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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2003

Raising the bar - improving scholarship on women in the martial arts

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

"We will know martial arts scholarship has come into its own when non-martial artists take interest in it as a subject for its own sake" (Davis 2001, n.p.).  This paraphrased remark, by an anthropologist and fellow martial artist, is telling of the state of martial arts scholarship.  While there are some qualified people taking aesthetic, anthropological, archeological or historical forays into martial arts, few outside of actual practitioners are yet finding the field worth serious investigation.  My colleague's point is that until more qualified people qualified in research study martial arts, knowledge of the field is unlikely to experience very much real growth any time soon.

This paper addresses some of issues and problems with the state of research on the martial arts; and, since this is a panel on women in the martial arts, I will focus on that subject, identify some issues, and consider some ideas for improving scholarship on women in the martial arts.  Please bear in mind that while I will focus on women, the points raised apply equally to martial arts scholarship in general.  And also bear in mind I am not talking about most magazines, much of what can be found on the internet, action videos or coffee table books.  Those are not generally intended to be serious efforts, and I will not consider them as such here.

In general, MA scholarship fits into several broad categories in terms of authors and types of work generated:

1.  Beginners who think they know what they are talking about.  Their ability to write varies considerably.  Their work ranges from technical manuals to personal stories.

2.  Experts in a martial art.  These can be higher level technical manuals to more philosophical works.  Some of these efforts are definitely informative and worth reading.  On the other hand, some of these authors can't write but have something to say (and will say it anyway).  Sometimes they will venture outside of their field and write about things they really don't understand, so they make it up as they go along.  Some are pretty good at making things up as they go along by virtue of the fact that they are also pretty good writers.

3.  Experts in a martial arts discipline who can write and perform research.  There are a few of these - historian Carl Friday, anthropologists David Jones and John Donohue, Barbara Davis, to name a few.

4.  Some writers who have a political agenda that powerfully shapes their work, and puts one group in opposition to another; for example Asian versus non-Asian practitioners, or women versus men.

Let's consider some examples.  Though I am not trying to pick on any one author or work in particular, Stephanie Hoppe's Sharp Spear, Crystal Mirror (1998) provides an abundance of examples in all four categories.  Let's focus on category one to start.  The author shows her lack of understanding of various martial arts styles from the beginning.  As someone new to the field, one wonders why she decided to undertake the project of interviewing women martial artists about their practice without adequate preparation, but, as I noted above, not knowing much about the subject does not prevent people from writing and being published, perhaps because editors don’t know much either beyond that there is a market for the book.  Not only was Hoppe not familiar with many of the forms being discussed, she confined her search for subjects to a narrow band of turf along the US West Coast, in spite of hints by people she interviewed that there were major women martial artists outside the area worth including (for example Maggie Newman in New York City and Fran Vall in Virginia, to name two).  Lack of a travel budget could have been seen as a limiting consideration, except that email really has become a good replacement for air travel when it comes to interviews.

Moreover, many of the women interviewed were not far advanced in their art, and had even less cultural understanding of its background.  More than one stated they would never go to Japan to train because Japan was "too sexist."  Where this idea came from I do not know; though I am fairly certain it was not from first hand experience.  The author did not contradict them, probably because she did not know whether it was true or not, or possibly in paying homage to some idea regarding the validity of all truths, a misunderstanding of the post-modern idea of pluralism.

In fact, the recent DVD release of Budo: Art of Killing, a 1978, documentary film on Japanese martial arts, spends approximately 20 minutes on women’s naginata, and features women in nearly every other art shown.  In 1978.  In Japan.

On the other hand, Hoppe's inclusion of reprints of interviews with Keiko Fukuda, the highest ranking female Judoka in the world, and Wen Mei Yu, a high-ranking Chinese taiji teacher, showed, if only for an instant, how good the book could have really been, with more preparation.

For political biases, one only need look at Hoppe's sections on the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists (PAWMA) gatherings on the West Coast.  The internal debates on whether to allow a tournament or not (it's hierarchical, with winners and losers) to the semi-erotic descriptions of sweaty women in tank tops and short shorts, gave an almost uncomfortable level of intimacy into the inner workings of an exclusively female gathering.

Some of Hoppe's interviewees, in spite of their debt to their male teachers, debated whether they should teach men in their classes or not.  Reasons usually revolved around power issues, and whether men could intimidate other women in the class by their mere presence.

Much of women's writing on the martial arts focuses on personal narrative.  Carol A. Wiley’s Women in the Martial Arts consists entirely of personal narratives.  Some are compelling, some not.  My least favorite among these was the essay describing taiji as a way of healing oneself of past sexual abuse.  While taiji is good for you, it is not therapy.  It is asking a little too much of one's fellow martial artists to be crisis counselors.

