Women in Martial Arts
“Guys have John Wayne, and who do we have? Wonder Woman? But she isn’t even real!” pointed out one martial artist. Women and girls growing up in this society are exposed to few powerful role models. They’re just not typically taught to be physically strong. They’re told that being strong is “acting like a boy” or “acting like a man.” Many women are unlearning and challenging the false images and myths that women should not be physically powerful, verbally assertive, nor able to protect themselves. A growing number of these women are choosing to train in the martial arts.
Who are the women who train in the martial arts, and why do they choose to do so? Their backgrounds vary just about as much as their reasons for training. Their ages range from five to ninety-one years old; they are Black, White, Latina and Asian, able-bodied, in wheelchairs, blind and deaf, lesbian and straight, short and tall. They began for self-defense purposes, for self-development, for physical conditioning, and for the spiritual aspects of the martial arts.
There are many different styles of martial arts. Training usually consists of practicing basic techniques (kicks, punches, rolls, falls and/ or throws), katas (a choreographed set of moves designed to deal with an imaginary attacker or group of attackers), and sparring (a free-fighting exercise combining the skills learned from techniques and kata). Martial arts training draws on the spiritual and mental as well as physical aspects of the body. It strengthens one’s inner self. Its practice takes place in, a training hall called a “dojo” in Japanese and a “kwoon” in Chinese.
l came across many recurring themes in the interviews I conducted. Several women pointed out that movies and television rarely show a woman successfully escaping an attack situation. Maria Doest, a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art Sho- rin-ryu and head instructor at Karate Women, a school in Los Angeles, California, stressed that violence is even glorified in movies and television shows. “We’re shown women being beaten, murdered, raped or slandered all in the name of entertainment. How can that be entertainment?” And how often is a woman shown successfully warding off an attacker in all of these violent shows? The viewer typically sees women as weak and unable to protect themselves.
On rare occasions do we see a woman who can protect herself. “I kind of hate to admit it, but one of my role models when I was growing up was Emma Peel from “The Avengers.” I thought she was great! I watched a rerun the other day, and her karate is horrible. She punches with her wrists bent, her kicks are the wimpiest things in the world, when she rolls she somersaults. But I still give her a great deal of credit because she was the only competent woman I remember seeing on TV,” commented Pat Murphy, a brown belt at the Kenpo Karate School for Women in San Francisco, California.
A common misconception about martial arts is that the student is practicing the art in order to go out and kick some ass. The sensationalized portrayal in martial-arts movies can be thanked for that image. Countless times people have commented to me when I’ve told them that I train in Kung Pu, “Oh, I’d better watch out, you might beat me up.” Maybe in some schools that’s the intent, but as a student of a feminist approach to martial arts, I am taught the art form for defensive purposes, not offensive. After all, martial arts were developed by oppressed peoples to defend themselves from attackers. They didn’t go out looking to kick butt either.
Before beginning training, I didn’t realize how important it was to be able to defend myself, to know some techniques I could use in case l was attacked. From the beginning, the spiritual aspects of the martial arts were appealing, but I had to be convinced that learning how to make a fist and throw a punch was a valuable skill. One of the first times I had to punch, my instructor pointed out to me that my shoulder was raised and pulled back so as not to deliver a fully committed technique.
Other women interviewed, like Pat Murphy, began for self-defense purposes. “I had been traveling by myself and invariably when doing so I get myself into situations I probably shouldn’t be in, like being at a train station at three in the morning waiting for a four o’clock train. One of the things I was looking for in the martial arts was a feeling of confidence, the feeling that I wouldn’t be an immediate victim, that I would be able to do something. People ask, ‘Do you think you’d be able to fend off any attacker? No, but I’d be able to do something. I would be able to react rather than freezing.”
Maria Doest began her training at her local YMCA, in Houston, Texas. Her approach was two- fold, for self-defense purposes and for exercise. “I started training sixteen years ago. In that era there were very few women training. The attitude was, ‘Why don’t you take ballet instead?’ There were very few women in the class. At that time it wasn’t something that women really did. Another woman and l became really dedicated and started changing the way women viewed what they were doing at the school. A lot of times the men tended to ignore the women…and l was there to train. Because l was there to train and didn’t fool around, it made the other women also train hard. I think my attitude helped change my instructor’s attitude about the women who were training, that women can punch, that women can kick. He, in turn, made them start training harder.”
