Birdspot. On the road. Drawing birds.

Have you ever been identified as a harlot?

It has been a year of firsts. It is the first time I have had the nerve to travel extensively alone. I have been back and forth across the country three times, to bird and to work from specimens at a number of institutions. I made my first trips to bird Central America. It is the first year I have spent learning how to draw birds. I can now add the first time I have knowingly been called a harlot.

At the most recent AOU (American Ornithologists’ Union) meeting, a member of one of our most esteemed ornithological institutions savored a moment of gossip, saying “Have you heard about *** ***? Apparently he has hooked up with a harlot.”

That harlot would be me, a harlot who ostensibly thought she was dating someone, and who, had she realized she was a harlot, may have thought to ask to get paid for the experience, because then she might have some money to fix her ailing car. Or perhaps, since harlot is a word with nuances, rife with assumption and derision, she should have been dutifully earning the moniker pro gratis.

There is a larger point to this, beyond a moment of blithe condescension that is best glossed over and forgotten. I stand here, a woman traveling alone, a woman who has traveled with many lovely and generous men (and no, neither slept with nor been paid by them). I have been routinely associated only through the reputations of the men I have birded with. My name has been forgotten countless times, or misremembered egregiously, only to be recalled as “Oh, you were the girl with *** or ###.” I have been pushed into boat railings and badly bruised by male photographers mowing over me to get to a shot. I have stood quietly in groups of men asking each other what they do and what they are working on, wondering if anyone would ask the same of me. I have alternately stood up for myself and breathed small sighs of resignation. I am a competitive and intelligent harlot, like many others, burdened with advanced degrees and time spent teaching at excellent higher institutions.

I stand here, with a small army of presumed Hester Prynnes behind me, wearing their binoculars in lieu of a letter, and I call you out, in the names of sexism, chauvinism, and tawdry pettiness. You know who you are. You know it is not just about one comment, one reputation. Is there really any question why there are so few young and youngish women in the birding world?

37 Responses to “H is for Harlot?”

  1. Well and eloquently said. It’s a sad day that such points about the equality of women in any profession, vocation, endeavor, or whatever, still need to be made so forcefully. Male birders: it’s time to grow up. This isn’t high school.

  2. Catherine, this breaks my heart.

  3. Sometimes I seriously think the 1950′s never left. :( Be strong.

  4. Do not wait to be asked ~Tell~ It is the same in all professions. Celebrate the unique and creative YOU.

  5. Dearest Catherine,

    I love what you wrote. I have battled this attitude from male colleagues for 32 years in a male-dominated profession. I have been belittled, condescended to, ignored, called an effing bitch, groped, demeaned and otherwise disrespected off and on by some men for my entire career. I have also been mentored, nurtured, assisted, educated and comforted by kind and supportive men in my profession. The reward of being older is that it does lend a certain air of gravitas to a professional woman. It doesn’t make the aching knees hurt less, but social situations and life in general become somewhat easier for an older woman. It has been years, alas, since I have been called a harlot or anything remotely similar. At my age it occurs to me that I will probably never again have the opportunity to do anything that would encourage anyone to call me anything so interesting. I can’t even tell you how disappointing it is to realize that. I have discovered over time that your attitude about your work and about yourself will bring you respect. Stand up for yourself; be proud of your work and of who you are. If anyone has reason to feel self-confidence and pride it is you.

    Love and hugs, Linda

  6. Catherine

    So sorry to read this You are a wonderful bird artist don”t be cowed by ignorance. I admire your energy this year enormously.

    Craig x

  7. Catherine – it’s tragic that you had to write this post – but good on you for doing so. I fear the UK may be in an even more unenlightened state. Anyway – you are better and stronger than they.

  8. Catherine, I’m reminded of the closing lines of a unrelated Edward Abbey poem.

    “I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.”

  9. Women were once considered sacred. The men worshiped them in temples (women put themselves up for worship it was conscious choice) when the women were considered sacred and through the power of their wombs they were the creators of life. Land was passed through the female side because men were not understood to be a part of the equation.

    It was only through men trying to control land and property holdings and religion that the female of our species became so throughly degraded. Hence all of the begats and begots in the bible. No women are listed. The women of those geographical areas are still heavily kept down. Men fear us because we can send them to their knees with a turn of our head, a flip of our locks.

    harlot·ry (-l-tr) n.
    Word History: The word harlot nowadays refers to a particular kind of woman, but interestingly it used to refer to a particular kind of man. The word is first recorded in English in a work written around the beginning of the 13th century, meaning “a man of no fixed occupation, vagabond, beggar,” and soon afterwards meant “male lecher.” Already in the 14th century it appears as a deprecatory word for a woman, though exactly how this meaning developed from the male sense is not clear. For a time the word could also refer to a juggler or jester of either sex, but by the close of the 17th century its usage referring to males had disappeared.

