How We Really Feel About Being Called ‘Boatmen’

O.A.R.S. Oregon Area Manager and Rogue River Guide, Kate Wollney

Women have worked hard to gain access to traditionally male-dominated professions and river guiding is no exception. Many professions have moved towards gender-neutral job titles replacing labels such as “fireman, male nurse, or stewardess” with “firefighter, nurse, and flight attendant.” Advocates for gender-neutral language believe that attaching a specific gender to a profession can indicate that one gender is less proficient at their tasks or can exclude a gender completely.

For example, O.A.R.S. Operations Manager, Tyler Wendt, says that at a company communications level, O.A.R.S. tries to avoid the use of the term “boatmen” because it falls short of an inclusive ideal when describing the talented women and men who lead our trips.

But I wanted to find out what some of my colleagues thought. When I asked several of O.A.R.S.’ female river guides about the term “boatman,” and what they preferred to be called, many were almost ambivalent regarding the term while a few guides felt strongly against the gendered terminology. It was as if I had asked what time we’d be in camp – the responses were a bit evasive, highly humorous, and had underlying poignancy.

“It is not a gender-specific term to me, even if originally it was only men who rowed boats,” shared one longtime Grand Canyon dory guide and trip leader. “I don’t take offense at being referred to as a boatman.”

What Lady River Guides Really Think About Being Called a ‘Boatman’

“A long time ago, one of the old timers complimented me by writing in a card that I was a “boatman’s boatman,” she continued.  “It had nothing to do with being a woman or a man, it meant that I had respect as someone who could guide a boat well and work well with my fellow crew members.”

Ashley Brown, a trip leader in Idaho and Grand Canyon dory guide, agreed.  “I don’t necessarily think that what we are called matters…show your skills and get the respect,” she said. “I’m a boatman, same as anyone, and I expect to be treated as such.”

On the other hand, O.A.R.S. Oregon Area Manager and Rogue River guide Kate Wollney said, “I am not a boatman.”

“The words we use express the way we think,” continued Kate. “I don’t feel boatman is derogatory to women, I just think it reinforces a stereotype that claims rafting is men’s work.”

Idaho river guide, Joan Sundeen, felt similar. “I don’t think it is derogatory in current day use…I tend to describe my fellow female boaters as amazing boatmen, just based on how our language has been created,” she mused.  “However, the term does stem from a male-dominated perspective of the world so I think it is good to consider using different terminology that better reflects a more gender-equal society.”

I wondered if the reaction to the word “boatman” could be a nod to generational differences. To the women who pushed through gender-based barriers in the river guiding profession, terminology may be rightfully important. Many of the first women of whitewater were told that women shouldn’t guide. Being labeled a “boatman” may be a reminder of how many felt they had to become “one of the men” to be a successful guide. The use of “hag” in the first generation of female guides was a gender-specific female term that helped create a sense of solidarity and community between the few women rowing and guiding.

The younger generation of river guides has these women as role models and examples of why gender is irrelevant to becoming an excellent river professional. Perhaps to the new generation of female guides the terminology is less important because far fewer managers and guests question a woman’s ability to work in the profession.

When I presented this theory to O.A.R.S. Grand Canyon Assistant Manager Denice Napoletano, who has been playing a role in Grand Canyon river trips in one form or another since 1984, she didn’t think that had anything to do with it. “I see people who are adamant about it across the generations,” she said.

“I think some people just want things a certain way,” continued Denice. “It’s sort of like if the mayonnaise gets a rubber spatula or a knife in it!”

I reflected back to my interviews and realized she was right. One of the younger guides I had spoken with was in support of gender-neutral language.

What Female River Guides Really Think About Being Called a ‘Boatman’

As a member of the next generation of female guides, I often feel like Tina Fey being asked the iconic “women in comedy question.”  I believe that women in the new generation of outdoor leaders, while thankful and reverent to the women who pushed boundaries before us, are ready to stop talking about what it’s like to be a “female guide” and just tell our stories as “guides.”  As strong female outdoor leaders, we’re trying to find the balance between advocating and talking about our experiences, while also asserting that those experiences are important just because they are, not because they are the experiences of a female.

Whew! So after all of that explanation and exploration, what should you call the lady guide on your next river trip?

“I prefer to be called Heather,” said one river professional, with what I could only assume was a smirk on her face. But until you learn her name, “river guide” is a probably a safe bet too.

Female boaters and guides: What terminology do you prefer and why? We’d love to hear your insight in the comments below. 

Photos: James Kaiser, YETI – In Current, Justin Bailie