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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2003

Putting Up With Men: 
Coming to acceptance of training across gender lines

By Emily Dolan Gordon

"Putting Up with Men" Synopsis:

  • Things which keep women out of the dojo.
  • Things which keep women in the dojo.
  • Some ways in which women are different, and ways in which they are not.
  • Concepts women can use to keep training.
  • The purpose of this paper is to analyze and define certain problems which can occur when men and women train together and offer insight and solutions.  For instructors and students with no such problems or concerns the paper is offered, hopefully, as useful information and confirmation of existing knowledge.


    Reactions to women in martial arts vary as much as the arts themselves.  Women have been influential in many martial traditions, from China’s Wing Chun legend (descended from technique invented by a Buddhist nun) to the fiery Celtic Boadicea or Japan’s famous Tomoe Gozen.  In daily life women find themselves having to struggle simply for options in fighting.  Through most of written history, training women to fight and be fit has needed some excuse; for example,  as a way to keep women fit for bearing children, more attractive and “well rounded.”  Women are expected to be ferocious in defense of home and family, and yet, when natural aggression appears in venues of hobby or career, both sexes who accept the norm of the passive female can be shocked.  Thus, unfortunately, in many martial arts circles, a woman training remains unusual.

    Men’s reaction to women in the martial arts community remains multi-layered.  Some are eager for new students, others know that women are a population in need of the discipline of self-defense, while others love their “boys’ clubs” and want nothing to do with training the “weaker sex.”  Some are just happy to have someone to train with.  The situation remains largely unbalanced, with exceptions.

    Something any woman wanting to train in the martial arts may notice is a lack of other females in dojo.  There aren’t many women teaching, there aren’t many women training and there’s a dire lack of women in media roles demonstrating realistic and grounded budo mastery.  This affects enrollment of women in a dojo.  The solution is elusive.  Strong, balanced senior female students in leadership roles attract women who would not otherwise see that martial arts can be performed by ordinary women.

    …having several women sempai, a couple of whom were quite senior and
    a couple of whom were just a little further along then me, really helped me
    settle in, and having sempai who were my age and older and likewise had
    started in middle age was INCREDIBLY inspiring and sustaining.
    -Janet Rosen; U.S., aikido, artist
    (2003: 1)
    The question is, then, how to cultivate these students?

    Some budo teachers judge the health of their dojo by the number of female members.  This can, perhaps, be qualified by the length and quality of attendance.  Can beginner women continue to train, attain rank and begin to instruct in any given dojo?

    Naturally, an instructor is the sole arbiter of who is trained and how.  This paper is written for the (statistically male) instructor who is trying to solve the problem of recruitment and retention of women and for the woman wishing to train, or wishing to further their training, but unsure of possibilities and problems.  (Feel free to substitute “training hall,” “dojang,” “kwoon” or any appropriate other word for the Japanese term “dojo” as needed.)

    Things which keep women out of the dojo:

    Many factors can keep women out of the martial arts.  First, and perhaps least obvious, is that it simply never occurs to many women that they can jump, throw, kick, strike or cut—or that they should even attempt to do so.

    Gender roles haven’t yet changed enough that a woman martial artist is not a novelty.  A woman karateka who can put her fist through a stack of bricks might, in some circles, be presumed masculine, just as a man who figure skates might be deemed feminine.  As much as we have pretended to put gender stereotyping aside in western post-industrial society, understand that a women who trains in combative arts is going against the social grain as much as a man who takes up quilting.

    Physical aggression is discouraged in girls in manifold and aggressive ways.  Not only are they instructed against offensive fighting; they are rarely instructed in defensive fighting.  Girls don’t learn how to throw a punch.  Humor is another form of aggression, and until recently humor has been used to squelch the very notion of a warrior female…Happily, the smirky parody of girl-fights has gotten a bit paunchy and dated of late, and instead we’ve been treated to images of GI Janes and bodiced Xenas wielding swords…though whether the mass media’s revisionist fighting female has been driven by attitudinal change or the need to jolt a bored…audience is unclear.
    -Natalie Angier
    (2000: 289-90)

    Why bring up obvious gender stereotypes?  They limit us in ways we may not be able to see.  The slight woman who watches diffidently from the sidelines may be a cutthroat soccer forward or gymnastics competitor.  Learning to see past a student's perceived limitations and bring her along on the training path is the instructor's job, once he or she has accepted the responsibility of teaching the public.  Learning to recognize and see past personal limitations is the task of the individual.

