In May of 1979, I went to the YMCA in Wichita Falls, Texas, and signed up for karate. The same evening I went to my first class. It changed my life.
That might make you think my life at the time was very dull, but, in fact, 1979 was a roller-coaster of a year for me. I was running a legal services office, which was challenging at the best of times. A tornado hit Wichita Falls in April, wiping out twenty percent of the housing in town and killing 45 people. I was lucky, but living in a disaster area is still difficult.
While I was visiting my sister in New York City in the summer, we picked up the New York Times and read in a front page story with pictures above the fold that our hometown was underwater. We called our parents, frantic, and our mother said, “I can’t talk now. The boat is here to pick me up.” Turned out they’d had 43 inches of rain in 24 hours, which was the North American record until 2018. My grandmother came to stay with me in Wichita Falls for a couple of weeks, just to get away from it all.
And then my other grandmother had a stroke while visiting my uncle in Washington, D.C. After which I had surgery on my thyroid. (My mother, who was running a newspaper with my father that wasn’t making any money, who was living in a trailer because her home was uninhabitable, who was dealing with getting her mother back to Texas after the stroke, my mother came up to take care of me during the surgery. I have never forgotten that.)
A lot happened in 1979, but it was signing up for karate that changed my life. I went to my first class, not knowing that I was supposed to watch first, wearing shorts instead of long pants (much less a gi), even getting there late. The teacher didn’t kick me out, and I picked up the rules after that. Eventually he decided I was going to stick around and started to help me.
I was usually the only woman in the class. I couldn’t get any of my friends to join me. That wasn’t as big a deal to me as it might have been to others. My law school class had been ten percent women. Eight out of the hundred or so lawyers in Wichita County were women. I was used to being the only woman in the room.
I wasn’t talented at karate. I’m a person who needs to be physical, but I don’t have a lot of natural talent. But karate spoke to me in a way that nothing else I had ever done in my life spoke to me. And it changed me in ways that I didn’t even know at the time.
I left Wichita Falls for Washington, DC, a year later. In DC, I first found an all-woman dojo that focused on martial arts from a feminist perspective. I then trained in a mostly male dojo in before finally moving onto aikido. I found my permanent martial arts home in aikido, but I learned a great deal from my karate teachers.
Martial arts gave me the principles I live by. It’s also at the core of my feminism. Knowing that I can read situations and take care of myself allows me to go out in the world and do the things that are important to me. I’m now teaching empowerment self defense because I want to pass what I’ve learned on to those who aren’t interested in spending a large chunk of their lives in the dojo.
At this time when we’ve finally begun to look at the abuse and violence against women, it’s clear to me that my years of training have left me with something else: I am not afraid of men.
I’m not a fearless person. Many things scare me, including dangerous people, most of whom are men. But men in general, even loud and abusive men who are used to throwing their weight around, don’t scare me. I know how to handle them.
Looking back at 1979 I can only shake my head at the resilience of youth. Everything that happened that year was terrifying. Maybe karate helped me get through it, because I don’t remember feeling terrified all the time, but if I had a year like that right now I’d be a basket case.
But I still wouldn’t be scared of men.