Dressed in leopard-print jeans and matching fur vest, Judy Rhodes is the color in an otherwise bland setting.
Gray skies, tan sheet metal, dirt and concrete blend into the bleak winter backdrop. But as Rhodes and the rest of the DIVA crew pour out of their cars like soccer moms on tournament day, their colorful costumes -- tiaras; red, white and blue cowgirl hats; leopard prints; lipstick -- draw curious stares from men unprepared for the estrogen invasion.
"Who are they?" one range manager asks as the ladies laugh and hug one another.
Undaunted by the skepticism surrounding them, the women happily lug their gear to the saloon-front shooting bay and start unpacking.
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The Elm Fork shooting range isn't the place for little-girl tea parties. It's where those deafening "pop, pop, pop" sounds you hear aren't fireworks. It's where a group of fabulous women are trying to lend a bit of style and feminine flair to a sport that has long been a men's domain.
"If we don't look good, we can't shoot," explains member and president Anginette Jorrey, a Fort Worth resident.
A gun range down a gravel drive, behind a liquor store off Luna Road isn't the kind of place for dainty Dallasites. But the members of DIVA Women Outdoors Worldwide, a Dallas-based, women-only shooting club founded by Rhodes in 1999, are part of a postfeminist generation that sees nothing especially unusual about elbowing in on territory traditionally occupied by men. Indeed, as Jorrey and Rhodes unpack handguns and boxes of ammo, the curious stares soon turn to looks of grudging admiration. They do have some nice pieces.
Rhodes next places a series of 9 mm Berettas on a zebra-print blanket and readies the range. The "girls" come forward one by one, and Rhodes walks them through a quick handgun lesson.
Pull the weapon in toward your chest (high, like a perky 20-year-old).
Grip the gun and push it out straight.
Pull the trigger.
"Pull it in, push it out, fire!" Rhodes instructs. In unison, the DIVAs respond by aiming at the paper man a few yards in front of them. "Pop, pop, pop, pop." Their shots slice through the paper -- shoulder, arm, dead center and a few crotch shots in the ground.
"Pull it in, push it out, fire!" Rhodes calls out. A spray of spent shells flies upward, and one sizzling shard of metal lands down the front of Patricia Bullard's shirt. The group bursts into a round of laughter.
A spent shell down the cleavage is hot!
Dubbed "trophy wives gone wild" by writer and member Jocelyn Foster Tatum and "cultural pioneers" by USA Today, the DIVAs were founded as Texas Women's Shooting Sports. (The DIVA part of the acronym, according to Rhodes, doesn't actually stand for anything. "We say we are all about attitude," she says.) Ten years later, says president Jorrey, DIVA WOW is the largest women-only sport-hunting and gun-enthusiast organization in the United States, with dozens of chapters across the country.
"I wanted a group of women I could shoot with," says new member Adriana Gentilini, a Dallas resident who only started shooting a year ago. She never thought she'd find a new passion for sport-clay shooting, but she quickly discovered that she loved it. Shooting with women is "empowering," she says.
Shoe designer Krista de la Harpe echoes that sentiment. "Training with women with guns makes a huge difference from a training perspective," she says. "Women have a different approach to each other."
That approach -- the ability to teach and not lecture, to praise and not laugh, to encourage and not get frustrated -- is what many local DIVAs believe helped the organization blossom.
"I knew it was going to be big, but I didn't know what direction," says Rhodes, flicking a well-manicured hand in the air. "When I first started this thing, men were like: 'Move on, little girls. Don't breathe our air.'"
They aren't saying that anymore. According to Rhodes, for every DIVA who now joins, an average of seven of her friends are likely to follow. And whereas male clubs are mostly relics of a bygone Texas era, interest in female-centric gun clubs keeps expanding. The National Rifle Association has created Women on Target, an organization that promotes similar mentoring and educational opportunities like DIVA WOW. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that between 2003 and 2008, the number of women hunting with firearms rose from 2.1 million to 2.9 million, women who bowhunt rose from 400,000 to 600,000, and women who target-shoot from 4.1 million to 4.8 million. The NRA has also seen a 49 percent increase between 2007 and 2009 in the number of women attending instructional shooting clinics.
