A new breed of hunter?

As the number of hunters continues to decline, will women pick up the slack? Is Palin serving as a role model?

PARIS, Tenn. -- Brenda Valentine was running a beauty shop in rural Tennessee when her shooting skills came to the attention of the hunting industry. Today, she is a television star and paid speaker at hunting conventions, where fans wait in lines for her autograph.

"People will bring me their grandpa's shotgun to sign or even kiss," she says. "Some have named their children after me."

Mrs. Valentine, 58 years old, is perhaps the most visible face of an industry effort to draw more women into the woods. As the number of male hunters has declined, the sport has targeted women with everything from pink guns to gender-specific hunting courses. Now, they're seeking out spokesmodels and pushing weapons tailored for women, such as lighter crossbows. Television shows starring women shooters include "American Huntress" and "Family Traditions with Haley Heath," chronicling the hunting adventures of a young woman and her tag-along husband and children.

The campaign received a boost in recent weeks from the Republican Party's vice presidential nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Photographs have since emerged of the governor posing beside a caribou she'd shot, and supporters boasted that she knew how to field-dress a moose. Gov. Palin is an ideal role model, say some women hunters, because she defies the masculine image of the sport. "She's a babe," says Linda Burch, a bear-hunting Minnesota accounting executive who applies lipstick before posing for kill shots.

Gov. Palin also counters the stereotype of the woman hunter as poor, rural and uneducated. A 2003 survey of Texans who had attended a state hunting-and-outdoors training program for women found that 82% lived in cities, 79% had graduated from college and 39% had household incomes above $80,000 a year. They spent a mean of $3,250 a year on outdoor recreational pursuits, said the state wildlife agency, which conducted the survey.

But some women see the media focus on Gov. Palin's hunting as evidence of a lingering gender gap. Only after Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter (causing minor injury) did his hunting habits gain attention. "Why is it news that Sarah Palin is a hunter?" asks Christine Thomas, a Wisconsin college dean and long-time advocate of programs to teach women about the outdoors. . . .



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