Beyond Cupid’s Arrow: Women in Archery

As I stood on the field of competition at Sherwood Forest Faire in 2016, I grasped my bow with a sweaty palm and shook from the nerves. I had shot a few times in front of an audience previously, but no one was watching me, I faded into the background as there were plenty of archers on the field with more skill than myself. This time, being one of a handful of women who had ever competed on that field and having completely bombed the day before, to say I was anxious would be an understatement. My weapon of choice was an all wood longbow.  My flight was called. As I stepped up to the shooting line I heard from the back of the audience of hundreds “You can’t shoot!” Well, they were partially correct, the day before, I couldn’t shoot, but I had practiced intensively for a year to prepare for this competition. The target looked very small from the twenty yard line but I wasn’t trying to hit the target, I was attempting to hit the center of the target and the size of the center never changes. I drew up and heard the shaft of my arrow slide across the wood of my bow, I settled in to my anchor, set my gap, picked my spot and loosed my arrow. Shot one of six was complete and it was an excellent shot. Now to complete that process five more times. I shot another arrow from the twenty yard line, bullseye. I then stepped up to the fifteen yard line with my fellow archers, we loosed two arrows and then advanced to the ten yard line for the final two arrows. After the other flights finished shooting, the archers’ whispers were audible while they shuffled about, attempting to predict the outcome. The archer in third place was announced and medaled, the archer in second place was announced and medaled and finally the archer in first place was announced. “In first place, we have Makoa!”

I was flooded with emotion. My hard work had paid off, at least for one day. That weekend of faire came to a close and I returned for seven more weekends to continue to increase my lead. After each competition, I would return to my clan camping area to the warm welcome of my fellow Impalers. I took the lead on the second day of competition and was able to hold it for the entire run of faire. By the end of that season, when I would step on the field, I no longer heard people yelling “You can’t shoot.”, but instead I heard the cheer for the first time, “Shoot like a girl!” voiced by our clan captain. I accepted my season medal from the King himself and found myself moved to tears as I was not only the first female to place in the top three for any season, but the first female to win the entire season ever and beyond that, had accomplished every part of the goal I set forth for myself. I expected every shot to be perfection but no one expected me to even place. Part of that reason is because I was a new archer and furthermore, generally, folks just didn’t expect a woman to be able to outperform men in archery. 

We are products of our environment, thus I am not surprised that females are underestimated, particularly in a male dominated sport like archery. While studying the sport in order to improve my game, I came across a great archer from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Howard Hill. As he made very accurate shots look oh so easy, he was surrounded by beautiful women in light cotton shorts with perfectly coifed hair. These women often held targets for him and when they did shoot, acted as if they were having a great deal of trouble at which point he would step in and show them how to make a great shot. While I certainly understand the marketability of this situation at the time and even in today’s environment, I was put off by the portrayal of women in regards to archery. 

This led me to dig deeper. I remembered that I once read about the Amazons shooting bows and that they would cut off their left breast in order for the string to have a clear path to launch the arrow. I have since discovered, this entire idea was a myth. The most popular explanation according to The Smithsonian claimed that “Amazones was a derivation of a, “without,” and mazos, “breasts”; another explanation suggested ama-zoosai, meaning “living together,” or possibly ama-zoonais, “with girdles.” “The notion that Amazons cut or cauterized their breasts appealed to the Greeks because of the primordial nature of the idea. However, it is true according to National Geographic, that a class of warrior woman existed. The Greeks called them Scythians and they possessed skills in archery, horsemanship, hunting and fighting, venturing from the Black Sea to Mongolia. Archeologists have unearthed burial mounds that housed battle-scarred warrior women buried with various weapons.

Archery became a popular pastime for women around the 16th century; this was partially the result of the publishing of a book on the benefits of archery by Roger Ascham called Toxophilus. Ascham was a tutor to Elizabeth Tudor when she was a princess and she was rumored to have enjoyed the book. Anne Boleyn, her mother, was said to have used archery to seduce the King.  

During the 18th century, the neo-medieval climate was well suited for the refined and upper-class social activity that archery can be and it allowed women to dress in the fashion of the day and be displayed in a “very elegant manner,” according to World Archery who, in a 1787 newspaper article referenced the first British sporting society to admit women: “Several young ladies added to their conquests of the hearts of young gentlemen of honour and fortune” by utilizing archery. 

Fast forward to 2019 at the Oklahoma State Faire. After one of our productions, my husband told me of a woman who had come to see the The Longbow Show. He said that she couldn’t control her emotions so she had to excuse herself but to please pass the following message along to me. This woman, in her 90s, had been an Olympic archer in the early years of women’s eligibility to compete beginning in 1904, so I assume she competed sometime in the pre World War 2 era. She said that it was an extremely difficult world and sport for women to exist in at that time and that she fought many uphill battles just for being female in a male dominated sport. She heard of our show and that there was a female archery lead so she had to see it for herself. She sat in the front row, and I was honored to have had the opportunity to perform for her and humbled that she helped carve the path for future female archers. 

