Humans first invented archery more than 20,000 years ago. Since our Stone Age ancestors first launched a pointy stick from a crude wooden longbow with a sinew string, archery has been used for both hunting and warfare.
Achieving proficiency with a bow and arrow requires patience, persistence, and a strong eye for detail. These traits are not exclusive to men. In fact, archery has long provided a way for women to be equal participants in providing food for their families and defending their homes from dangerous threats.
Generally smaller and weaker than their male counterparts, ancient women risked being overpowered in hand-to-hand combat. However, they could shoot arrows with deadly precision from longer distances, making their skills a more equal match for men.
The connection between archery and feminity is so strong that many cultures revered goddesses that represented both archery and womanhood. Women archers have also been celebrated in popular literature. Many modern examples, like Disney’s Merida and Katniss from The Hunger Games, have an almost cult-like following.
Today, women continue to be active participants in archery, both as fierce competitors and serious bowhunters. This article explores some of the most famous and influential female archers throughout history, both fictional and real-life examples.
What is a Female Archer Called?
The word “archeress” is included in many modern dictionaries. While the word is defined as “a female archer,” most modern women who participate in archery call themselves archers. In modern times, “archer” has become a gender neutral term to indicate any person who participates in the sport of archery.
Famous Female Archers of Mythology
The ancients often linked femininity with archery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the goddesses of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Vikings.
Artemis – Greek Goddess of Hunting, Nature, and Childbirth
Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo, the god of war. Traditionally, Apollo’s bow was made of solid gold while Artemis’s bow was fashioned from pure silver.
That Artemis (goddess of hunting) and Apollo (god of war) are regarded as archer twins illustrates the close connection of archery, hunting, and combat.
Diana – Roman Goddess of the Hunt
Like her Greek counterpart, Artemis, Diana was regarded as the goddess of hunting, wild animals, and childbirth. She is also the twin sister of the Greek Apollo, the god of war. Diana is often depicted in artwork clad in a short, knee-length tunic, wearing a quiver full of arrows, and carrying a bow.
Atalanta – Heroine of Greek Mythology
Although not a goddess, Atalanta makes several appearances in Greek mythology. This human huntress swore an oath of virginity to Artemis to prove her devotion to the hunting goddess. Atalanta’s name means ‘equal in weight,” which is appropriate since this skilled hunter and athlete often outshines men in feats of physical skill.
Atalanta makes her first appearance in Greek mythology at the Calydonian boar hunt. In this story, the King of Calydon fails to honor Artemis, causing the angry goddess to send a monstrous boar to wreak havoc on his lands. Oeneus, the king, sent his messengers in search of the best hunters in Greece to dispose of the boar and offered its pelt and tusks as a prize
The giant swine is one of the great monsters of Greek mythology, and several male heroes converge to kill it. However, it is the woman, Atalanta, who draws first blood from the animal with her trusty bow and arrow.
Skadi – Norse Goddess of Bowhunting
Bow wielding women aren’t relegated to Greek and Roman mythology. The Vikings also honored a warrior huntress and archer. In Norse mythology, Skadi is the wife of Njord (and later Odin). She is often depicted skiing along snow capped mountains with her bow in search of wild game.
Female Archers in Real Life
There are several examples of female archers in mythology. However, women can also find numerous inspiring women archers in real life, both through history and present day.
Once thought to be only the stuff of legend, Adrienne Mayor reveals fascinating facts about this society of warrior women in her book, The Amazons. Recent archaeological discoveries prove these fierce warrior women were not just figments of Greek fable and fantasy. These discoveries include several female skeletons marred by battle scars and buried with quivers full of arrows, battle-axes, spears, and horse gear.
The Amazons were well-known as incredible archers, and they often launched arrows with surprising precision while riding atop galloping horses. One persisting legend is that the Amazons (whose name in Greek translates to “without breast”) claims these women removed their right breast to enable them to draw their bows uninhibited. However, there is no indication of such a practice in any ancient work of art. In fact, Amazons are always shown with both breasts, although one breast is often uncovered.
The actual existence of Viking Shieldmaidens has long been debated in academic circles. There is little written evidence they actually existed, although legends of these vicious women have been passed down orally through the centuries.
