On 'She's the Top Dog'

It was a big deal, when I was in third grade, to decide to wear pants instead of skirts. To wear a long sleeved sweatshirt instead of a blouse. For me, it was an important act of independence.

 Yet wearing a dress never stopped me from being up to my knees in mud, or scratching my elbows while I climbed trees, or collecting and burying acorns for the squirrels in the cove of trees I played in with my sister. There are photos (somewhere) that capture this, my rainbow-colored dress, my long dark hair, a pair of muddy rainboots, and some stick or tool in my hand.

 I have been thinking about this period of life as this photo of myself, wearing an orange dress and holding my chainsaw, has become utilized twice in NH Magazine. In a modern world of branding, has this become my brand?

 The glimmering and ever-shifting force that defines gender roles is something I constantly try to elude and yet have recently become compelled to focus on. Some of this compulsion has come from assuming an extraordinary amount of leadership and responsibility in my life and work and community, and some has come from noticing the times when I am not given my voice. Those times when I am not allowed to speak and am trapped in a set of rules I did not create, agree to, or understand.

 I was raised by a mother who insisted that I could self-define based on what I believed, but was also raised alongside a brother and a sister who were given that same opportunity to self-define, self-emerge, in a world where there was, and continues to be, not a lot of comfort with or understanding of the differently abled. My brother didn’t talk in full sentences until he was well into his teens, he was prone to bouts of violent actions, and broke so many pieces of furniture with his excitement when he watched movies. My mother, and thereby us, insisted on our family being accorded the same rights as ‘average’ families. I was raised to be an advocate, a tireless questioning of the status quo.

 I continue to live in that environment, as I stand now as the guardian and caregiver for my brother and sister. Sometimes that life is straightforward, the system of gears and fluid movement that makes up our household flows easily. Sometimes that life is difficult, such as when our stressed well runs dry, when my brother gets sick, or when the power goes out.

 The intention of sharing this story is to show what inspired the concept of ‘She’s the Top Dog: Stories of Women and Their Dog Teams.’ I was asked first by the Museum of the White Mountains, and then by Amy Dugan for the Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars, to present on women and dog teams. As I chewed on what that meant, I landed on what I felt was the bigger story, and the bigger question: What ARE the stories of women and their dog teams?


I suddenly wanted to know.


I wanted to hear women talk about their dogs, about their passions, about the fabric of their lives and their dogs. I wanted to hear about what they see and feel on the trail, and what they learn from the teammates. I wanted to hear what they thought about their gender.

 So I asked: distance mushers, sprinters, mid-distance mushers, and recreational mushers. I asked women who have been in the sport for 20 plus years and women who are early in their career. I asked women who have run multiple races and women who might not race at all. They have all manner of dogs and kennel sizes, structured in so many different ways. I asked them a short list of questions. I asked for pictures.

 And, as these names and voices populated my inbox, I was moved. I smiled and cried. I felt the presence of so many other women, a community.

 The pictures of so many women and their teams, women standing tall on the runners, and leaning into embraces with their dogs. So many women. The voices that range from the nuts-and-bolts-details of excitement, to the warmth and joy of celebration, to the singing love of life. I have found all these voices so powerful. Reading all the answers from all these women brings me to life.

 As I started this project, I held onto a lingering confusion about why the media and people not involved in the sport paid attention to my gender. I crafted the title because I disliked the phrase ‘female musher’ because we are all mushers, and also in annoyance at so many times that someone asks ‘who’s the top dog?’ and doesn’t understand it when I say ‘I’m the top dog'. In the Can Am 250 last year, there was a local woman who posted on Facebook my arrival at the halfway point by saying ‘Sally Manikian is the first woman to Camp Syl-Ver.’ For her, it mattered that I was a woman. For me, it mattered that I was arriving in the afternoon and Martin Massicotte was still there and there was still 12 dogs on the team, and that I would be starting down the trail in daylight. When I finished the race it mattered to my friend Shannon that I was a woman, as she shared the video of my finish and said that she was so happy her daughter had so many women to look at for role models. There is a constantly shifting force at work here. 

 There have been times, outside of mushing, when I know I am not being listened to, and my voice is ignored as valid. I am never quite sure if it is gender, or age, or skin color, or the ring in my nose, or the challenge I usually offer in what I am thinking about. Recently, a comment I made at a Board meeting was assigned to a man, even though that man had not said anything throughout the entire meeting (‘Just like Jay said’, and Jay and I looked at each other in surprise) 

 As mushers, we do acknowledge and expect an equitable environment, an inclusive environment of men and women competing and traveling together, where women notice our genders when we have to pee but do not always feel the constant male gaze. There is a powerful example of how to build an inclusive community within mushing, as it is when we leave mainstream expectations for life at the fringes.

 Yet…..and yet…..I pay attention to the gender at the table when I sit down, at race banquets and musher’s meetings. Just as I pay attention to the gender when I am at the table in so many other different circumstances: Boards, discussion panels, committees, and around the coffee or at the bar during conferences. I feel my voice passed over, I feel myself marginalized, and sometimes I do feel myself heard.

 There is something wonderfully important about the stories told from women and their dog teams. The presence of women in certain roles in the world is becoming less rare and more ordinary, and in the transition from rare to ordinary I have become fascinated with the opportunity to raise up all these voices. I see the raising up as I chart the rise in signups in my local race, the Can Am 250, from zero women to 50%. And, I absolutely love the diversity of voices that have been showing up in this process. It has become a powerful celebration of life. 


Numbers. Numbers of women in the Can Am 250.

Numbers. Numbers of women in the Can Am 250.


As more women emerge in these races, in these roles, we all have a choice to celebrate their presence, and encourage confidence and acceptance. We all shine brighter when we hold up each other equally and honestly, and do not tear down, speak ill, or envy. That desire to tear down comes, I think, from a misunderstanding that there isn't room for everyone at the top. 

So, living among all these beautiful and honest stories, I give thanks to those who have been willing to explore this with me. This has been an experiment in emergence. This has been transformative. This is my offering to building a confident and positive culture. 

 For those who are interested in seeing some of these stories writ live and large and presented with as much honesty and beauty and humor as I can muster, come see this presentation (free and open to the public) live:

 Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth NH September 28th 6:30-7:30

 Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars, Hopkington Fairgrounds, October 1st, (Time TBA, but I am expecting it to be sometime between 10 a.m. and noon). 

Also, since this post opened up with me in a dress, I think it's appropriate to point out that if Kelly Rowland can realize that she shines brighter, not less, when standing next to Beyonce, can't we all do the same? 

Sally Manikian