Women have had a presence in archery, traditionally.  Archer, warrior women existed but were mythicized. Elizabeth I enjoyed the sport and made it a popular ladies pastime around the 16th century.  During the 18th century it continued to be used as a tool of seduction as well as a social conduit. In Howard Hill’s era, women were often pin-up additions to the male dominated sport and though women were officially involved in the Olympics in regards to archery it was still a challenging role. These examples would be deemed as unacceptable in regards to equality today, yet it remains a part of the story of the growth of women in archery.

I am honored to personally know some excellent and highly-decorated female archers. Fawn Girard is a top archer who happens to be of the female persuasion. She shoots with men and competes as an archer first, constantly pushing herself towards her goal. Her medals only pale in comparison to her drive, spirit and generosity. Encarna Garrido Lazaro was Spain’s Athlete of the Year for 3 years and is a force in modern, international archery, shooting the instinctive style and shooting it well. I have watched American archers, Claire Xie and Chrissie Lyons battle it out on the national American field and congratulate each other when the match was done. Melissa Tennant is a fierce competitor who was also recently named USA Archery Female Volunteer Coach of the Year. Kim Timberlake, holding multiple IBO Traditional World titles, possesses a joy for archery that is palpable and displayed every time she shoots. Shana Sattler is an award-winning archer and mentor, taking great pride in aiding others along their archery journey.  Deb Weaver is an honored archer who preaches form and creates opportunities for archers all while delivering tutelage in her signature, no-nonsense manner. The voices of these women and more ring through my head during my daily practice.   Today’s climate for women in archery has come a very long way regarding acceptance, knowledge, and participation. I am honored to be the founder of the Facebook group Women of Traditional Archery, a community where women or those who identify as women can gather virtually and exchange knowledge, ideas and solutions to issues that are often exclusive to women in archery. Mick Chambers, host of Quickshots Archery Podcast, interviews archers and specifically, female archers. There is no more modern presentation of traditional archery than through the internet and he has taken it by storm producing podcasts featuring  Jen of Freedom and Feathers, Penny of Searching for Arrows, Melissa Ortiz, Nancylia Woods, myself and many others. Primitive Pursuit and The Push Archery podcasts are not shy about featuring female archers are thus contributing to the current archery culture which, is constantly gaining momentum towards greater inclusivity.

The resurgence of archery in the entertainment industry, featuring strong, female archers, is a testament to the unyielding grip of this beloved sport on the hearts of all. From The Hunger Games to Mulan to The Last Kingdom to Brave, strong female leads who are experts with the stick and string are steadily emerging in modern media. 

Despite rocky beginnings and troublesome current situations, as a woman in archery, I can assure you that women have gained a great deal of satisfaction from archery since the first time a bow was grasped by a woman. The feeling of nocking an arrow, drawing back, gazing on your target and loosing an arrow is like no other feeling I have ever experienced. Archery is the unattainable quest for perfection and the journey is rewarding. The fascination with archery is age old and is only picking up steam. The movement for equality has helped and most of the male archers I’ve encountered are extremely supportive and willing to aid and elevate women in the sport. They recognize skill before the gender of the archer, as it is simply a very challenging sport that most traditional archers wish to help grow. 

If you are a woman who would like to begin your journey into traditional archery, regardless of your age or skill level, reach out to me, to a local archery club or to the vast resources available online for guidance. The tools to help you on your journey are plentiful and accessible. Do whatever it takes and start now. I believe, as time and ideas of equality progress, the number of women involved in archery will continue to climb. A quote by Maurice Thompson, slightly adapted with the addition of one syllable, elegantly expresses the love affair regarding women and archery. 

Kristen Johnston is a professional archer and lifetime performer. She began her training in dance at the age of two and pursued a career in classical ballet. After completing her BFA and MPA, her interests turned back towards archery. Training with the mantra “Do whatever it takes and start now.” has led her to two world titles, multiple national titles and numerous state, regional and local titles in longbow, recurve and Asiatic. She has been named an Archery Influencer and has been featured on programs such as The Push Archery and Quickshots. Preforming The Longbow Show and sharing the joy of traditional archery with others is her passion. Kris is honored to captain the professional shooting team “Trad Tour”.  She owns a traditional archery shop with her husband, is the mother to two children and is a Level 2 USA Archery Certified Instructor. Follow her on TikTok!

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

One thought on “Beyond Cupid’s Arrow: Women in Archery

  1. Well said. Enjoyed reading it. I can certainly relate as I am also a competitive traditional archer and made Canada’s team to participate at the 3D Worlds in Lac La Biche, Alberta, Canada.
    Trudy Dryden

    Liked by 1 person

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