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Parks and Menstruation: Sexism, Bears, and the National Park Service

As the drought-filled days of summer drag on, many Americans will make one last effort to visit our nation's national parks. But a report published earlier this year by a researcher at Yellowstone National Park may lead some of us to think twice before packing up for a backcountry trip.

Kerry A. Gunther*, bear management biologist at Yellowstone National Park explains in his information paper "Bears and Menstruating Women," "The objective of this paper is to present the data available on this subject so that [campers] can make an informed choice when deciding whether or not to hike and/or camp in bear country during their menstrual period." In the end, the author concludes that, "There is no evidence that grizzly and black bears are overly attracted to menstrual odors more than any other odor." However, those of us who menstruate should take the recommended precautions that include using tampons instead of pads, and packing out used tampons and pads out in a double baggie. I can see the headline now in a million women's magazines: "Could Your Tampons Get You Mauled to Death!?"

a snarling grizzly bear
HUNGRY FOR YOUR PERIOD BLOOD. Not really though.

As someone who is terrified of bears, I was thrilled to learn that being a woman who menstruates does not statistically put me at greater risk for bear attacks. But I was left with some unanswered questions and concerns.

First, how did these researchers figure this out? Did some scientist leave bloody tampons out to see what bears would do with them? (As a side note, the researchers did find that while grizzly and black bears don't prefer tampons to any other food smells, polar bears indeed do love used tampons. So if you get your period while vacationing in the Arctic, look out!) Second, I want the research to acknowledge other dangers women might experience in the wilderness besides tampon-hungry bears. I want some perspective. Are women hikers and campers at greater risk of injury caused by their periods (for those who have them), or caused by other humans while in the backcountry? In 1996, two women were sexually assaulted and murdered while hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail near Shenandoah National Park. Why not a paper on the risks of sexual assault while backpacking and camping, as opposed to surfing the crimson wave? Most women think twice before hiking or backpacking alone because they're worried about rape, assault, and other human-on-human crimes where women are more likely to be targeted. Based on its subject matter (KILLER TAMPONS!), I have to wonder whether this paper wasn't just another way for the National Park Service (NPS) to publicly call into question women's ability to thrive and survive in the wilderness without addressing real issues of safety for women in the parks.

Because my partner is a park ranger (I just keep waiting for a TV show called Real Park Wives of Alaska), I've spent the last three years living in and around national parks in both Hawaii and Alaska. At one of these parks I also spent time as a volunteer. I respect my partner's work immensely when he is woken in the middle of the night to plan a rescue for an injured hiker, and I admire his strong conviction to protect wilderness spaces from development, but we differ in the drastically different ways we experience the NPS, its role in our larger community, and the parks themselves.

two white female park rangers in uniforms from the 1970sSoon after PBS released Ken Burn's Emmy-winning documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea, critics pointed out Burns' failure to emphasize women's important contribution to the creation and expansion of the national park system. Here is just a bit of the extensive history: In 1918 the first female park ranger came to work at Yellowstone National Park, although her job duties certainly were different than her male counterparts. In 1962, according to an official NPS report, "women [(and people of color) were seen] as competent to be interpreters in historical parks, but not in the military or traditional 'national' parks where the prevailing ethic still saw a uniformed ranger as a white male." Not until 1978 were women allowed to wear the same official uniform as male rangers. Today, about a third of all park rangers are women and far fewer are park superintendents.

While this history probably deserves a documentary (or reality show) of its own, what deserves additional scrutiny and outrage is the current treatment of women, people of color, lesbian, gay, transgender people, and non-traditional couples in NPS and how the NPS culture and policies make it difficult for these individuals to be successful in their work and recreation.

I can't speak for every single national park, every woman in the NPS, or every partner of a park ranger, but I've witnessed sexist, racist, and homophobic comments made by park service employees about other employees and community members. And not just on one occasion, multiple times. The majority of comments relate to women being less skilled than men to carry heavy items or to hike fast. Another issue that arises, specific to the communities I have lived in, is racist stereotyping of the local communities due to their racial and ethnic identities as Native Hawaiian or Alaskan. Lastly, as my partner and I are not married (and choose not to be) we face discrimination, such as lack of partner benefits that is not uncommon for other federal employees. Our situation is augmented due to the fact that we live in federal housing and move yearly—an expense that I must pay for out of pocket since we aren't married.

I link this behavior to a park culture that continues to sanction the "prevailing ethic" of the "uniformed ranger as a white male." This sexist and racist ethic is one that may be sadly expected in many spaces, but most of us don't expect it in "the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape," as Ken Burns called the national parks on a recent episode of NPR's The Takeaway. It's this unfortunate part of the park culture that funds research to determine if my period is going to get me killed by a bear rather than spend that money on programs that would increase the number of women in the park service, increased safety in the parks, wilderness skill summer camps for girls, or sensitivity training for park rangers.

