Nancy Jane training in Aikido.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.



Tradition! — 14 Comments

  1. I discovered inadvertently when I was a scrawny rat of twenty that women can defend themselves–I had been taking fencing for a while, and was getting really good. I found myself in a situation where I had to defend my life with a switchblade (only weapon on me at the time) and used my fencing skills.

    So I took karate off and on from the early seventies on. When arthritis began making sparring too painful, I switched to tai chi. It was very hard to find a studio at that time (early nineties) but I did–full of Chinese-Americans. Only one of whom (a fellow student, not the teacher) who spoke English. It was full of women.

    I went to a competition once, and spoke to one of the judges, a woman who had been a ballet dancer for the state until she married. She told me many fascinating things, among them that the women servants of the harem during the imperial days had had their own martial arts form. So fascinating!

    • Some historian should write about the harem martial arts as well. We need to know all that history. So much of women’s history gets buried or told as exceptional stories, when in fact the practice of fighting arts — not to mention creative ones — was widespread.

      I want to read all those histories. I want to know the truth.

      • So much of Chinese history was suppressed during their ructions when I was young, except for very old histories full of western-imperialist assumptions and unexamined racism.

        However, my current longterm project is to rectify my ignorance, as more is coming out. Chinese history is very long, very fascinating.

        • If you find some good books on the subject, please let the rest of us know. I studied a lot of history in college, but it all focused on Western history. What I know about Asia in general comes from martial arts training.

          And that’s a lot more than I know about African history. I know bits and pieces of a couple of cultures. I’d really like to rectify that, too.

    • I’m sure your daughter picked up quite a bit of martial arts training in the military, but studying it formally provides a nice balance with practicing law and motherhood, if she can find the time. It’s a particularly good form of exercise for those of us with an urge toward warriorship and almost all martial arts training has the advantage of being a life-long pursuit (assuming you shift, as Sherwood mentioned, when your body is no longer comfortable with the harder training).

  2. Back when WorldCon was held in Glasgow (2005) my hotel was about 1 mile from the convention center, by the short cut. 2.5 miles the traditional route. I was 6 months out of back surgery and needed to walk for therapy. I also carried a cane just in case I grew fatigued and stumbled.

    Most of the people I talked to at the con would not walk my route even though it passed directly by a McDonalds. The neighborhood was marginal with clear distinctions of who walked on which side of the street because of malingering teens.

    I watched groups of scruffy boys approach walkers for handouts and just to hassle them because they could. They preyed upon the timid and fearful.

    They never bothered me with so much as a glance. I had been fencing for about 4 years at that point. I considered my cane a weapon. I broadcast by my posture that I was not a victim.

    That kind of power is what traditionalists fear. Women aren’t supposed to defend themselves. I felt like I could and no one bothered me. I refused to be an automatic victim just because I am female.

    That’s what we need to teach the upcoming generations.

    • That’s why I’m teaching empowerment self defense. I love martial arts training, but I want to show the women who aren’t interested in that how strong they are and what they can do. Some of us figure it out on our own, but lots of people don’t.

  3. I read a fascinating somewhat parallel article on one of the Renaissance Faire/ Medieval Revivalist sites way back about how women learn to fight in the “jousting and foot combat” competitions, one of which at least had been all out won by a woman way back whenever-that-was. Point one,women’s armour has to be a different shape from men’s, not surprisingly. Point two, and the biggest hurdle for a woman fighter, apparently, is that women have to LEARN that they can hit people and not hold back, because all the social conditioning says the opposite.

    • Yes to both your points. As someone who cannot wear clothing made for the typical man, I can only imagine what would be necessary for armour. And as someone who has taught martial arts, I can attest that women start out reluctant to hit people. However, they usually get past that pretty fast once they find out they can.

  4. Thanks, Nancy Jane! I can’t wait to participate on one of your self-defense workshops. And I happen to know that Sherwood has an upcoming gritty fantasy novel in which the girls and boys all grow up training and fighting. We need that equal assumption of strength.

    • We need those stories so very much. I look forward to Sherwood’s take on this.

      And I also look very forward to teaching some self-defense. I love this system I’m working in because the whole point is showing women (and others who have been marginalized in physical terms) how powerful they are. I want to change that narrative.