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!?”
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.
Soon 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.
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