I know for many that the national parks are a source of relaxation and happy family memories, and they should be. Just remember on your next trip to one of our nation's great wonders to pack out your tampons, and watch out for patriarchy as well as bears.

*Correction: This post originally identified Kerry Gunther as a woman.

Images: Bear: Telegraph, Park rangers: National Park Service

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Comments

18 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Really great points.

This is awesome. Something we need to think about for sure. These issues also prevent women and often non-white folks from enjoying the outdoors. The stereotype of the while male ranger trickles down on to those who also enjoy outdoor recreation. If it weren't for my dad taking me on all kinds of hikes and camping since a young age, I probably wouldn't feel compelled to do these kinds of activities because there is no cultural incentive or influence to do them - specifically for women and non-whites. I am interested to see how these issues might be addressed by the national parks - if only a small portion of people are interested in maintaining and protecting these parks, they might be in trouble one day.

Disagree

I'm sorry, but I disagree about this being a feminist issue. Perhaps the park system is a bit of a boy's club, but I know plenty of women who have expressed serious concern about camping while on their periods. As for the research, I've known about the rule of using tampons and packing away your used products carefully since I was a little girl. This is true of swimming in the ocean too- sharks and bears alike have very keen senses that are honed to pick up the scent of blood. I don't think this is new research or sexism at all, I think this is an effort by the parks to increase patronage.

Nicely put, Charlene! I

Nicely put, Charlene! I agree.

Great article and the

Great article and the information about discriminatory practices in the NPS is well-taken.

That said, I absolutely agree with Charlene. My first reaction in reading about the study's findings was one of relief. I am have a healthy fear of bears and I spend a significant amount of my summers camping in bear country. One of the many thoughts that has kept me awake in my tent scrutinizing the various noises coming in from the night is the question of whether my menstrual blood might make me target #1 for an angry/hungry bear in the area (yes, I may be a tad unreasonably bear-phobic). I am really happy to know that this fear is unfounded and am glad someone took the time to study this.

My boyfriend just graduated

My boyfriend just graduated from the Warnell School of Forestry at UGA this past year. I was honestly surprised to see that about half of the graduates were females. Most of them were Wildlife majors, and they dominated the honors category. On the one hand, I'm hopeful that this many women in field will hopefully make a change for the better; they're certainly smart and capable of doing so. On the other hand, though, I worry that these women will find it more difficult to land jobs and internships. It's already hard enough to find a job in any market, but when people face difficulties (like budget cuts and loss of funding), they hire the stereotypical employee (in this case, a white male) over a variable because the stereotypical employee has "proven" to be effective over the years.

Interestingly enough, my boyfriend and I are facing a similar situation as you and your partner. We've been together four years and lived together for three, yet a few parks and internships told us that they wouldn't hire him because we would be moving together as an unmarried couple. I wouldn't be able to live with him because he would have to live in the dorm-style housing (no partners allowed) rather than letting us use the couples' housing. I can see how couples' housing would be a much-sought-after living situation for nearly every park employee in a committed relationship, but I do agree that it is discriminatory. It's not like I'm a pet dog or cat that my boyfriend can just leave behind with someone while he goes and lives all over America. It's so aggravating, but I don't know what to do about it other than have him apply for positions that don't require on-site housing.

Inequality or common sense? Things aren't always as they appear.

I had mentally prepared my response to this article. I'm all for feminism, but if bear attacks are being caused by unaware menstruating females wandering into nature, I don't mind avoiding the forests during those times. But, as usual, I needed to look up the info in more detail before posting my two cents. I was surprised to learn that The Journal of Wildlife Management had conducted this study and found that black bears didn't care one way or the other, and that, as mentioned above, polar bears enjoyed noshing on used tampons. No mention was made of grizzlies, which seems odd, as they're usually the ornery ones, and those more likely to attack.

I'm no expert, but I've been perusing this in the darkest recesses of my brain, and noticed that usually, bears like to be aware of what's going on around them. Most attacks are from bears caught unawares or when their cubs are in danger, hence the advice to make lots of noise and wear bells while hiking. If menstruating women give off a stronger odour than usual at that "special time", wouldn't there be FEWER attacks (as the bears will have had plenty of notice of approaching humans)? As far as I know, human meat doesn't constitute an important part of any bear's diet, so it doesn't seem logical that menstruating women should have to avoid bears any more than anyone else. Throwing away used tampons laced with dioxins and chlorine bleach, though? Definitely a no-no. But that's common sense. (The whole "Give a hoot, don't pollute" business.) No self-respecting woman would throw a tampon away in the forest, anyway.

Again, just my two cents.

Thanks for posting this!