Recent archeological discoveries seem to confirm the reality of these ferocious female warriors. The most notable is the Birka Viking warrior. Buried in a 10th century chamber-grave in Birka, Sweden, the body of this ancient Viking is buried with all the accoutrements of an elite professional warrior, including armor-piercing arrows. When the grave was first discovered in 1889, it was assumed the Birka warrior was male. However, DNA tests have confirmed her female identity. This new archeological evidence suggests the fabled Viking Shieldmaidens did fight alongside their male brethren.
Tomoe Gozen and the Onna-Bugeisha
Female samurai were commonly referred to as onna-bugeisha. Although not as prevalent as men, many women served honorably as samurai in medieval Japan. The onna-bugeisha were well-trained in martial arts, as well as weapons like the ko-naginata (the shortened female version of the iconic samurai polearm). However, an onna-bugeisha’s training would have largely focused on ranged weapons. These long-range weapons included the traditional longbow, which could be shot from defensive structures.
One notable onna-bugeisha was Tomoe Gozen. Her given name was Tomoe. Gozen, a title for female warrior samurai, was bestowed on her by her master, shogun Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Tomoe Gozen fought bravely alongside other samurai in the Genpei War (1180-1185).
The epic tome The Tale of Heike, mentions Tomoe Gozen as “a remarkably strong archer.” The words go on to say, “as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot.”
Queen Victoria and Victorian Era Archery Leagues
Archery was a popular pastime during the Victorian era, when it was considered a graceful form of exercise. During the early nineteenth century, competitive archery leagues became common among the British upper class.
At the time, archery was one of the few organized competitive sports in which women could freely participate. In these Victorian archery leagues, women participants wore the traditional corsets and petticoats of the period. This tight, restrictive clothing surely created a serious disadvantage when compared to other male competitors.
Queen Victoria herself embraced the sport of target archery as a young woman. While still a princess, she was the primary patron of the Society of Leonards Archers. When she assumed the British throne, Victoria renamed the club the Queen’s Royal St Leonards Archers.
The Royal St Leaonards Archers was an elite society comprised of the highest British aristocracy. Members of the club were elected by secret ballot, and luxurious prizes were awarded to tournament winners. Many of Saint Leonards’ members were women.
The Archery Hall of Fame and Museum
Located at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri, the Archery Hall of Fame and Museum has a total of 85 inductees. Sixteen of those inductees are women.
Ann Weber Hoyt was one of the first members to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Competing in national and world tournaments for two decades, Ann finished first eight times, second seven times, and third three times. In 1955, she became the first woman to win both the National Target and Field Championships.
Other notable female members of the Hall of Fame include Ann Marston, who won the Talent Award in the 1960 Miss America pageant for her archery skills, and Babe Bitzenburger, who set a world record in 1941 for the longest shot with a bow and arrow. Her shot measured just one foot shy of 400 yards, three inches less than the longest shot made by a man that same year.
Archery made its first appearance in the revered Olympic Games in 1900. Women archers first competed in the 1904 Olympics. It was one of the first sports to include events for both men and women.
After 1920, archery took a 52-year hiatus, reappearing on the Olympic scene in 1972.
Who is the Best Olympic Archer?
One of the most decorated Olympic archers in history is South Korea’s Kim Soo-Nyung, who competed in the 1988, 1992 and 2000. She has won four gold medals, as well as a silver and a bronze medal.
Soo-Nyung took up archery at the tender age of nine. After competing with South Korea’s Olympic team in 1988 and 1992, she retired from the sport to raise a family. But once archery is in your blood, it stays there. After giving birth to two children, Soo-Nyung returned for the 2000 Olympics, where she won the individual bronze and her third team gold medal. In 2011, The International Archery Federation named Kim Soo-Nyung the female archer of the 20th century.
Looking forward to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, fans should keep an eye on Chinese archer, Lei Chien-Ying. Chien-Ying took the Women’s Individual gold in the 2019 World Archery Championships. This highly competitive event served as a qualifier for the Tokyo Games.
The current top-ranking American female is 24-year-old Mackenzie Brown, who represented the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as the country’s only female archer.
World Archery Championships
Organised by the World Archery Federation, the World Archery Championships are a series of international competitions that embrace both recurve and compound bow events. Categories of competition include both indoor and outdoor target archery, field, 3D, and ski archery.