According to Ian Harrison, general manager of the Beretta Gallery in Dallas, all these new female shooters are having a significant economic impact on the gun industry. "A big part of the business is [marketing] to women who like to hunt," he says. To cater to the female customer, the Elm Fork shooting range recently added pink gun cases. Manufacturers now offer women the option to customize their rifles and handguns with pink stocks and accents, for a more feminine touch.
In fact, the sport of shooting might be even more popular among women, Jorrey says, if there weren't such a widespread psychological barrier to guns. Most women have had "a bad experience" with firearms, she says -- a father or grandfather who put a shotgun in their hand as a girl and told them to pull the trigger.
Then there's the idea of guns not being traditionally feminine, which goes back to the elementary-school playground, where girls play with dolls and boys play cops and robbers.
Rhodes refuses to even consider the "butch" stereotype. Standing inside the chic confines of the Beretta Gallery in Highland Park Village at a recent DIVA cocktail party, the tall, sassy blond with a friendly Texas accent takes a quick glance around the room.
Unfeminine? "Absolutely not," she says.
Some ladies simply like the smell of gunpowder almost as much as their cherry vodka sours.
Sisters in arms
Of course, old perceptions die hard, especially when it comes to weaponry. Even the most open-minded, nonjudgmental observers among us might be prone to wonder: Why?
What makes otherwise sane-seeming women from the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth want to grab a gun -- the ultimate symbol of violence, male dominance and bloodshed -- and shoot stuff, even for sport?
Are the DIVAs filled with long-repressed rage? Do they feel the need to prove themselves to the men around them?
Quite the opposite. Talk to these pistol-packing mamas, and you'll quickly learn that there isn't any grand feminist plan behind the organization. Some of them are just girls having fun with guns. For others, it's a chance to explore their interest in firearms.
For almost all of them, there is a sense of pure exhilaration.
When you grip a handgun for the first time and slowly squeeze off a round, your immediate reaction is one of fear. The sound is deafening and intimidating. The pow vibrates through your body. But that initial anxiety is replaced by a sense of relief: You realize that you didn't kill yourself and your arm is still attached to your shoulder. Hearing cheers of "You did it!" from the tiara-clad cowgirl next to you is all the more exhilarating. A junior league luncheon couldn't possibly compare.
And DIVAs are always there to cheer one another on. They'll squat right alongside you in a deer blind; they'll squeal in delight when you hit your first clay pigeon; they will clap you on the back when you finally hit that stupid paper-target dude.
"Until I found the DIVAs, I didn't know what real camaraderie and sisterhood was about," says Jorrey, who helped found the nonprofit. When a member lost her job and ended up homeless, living out of her car, it was the DIVAs who stepped up to the plate, got her back on her feet and helped her find a job. They also offer scholarships to members so they can participate in events.
"We have members who can't afford to pay attention, and others who can buy you out of the room," Rhodes says.
Death. Divorce. Babies. Man problems. They're serious about the motto: Never leave a DIVA behind.
But are clubs like these glamorizing gun culture? Are they suggesting, à la Angelina Jolie in Wanted, that there's something sexy about women who play with pistols?
The DIVAs say no. Sure, they display a brassy, badass sense of humor about their hobby. (One of their T-shirts reads: "We don't call 911.") But for most of these women, shooting isn't about being part of some hip trend.
"I grew up with guns," says member Martha Justice-Moore, a recently divorced stay-at-home mom in Dallas. She has long had a general interest in shooting as a sport. She also stresses the importance of "home protection," especially with two young children.
And although the DIVAs try to make shooting female-friendly -- Yes, wear leopard print to a gun clinic, name your favorite shotgun "Baby," and bring your daughter, sister and mom along with you -- they do not endorse the idea that guns are cool.
As for the future of this organization, Rhodes can only be optimistic. The DIVA WOW organization now includes members in 49 states and 18 foreign countries. In perhaps the ultimate ironic twist, the guys who might have once scoffed at DIVAs are starting to come around.
"One man offered $25,000 to join," says Rhodes, who turned him down reluctantly.
"We couldn't be where we are without the support of our husbands," she adds. But 'women only' means just that.