Tag Archives: female empowerment

Self defence and martial arts for women in the 1930’s and 40’s

I found two quite interesting and funny old recordings of women demonstrating self defence using martial arts: one from 1933 and one from 1947. According to the martial arts expert closest to me – my wife – these are real skills and well executed techniques.
The names of the women in these videos are May Whitley and Mary Parker. I love the style and way of talking!

Given the gender roles and stereotypes at the time when these recordings were made, I also wonder what the reactions were to female martial artists.

Do women in martial arts prefer men who also do martial arts?

Do women in martial arts only date men who also do martial arts? That seems to be a common perception, at least among men. In fact several men who have contacted me through this blog have expressed the opinion that women who are skilled martial artists would not be interested in a man if he is not also an experienced martial artist. The reason, according to these thoughts, would be that the woman may not “respect” or feel physically attracted to a man if the traditional (or stereotypical) gender roles of the man as the “protector” are reversed in the sense that a woman with advanced martial arts skills will be the superior fighter in a relationship with a man without this kind of training.

But is there really any merit to this perception? Or is it just another myth involving women in martial arts? I discussed topic with three women who practice martial arts: my wife (Leticia), one of her friends (Katia) and one of her students (Linda).

Leticia, was the fact that I am not into martial arts ever a factor for you when you decided to get into a relationship with me?

Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife)
(Laughter) no it was never a factor.

Frida and Katia, do your boyfriends practice any martial art? And if so, was that a factor in any way when you started dating them?

Katia (hapkido practitioner)
No he doesn’t and no that doesn’t bother me at all.

Linda (learning hapkido based self defence)
No and no. I mean when I met him, none of us were into martial arts at all. Or actually, he did do karate for a year or so when he was a kid, but I don’t know if that counts here haha.

No I’d say it doesn’t really count in this context.

So for you, it doesn’t feel awkward or anything to be the ones in the relationship with the martial arts skills?

Katia (hapkido practitioner)
No not at all! I don’t see why it would.

Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife)
No. As you know, I have been practicing all my life basically so I am used to be “the one with the martial arts skills”.

Linda (learning hapkido based self defence)
No. But to be honest, my boyfriend is still… I mean I am not at a level where I am better than him at fighting. He is quite athletic so he is definitely the “protector” in our relationship hahaha.

I understand. And if you would reach a skill level that made you better than him at that?

Linda (learning hapkido based self defence)
I don’t think so. I mean it would be so cool to have their skills (referring to Leticia and Katia)!

And you don’t think women in martial arts feel less respect for men who are not trained fighters?

Katia (hapkido practitioner)
Again, my answer is not at all! If a person is nice and respects me, I too respect that person, regardless of gender.

Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife)
No. My respect for a man has absolutely nothing to do if he is into martial arts or not. And I am absolutely sure almost all women in martial arts feel that way. In fact, something that does make me respect a man more in this context is if he is able to admit it and be ok with it if I am better than him at fighting. I know that is not necessarily easy for a man for a number of reasons, so I think that it shows strength and maturity if a man is able to do that.

Linda (learning hapkido based self defence)
I agree with Katia and Leticia.

Ok! But still, isn’t it rather common for female martial artists to have relationships with men who practice martial arts too?

Katia (hapkido practitioner)
I think it might be, but that is probably just because they have a shared interest and maybe even met while practicing. I mean it happens all the time in other places that couples meet through shared interests and at work. So why not in martial arts?

Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife)
I think that is basically it.

Yes, that sounds pretty logical to me. So would you say that the woman being the better fighter in a relationship with a man is much more of a factor and a potential problem for men dating (or thinking about dating) women who do martial arts, than for the women doing martial arts?

Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife)
Yes, I know some men have all sorts of problems with that. But I don’t think women in general care about that at all. Or if we care, to be honest, in most cases I’m sure it’s just a positive thing to know that you are better at fighting than your man or boyfriend. I mean, to me it is. I feel it’s very empowering for me as a woman!

Katia (hapkido practitioner)
Haha yes, if I would get there, that would be very empowering!


This conversation also touched on other topics and I’ll probably come back to some of those in another post.

Large breasts and martial arts?

It may sound surprising to some, but this is actually a thing. From time to time over the years, my wife has been asked questions about whether having breasts, particularly larger ones, is a problem in martial arts. It’s mostly men asking and commenting about this, but also some women.

I did a short “interview” with my wife on the subject the other day.