While compound bows are not allowed on the Olympic competition field, they are included in the World Archery Championships. The women’s 2019 Individual Compound event was won by 25-year-old American, Paige Pearce from Red Bluff, California. Paige won her first international competition in Turkey at the tender age of 13.
Alexis Ruiz, also from the United States, currently holds the number one spot in the compound women‘s world rankings. She achieved this rank after winning the 2019 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Berlin, Germany. Ruiz is only 19, a collegiate student-athlete, and the reigning World Youth Champion.
The Queens of Camo
Modern day female archers aren’t only showcasing their skills on the competition field. Today, women are also hitting the woods, fields, and mountains to hunt big game with their bows. In fact, women are the fastest growing bowhunting demographic in North America.
Co-host of the Outdoor Channel’s hit series, The Crush with Lee & Tiffany, Tiffany Lakosky was one of the first female archers to make regular appearances on a popular hunting show. The show features the Lakoskys, a husband and wife hunting team from eastern Iowa. While the show mainly focuses on hunting big whitetails, Tiffany has also shot elk, mule deer, turkeys, and more while on camera.
Eva Shockey is the daughter of Jim Shockey, one of the hunting industry’s most successful and famous figureheads. Eva joined her dad as co-host of Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures approximately fifteen years ago. She is an accomplished bowhunter in her own right, as well as a lifestyle blogger, outdoor brand ambassador, and best-selling author. She appeared on the cover of the May 2014 issue of Field & Stream magazine, making her the second woman in history to ever grace the cover. Queen Elizabeth II (pictured with her hunting dogs) was the first woman ever featured on the cover of this prestigious outdoor magazine.
Pairing up with her husband Ralph, Vicki Cianciarulo is co-host of the award-winning outdoor show, Archer’s Choice. Vicki and Ralph got their start in the outdoor industry when they opened the Archer’s Choice Pro Shop in Berwyn, Illinois. Vicki also holds the record for largest whitetail buck taken by a female archer on camera. The buck scored a whopping 203 ⅝ inches!
Another television personality and accomplished bowhunter, Bonnie McFerrin has taken several Pope & Young bucks, including the current Texas state record for a female archer. The buck, harvested in 2008, scored 195 ⅝ points. Bonnie also co-hosts Legends of the Fall, a hunting series on the Outdoor Channel with her husband Mike.
Anna Vorisek of Fairbanks, Alaska achieved the coveted North American Archery Super Slam in 2018. Only 27 bowhunters have ever accomplished this feat, and Anna is the only woman on the list. To qualify for the Super Slam, a hunter must register the legal taking of all 29 species of big game animals native to North America. The list of required species includes big game standards like the whitetail deer, mule deer, and Rocky Mountain elk. However, the hunter must also take large and dangerous animals like the Alaskan brown bear, polar bear, and bison, a risky feat with a simple bow and arrow.
Resources for More Information
Whether you are a young girl or a mature woman, you can try your hand at archery. Here are some great resources to get you started.
The highly acclaimed Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program offers archery clinics for women across the country. This program provides a solid foundation of archery skills for beginners.
The mission of the International Bowhunting Organization (IBO) includes promoting the sport of bowhunting and encouraging education. The IBO also serves as a resource for archery events and competitions as well as a source for networking with fellow archers.
The International Field Archery Association (IFAA) has 50,000 members from 45 countries. The organization is predominantly geared toward amateur archers and hosts numerous tournaments.
National Archery in Schools Program (NASP) is aimed at students in grades 4 through 12. The program hopes to leave students with skills beyond basic archery, including self-control, focus, discipline, and patience. NASP also provides tools and resources for coaches, competitions, and instruction.
The National Field Archery Association (NFAA) is the largest field archery organization in the world. The organization hosts national championship tournaments with competitive divisions ranging from cub to professional.
Need help finding a bow? Check out our article on The Best Compound Bows for Women.
Summing It Up
From the earliest years of human history, women have prevailed in the world of archery. Through oral mythology and the pages of ancient history, women have carried bows into the woods and onto the battlefield. Female archers have also dominated the competition field and are now holding their own in the world of big game bowhunting.