiled shyly at the boys, all of whom looked as nervous as I felt.
In the dark, we drove out on the highway to the next county. I was too nervous to talk, and too afraid to say something stupid or wrong on this, the most important of mornings. I wondered what my brother had talked about on the drive to his first hunt. Was there some pre-hunt bloodlust conversation that I, as a girl, had no idea how to initiate?
We pulled onto a gravel road and puttered our way up, passing hundreds of maples tumbling down the hill toward the river, their branches empty, and the ground carpeted in the warm brown of rotting leaves. Dad had been hunting this spot for years now and knew exactly where to pull off. In the predawn chill, I pulled on my brother’s hand-me-down bibs, rolled them up at the ankles, and tucked them into my boots and socks. As a last step, I applied one of the world’s foulest smelling substances, red-fox pee, to my boots—more attempts to camouflage our very human scent. Finally, we were ready.
My dad walked down the shoulder of the road and stood beside the barbed wire fence. I followed him, my heart starting to pound louder and louder. We scooted underneath the fence and set off into the woods. After twenty minutes of walking, Dad stopped and pointed up. There, fifteen feet off the ground, was the tree stand.
Dad motioned for me to go up first. I climbed up the pieces of wood he’d nailed to the tree’s trunk, a handmade ladder, perfectly proportioned for him, but spaced a little widely for an eleven-year-old girl. Just as I was starting to get scared, I pushed my head through the little cut-out in the platform and hauled myself up. Dad followed. We sat on plastic milk crates, arranged boxes of bullets, thermoses, deer grunt, and a knife on the floor around us, and settled in to wait.
In my months of preparation, I’d learned Tennessee’s hunting laws, how to shoot, and how to tell my brothers to shove it in eleven-year-old language. What I hadn’t prepared myself for was the activity that comprises the bulk of hunting—freezing your ass off. My toes went numb first, then my fingers, and then my core. But I was tough. I wasn’t going to wimp out. I waited until I saw Dad take a sip of his coffee before I made a careful move to my own thermos. But the hot chocolate, as good as it was, just reminded me of all that I was missing by putting myself on this stupid mission—namely being asleep in a warm bed. As the sun rose around us, I found my head nodding over my gun.
Suddenly, there was a crack from the woods around us, a branch breaking under the weight of an animal. A few minutes later, a doe stepped out of the underbrush, and began to delicately lip through the leaves, searching for the acorns underneath.
In the youth hunt, you are allowed to kill both bucks and does, and so my dad nodded at me, giving me the go-ahead. I wonder now if he would have done the same for my brother, or held his arm back when he lifted the gun, indicating he should wait for a buck to come through. I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t give it a second’s thought. This was my deer.
I was no longer cold or numb as I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and took aim. I took a breath and slid the safety catch off with my thumb. I smiled nervously at my dad and then turned back to the deer, my face overtaken by a look of grim determination. This was it. This was my moment to stake my claim as the first female hunter in our family. I aimed for just behind the deer’s shoulder, right where we’d been taught, and took a breath.
I squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out. The deer fell where she stood.
I burst into tears.
My dad, used to the whoops and hollers of my older brother, had no idea what to do with those tears. I knew this wasn’t what I was supposed to do and tried to stop, but I couldn’t help it.
“You did great, Elizabeth!” my dad said. “You got it. It was a great shot.” And still, I cried.
“What’s wrong? It was perfect,” he said, his face clouded with confusion and concern.
Perhaps this is the hazard of hunting with girls: we cry when we succeed. Or maybe it’s just me.
Finally, I wiped my face with my glove, sniffed so loudly any deer within a two-mile vicinity heard it, and followed my dad down the ladder. By the time my feet hit the ground, I had papered over my guilt with excitement. I’d killed my first deer. I’d proved my brothers wrong. Dead wrong, in fact. If I’d embarrassed myself by crying, then so be it. They couldn’t ignore the facts: girls can hunt.
I skipped over to my deer and turned to face my father with a huge smile. “I’m going to call her Lucrenda,” I said. The look on his face suggested that naming the dead animal wasn’t a usual practice, but I didn’t care. I had killed a deer to prove a point, and the least I could do was give her a name. I felt like Bastian in The NeverEnding Story, naming the empress.
It had been a perfect shot, right through her left shoulder blade. Her pink tongue stuck out slightly between her thin black lips. Full of excitement and pride, I stared down at my prize, watching as the cool wind dried the liquid that lubricated her eyes, the life literally fading from them.
I became a gun-toting, camo-wearing eleven-year-old feminist the day I decided that I was going to do exactly what men told me I could not. But in the days after my hunt, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucrenda. I had expected glee or at least satisfaction. But the look on my brothers’ faces when I came home with Lucrenda didn’t make me feel as good as I had thought it would.
That’s the thing about proving a point—once done, you sometimes realize it wasn’t worth much. In my pig-headed determination to show the boys that girls can do anything they can, I hadn’t ever thought about whether it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to prove them wrong, but did I want to kill to do it?
The point I had really proved was that I had allowed myself to be defined by what the boys said I couldn’t do, rather than by what I wanted to do.
I accompanied my little brother and dad on a hunt the next year, where I basked in the tepid sun over East Tennessee’s rolling hills and drank hot chocolate. On my final hunt, the last time I’ve been in a tree stand, I did all the parts of hunting I liked, and none that I didn’t. It was a perfect day.