Me:
So, once and for all, does having breasts pose a problem in martial arts, especially if they are a bit larger?

My wife:
Well, the short answer is no. You have done some “sparring” with me. Did you get the impression that my boobs posed a problem and made it difficult for me to fight?

Me:
(Laughing) I would have to say no.
A summary of how things went when I challenged my wife to see how a clearly bigger and stronger man with no fight training would fare against a smaller woman with advanced martial arts expertise can be found here and here.

My wife:
(Laughing) There you go then!

Me:
But seriously though, you don’t see any potential problems here?

My wife:
Well, I have heard people invoke back pain and balance problems as thing that could arise from having a bigger chest and practicing martial arts.

First of all, having a bigger chest can cause problems such as back pain. As a woman with a rather big chest myself, I am well aware of that. That kind of back pain can develop over time because of the extra weight placed on your chest as well as a bad posture. But you know, the best way to counter and prevent any potential back pain problems of that sort is strengthening your muscles and also getting a better posture. And practicing martial arts will help you with both!

When it comes to balance, I really have to say that I don’t feel that a woman’s chest poses any problems at all there. In fact, I would say women often have better balance than men because of our lower point of gravity. And in any case, balance is one of the points of focus that you practice heavily in most, if not all, martial arts.

For a professional fighter that competes, a large chest may also be a factor when it comes to weight divisions. As you know, in combat sports, contestants are sorted in divisions by weight and a large chest could potentially put you in a higher weight division and thus facing bigger, stronger and tougher opponents than you otherwise would.

But when it comes to guys/men asking if my chest somehow “gets in the way” or stops me as a woman from performing the techniques correctly, then the answer is definitely that no, it doesn’t.

Me:
I guess we, as men, have a hard time imagining what having boobs is like. But you say you have had women worrying that larger breasts would be an obstacle for them while practicing martial arts, right?

My wife:
Yes that’s true. I can only recommend women who feel this way to try on a good sports bra and then just focus on the exercises. You will soon forget any discomfort that you might initially experience from your breasts. And, as I said, practicing something like martial arts will actually strengthen your body and make it much less likely – not more – that you will suffer from any back pain problems because of your chest.

Avital Zeisler – after experiencing a traumatic assault as teenager she became a martial arts expert

A while back I heard about a woman called Avital Zeisler. She is now a quite famous martial arts expert and instructor for women’s self defence. Avital decided to learn as much as she could about self-defense in order to overcome the trauma she experienced after being the victim of sexual assault as a teenager. After years of training not only did she became an expert at self defence – even developing her own system/practice for self defence for women – but also an inspirational writer and speaker, sharing her knowledge on this subject.

As she writes herself in one article:

Each and every self defense technique I learned brought me closer to my goal of reclaiming my being and having the practical knowledge of self protection. It was this part of the journey that led me to the realization that my healing process was intimately entwined with the depth of my self- defense training. I was eventually invited to train at the source of the self-defense system I was studying, known as Krav Maga.

As I have gained much practical experience and knowledge of self defense techniques, my definition of self defense has evolved to include aspects of physical, emotional and spiritual factors. True self defense is the ability to defend your right to create and live the best life possible, with the ability to protect your body and mind against a threat or act of violence — at all costs.

According to Avital the three tenets of her philosophy as a former sexual assault victim turned martial arts expert are:

  • I am no longer a victim of the threat of violence or actual violence – I know how to defend myself.
  • Emotionally, I am prepared to face life’s difficulties and know that solutions are possible – I am worthy of self confidence.
  • Spiritually, I believe that I can move forward in a positive and meaningful way and this is my right.

Here is a short TV interview with Avital and some self defence demonstrations from her.

Here is a one minute video of self defence demonstrations from Avita’s own Youtube channel.

And here is a longer 14 minutes video with her from TEDx Talks.

Practicing martial arts does not make a woman any less feminine

The other week, a blogger named Joanne Reed wrote a very good text recommending girls to learn martial arts to empower themselves. Joanne was also nice enough to ask my wife to give her point of view on the article – so she did. One thing that both me and my wife liked about the article was it’s emphasis on the fact that practicing martial arts does not make a woman less feminine. As Joanne says in her article:

“To all the girls and women out there, feel empowered, learn the art of self-defense, learn martial arts. You can be feminine and strong at the same time. Don’t be a victim, be a warrior! “

This is very true – and yet there is a stubborn stereotype that persists, that women who practice martial arts become masculine, “butch” and aggressive! In reality though, several very effective martial arts (including hapkido, which is the martial art that my wife teaches) are very suitable for women because they do not emphasise typically male features as muscle strength and size, but rather other factors, namely:

Reading/anticipation
Through practicing martial arts, you can learn how to read and anticipate the attacker’s moves and thus always be one step ahead. Thus you are able to take the right action in order to counter and even using his attacking moves to your advantage.

