I was excited to see Kathy Jackson’s book, The Cornered Cat: A Woman’s Guide to Concealed Carry, become available in audio format on Audible.com. Sadly, most of the time I have free to “read” anymore is when my hands are not free, so I end up “reading” a lot of audio books. But there aren’t a lot of audiobooks on gun-related topics.
I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book and it is a very good introduction both to firearms and to concealed carry – especially for women (e.g., purse carry), but there are many lessons for men also. Jackson addresses the ethical, legal, and practical dimensions of concealed carry in an interesting, approachable, and humorous way.
Listening to Jackson’s book reminded me that I had attended her session at the Polite Society Tactical Conference in Memphis back in February. Her presentation on “What Women Want” was, like the book, interesting, approachable, and humorous. It was an excellent presentation, one of the best I have heard over the years in any forum.
The Tactical Conference began as gun trainers teaching other gun trainers. Although it has evolved since then – today there are at least as many armed citizens as professionals among the 125 or so attendees – speakers still tend to present as if their audience is other professionals.
Jackson, therefore, took as her goal how to bring more women into the firearms training community and have them take serious training courses.
She reported that according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 33% of new shooters are women and 70-75% of new shooters get guns for self-defense (more among women). Florida concealed carry permit data, for example, shows a big increase in the number of women with permits, especially younger women.
But, these women who are an increasingly important segment of the gun owning population are not doing serious firearms training. According to Tactical Conference host Tom Givens of Rangemaster, women are 43% of the attendees in his concealed carry classes, but only 20% (or so) in the next level training class they offer. And the proportion diminishes each level up.
Her solution to this problem was deceptively simple as concept but no doubt challenging to implement: belonging.
Jackson pointed out that there is an important difference between being welcome and belonging. Guests are welcome. People who are at home belong. Thus far, the gun training community has treated women as guests, even honored guests, but guests nonetheless. Guests are not outsiders, but neither are they insiders. Guests can overstay their welcome. Guests are expected at some point to leave.
What do women want? They want to belong. As evidence of this, Jackson cited the growing popularity of women’s shooting clubs like A Girl and a Gun Club, founded by Julianna Crowder, which at the time of the presentation had 2,128 members in 67 chapters in 24 states.
CULTIVATING A SENSE OF BELONGING
How can the gun training community shift its orientation toward women from visiting to belonging? Jackson offered a number of concrete suggestions:
(1) Reach and cultivate the role models at the nodes of the social networks of women shooters.
Although Jackson was sure to stress that she is NOT saying that men can’t teach women or that women should be rushed into teaching, she argued that it is important to proactively identify those who can become positive examples for women shooters, like Lynn Givens, Vicky Farnham, Gila Hayes, and Jessie Duff.
Why this works is something that Jackson adapted from studies of women in other fields. She noted that 58% of women are college graduates, but only 18% enter careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields. Similarly, women are about 15-20% of those taking training classes. Both STEM fields and gun training are predominantly male environments, so perhaps we can learn lessons from bringing women into STEM that are applicable to gun training.
One thing we know about women in STEM fields is they often suffer from “imposter syndrome.” In fields in which they are underrepresented, women despite their success, can have gnawing feelings of self-doubt – that is, of not belonging. (Even highly successful women like the former dean of engineering at Princeton University and president of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe feel it.)
Having female role models within the field can help reduce “imposteritis” and increase the feeling of belonging of women in the training community.
(2) Create an environment in which women feel they belong
The men who dominate the firearms training community need to be aware of the things they do that create the environment in which women feel they are welcome at best but do not belong. They need to create physical and social spaces that encourage belonging.
Physically, the environment needs to eliminate markers that say “guy place” or “girl place.” It should be a human place, so no girly picture calendars, and have a clean bathroom!
Socially, men need to mind their language and avoid phrases that associate being male with strength and female with weakness, such as: “Man up,” “put on your big boy pants,” “grow a pair,” and “don’t be a pussy” (Jackson’s examples, not mine!).
Note that creating an environment of belonging physically and socially also helps to mitigate the imposter syndrome that can discourage women’s involvement in firearms training.
(3) Recognize the ways in which women are unique . . .
This is a big challenge because too much focus on the uniqueness of women can make them feel like special guests rather than full-fledged members of the community, and there is always the looming threat of the “soft sexism of low expectations.” So, what does Kathy Jackson want here?
Jackson observes that the gun culture generally and the gun training community specifically sells the ideal of the “warrior,” the “sheepdog,” the hero. And sells it TO MEN. No one tells girls, “A good woman stands between her husband and danger.”
(Indeed, in every training class I have ever attended, instructors by default use the example of a husband protecting his wife and children, but never a wife protecting her husband. Which is somewhat funny in my case because most of these classes I attend with my wife who has a more extensive background in firearms than I do having carried an M9 in the Coast Guard for 5 years.)
Jackson, however, does not want the gun training community simply to start including women in their definition of “warriors” and “sheepdogs.” Indeed, her entire image of self-defense as being like a “cornered cat” suggests a different orientation altogether.
To sell training to women, the firearms training community needs to sell the practical, not the warrior. It needs to emphasize the practical use and not just the abstract acquisition of skills. It needs to make the return at least equal to the time invested in a very concrete way.
Another way in which women are different than men in training is in their reaction to competition as a learning motivator. Jackson advises using individual competition sparingly. Studies have shown that given the option, men prefer competition much more than women, who prefer to learn in a more collaborative environment. She advises using teamwork-based competition rather than individual competition.
Finally, gun trainers who are truly committed to women’s feeling of belonging will anticipate and be able to address specific issues that women are going to face in training:
-The potential discomfort of exposing yourself when drawing from concealment
-Having to move breasts out of the way to draw (also affects some men)
-Possibility of crying on the range
-Needing to split up husbands and wives, taking note of women who don’t want to be there (things Jackson generally categorizes as “husbandry”)
-Knowledge of bra holsters and how to carry when pregnant
-Understanding of special issues women face with concealed carry clothing
-Dealing with shooting with long fingernails
Many of these issues are addressed directly in Jackson’s book, The Cornered Cat.
(Note: I don’t take Jackson to be arguing that women are biologically different from men in these senses, but I could be wrong about that.)
(4) . . . and the ways in which they are not unique
Having recognized certain differences between men and women as students, Jackson insists that gun trainers avoid talking about how women make better students than men. According to Jackson, this is not true, not helpful, and insulting.
Not true: Women simply have less experience to start with so it seems like they are better students because they have more to learn at the outset. They may also call BS to their teachers’ faces less than a man would, so it seems like they are better students when they are really just ignoring or ridiculing the teacher in silence.
Not helpful: Jackson draws on the work of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, who argues that praising inherent aptitude leads to less realization of potential than praising effort. This is in part because people who think they should have an inherent aptitude for something often fear failure because it diminishes their self-image. Consequently, they actually challenge themselves less. People who feel their success is tied to hard work will often take on greater challenges and therefore learn more in the process.
Insulting: It does not acknowledge the hard work that goes into learning. It’s like saying that Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt are “naturally gifted” athletes as opposed to extremely hard workers.
The bottom line from Jackson’s presentation is that women want to belong, and not until they feel they belong will they participate in gun training in larger numbers. This requires not small changes to make women feel more welcome in an essentially male environment, but a paradigm shift that puts women’s belonging at the forefront.