Thanks for posting this! This was a really interesting read.

http://nursingclio.wordpress.com/

If I had known there would be

If I had known there would be very little actual discussion of bears' interest in blood/menstruation, I wouldn't have wasted my time. If you want to make a case on patriarchy don't hide it under another title.

if you had read the title...

you would see that it had the word sexism in it, so it's pretty clear that the article was about patriarchy. i'm just saying...

There are a few biological

There are a few biological inaccuracies in this article, concerning bears that is, not women, since I am not one I can't say (I am not a bear either though, but have worked around them for years (well I've worked around bears and women for years)). But if you are planning a trip to the Arctic you need not worry about bears that would eat your tampon for the most part. The only species that might be interested, polar bears, mostly live in coastal Arctic areas and on the sea ice. Most of the places people go in the Arctic are on the land where brown and black bears live on a tampon free diet, they much prefer blue berries.

Also as someone who is the partner of a person who's partner works at the Park Service, i.e. me, I agree with some of the comments regarding how the government chooses to treat unmarried couples and the housing complications is true. But I don't fellow the agency has sexist, racist, homophobic or other discriminatory polices. I worked at a park that had a female Superintendent, I was trained by a park ranger that was a lesbian and Chief Ranger (of Law Enforcement) at a prominent park, and finally the Park Service hiring practices actually grant hiring preferences to veterans, native people, people with disabilities, and minorities. While it is far from perfect the Park Service, I feel, excels at equal opportunity employment that many private industry sectors lag behind.

So ladies, if you can overcome you fear of bears eating your tampons, I encourage you to come and work at one of our nation's fine National Parks. You may find yourself amazed by the cool things you can get paid to do as a job.

Bear geography and Park equality

There are a few biological inaccuracies in this article, concerning bears that is, not women, since I am not one I can't say (I am not a bear either though, but have worked around them for years (well I've worked around bears and women for years)). But if you are planning a trip to the Arctic you need not worry about bears that would eat your tampon for the most part. The only species that might be interested, polar bears, mostly live in coastal Arctic areas and on the sea ice. Most of the places people go in the Arctic are on the land where brown and black bears live on a tampon free diet, they much prefer blue berries.

Also as someone who is the partner of a person who's partner works at the Park Service, i.e. me, I agree with some of the comments regarding how the government chooses to treat unmarried couples and the housing complications is true. But I don't fellow the agency has sexist, racist, homophobic or other discriminatory polices. I worked at a park that had a female Superintendent, I was trained by a park ranger that was a lesbian and Chief Ranger (of Law Enforcement) at a prominent park, and finally the Park Service hiring practices actually grant hiring preferences to veterans, native people, people with disabilities, and minorities. While it is far from perfect the Park Service, I feel, excels at equal opportunity employment that many private industry sectors lag behind.

So ladies, if you can overcome you fear of bears eating your tampons, I encourage you to come and work at one of our nation's fine National Parks. You may find yourself amazed by the cool things you can get paid to do as a job.

Animals vs Menses

The solution is simple. Use a diva cup. Less odor, nothing to pack out, better for the environment and you. It has been known that animals are attracted to the smell of blood however I think you are more likely to have an issue by leaving used pads/tampons out or packing them out. Women have been camping, hiking and surviving for a long time with no more serious issues from menstrual blood than people leaving garbage or food out or encroaching on animal territories and not paying attention to their surroundings such as camping/hiking away from fresh prints, scat, territory markings and fresh kills. While I would take precautions with menstrual blood I think that it is further down the list of things to worry about than those stated above. Plus hiking and being active is good for you especially when on your menses, so pack up your gear, grab a diva cup and head out on the trails. Be careful where you hike, bring some bells and just in case bring some bear spray and bring a friend, just like you normally would as a responsible outdoor enthusiast. Last but not least HAVE FUN!

Please correct the gender of

Please correct the gender of Kerry Gunther. He is a man.

Corrected!

Thanks for letting us know!

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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This was the absolute perfect

This was the absolute perfect article for me to be reading this week. You see, I just returned from a two week environmental science course wherein I was continually hiking, camping, and backpacking. Our last five days and seven nights of the trip were even spent in bear county wilderness. Overall, my class consisted of one male teacher, a female assistant teacher, two boys, and seven girls including myself. Which may I say, was absolutely amazing. Us females dominated, we were quick, efficient, strong, and helpfully empathic of others'. Being around so many other women for this was great. I'm majoring in a field where, although there are more women, mens work seems to be considered more useful and practical (my major is not environmental science), and this experience only helped to reaffirm my disdain for that system of value. This was one of the times in my life where I have felt strongest, this class and the physical workout boosted my confidence immensely.

And let me tell you that Every Single Female There was on their period during that week in the wilderness. To the point where we all ran out of tampons and were running on paper towels and hope. To be honest, we were all concerned about bears catching scent, seeing as we had already run across two bears and were hiking in the same direction of fresh tracks of mother bear and its cub, several coyotes, and a mountain lion. Our first camp site had bones, okay? We had no guns despite many warnings, much to the chagrin of one of our male campers. We only had four cans of bear spray, and no clue if it would work on anything other than bears. In short, we were ALL scared.

