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Women’s Class

Lonin, April 4th 2016.

I have always made sure that there are at least some women in the photos in all of my training manuals. This photo from The Swordsman's Companion is one of my favourite pictures ever:

Last weekend, teaching at Lonin in Seattle, one of the women students told me that the only reason she had started training was because she had seen the women in my books, and therefore felt it might be ok. She got her biggest, toughest-looking male friend to come with her, just in case, but she came. She’s now on the governing board of her club. I nearly cried when she told me this. Martial arts training should be for everyone who is interested, be they clumsy or deft, weak or strong, timid or bold, tall or short, without regard to their starting point. Everyone can get better with practice.

Later that day, I taught my first ever all-women class. It was a fascinating experience for me as a teacher, and also as the head of a large and very diverse school. In essence, I know nothing at all about the particular requirements women may have in training, so I asked them what they wanted, they told me, and I did my best to oblige. I am, after all, a consulting swordsman. I think the class went well, everyone seemed happy with it, and I’ve only had positive feedback about it so far. And it has got me thinking (again) about the whole issue of gender in martial arts. When I was a kid, one of my role models was Cynthia Rothrock. You can see her famous scorpion kick in this excellent Ameridote video:

At my school karate club we were taught by Mr and Mrs Williams. Either one of them could have kicked my head off. My first fencing coach was a woman, Gail Rudge. She was assisted by the captain of the fencing team, also a woman. Neither of them had any difficulty stabbing young Guy when needed. Which was rather a lot. This all means that I have never been infected with the foolish idea that women can’t do martial arts or swordsmanship to the very highest level.

In a perfect world, no kind of gender discrimination would exist, and so nobody would think to organise a women-only class. But mansplaining is a thing. So is “I couldn’t hit a girl”. So is copping a feel when you’re supposed to be grappling. So I can see that this kind of class could be preferable, at least to some women. I should also point out that Lonin is an extremely inclusive and friendly club, vastly more welcoming to people of all kinds than many others I have seen, so it’s not like they had a special need for this kind of class. But the women training there just decided to organise a semi-regular women’s class, and advertised it to the general public. Over 30 people showed up! Clearly, there was something about a mixed, general, beginners’ class that put these women off, and starting this class just removed that barrier.

A martial artist ought to be able to handle whatever opponents life throws at them. My primary reservation about women-only classes stems from the possibility that women’s training might become ghettoised, and women who train in these classes might never get to train outside them, or might choose not to, and so limit their own development. They should be an option, not a refuge.

But that’s a lot of ‘mights’. What I saw was people happily training, some of whom would not have got started without the psychologically and physically less intimidating option of the women’s class. And it’s probable that some of them will grow in the Art and become role-models for the next generation of swordfighters.

I salute them.


I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

7 Responses

  1. I can think of a number of reasons why mixed classes can be difficult for women, especially beginners

    Physical size and strength. I’m 5’2″ and so not far from average height for a woman. A lot of my early classes the guys were all a lot taller meaning distance was difficult for me in pair drills and stronger meaning they managed the swords “better” at first. My instructor explained that muscle wasn’t the point and that you didn’t need it to move a sword properly but I couldn’t see how that worked. Now I do of course but then it seemed impossible. So I felt quite inadequate. The guys were all managing but I couldn’t. Of course I had to learn not to muscle it earlier than they did but the first few weeks were difficult until I did.

    General intimidation. For many women dealing with loud aggressive men is hard. A class doesn’t have to be like that of course and shouldn’t be but there’s always one…. If you are the only woman there it can be surprisingly draining to deal with the atmosphere of a lot of blokes being physical. A male teacher might not even see it, as he has lived in that all his life. I’ve spent most of my life in “male” spaces so I’m used to it but I’ve been in classes where it’s been hard work even for me. Also you can’t be sure in a new class just how the instructor handles the class. Most will manage a class full of men differently to one full of women. So if you go to a mixed class what will you get, especially if you don’t know the mix.

    Competitiveness. Women are competitive but for many it is a different way of presenting. I didn’t think women only competittions were a good thing but after doing one I felt the difference in happiness of the less experienced women and I felt a bit happier myself. I am not sure why but I think there was a lot less aggressiveness. Not “gonna hurt you” type but “gonna dominate you as a status thing” type. We were all wanting to do well and there was no shortage of compettion or focus and attack, but no one felt “off”. (far too many quote marks but it really is hard to get the right words).

    When working in classes with only women there is a different feel to it. Not better necessarily but different. Same as a more venly mixed class is often different to a maie only one. I am not sure how much is cultural conditioning about how to behave around the other sex as I am a bit of an outlier there but lots of women seem to think it is a factor.

    I can quite believe that a woman wondering about martial arts of any kind would wonder a lot about just how much grief they would get in mixed classes and prefer women only ones. Be with people closer to them in physical size, strength, and attitude and not have to worry about inappropriate behaviour. In a new group of people such as a club you don’t know the norms. What they say in the brochure is just advertising, how do you know what the real place is like, what they consider acceptable behaviour? If they have a women only class you might be dealing with the bad things women do to each other but those are quite different to the bad things men do to women some of which they don’t realise they do or think are quite acceptable and normal.

      1. I wonder Guy, would there ever be a reason for a male only class for beginners also? Many cultures seem to share the opinion that “men should never hit women” and thus add this uncomfortableness for some non-“alpha”-males, for want for better words…

        This is not to say female only classes aren’t important also, but women (and other men) do bully men with the “wow you got beaten up by a girl” mentality too.

        I’m just thinking out loud after reading this article and the responses

        1. Well — the woman Guy described in his article formed what basically amounts to a support group, self-managed apparently, to cover their needs. Perhaps you should try to set up one, if you feel it is necessary? But do you think you would meet many men who would feel that need?

          I personally prefer non-segregated classes, because I see tall and short and large and thin and able and clunky fencers, and I want to learn how to deal with them all, and I don’t care too much about their chromosomes.

          But I can see why many women will feel it easier to join a club through a female-only class.

          Do you really feel like that’s a problem for most men too?

          (The key words there are the last «most» and «many». You will always find exceptions everywhere.)

          1. I am not in the situation to judge. I was curious of Guy’s observation on that matter as he’d have far more experience than I.

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