    I know and read about women who are not afraid to be dangerous and who don't see it conflicting with their natures, so I figure it's not guaranteed to conflict with mine.
    -Angie Parker; U.S., aikido, kenpo, police cadet
    (2003: 1)

    There are styles and dojo which simply don't accept female students.  There is one ranked and respected aikido teacher in Florida who accepts no permanent female students on grounds that it disrupts his dojo.(1)  An instructor of a private aikijujutsu dojo in California with no current female membership has not specifically banned women, however, he “holds them to a higher standard” and would probably teach a woman different curricula, should one apply and be accepted.(2)  There are other places which patronize females, creating prima donnas with no clue to the reality of what they are doing, as no one in the dojo ever really presses them.

    In any dojo, there exists an invisible contract between teacher and student, wherein the teacher risks himself or herself and the student risks her future so they both can learn.  Ultimately, only instructors can decide who they wish to train.

    However, if a teacher is open to instructing women, or actively seeking female students, and the dojo isn't attracting and retaining women, there are a few explanations. Many women are apprehensive of, and socialized against, physical contact; especially with unfamiliar men.  This can disappear quickly if she discovers an enthusiasm for training.  If not, perhaps counseling is more appropriate than training.  More realistic training tends to result in greater retention, if the training is implemented with patience and compassion.  Extremely rigid or complex political structures, militaristic instruction, or “rough” techniques are often blamed for keeping women out of a dojo.  This sort of thing may be a point of pride for a dojo; however, it could be symptomatic of other problems which keep more than women from attending or learning.  Darwinistic processes of elimination for groups facing real-world combat such as Navy SEALs are probably not applicable to the average public martial training hall advertising classes for “self-improvement.”  Basing martial training strictly on physical toughness breaks down as years pass and injuries accumulate.  A vigorous female budoka must be just as careful with an older, damaged and brittle male partner as a healthy younger male with an inexperienced or unconditioned female.  Basing general superiority strictly on physical strength is, at best, short-sighted.

    In some cases a "competitive" focus in the dojo will drive women away.  The women who seek this kind of training can be bloodthirsty competitors when properly trained and motivated.  Women who aren’t innately competitive probably won’t bother. Others may have the ability to prove themselves, and will be willing and able to do so.

    Dojo with overly brusque or belittling instructors of either gender may drive away male and female students.  However, this is a choice people can make for themselves when they observe classes and choose an instructor.

    In a dojo with members “on the prowl” for romance or sexual favors, a focussed training environment can be difficult to maintain, and this may drive serious students away.  Instructors should be aware of the "belt hunter" or person in search of a "vicarious" black belt or other rank.  This person will seek alliance with a charismatic, high-ranking person in the dojo.  The other half of this vicious equation is instructors easily lured by the promise of power over another in a relationship by virtue of rank.

    Perhaps martial arts schools should follow the rules laid down by Harvard and other major institutions of learning: Sexual relationships between students and instructors are strongly discouraged.  In any dojo relationship, it should be understood that the interests are truly common, and not simply a desire (however unconscious) for advantage, or simply taking advantage.  This is a very serious problem for women, documented but not discussed.(3)  An old-fashioned solution may be a six-month “waiting period” on mutually acknowledged attractions.  Depth of feeling does not fade with time.  The author harbored serious reservations about training with her own fiancée, and both parties were prepared to train separately.  For many couples, training together is a vital part of their relationship, worth the strong inner discipline required to do so sanely.  English professor David Farnell writes from his experiences teaching in Japan:

    Teachers and students should simply stick to a teacher/student relationship, unless and until they are willing to end the teacher/student relationship and take up a more equal partnership. There may be rare exceptions, but they are vanishingly rare. Romance or even friendship between student and teacher invariably makes the teacher/student relationship far more difficult to manage.
    (2003: 1)

    Things which keep women in the dojo:

    Perhaps the most basic factors in keeping women in the dojo are acceptance, patience, and compassion.