But you know what, we made it through. The only animal that came through our site was a huge deer that we christened "Bobette" after the wilderness area's namesake. Although really, looking up so see glowing deer eyes while taking an evening poo in the woods is not pleasant. Aside from Bobette needing to learn boundaries, we had no real trouble with animals because we dealt with scent, food, and periods in a realistic, safe manner. In fact I would gladly do the whole trip again just to prove it possible while being on a period.

And let me just say, that for me personally, that was really gratifying. I hate my period, I have every since I got it at the age fourteen, and it didn't stop for 9 months straight. Needless to say I was made anemic and have been on Birth Control since then. For the longest time my period was, to me, a weakness, one so very often reaffirmed by patriarchal societal views. And this two weeks of physical labor and accomplishment, especially the four of five days I spent (quite by accident) in the wilderness on my period, has finally given me some real happiness about my period. Its still not my favorite time, but I don't hate it anymore.

The other concern noted in this article also came up at camp. You see, we go into a wide range of topics without cell phones to distract. And I was shocked and appalled to hear that most of the females on my crew thought "feminism was done and over" that it was helpful when it started out, but now had little bearing to 'the real world'. Many, even BOTH of my teachers, used our class, and the larger number of women in it as an example of how women are fair now in science. There were many points, even in general conversation where I noted the differences in how us women were viewed. My teachers noted with surprise how scientific my notebook was, and that I used visual imagery (art major, see) to note what I learned, and that it 'seemed useful' to my studies. Or even how surprised they were when we reached our camping sites almost always two hours faster than believed, even with all the 'girl' problems. Our assistant teacher was doubted when she noted a falsehood in the information of a geo science speaker (despite the fact that the field that he incorrectly quoted is Her primary field of study and that the information misquoted was from her Father's research). How there were only two "catty" girls, who were able 'to be serious when needed'. Or that I, a 5ft 1 little girl got to camp early, ran back a half mile to carry a girl with an injured ankle's backpack, and ran back again to grab her boyfriend's bag so he could carry her to our campsite.

I admit to being new to discussing feminism, and to pointing out when there is an unfairness occurring. But I'm working on it, and the confidence I earned on this trip will not go away. Honestly, fuck the prevailing ethic. Because we gal's, we kicked butt those two weeks. We surprised our instructors, ourselves, and I surely got a rise out of the Boy Scouts I met on the plane ride home who were bragging about 3 days in the Rockies. We aren't weak, and our periods certainly aren't acting as a giant red targets. ...Unless you count Bobette, but I doubt deer go on bloodthirsty rampages (Bears rarely ever do that either, by the way). Overall we did this, not despite any factor of ourselves or our bodies, except perhaps the views society seems to keeps putting on us.

I, wow, this got long fast. I apologize, I believe I just added an article. Thanks for making me reflect on this class breekessler, I don't know if i would have voiced these thoughts so clearly otherwise. Although I'm totally copying and working this for the college Fem Mag I volunteer at.

Bitches Out

A different view on NPS and diversity

"...what deserves additional scrutiny and outrage is the current treatment of women, people of color, lesbian, gay, transgender people, and non-traditional couples in NPS and how the NPS culture and policies make it difficult for these individuals to be successful in their work and recreation."

Here are some folks with a different perspective:

http://youtu.be/xG8beeCgmNQ

I could not disagree more

As a gay woman who works for the National Park Service, I could not disagree more with your article. I have worked for the Park Service for over ten years now, and I have never experienced anything but love and acceptance and gratitude from my fellow NPS employees. I have worked at nine different national parks now and each one of them has embraced not only me, but also my partner...who is also a NPS employee. I can't say what it's like to work for other federal agencies, but I can tell you that the NPS actually staffs booths at PRIDE and marchs in the local PRIDE day parade. I myself have worked a PRIDE booth dressed in my class A uniform and my goofy ranger hat and the community is so grateful that we are there. The Department of the Interior and the NPS celebrates their LGBT employees. Check out this link http://www.nps.gov/diversity/lgbt.htm . And this one here. http://www.nps.gov/diversity/stonewall.htm
The changing demographic of park rangers is amazing. Of all the parks that I have worked at, all of my supervisors have been female. Not one male superisory park ranger for me. Most of my co-workers and fellow park rangers at this park are female AND this year, 75% of our park rangers are female. So, not sure where you have worked or what parks you have experienced, but my experience and those of my fellow LGBT park rangers (that I know) are completely opposite from what you are talking about.

However, those of us who

However, those of us who menstruate should take the recommended precautions that include using tampons instead of pads, and packing out used tampons and pads out in a double baggie top alcohol stove