I’m reading Invisible Women: Exposing Gender Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, and it’s one of those books that simply everybody on the planet ought to read. The raging unfairness she exposes has made me rethink a lot of things. It’s not like I was unaware of what was going on, exactly, but as Perez points out the bias is so pervasive, and of such long standing, that one tends not to notice it. As she writes on page xi, “the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall. When it comes to the lives of the other half of humanity, there is often nothing but silence.”
And this silence is literally fatal. To take some incontrovertible examples out of the dozens and dozens and dozens in the book:
- From Chapter 9: A Sea of Dudes: “When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seat-belt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die.” (p.186) Car safety tests are routinely carried out with crash test dummies based on the ‘average male’. When cars are tested with dummies designed to represent female physiques, they will often get a much lower safety rating than the one the makers publish. Leaving women out of car safety testing is literally killing women.
- From Chapter 10: The Drugs Don’t Work: “Women are dying. And the medical world is complicit. It needs to wake up.” (p. 216) It turns out that most medical research is conducted on male subjects (animal and human), because women have more complex biology (all those pesky hormonal cycles interfering with nice clean data). Which means that nobody actually knows how drugs will affect women, and even drugs intended solely for female medical issues are often only tested on male subjects!
- In Chapter 11: The Yentl Syndrome, Perez tells us that women are more likely to die from heart attacks than men, because they present differently in women. Women are 50% more likely to have their heart attack misdiagnosed, which can obviously be fatal (p. 218).
And so women are dying. Yes, it’s more difficult to develop drugs using female subjects, but it was also very difficult to fly to the moon, and we managed that 50 years ago. Leaving women out of car design and medical research is literally killing women.
This holds true in practically every domain, from public transport, public services, aid work, architecture, politics, town planning, the list goes on and on. Did you know that after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake disaster, which killed thousands, and destroyed 400,000 homes, there was a massive rebuilding effort. And they built replacement homes without kitchens. Because cooking is women’s work, and nobody asked the women what they wanted in their new houses. Then the same thing happened again after the 2004 tsunami. Massive rebuilding effort, no kitchens. Seriously. It’s fucking insane.
Invisible Women is 300+ pages of well-researched, entirely data-supported examples of the way women are systematically overlooked, under-represented, and disadvantaged. Buy it. You can find it here (that's an affiliate link, as are all book links on my blog btw. Use google instead if that makes you uncomfortable)
As a father of daughters, this incites an existential rage in me that I will not contain. But how to direct it? “One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.” (p. xii). Who is this enemy attacking my children? Based on reading Perez’s work, I think it’s an emergent property of the assumptions and practices of our culture.
I was talking about this book with some friends on my recent trip to New Zealand. I was about 150 pages in at that point, and Agate Ponder-Sutton who was sitting next to me is a) a data scientist and b) had read the whole book. But when she started talking about it, one of the other people present, without malice or bad intent, effectively told her to stop talking so I could explain the book. The one that I hadn’t finished yet and don’t have the technical background to assess with anything like the same authority.
That’s the problem, right there.
So what to do?
Perez suggests (on p. 316) that “we must increase female representation in all spheres of life”, and (on p. 318) “The solution to the sex and gender data gap is clear: we have to close the female representation gap. When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.” I think she’s right.
The historical martial arts community has come a long way since the early nineties, but women remain severely under-represented. By far the most inclusive event I know, Swordsquatch, held in Seattle every September, had a total of forty instructors. 12 were women, so about 30%. And that’s outstandingly good in comparison to last year’s VISS, which had two out of 15, about 12%. This year’s WMAW had one woman out of 26. That’s about 4%. No disrespect to any of these events intended- many events have no female instructors at all.
I’ll consider this topic done when the norm for events worldwide is 50:50.
The usual objection to this idea is “but there aren’t enough female instructors of the necessary standard”. The historical martial arts movement was overwhelmingly male 25 years ago. The female instructors we do have can pretty much all point to one or more male instructors who trained them (most famously perhaps Jessica Finley started out as Christian Tobler’s student. Hats off to Christian for doing an excellent job there). But the fact that after 25 years at this we don’t have approximately equal numbers of male and female international level instructors is a shameful failure on the part of us old guard male instructors, who could and should have done better to train up the women in our schools. And, we all got our breaks when the standards were pretty low. Guy of 2001 would never get invited to teach at an event in 2019. But because the bar was lower then I got fantastically valuable experience, and very useful exposure. Teaching at prestigious events is a massively effective learning opportunity for the instructors, and having more women teaching will encourage more women to teach. Yes, we do have a few female instructors on the international circuit that are every bit the equals and peers of us well-established men. But we need more, and we’ll only get them by giving teaching opportunities to women who are currently less well qualified than the superstars. We have to accept a short-term disadvantage (classes from less experienced, less well-known instructors) for a long-term advantage: doubling the size of the pool from which instructors can be drawn. And we may very well find that that ‘disadvantage' is no such thing- I pale to think at how much we may be missing by overlooking the women we already have in the field.