    At the first dojo, I was immeasurably helped during the first six months by the infinite patience of my instructor. He never once gave me verbal or nonverbal messages to indicate that he thought I was slow, could not make progress, or was wasting our time.
    (Rosen 2003: 1)

    The chance to “prove oneself” whether it be in solo iai kata, competition, or simple persistence, can be all an individual needs to shine.  It remains up to the instructor to separate those who “want to” from those who “want to want to.”

    Self defense isn’t the only motivator in martial arts training, but it is a significant factor, especially at beginner levels.  It is wise not to advertise falsely.  Many women attending Tae Bo classes harbor the false belief that they are learning self defense.  Others may be drawn in by “fear-based marketing”--the idea that every woman is a victim and that whatever is being offered, be it a stun gun, pressure points, or any number of gadgety strategies, is The Solution.  Realistic self defense will not dictate specific responses, but teach principles.(4)

    There is also the idea that a punch, kick or throw meant to score points in competition is a worthy self-defense technique.  Competitive sports may aid in self-defense, but they are no substitute for combative training.  Structured conflict for points is not the same as being involuntarily assaulted.  Instructors should know the difference and be able to teach accordingly.  The intent learned in ritual kata or combat is of immense value, but must be understood as a component of self-defense, not as an end unto itself.(5)  Understanding and being educated about the realities of conflict, be they internal or external, are probably the most valuable lessons to be learned in martial training.

    Learning about common attacks on women and making them relevant to classes can be a great learning tool for everyone in arts applicable to self-defense.  Self-defense education is a great outreach tool.  Women tend to be more motivated in training and more realistic, once committed.  Hoary statistics state that females are the main targets of social violence, and women who are active in their own protection are aware of this fact.  It is also well-known that females who fight back are assaulted less often, survive assaults better and feel better about the event afterward.(6)  One of the most powerful things in a victim's life can be permission to fight back.  The media tend to present females as victims, or at best fictional heroines who require special dispensation from the gods or genetically enhanced abilities.  There are few, if any, genuine human heroines throwing real punches in popular media.  There are, in real life, stories of brutalization turned to advantage, trauma leading to growth—and there are few anodynes (however hard-won) better than victory over fear.

    Patience with both newness to physical activity and newness to physical conflict is necessary with many students, including some women.  Understand that most women's bodies can't normally take the kind of direct impact a man's can; however, they have deeper systemic strength and less reliance on physical strength.  In this way, they may perceive the goal of technique more clearly.  Fear is generally the stopping point, to be overcome with patient instruction and encouragement.

    Some ways in which females are different, and ways in which they are not:

    A woman walking into a dojo has already broken the mold.  This commitment can be strengthened with a short chat about what she wants to gain out of training and what she may actually gain, as well as how long it will take and a short list of real benefits of training.  These women come to the dojo expecting challenge.

    Why did I leave? Well I didn't like the way this sensei was treating me: The rest of the class was "his boys" all quite tough...rough but nice... I collected quite a few bruises in this class and it was ok ... but when the more advanced techniques were started he started to tell them "when you do this technique with a woman (I was the only woman in class and I didn't care), do it differently ..."
    Eva Fenrich; Germany and U.K., aikido, environmental scientist
    (2003: 1)

    On encouragement: A man may be praised by faint damns, but a woman not socialized to male traditions may not be able to appreciate them.  A woman may have to build up slowly to striking, to impact, to sparring.  Then again, she may also take to it like a duck to water.  Being treated too differently is not useful.  Women will either state their dislike of the activity and deal with it, or adapt and tolerate or enjoy it.

    I will note that many of the same women who couldn't handle getting struck in the early days of their training turned into absolute tigresses later on.  For a few, all it took was someone giving them "permission" to strike and they were after it like a hound after a hare.
    -Chuck Gordon, U.S. and Germany, Kokoro Ryu sogo budo
    (2003: n.p.)