Anne Moon, a second-degree black belt and head instructor of Kajukenbo Kung Fu at Seven Star in Seattle, Washington, agreed that most of her students started for self-defense purposes. When asked why she would encourage women to train in the martial arts, she talked about the spiritual values of the martial arts. Most physical activity – whether it’s dance or some other form of movement – emphasizes either the sport or the performance aspect. In the Western world, physical activity generally lacks the spiritual path that the martial arts provide.
Through training in the martial arts, I have realized that I have both the right to defend myself and the ability to do so. Training has made me more aware of what I would be capable of doing in case of a confrontation. I don’t necessarily feel safer on the streets at night, but I feel more aware of my surroundings. I find that I carry myself differently when I’m walking home alone at night. I have some idea of what my reaction would be toward a potential attacker. I’ve now punched and kicked in class. I had never done that before. I’ve freed myself from grabs. Before, the attempt to physically fend off an attacker would have been completely foreign to me. If a guy attacks me on the street, I’m not going to hit him with a kata. The techniques I learn are rehearsals for real situations. Come the situation, I might not remember all my lines, but I’ll remember some of them. I’m setting up mental and physical patterns.
People ask me if I’ve ever “gotten to use” what I’ve learned in martial arts. No, and I hope never to have to. They’re surprised by my response as well as when I tell them that my first reaction would be to get myself out of the situation, to avoid the attack. They always seem disappointed that I don’t sound eager to try out my techniques on an attacker. If I had to, I feel that l could throw a strong technique that would debilitate the attacker just long enough to get myself out of danger. But I’m not about to go out looking for trouble to see if I can defend myself.
Lisa Hirsch, an advanced student at Laurel Jujitsu in Oakland, California, agreed with both my feeling of confidence and my feeling of uncertainty. “I do feel I have good skills for defending myself. Though at the same time, the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. In some ways, life gets scarier as you find out what you don’t know. You think, ‘what’s going to happen if…” I think of things like someone putting a knife to my throat.
“I find that I’m starting to look at death a little bit more and a bit differently than I used to. I’d always known that it was possible that I’d have to kill someone to defend myself and I accepted that a long time ago, even though I have some qualms about it. It’s a horrible idea, but now that I’m working on defenses against knives and guns, I’m looking more at my own death. In the dojo, you have the opportunity to die a thousand times and be resurrected. What we’re really learning is commitment and intention.”
Simply knowing that you can defend yourself can change how you view yourself. Several women talked about being hit or abused as children, when they didn’t think about defending themselves. One woman, who chose to remain nameless, stated, “When my father or my siblings would hit me, my automatic reaction was always to cower in the corner and protect my head. Now I know I would fight back. Training has given me the confidence to know that I would never again succumb to abuse like that. Too bad my mother didn’t enroll me in karate when I was a little girl.”
Maria Doest talked about the effects of training on women who have been physically or sexually abused. “I think training empowers the women because there’s something lost when a woman is attacked. Something is taken away from her, and that’s the ability to defend herself, the ability to control her own life. Taking self-defense or taking martial arts gives her back that feeling of control; it puts that back in her life.”
The women I spoke with pin-pointed specific gains that they’ve noticed from their training, related to self-awareness and self-confidence, as well as self-defense. Candida Kutz, who trains in Choy Li Put in San Francisco, California, commented, “I felt awkward walking before I started training; I felt comfortable with my body. Now I feel powerful. I feel more confident in the world in just day-to-day dealings.”
For some, martial arts have helped ease the stress of the daily grind. Pat Murphy pointed out, “When I first got into martial arts, I was at a very high-stress job, and I was under constant pressure. Martial arts works for me as kind of a moving meditation. When I’m working on a form, I have to be focusing on the form or I can’t do it. When I’m sparring, if I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next Saturday, I’m gonna get mashed. It focuses me on being in the here and now. To me that’s an immediate payback.”
Martial arts have aided some during times of serious illness. Gloria Boldizar, the head instructor at the Kenpo Karate School for Women in San Francisco, California, recently survived a battle with breast cancer. “There have been times in my life when I was very depressed, and I just kept training. Martial arts helped me get through those dark times. Just last October (1987), I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a mastectomy, went through intense chemotherapy and radiation, and there were times when I was very, very sick. And my martial-arts spirit of ‘never give up’ held me. I even went into the dojo, as sick as I was, and did a little karate. I did some katas very slowly. It empowered me.
“When you’re as sick as I was and you have to go to the hospital all the time, you get the sense of not being the empowered person you are because you’re saying, ’Yes, you can do this to me.’ When you go and you do your art, you remember that you are the powerful one. It helped me keep a balance, keep a perspective. Also it gave me something to look forward to. It empowered me, it made me feel good, it made me feel alive. ‘When I get through with all this, I can go train like hell and teach like hell.’”
