Over my years of training, I’ve always been a traditional martial artist. Before I began training in Aikido under a master instructor who had been a live-in student of the founder, I trained in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate under a high-ranking teacher who took the tradition seriously.
Being traditional carries with it some expectation of male-like behavior, particularly, but not exclusively, in schools with male instructors. After spending years of my life in marching band — where we put up our hair under our hats so we didn’t look like women — and going to law school back when only a few women did that, I was used to being a woman who could be one of the boys when I stumbled into martial arts.
Sort of. I mean, I never completely fit in, but I also refused to be pushed out.
I did train for a short while in an all-woman karate school, but at the time I felt strongly that I had to train with men if I was going to be able to fight them. These days I think I was wrong about that.
Last week I went to the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation special training camp, the first time I’d been since the early 1980s. I was very junior before; this time I went as a trainer.
I also went as someone who did empowerment self defense training last year with ESD Global. That is, I went as someone focused on women and all others raised as girls recognizing and claiming their power.
Because that’s what matters to me these days. That’s why I got into martial arts in the first place. I knew I had power, but I didn’t know how it worked. Learning with my body that I could fight was an important step for me. (Most of us who are raised as girls learn the lie of physical inferiority with our bodies from an early age and need to do something physical to upend it.)
So while part of me is still skeptical about those who go too far afield of the traditional martial arts, a growing part of me is embracing the idea that women can forge their own arts, building on what came before them but incorporating what they need into the mix.
At camp I spoke to some women who studied Shorin-Ryu. Their teachers did not like the idea of them coming to camp and training with those who do other arts, especially more hybrid, non-traditional arts. One person told me that her teacher would let her teach self-defense as long as she taught it as traditional karate.
One thing I am sure of: you can’t teach self-defense without deviating from traditional martial arts. A lot of women find the traditional dojo very uncomfortable (I love it and so do most of the women martial artists I know, but we are not the usual crowd). And traditional martial arts do not include all the skills or considerations that are important for women in self-defense training. There is no way you can teach a good self-defense class if you’re limited to just the punches, kicks, and blocks of basic karate.
I also had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Maryam Aziz, a martial artist who is finishing up a history dissertation on martial arts and the Black Panther party. She made me realize how African Americans took up Asian martial arts and made them their own. They also turned to martial traditions from different parts of Africa.
Although women have always fought, we don’t have a lot of traditional women warrior narratives to build on. The Amazons and the women soldiers of Dahomey are the most well known. There are a lot of stories about individual women joining armies, usually disguised as men. However, it is a fact that women are perfectly capable of fighting.
Women need to assert their own power and develop their own systems. To some extent, that’s what we do with empowerment self defense, but it can be expanded to more of the martial arts.
The changes may have more to do with attitudes about what women can do, though there is also the opportunity to focus an art on the ways women excel physically. We might also build traditions that deliberately integrate compassion with discipline.
It’s a fascinating challenge for the next generation of women in the martial arts. I look forward to their future.