    A simple acknowledgement of accomplishment goes a long way.  It may take a woman more repetitions or more focus.  Females can be innately more cautious of their bodies than men, and may therefore appear more fearful.  Training will, in time, taken one step at a time, reduce fear and allow women to understand strengths and weaknesses as they have not seen them before.

    Sure I have weaknesses that hold me back or interfere with my progress.  I am realistic about my lack of athleticism, the need to be protective of my injury without giving in to it, and that I am a slow learner, but I also have reached a point where I just don't care anymore about rank; I'm happy to be on the mat learning how to adapt what I see to my own body and slowly improving.”
    (Rosen 2003: 1)

    Physically, women benefit from vigorous training.  We can simply dismiss the myth about a woman's "delicate internal organs"; a man's are actually more delicate and more exposed.  Vigorous workouts reduce stress and PMS symptoms, and regular exercise helps prevent osteoporosis as well as metabolic and mood disorders.  A woman who becomes pregnant should, of course, consult her doctor about training.  A woman's ligaments become looser during menstrual periods and pregnancy. Joint locks may become both more difficult and more dangerous.  She needs to take responsibility for her training at these times, whether she decides to continue or not.

    Women already know that the burden of nurturing in any relationship is often on the woman; childcare and housework tend to remain women’s responsibilities.  This means less time for training and other "optional" activities.  It can lead to the end of a martial arts career among couples who do not support one another's personal goals.  An instructor with overburdened students may need to make allowances for them to do what they need to do to continue training, even if it means taking a break to get their lives in order and come back stronger than ever.

    Women can be “canaries in the coal mine”; first to sense trouble and drop out, however, they can also be loyal and blind to the point of their own destruction.(7)  Blaming gender for troubles in a dojo (or any other social environs) points more to an unwillingness to solve real problems of dojo management than to any actual problems with inter-gender training.

    Concepts women can use to keep training:

    The most important factor is a trustworthy teacher and building the foundations of a healthy personal and professional relationship.  This is a result of gut instinct and research.  Teachers who won’t talk openly about their instructors or past training are not acceptable.  One who speaks reverently, humorously and freely is.

    Watch at least two classes before you get on the mat.  Do the students interact spontaneously or do they seem to be constantly seeking approval?  Does the instructor go to each student and coach individually or remain aloof?  Are the students happy, smiling and focused, or do they seem frightened or obsequious?  Is the environment focused on the training, or how in control and strong the teacher is?

    A concerned instructor will question a potential student about expectations in training past and present, and take the time to be sure both are making the right choice.  At no time should the student’s integrity be compromised.

    Common-sense.  The touchstone?  Music class.  Gym class.  Ordinary learning of any kind.  If you don't need to perform sexual acts to learn to play Bach or volleyball, why should you in karate or aikido?  If it's offensive when a neighbor comes on to your spouse in a party, why not in a dojo?  If you are being offered a relationship with someone who maintains a hierarchical distance based on power, status, control or the possession of knowledge that will only be yours if you roll over, AND YOU ARE DRAWN TO IT, you are always mistaken, because that's a form of mercantile exchange, otherwise known as prostituting yourself—hence, a compromise of integrity.  Ask yourself why you'd choose a loss of dignity or integrity for anything.
    -Ellis Amdur, crisis counselor and budoka
    (2002: 1)

    Each individual must choose how much to endure. At no time should anyone tolerate abuse.  Repeated injuries to those not favored (or favored) by the instructor, chronic physical complaints by dojo members, invasion of private lives, or misuse of money, qualify.  Report any incidents promptly to authorities and seek professional legal or psychological advice as needed.

    Each person should research and observe before seriously taking up a martial art.  If the art does not suit the individual, the individual will never suit the art.  Taking a little longer to learn things in the case of those who have never been active is understandable.  Anyone with a will can be taught.  Most women are starting from a physical disadvantage of size and strength.  An accompanying (or preparatory) regimen of weight training, cardio training and stretching can not only be a lifesaver but a great equalizer as well.  People missing entire senses such as balance, sight or hearing, people missing arms or legs can still train effectively and honestly.  The body has limitations; learn to respect them and exceed them.  The mind and fear are the only limitations.  Note that being female is not a disability.  Women in government, military service, sports and other challenging fields have learned to blaze their own trails.  Women in martial arts must do the same.  The trick remains to not reiterate the past, but improve upon it.