“My surgeon is also a martial artist. He would constantly tell me about my martial-arts spirit, that it’s what’s going to help me heal, to bring up my chi (energy). He would also tell me, ‘Even if you’re sick, do your katas in your head,’ that it would help my spirit and my healing. We worked together in my healing.”
WOMEN train both in co-ed schools, which are usually predominantly male, and in all-women’s schools with women instructors. Some have trained in both, and some have been instructors for schools of all men and have subsequently opened all-women’s schools. Currently, a second generation of women martial artists, women taught the arts by women, is opening women’s schools.
Sixteen years ago, Gloria Boldizar began training in a school that was predominantly composed of men. “I enjoyed that because it was very challenging. I was pushed very hard, and I appreciated that. I wanted to be the best I could. There were times that it was pretty discouraging because I didn’t have the physical strength. I felt like my teachers continued to push me hard and expected the best, and I felt their push as a sense of, ‘We think you can do it, Gloria.” I loved training. I wanted it to be part of my life. So, I appreciated their push.”
There may be certain odds against a woman who is the only or one of the only women training in a men’s school. Some women said that in training men didn’t treat them as equals, treating them as if they were frail. Other women said they were pushed and tested a lot more than the men students. Maria Doest’s instructor hadn’t wanted her to train at his school because he said that women “never lasted.” She told him that she had fought full contact and had always trained with men, so he gave her a chance to train at the school. She ended up becoming the head instructor when her instructor left town “rather rapidly” one night. The school was all men; she was the only woman. When she became the head instructor, the men who “didn’t mind, stayed and were excellent students, and those who did mind, left.”
From the time that Maria Doest received her black belt, she planned to open an all-women’s school. She believes, ‘An all-women’s school is good as long as the instructor is a strong instructor. If you have an instructor who doesn’t have real strong techniques, her students won’t have strong techniques. I hate comparing women to men, what I see is a bunch of martial artists. If you’re gonna throw a punch, you’re
gonna throw a good punch, no matter who you are, what you are, how tall or short you are or how heavy you are.”
An all-women’s school can provide a safe place to train. It’s more difficult for women who didn’t grow up natural athletes or for rape, incest, and assault survivors to begin training in a school full of men.
There are other advantages to training in a women’s school. According to Lisa Hirsch, “There’s supportiveness in an all-women’s environment. It’s easier to be vulnerable and open to some of the emotional things that happen during training. There’s a lot of fear to be dealt with. It’s less intimidating to start working on techniques with other women. An all-women’s school becomes a place where women can be strong and can be leaders without dealing with the kind of male-female politics and power imbalances that go on in the world in general.” Anne Moon believes that “There was a crying need for the changes feminism is making in the martial arts. The art form itself is so male defined and masculine in history. Women martial artists need to find their history.”
I discussed with several women the benefits of training with men as well as with women. Pat Murphy says that the ideal situation for her is to “train with women regularly and work out with men now and then. That way I can build my material working with women and test it out and challenge myself by working in co-ed schools.” One benefit of training at her women’s school is that “it’s more community oriented and much more oriented to helping everyone, even the people who may not be naturally aggressive or athletic. I think many men would probably prefer karate schools that are less macho. I’d imagine that a lot of them would like to train in the type of environment created in a women’s school.”
Author, Lisa Geduldig is a 5′ 1″ purple belt in Kajukenbo Kung Fu at the ‘Hand to Hand Self Defense Center in Oakland, California. Her love for (and addiction to) martial-arts training prompted her to write this article. J. Baldwin
Looking For a School
In your search for a martial-arts school that suits your needs, I would make the following suggestions. Look around at a lot of schools, watch a couple of classes, and talk to the instructors and students. Watch a belt test if one is planned for the near future If it’s a co-ed school, are there upper-ranked women? Do they seem comfortable training there? Do they seem to be treated the same as the men students? Are there any women instructors? “The most important thing,” suggests one student, “isn’t so much the style, but rather an instructor you really respect and who really respects you.”
If you’re interested in a six-week self-defense course, you can generally find out about one through your local women’s center, rape crisis center or women’s martial arts school.