Reactions
Martial arts practice can radically sharpen your reaction speed, allowing you to move much more quickly in response to an attack and then taking the right actions without really having to think, but rather almost as a reflex.

Technique
Within a martial art like hapkido, there is an immense array of different techniques that allow a small woman to effectively throw, kick, strike, control and immobilise a much bigger and physically stronger attacker – sometimes by using his own size, strength and momentum against him.

Attitude/emotions
Martial arts practice can give you the confidence and calm that you need a potentially dangerous and violent situation, in order to not run the risk of panicking, freezing or acting irrationally and inefficiently. The mental strength, calmness, focus and discipline that you gain by practicing a martial art can serve you in basically any situation in your life – like work, studies or relationships.

Balance
Perfecting your balance is key concept in several martial arts is. This allows you to learn how to keep your own balance in order to fall or lose control – and how also to use gravity, leverage and physics to unbalance the attacker.

Speed
As mentioned above, martial arts training can give you the capability of instinctively anticipating and knowing how to respond to an attacker’s moves. And not only will an accomplished martial artist know what to do, the training will also develop her capacity to do it very quickly. For example, when showing me some of her hapkido skills, my wife has executed kicks and strikes placing her foot or hand inches from my face literally in the blink of an eye, before I even knew what “hit me”.

None of these six factors to become an expert martial artist causes a woman to lose her femininity in any way. Nor are they inherently masculine or more difficult for a woman to master than for a man.

And lastly, to really dispel the myth that martial arts training makes women masculine – here below is a little picture collage of women who have all practiced for years to become extremely good at different martial arts – yet obviously do not look masculine in any way.

(A pregnant) Mackenzie Dern (jiu jitsu expert and professional fighter), Katheryn Winnick (actress and 3rd-degree black belt in tae kwon do, and a 2nd-degree black belt in karate), Neetu Chandra (actress and 4th degree black belt tae kwon do), Nia Sanchez (former miss USA and 4th degree taekwondo black belt and, my wife Leticia (self defence teacher, martial arts instructor and hapkido expert).

Interview with a woman in martial arts – 3: Frida (hapkido)

 

 

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Here is my third interview with a woman in martial arts (here are the first and second). This time it’s Frida, who took up martial arts (with my wife, Leticia, as instructor) in January this year, in order to learn some self defence.

Name: Frida
Age: 26
Martial art style: hapkido
Time practicing martial arts: 5 months

How come you started practicing hapkido?
I had been thinking about learning self defence for maybe 10 years! I want to be able to defend myself if I ever need to. But I was hesitant to start. Seems like I always found a reason not to. Then I met Leticia and I finally “took the plunge” and started taking her self defence classes. I appreciate that she, as the instructor, is also a woman – and about my age too! Practicing here is a safe, relaxed and encouraging environment.

What made you hesitate for so long about taking up martial arts training?
Maybe to some extent it was just laziness. But on the other hand I have been going to the gym and done some dancing and earlier I did gymnastics. So it wasn’t just that I was too lazy to get going. I guess I was a bit scared of it, to be honest. And I think I also kind of doubted my abilities. I never saw myself as someone who would fight physically.   

What do you like so far about your hapkido training?
I enjoy it! I didn’t really expect it before I started, but the training is actually lots of fun! And as I learn some techniques, it’s also very empowering. I feel these are things that I could use in a real life emergency situation. For me it’s great that it’s about techniques and timing and hitting the right spots – not just being strong physically. And now that I know I am able defend myself I feel much more confident and less nervous in certain situations and places.

For me the training has also been a good way to relieve stress and anxiety. I feel I am in better shape today, both physically and mentally, after taking up hapkido! It’s partially because of the work out in the training, but also from other exercises we do, that are basically like meditation. In her classes, Leticia focuses a lot on staying calm and concentrated… so hopefully we won’t panic or anything if we find ourselves in a threatening situation. And I feel this kind of mental preparation is something that you can use in lots and lots of situations in life – definitely not just when it comes to physical self defence. I feel I am growing as a person.