    Treat me like another body on the mat - no male or female crap. Just folks of different sizes, shapes and physical conditions.  Don't be soft on me 'cause I'm a girl, don't lower your expectations of what I can do, but be reasonable enough to understand that I may take more time to get strong enough to do something.  And show me how to get stronger!  Not everyone knows how to exercise, male or female.  A lot of it comes down to the instructor knowing when, how, and how much to push each student.
    -Monica Bielke; Korea and U.S., aikido, jujutsu, hapkido
    (2003: 1)

    When queried about what he would tell someone who wouldn’t teach women, Staff Sergeant Darrin Carter, US Army Europe Boxing Coach, replied unhesitatingly “Then they shouldn’t be teaching anyone” (2003: n.p.)  Putting up with men isn’t the biggest challenge.  Women preparing themselves for the challenge and making their own way is.

    1. Linden p. 1
    2. Threadgill p. 1
    3. Amdur, p. 64
    4. NCASA p. 1
    5. Skoss 1997a p. 1
    6. AWARE p. 1
    7. Burdick p. 10
    Amdur, Ellis
    2000 Dueling with O-sensei Seattle, WA: Edgework.

    2002 Email to the author.

    Angier, Natalie
    2000  Woman: An Intimate Geography NY: Knopf Pub. Group.

    Bielke, Monika
    2003 Email to the author.

    Burdick, Dakin
    2002 “The Double Edged Sword: Lessons From The Travis Maxson Case” Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences: Proceedings from Meetings GSJSA 2002 (

    Carter, Darrin
    2003 Personal communication.

    Farnell, David
    2003 Email to the author.

    Fenrich, Eva
    2003 Email to the author.

    Gordon, Chuck
    2003 Personal communication.

    Linden, Daniel
    2002 Post no. 13, (

    NCASA Self-Defense AD-HOC Committee
    n.d. "Choosing a self-defense course" National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (

    AWARE: Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment
    2003 "Are you in danger?" (

    Parker, Angie
    2003 Email to the author.

    Rosen, Janet
    2003 Email to the author.

    Skoss, Dianne, (Ed.)
    1997 Koryu Bujutsu  Berkeley Heights, NJ: Koryu Books.

    1997a ”Why Women should Wield Weapons”,

    2002 Keiko Shokon Berkeley, NJ: Koryu Books.

    Threadgill, Toby
    2003 Personal communication with the author.


    I must credit the many personal interviews and written statements from people such as E. Fenrich, J. Rosen, M. Bielke, A. Parker, E. Amdur, C. Gordon and many more who may not have been quoted directly but added to the author’s perspective and knowledge immensely.  Many thanks, also, to those who stood in my way.  You taught me how to go around, and through, and I will teach others.

    About the author:

    Emily Dolan Gordon was born and raised in Austin, Texas.  She began budo in 1989 when she began sparring with shinai with her friends in a local park.  She took up aikido that year to improve her sparring footwork, continuing to achieve her shodan in Seidokan aikido in 1999.   She also has her first level in Wing Tsun, trained in Kodokan Judo with Zdenek Matl (7th dan Kodokan, former Olympic coach) and helped start a dojo in Texas for her aikido instructor Brendan Hussey (2nd dan aikido, 5th dan judo) and Kregg Phillips, nidan, Nishio Aikikai.  In January 2001, she moved to Indianapolis and took up Kokoro Ryu Aikibudo, an eclectic sogo budo under Kokoro Ryu Renshi Chuden Chuck Gordon, who is also her husband.  They train happily together in spite of being married (also happily).  Emily is a licensed, nationally certified massage therapist, amateur naturalist, and  occasional stringer for the local paper and scribbler of essays.  One of the highlights of her budo career was demonstrating Kokoro Ryu hanbo technique for the 2002 Guelph Sword School and training with the teachers offering courses there.  She loves budo as much as hunting mushrooms, fly-fishing or cooking wonderful meals with Chuck.  She now lives and works as a massage therapist on an Army base in Germany.

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