    I am proud to say I am a powerful woman. I am a birder. It is not only the men but other women who are jealous of women who are comfortable with their sexuality. That is a true tragedy.

    I am sorry you were hurt but some ignorant probably insecure being/beings.

    But in my book you are a mighty powerful…very talented…amazing….sexy…and very much inspiring female birder/bird artist. I admire you greatly.

    As they say somewhere out there–You go girl!

  10. Oh, Catherine, I am so sorry. I understand you completely and how sad is that. May I suggest that they are jealous…about which I could go on at length. You are having an amazing year and one which we are all watching with anticipation and no small amount of secret desire to be you. You have so much to offer. Next time someone pushes you, may I humble suggest you push back. Hugs, Bev

  11. Bunch of Dumb basses! You go girl!..You Rock the Nomadic Bird loving artist house!

  12. Good for you for having the cojones (for the want of a better word) to put this out there. It’s galling to me in the year 2011 that this kind of crap basically still seems to occur in a world (birding) which one generally assumes to be enlightened and inclusive. The fact that this post seems to have resonated quite so strongly with female birders makes it all the sadder.

    I’m not saying I haven’t been guilty of these kinds of things in the past. Maybe just a seemingly innocuous act like approaching the male birder in a group to see ‘what’s around’ highlights my own latent sexism. This post has made me personally think about the way I conduct myself.

    Maybe it’s time that one of the birding magazines or blogs takes a closer look at how the community deals with women birders. I have read various blog posts or articles recently on the desire to get young and minority birders involved in the ‘sport’, if we can’t embrace the majority of Americans (women), what hope do we have encouraging the minorities.

  13. Weighing in with my support. You should have swung through Iowa and met a couple of guys who think women birders are pretty darned cool! In fact, I learned more about birds and birding from my friend’s mother than anyone!

  14. [...] No comments yetShareTweetEver wonder why you see so few younger women out on the birding trail? Catherine Hamilton can shed a bit of light on the subject. BTW, be sure to browse around her site after reading the particularly poignant post we’ve [...]

  15. I often reflect on the old adage…what you say about someone says more about you than it does about them.

    The inexcusable comment said nothing about you.

  16. Yeeeesh, Im sorry you had to endure all that. Sexism sucks, and birders are certainly not on the cutting edge of improving on that. Dont let the assholes get you down!

  17. This just plain sucks. I thought the birding world would be different, but obviously not.
    I knew there are some strange specimen out there, but that just beats it.
    Stay tough and ignore them bastards! After all, who needs those a**holes to talk to while birding.
    And if they push you around, speak up.
    I did it once on a different occasion with Egyptian ‘Pro’ photographers. My friends asked me to take a group photo of them and all the Pros jumped the occasion and tried to push me out. I told them to wait until I am finished and not push me around since they were NOT lining up for THEM.
    It worked…
    Or I push back. That earns me the title ‘big bitch’ but who cares, what the heck do they think they are?

  18. Sexism is inappropriate for any profession. It seems more dominant in some than others.We like to think the 50′s are over.It just doesn’t seem to be the case.Strong women like you are leading the way. Many will follow to be sure due to your lead.

  19. Catherine dear Catherine ! It is a sad day when the men of this world can be so selfish and cruel. I hope you endeavor to strive to be the best out there. I would not be like these Neanderthals that have mistreated you. They are a worthless excuse for mankind ! Do the best in all you do,your art is a testament to who will follow you in your field . Press on in your noble trek across this vast wilderness. All the best my dear !!

  20. Catherine, I just stumbled on your blog and was psyched to read about your road-tripping and to see your artwork. What a treasure, I thought. Then I read this post and thought: How utterly absurd that some men would treat you — would treat anyone — that way. My wish for them is that each time they raise their binoculars or peer through their scopes at the latest yearned-for rarity, they see nothing but starlings and house sparrows. Perhaps while you stand next to them, sketching the same beautiful bird.

  21. What ridiculous behavior from the men you have mentioned. Anyone who even uses the word “harlot” sounds like someone from the Dark Ages and if they refer to any woman as a “harlot” they are only revealing how absolutely pathetic they truly are. On a more positive note, I am glad that 10000 Birds made me aware of your blog. It is fantastic! I wish we could have birded together when you were in Costa Rica.

  22. I wonder what that man would have said or looked like if you introduced yourself to him as “said harlot in question?” It is one thing to sling nasty epithets to the universe, and quite another to call a “harlot” a harlot to her face. Call the next idiot out, and maybe he will learn from the exposure. One could hope.

  23. Tell him you’re a harlot without the “arl” and that he is just jealous!

  24. Few things trigger my temper faster than male privilege (and double standards). What a giant jackhole. As others have said, his words and attitude spoke volumes about him, not you. I hope that, somehow, this gets back to him, and he’s ashamed.