There are two organizations in the United States formed to promote martial arts training for women. Both the National Womens Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF) and the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists (PAWMA) organize annual training camps, publish newsletters, provide lists of women’s martial-arts schools, and sponsor training events. Annually, NWMAF runs Special Training, a four- day intensive training camp on the East Coast over the summer, and PAWMA runs a three-day camp in California in the fall. In 1989, the two organizations will combine their efforts, and NWMAF will sponsor Special Training (for the first time on the West Coast) in San Luis Obispo, California July 6-9, 1989. PAWMA will resume its training camp in 1990. For information on these organizations and training camps, contact: NWMAF. – LG
Model Mugging Self-Defense
I’ve never seen Model Mugging in action, but it sounds like a great program. Imagine taking a self-defense course in which the “attacker” (a trained “mugger” with an average of fourteen years’ martial-arts experience) comes at you padded in thirty pounds of protective gear all over his/her body so you can really go all out to defend yourself and wail on this guy. The attack doesn’t stop until the Model Mugger indicates that a knockout blow has been delivered. Seems like an intensely realistic practice against a would-be attacker.
The course was designed seventeen years ago by martial artist Matt Thomas after an award-winning black belt in his class was brutally raped. Apparently she didn’t have much practice fighting from the ground.
“Basically, we setup an adrenaline state under which freeze and flail responses are reconditioned. If that adrenaline state is similarly aroused in a real life attack, women’s bodies respond in ways their muscles remember as being effective: they fight in the no-mind warrior state of reflex action.” – Matt Thomas
Model Mugging News
Mary Tesoro, Editor
Her Wits About Her
Here’s a collection of self-defense success stories as told by women survivors from all walks of life. These women used a variety of strategies to get out of and survive their attacks. Some ran, kicked, negotiated, struggled, used weapons at hand, while others assertively used their voices to fight off these attacks in their homes, cars, public places and on the streets. The accounts show how each woman used her own individual intuition.
There’s no set formula to ward off an attacker. The survivors’ self-defense backgrounds ranged from no previous training to being black belts. Included is a list of self-defense programs in the United States and Canada, along with an annotated bibliography concerning self-defense and related topics. This book is a must for every woman, whether or not she’s involved in self-defense. – LG
When he jumped on me again, I just grabbed him by his privates, and told him to leave me alone, and then he vomited all over my place and fell asleep on top of me. I prayed, I asked the Lord, I said, “Lord, I got the faith but I just ain’t got the strength.” And the minute I said that, the good Lord put the strength in my hand. Then I wasn’t scared no more.
So I made my way from under him — I couldn’t walk because he had taken my [artificial] legs off – I crawled to my telephone and then I called the police, my Sunday-school teacher and her husband, and they all came.” – 69-year-old woman in Kentucky.
Her Wits About Her by Denise Caignon and Gail Groves, Editors
This study on how women responded to the threat of sexual assault is interwoven with testimonies of rape avoiders and women who were raped. It offers insight into strategies that women have used to get out of attack situations. Factors such as the women’s childhood socialization are examined. The book has a somewhat sociological-study tone, but still it’s a useful resource in how to avoid rape. The reader should by no means take this as a sole means to self-defense. Take a course too.
Historically, women have been advised to avoid rape by restricting their behavior; thus the Israeli parliament suggested a curfew on women when the rape rate increased. However, Prime Minister Golda Meir suggested a curfew on men because they were the ones doing the raping. – LG
Stopping Rape (Successful Survival Strategies)
Pauline B. Bart and Patricia H. O’Brien
Fighting Woman News
This is the only magazine that I’ve come across by, for, and about women martial artists. Includes articles on different issues concerning martial arts and self-defense, announcements of events, book reviews, letters and a partial directory of martial arts and self-defense schools. The magazine’s only fifteen pages, could stand to be improved, but it’s definitely a start. – LG
Fighting Woman News
Valerie Eads, Editor
Women’s Self-Defense: Women Teaching Women
Women’s Self-Defense discusses violence against women, the misconceptions and realities, and feminist self-defense. Like the video put out by the same group, this book addresses three areas: awareness, assertiveness and physical techniques. Good photos of self-defense moves accompany an easy-to-read text. Again, do not attempt to teach yourself self-defense by reading this book. Its purpose is to be a follow-up to a self-defense course, something you can refer to at home.
Self-Defense: Women Teaching Women is a two-part video designed to provide tools for effective self-defense teaching for women who are either already self-defense instructors or are planning to start a program, It is accompanied by an instructor’s training manual. Workshops are filmed in which women discuss their fears, misconceptions, and success stories as well as learn self-defense techniques. Part One of the video looks at basic self-defense instruction; Part Two addresses special needs of elderly physically disabled and deaf women. The purpose is to complement training from experienced instructors, not to replace it. Don’t attempt to learn self-defense solely from watching this video! – LG
Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women
Original article in Whole Earth Magazine – Spring 1989 – pages 130 to 136, download file size is 4.93 MB
Other Model Mugging Self Defense Articles