Anything you don’t like?
Hm, honestly, so far not really. I can’t think of anything!

How have people reacted to your new activity?
Positively! I’ve only had positive reactions so far. My boyfriend seems a bit worried that I will get injured or so though while training. But he is supportive.

A moment of “bruised male pride”

1As I’ve made clear on this blog, I generally have only positive feelings about my wife being a martial arts professional and a self defence instructor and I am very proud over her achievements. However, there are some occasional – rather random – moments when I guess my “inner caveman” emerges and I feel a bit frustrated or even embarrassed. One such moment happened this summer. Not at all as a result of any dramatic or unusual event, but a simple comment “triggered” my ego and “male pride”.

Me and Leticia (my wife) were at the beach together with another couple about our age, who are friends of ours. We were having a nice time in the sun doing some catching up and talking about everything and nothing. At one point the other woman brought up the subject of Leticia’s martial arts training, asking about how her practice was going, if she was having a lot of students etc. After discussing that a bit with Leticia, she looked at us guys and said “wouldn’t it be great to know hapkido too and be able to kick butt like Leticia?”. We both laughed and agreed, but I felt I was blushing a bit and I could tell my fellow male at the table was blushing too. We looked at each other for a second and though neither of us said anything it was obvious we both felt about the same – slightly embarrassed and “uncomfortable”. Just because of that simple statement implying that Leticia is better than us at fighting and self defence.

Her comment was perfectly innocent and well meaning. Leticia is obviously by far the best fighter of us four, as she is the only one of us who has any hand to hand combat training – and she is an expert at that, with a 4th level black belt and having practiced since childhood. Yet there we were, two guys blushing as if some embarrassing secret had just been exposed. I guess that just goes to show how deeply gender roles – in this case the expectations that men should be the “protectors” – and the norms of society are imprinted in (most of ) us humans.

Hapkido self defence against knife attacks

 

One of the most impressive – and coolest – hapkido self defence and fighting techniques that my wife has showed me, is self defence against knife attacks. She demonstrated how it works by handing me a plastic fake knife and then instructed me to try to “stab” her with it. All in all I got seven tries – and all seven times she managed to evade or parry my attack, force me to drop the “knife” and then put me on the floor and immobilised me. All within a couple of seconds.

As I’ve described in earlier posts (like here and here), when I fight her it feels almost like she can read my mind, because she anticipates all my moves and then counter them with a hapkido technique (often using my own strength and momentum against me). That was very much the case when she showed me the self defence techniques against knife attacks.

Apart from feeling somewhat frustrated from getting my butt kicked by her, in spite of being “armed with a knife”, I really enjoyed getting a first hand demonstration of these techniques. It was really amazing!

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It’s worth saying though that she was careful to point out that in a real life situation she would only try to resist and fight an armed aggressor as a last resort, given the huge risk involved in such a situation (if a technique would fail), even for a highly skilled martial artist with the odds very much in her favour.

 

“You’re a fit guy, can’t you use your strength and just overpower her?”

As I said in the very first post of this blog, there are a number of questions and comments that I get as a man married to a woman who happens to be a professional martial arts expert – and I will try o answer some of them here on this blog. The second question I will take on is:

“Can’t you use your strength and just overpower her?”

I work out regularly and I’m a reasonably fit and strong guy. I have always been pretty athletic. As I’ve written elsewhere on this I am physically much taller, heavier and stronger than my wife.

It’s a common misconception that physical size and strength is basically of be-all and end-all importance in a physical fight. If there is one thing that I’ve definitely learned during my over two years together with a girlfriend/wife with a passion for martial arts, it’s that physical size and strength is very much an overestimated factor when it comes to fighting and self defence capabilities.

Sure being big and strong is a significant advantage in many situations in life – including fighting. If everything else is equal, the bigger and stronger person will most likely win a fight. That’s why in most cases a man will almost always have a huge advantage over a woman when it comes to this. If the woman is highly skilled in martial arts though, the equation changes completely.

I must admit that I am too guilty of having overestimated the importance of size and strength in fighting and wrestling. Before the first time my wife gave me a demonstration and showed me her hapkido skills, I thought that the big difference in size and strength between me and her would mean that I would more or less be able to hold my own against her. Of course it didn’t take many minutes for me to learn just how wrong this assumption was, as she quickly proceeded to throw me left and right as she kicked my butt – with little effort.

me for blog bw5

a selfie in the mirror…

I can’t get her in a hold.

