The language says it all. Fishermen are … men. Never mind that a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey reports that of 35.8 million anglers in the United States, 9.8 million, or 27 percent, are female. Even curmudgeons acknowledge the trend, which isn’t new at all. “Women are here to stay … in trout fishing as on the golf course and at the ballot box,” said Fred White, editor of the Anglers’ Club of New York Bulletin in the 1920s, adding: “They can wear my second-best waders any time.”
In fact, the history of women anglers precedes White’s grudging observation by at least three centuries. Joan Wulff, the czarina of fly-fishing — a woman who gave casting demonstrations in a gown and high heels, and flicked a cigarette out of Johnny Carson’s mouth on television with a single well-placed cast — said, “We are not starting from scratch; we have a heritage.”
In a conversation edited and condensed for clarity, fly angler Cathy Newman asked historian David McMurray, who has researched the subject, to unpack that heritage in its social context. McMurray, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, describes fishing there as focused on “typical prairie fare — walleye, pike, perch in the Oldman River as it runs through town.”
C.N. Let’s tackle the word fisherman.
What do you call a woman who fishes?
D.M. At first, I referred to women anglers in my articles. Then it became fisherwomen. Then it was simply angler. In 1898, The New York Times ran a story about “feminine Izaak Waltons.”
“I say I am a woman. Why do you not call me a fisherwoman?” a woman from New York asked the reporter.
The New York angler — who was never referred to by name — appears to be a remarkable woman. “When I die, this one rod is going with me in my coffin,” she said. You also cite Hannah Woolley, who wrote New and Excellent Secrets and Experiments in the Art of Angling, in her book The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight.
It’s an instructive guide published in 1675 and talks about techniques, bait and species. It’s egalitarian; it opens doors to women and says, You are going to fish for salmon.
This is in contrast to her near-contemporary Izaak Walton, who makes clear that noble fish such as salmon and trout were reserved for men.
Walton lumps women in with children and says they are good at fishing for minnows or sticklebacks — that is to say, baitfish. They are also useful for making flies because they are dexterous. The Compleat Angler (1653) confirms women are fishing, but they are to be in the service of men. It’s hard not to be anachronistic, but it’s a dismissive and patriarchal view.
Some question if Woolley actually wrote the guide that’s credited to her. Authorship of an even earlier work — Juliana Berners’ A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle published in 1496 — is also disputed. Happily, Joan Wulff challenges the naysayers: “What man would suggest [as Berners does] that to take care of hornets, bumblebees and wasps for bait one should bake them in bread?”
Wulff makes some astute observations. After all, why would you attribute their books to Woolley or Berners if they weren’t the real authors? It could just be a patriarchal reading. It still happens.
Wulff knows about patriarchy. Pioneering Florida Keys guide and angler Capt. Richard Stanczyk tells of taking her saltwater fly-fishing 30 years ago. He didn’t know who she was and was skeptical. When they got out on the water, he told his brother to line up the boat so he could show her how to cast. “I think I understand this,” she said, then fired out a 100-foot cast. Tell us about her predecessors, such as Sara Jane McBride (1845-1880), a pioneer in the use of entomology in fly-tying, who opened a tackle shop on Broadway.
McBride, a self-taught entomologist, learned to tie flies from her father, and researched the life cycles of aquatic insects. At a time when women were pushed aside in science, she is hatching insects in makeshift aquariums and saying that you need to study the environment and ecosystems specific to a geographic region — still a fairly new idea at the time.
How about Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, sports journalist and Maine’s first registered guide?
Crosby not only becomes an authority, but she also markets herself. The state of Maine sends her to set up a sports exposition at Madison Square Garden in 1895. Historian Thomas Verde describes how Crosby “awed the wide-eyed New Yorkers with her piscatorial prowess by repeatedly casting her rod over the tanks and getting strike after strike with a delicate turn of the wrist.” She also participated in the masculine world of politics; her efforts to promote conservation and guiding in Maine led to the creation of the state’s first licensing system for hunting and fishing guides.
You suggest that fishing granted women an agency and autonomy free of constraints that might otherwise apply — a “canopy of camouflage that allowed women to move beyond society’s restrictions on gender.”
Consider Mary Harvey Drummond, who went on a fishing trip at the end of the 19th century in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains and wrote about it for Rod & Gun in Canada. Her French Canadian guide tried to compliment her, noting that she could fish “better than some of les messieurs.” Drummond tartly replied, “Some of les messieurs can’t fish at all, can they?” In her article she writes: “We women of today talk much about our rights, and while our tongues wag, we are letting slip by us the very things we clamour for. In the woods of Canada, equality with our brothers and husbands awaits us, and a share in the sports that give health to body and mind.” It nicely sums up the agency that some women could find through fishing.
“A basic purpose of costume is to distinguish men from women,” Alison Lurie said in The Language of Clothes. What happens streamside? I’m thinking of the photograph of “Fly Rod” Crosby in a long skirt with a lap full of trout. Also the Victorian woman who wrote about “those men who wear big boots, climb right into the water up to their knees, and, of course, they catch trout — who couldn’t?” She’s clearly frustrated — restricted to skirts instead of waders. Yet she was a successful angler. It’s what has been said about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, except in high heels and backward.
For 19th century fisherwomen in North America, proper clothing was a frequent topic of discussion because it was tied so closely to gender expectations in society. To dress outside expected norms was to call your respectability into question. Finding the middle ground out on the stream was incredibly important. For very public women such as “Fly Rod” Crosby, dressing within the bounds of acceptability signaled that she was not radical and could be trusted. When The New York Times interviewed her, the reporter made sure to say that she did not wear knickerbockers out in the woods. The fisherwoman who expressed her frustration about men being able to wear boots in the water was addressing more than a minor inconvenience; it was a deliberate statement about gender inequality in society. In her satirical article written in Outing in 1890, she describes the gradual destruction of her impractical, feminine clothing while attempting to fish, which I think highlights the cultural disadvantage fisherwomen faced. In other words, women had to work harder than men to catch fish — just as Ginger Rogers did with dancing.