In the tiny sphere of life in which I have some influence, there are already many people working hard to address our inherent bias. Kaja Sadowski’s book Fear is the Mind-Killer is a great place to start looking at making training better adapted to individual students. Kaja also kindly read and commented on my first rage-fuelled rant draft of this post. This one is much better.
The Esfinges group exists to support women training in historical martial arts.
This post by Jennifer Landels on how to adapt your curriculum for gender differences is very useful: http://jmlandels.stiffbunnies.com/2019/05/teaching-every-body-adapting-your-curriculum-for-gender-differences/
Most recently, The Ravenswood Academy have produced a very beautiful deck of cards featuring women warriors from across the globe. (They've sold out, or I'd link to the shop.)
On the subject of cards, my game Audatia has a female character deck based on a historical person (Lady Agnes Hotot).
In my other work I’ve always made sure that my books have female as well as male models in the photos. In my online courses I’ve done the same with my demo partners. A lot of them are about solo training, but of the three that require a training partner, two have a woman throughout: the Rapier Course has Maaret Sirkkala, and the Longsword Course had Zoë Chandler. I wasn’t aware at the time that Zoë was trans, and he is now Zach Chamberlaine, but the point stands. And I know for a sure and certain fact that it has made a difference to women taking up the art, because some of those women have told me so to my face. That’s also why my Facebook profile ‘cover photo’ is me in the middle of mostly not-white, many not male students, and standing right next to me is a woman in a hijab holding a sword (Riri Nitihardjo, from Indonesia).
Some years ago I was reading Katy Bowman’s book on biomechanics, Alignment Matters, and noticed with something of a start that it assumed a female reader. Fair enough, I thought. She’s a woman, and many of her clients are women, so why not? It didn’t bother me. Likewise, Seth Godin is well known for always using ‘she’ as the generic term. He said when asked about it on his podcast that it was in honour of his mother. Also fair enough, and it certainly causes me no pain.
So as I was reading Invisible Women I had a sudden thought. Why don’t I take my most popular book, The Medieval Longsword, and edit it such that it would assume a female reader? I had a look, and it currently addresses the reader as ‘you’, and describes the opponent as ‘opponent’, or ‘partner’, or ‘attacker’, such as here:
1. “Attacker ready in right side posta di donna; you wait in tutta porta di ferro
2. Attacker strikes with mandritto fendente, aiming at your head
3. Parry with frontale, meeting the middle of the attacker’s sword with the middle of your own, edge to flat
4. The attacker’s sword is beaten wide to your left, so pass away from it (to your right), striking with a mandritto fendente to the attacker’s left arm, and thrusting to the chest.”
There really isn’t any room for editing without making it less clear.
But I can and jolly goddesses damn well will put a woman on the cover. Currently there is me crossing swords with one of Fiore’s illustrated masters:
I could replace me with a woman.
Or, we could go with something a bit more dramatic and do a whole cover re-design, with something like this:
(That's Jessica Finley, in case you've been living under a rock this last ten years).
Or perhaps this image of Kimberleigh Smithbower Roseblade might hit the spot (I’m in discussions with the photographer at the moment- this is my front-runner favourite).
What do you think?
The book I’m currently working on (the finished draft of which went to the editor yesterday, huzzah!!) is the compilation of the Fiore Translation Project, so it hasn’t much room in it for changing the assumed sex of people. I pretty much only refer to Fiore (a man) and other real people (by their gender, or at least the gender they present as), or myself (also a man). I suppose I could refer to the player or companion (the one getting bashed up in the images) as ‘she’, but it would be weird because the illustration seems to show a man and every instance where Fiore uses a pronoun to describe them, it’s male. So it would be simply wrong to start calling them ‘she’, or translating it any way other than the way it was written. What do I do to make it more likely to draw women into the Art? Would this do?
In case it isn’t clear: if you are philosophically or politically opposed to women entering the art, you can fuck off my blog, don’t buy my books, I want nothing to do with you. If you think representation doesn’t matter, then go away more gently and get an education, then you’ll be welcome back.
If you have any good ideas about how to adapt one of my books in this way, or a book I could write from scratch with this agenda, then please let me know in the comments!
In truth, I don’t expect this to make a great deal of difference to the world at large, but I have to do something, and this might make some difference to some people. Which is much, much, better than making no difference at all.
Whenever I post on topics like this there is alway a slew of wankers who feel entitled to comment despite being entirely ignorant. Yes, it’s always men. Funny that. But to be clear: I won’t discuss this on any forum other than the comments on this blog, and, if you haven’t read Invisible Women, you are not qualified to have an opinion on it.
Radical thought, I know.