In order to overpower someone, you first need to get hold of him/her. However hapkido techniques allow the practitioner to counter and avoid an attacker’s attempts to hit or grab you.

When I do get hold of her, my wife have the techniques and moves to break free of basically any hold I can apply on her. By using leverage, natural physics and pressure points (sensitive spots on the human body) she can free herself from anything from a firm arm grab to a bear hug. In fact, most of the time breaking free from my holds is amazingly – and for me frustratingly – easy for her!

She knows how to use my own strength to her advantage.

Hapkido teaches how to use an attackers own momentum, strength and weight to unbalance, throw/take him down or manoeuvre him into a painful position. Because of these techniques, when I fight her in a way it’s almost as if I am beating up myself, as she is using my own strength and energy against me. And obviously, this renders my bigger size and strength moot.

She can throw me.

It seems to me there are countless of ways that my wife can use hapkido techniques to throw me or sweep me to the floor – as mentioned above, often using my own strength and momentum against me. This, in turn, means that by attacking her or resisting her, I often make it easier for her to take me down! I would say that in my experience this is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating things about trying to fight someone with these kind of martial arts skills. As an untrained fighter, I do not have skills to counter a hapkido throw, so there is very little I can do stop her from throwing me and putting me on the floor.

She can immobilise me.

As if all these throwing techniques weren’t enough, there is a myriad of ways to immobilise an opponent using hapkido techniques too. Often the basic principle is twist and bend joints in painful positions that makes it impossible for the opponent to move. These are called joint locks. Any of the joints can be used for this – fingers, wrists, arms and even legs! And how come I can’t stop her from doing this to me or use my strength to break free? Well again it’s all about leverage and physics. It doesn’t take a lot of brute strength for example to twist someone’s fingers. And by using my own momentum and strength she can put me in very unfavourable positions, from where it is very difficult to resist or fight back. By manoeuvring me into certain positions she can also make use of the strength of her whole body against for example one of my wrists or one of my arms.

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The same principle with twisting and bending joints can also be used to break free of a hold or to force an opponent to move in a particular direction and thus open him up to a kick, strike or immobilising hold.

She could kick and punch me out

Obviously, in a real self defence situation a hapkido black belt like my wife could stop an attacker from trying to overpower her by kicking and striking him. In other words, my wife has the techniques and capability to cause some serious pain – or even render me unconscious – by kicking and striking. I’ll leave it at that for now though and write more about this later though, as I answer other questions.

To sum it up.

So the answer to the question if I can’t just use my strength to just overpower my wife, is definitely no. There is no way a man can “just overpower” a woman who has many years worth of this kind of black belt martial arts skills and experience.

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Stronger men with more fighting experience than me have been soundly defeated by women who are simply more skilled in martial arts and therefor better fighters.

“Aren’t you scared of her?”

As I said in the very first post of this blog, there are a number of questions and comments that I get as a man married to a woman who happens to be a professional martial arts expert – and I will try to answer them here on this blog. The first one I will take on is:

“Aren’t you scared of her?”

Yes, a couple of men have asked me if I am not scared of my wife. This actually kind of surprised me. I mean, why would I have married a woman, if I was scared of her? And why would I be scared of a woman just because she knows martial arts? It’s not like I am planning to abuse or assault her, so why on earth would I be afraid of the fact that she can defend herself from abuse and assault?

In most cases, a man is capable of physically beating his girlfriend/wife, simply because men are generally significantly bigger and stronger than women. But most men would never abuse their girlfriends or wives physically. And most women aren’t afraid of their boyfriends and husbands. Just because you theoretically can do something, doesn’t mean you will do it. And the same obviously goes for a woman with martial arts skills! Sure, she has the capability to beat up a man who is not trained in martial arts – but that obviously doesn’t mean that she will!

Actually the contrary is true. A woman who is highly skilled in martial arts is less likely to use violence against her boyfriend/man! There is a lot of focus on discipline and self control and restraint in martial arts training and if a woman has achieved a level where she is skilled enough to defeat a much bigger and stronger man in hand to hand combat, she has very likely also achieved a very high level of discipline, restraint and emotional control. There are also strict rules for martial artists to not use their fighting skills on other people, except in self defence.

So no. I am definitely not scared of my wife.

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