    Things are changing (too slowly for some of us!), and insecure, narcissistic men don’t like losing the control they felt they had over their world.

  25. I was linked here because of this awful thing that happened to you. Now I’ve seen what an amazing blog this is, full of amazing art. I’ll be subscribing now.

  26. Catherine, thank you for writing this.

  27. Catherine,

    When I worked for Planned Parenthood, the abuse of women was never more clear. I am so proud to have helped raise hundreds of 1,000s of dollars in support of women’s rights.
    Hang in there because better days are ahead.
    All my Best,


  28. Oh..and by the way~ i am happy that Dumbass called you a Harlot…otherwise I would never be able to order that great H is for Harlot Tee shirt :)

  29. Hi Catherine. The 10,000 Birds link just brought me here too. (Yep, I am behind and have been catching up)

    I’m so sorry to read about what you’ve been through. That’s just awful. As a girl who’s only been birding a few years I’ve found pretty much nothing but kindness from the male mentors who ruled the birding roost when I started. But our Audubon prez, who is an amazing lady, also took me under her wing and made it that much less intimidating.

    Now I’ve moved halfway across the country and accidentally made a female birding friend my own age … which makes all the difference in the world. Who needs snooty boy birder snobs when you and your BBF (best birding friend) can both rescue an injured gull, or share an Indigo Bunting lifer!

    So again, I am sorry to hear about the unthinking cruelty you’ve come up against. And I hope birders like that are in the minority. On the plus side, I’m loving the Harlot shirt and can’t wait to wear it out birding. From a former Brunonian, you go, former RISD kid!

  30. having found this thru dawn’s early light, i must say in defense/offense of all sexes…sexism is rampant/invasive/epidemic in all walks of life/society…blame it on media, parents, politics, education, whatever…your attitude is your altitude…i end my rant…ugo…ignore the ignorant,,,

  31. There are very many young girls who are interested in nature but who give up nature study before their teenage years–and a great many older women who become active birders later in life. The question is, why do so many of these people, who seem naturally predisposed toward birding, stay away from it during the age interval in between? Although sexism obviously exists among male birders, I very much doubt that this is the reason there are so few female birders of reproductive age. I say this because it is my perception that when nature-oriented female children “grow out of” birding, the activities and communities they embrace are at least as fraught with sexist men (and women) as is the birding community. Likewise, the women who come to birding later in life don’t strike me has having been particularly sheltered from sexism during their earlier, pre-birding lives.

  32. I agree, in general. That said, I have encountered more sexism this year, immersed in birding and ornithological circles, than I ever have before. Hands down. One person’s empiricism does not a concrete conclusion make, of course, but I will stand by my assertion that it bears looking into.

  33. For the past 20 years I have dabbled in all things bird-related, traveling the country and volunteering, teaching, learning, and observing. I have come across two types of bird people:

    Museum curators, Ornithologists, Bird artists, Hawk counters, Raptor trappers, Bird banders, Field naturalists, Professors, Researchers, Aviculturalists, Bird behaviorists, Avian veterinarians, Rehabbers, Outreach educators, Etc., etc,

    Bird listers
    Bird photographers

    There’s something about “doing” that keeps one humble … The realization of how little one actually knows, how much there is to learn, and the wonder of how much is still unknowable. Almost without exception the “doers” have been willing and passionate to share and teach. And they have always been full of lots more questions than answers.

    “Watchers” tend to be just as wonderful, however the few bird jerks I have come across have invariably belonged to the “watchers” group. Hmmmmmmm.
    So consider the source!

    P.S. Remember there are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide things into two types and those who don’t.

  34. Sexism in the birding world is far more systemic than a Google search of the topic would lead one to believe. Thank you Catherine for writing this. The only other item I could find even remotely related is a post on the ABA’s young birder blog ‘The Eyrie’ asking: where are all the young female birders?

    In my years of birding I’ve found that I didn’t have problems with male birders until I got ‘too good’ at what I was doing. Emotionally underdeveloped men with insecurity issues don’t like to be in the company of women who make them look bad. They also generally have no idea how to interact with women. Unfortunately, it IS like high school. And unless there is some sort of social corrective intervention for said ‘boys’, bad behavior will continue.

    Women need to speak up more about this. Confident, mature men need to help discourage sexism. If the ABA, for example, has followed up on the question posed in The Eyrie I could not find no evidence of it.

  35. [...] met. I haven’t encountered much outright sexism in the field, but other women have not only seen and heard it but also made the [...]

  36. Catherine, your blog is wonderful to read, and sad to think about. It makes me reflect about how many times I may have unwittingly behaved the way you describe. Perhaps the saddest part is that I know for sure that some of the worst of us males don’t think about our behavior at all. I’m not so sure that they would recognize themselves in the mirror, or in this blog post. Maybe reading your story can at least get them to look in the mirror and think about it. Well done.

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