There is nothing wrong with personal narrative.  People's stories can be inspiring and uplifting (and creepy).  I also do not mean to sound unsympathetic to victims of violence or abuse.  However, if I wanted a text on self-healing, I would voluntarily go to the psych section at the bookstore.

On the other hand, if one really wants to get a good idea of women in the martial arts, we have to move beyond personal narrative to more substantive information.  We lack basic research.  Many fundamental questions have not been resolved; for example, how many women martial artists are there?  In the US?  In Japan?  Worldwide?  Who are these women?  Single?  Married?  Moms?  Grandmoms?  What is the age breakdown?  Are there religious or cultural barriers to their study?  Are they mostly students?  Children?  How many senior students are there?  How many teachers?  Who do they teach?  One could get a handle on these questions by using a basic research tool: the questionnaire.  Though this would be an enormous project, there must be funding out there for it somewhere, and it would tell us a lot.

There is also a lack of training of martial arts researchers.  As noted above, there are few non-martial artists who write about martial arts; of the martial artists who write, a very small number are trained in research.  In the last section of this paper, I consider some ways to improve training, without paying for graduate school, necessarily.

Lack of basic statistics on women in the martial arts reduces nearly all the writing on it to the realm of personal experience of individual practitioners or (perhaps, but not usually) small groups.  What then happens is a constant reinventing of the wheel.  People who think their training stories are unique should be required to read book after book of them for review.  Hoppe's almost identical interview subjects bear this out in one convenient volume.  Reports on PAWMA and other women's martial art confabs provide some information on broader issues and practices, but not much.  Women get together mostly to train and bond and (sometimes) compete.  Reporting by insiders rarely offers more than personal observations and rarely an evaluation of whatever points are at issue.  Generally, there is an attempt at a unified front rather than considering and exploring potentially divisive issues.  At academic conferences, the conflicts are what make the world go 'round, not because everyone likes the gossip (though we all do) but arguments add depth to the understanding of the subject by presenting different points of view.

What we get then, most often, is personal experience narratives by people at varying levels of expertise in one art form who have done little if any research, either on them or on other art forms (that they may or may not write about) and an astonishing lack of historical grounding (history of Asian or other martial art forms; history of women in the art forms).  My favorite myth here is writers who are convinced there is no history of women in martial arts and martial sports, not here and especially not in Asia.  This is ridiculous.

In addition, there are aspects specifically related to women in martial arts, whether we like it or not, which should be addressed:

1.  Genderizing issues of competition, conflict and aggression.  The PAWMA debate on competition is a good example of serious interest in an issue that is worth exploring in more depth.  However, anyone who's ever been on a women's sport team knows women are intensely competitive.  Monica McCabe Cardoza, in her book A Woman’s Guide to the Martial Arts (1996), writes that she approached free sparring in karate with trepidation, but found out that she absolutely loved it.  However, Cardoza cannot hide the feeling that free-sparring is a guilty pleasure, since women are "supposed" to be non-violent.  The tyranny of the personal narrative again.  How many women compete in martial arts?  How do they actually feel about it?  The mythos of women as peace-loving nurturers may need some modification, but we honestly do not know who competes, or why.

2.  Issues surrounding self-defense for women.  This is an enormous subject worthy of serious research, as women defending themselves against violence is a subject that should be important for everyone.  Women seek out self-defense classes with surprisingly little understanding of what they entail, and whether the teacher is any good (beyond what he may say about himself).  I went to a class once, given by one of my sempai, at the urging of a few people.  He had one student (his girlfriend).  Since he decided her "center" was too high, they were practicing tumbling, in order to "lower her center."  It's nice to know a forward roll can help you evade an attack on the street.  So far, the only good overview article I have ever seen is Shannon Jackson's assessment of Model Mugging, "Representing Rape" (1993).  Among other points she raises are issues of the possibility of random attacks on the street, which the course was supposed to equip you to handle.  Jackson points out that, statistically, the chances are much better that a woman will know her attacker, which her Model Mugging course did not address.

I have wanted to take a few women's self defense seminars myself as a form of research.  I want to assess the actual self-defense methods, as well as to see if and how they handle intimate situations, in addition to an assault by a stranger.  To be honest, they cost too damn much.  A women’s self defense weekend seminar can cost $400 or more.  My favorite internet find is two instructors who will teach a 3-hour course for $1500, plus all expenses.  Who are these people and why should they command that price?  It wasn’t that easy to find out.  The price of fear is obviously a very important part of the women’s self-defense issue as well.

3.  Sexual/physical abuse and/or exploitation by teachers or senior students.  This is another point for a poll or questionnaire.  Is this a real issue?  There are many anecdotal stories.  Jackson outlines one, by the founder of the Model Mugging program, no less.  Dakin Burdick (2002) has graphically described another.  How much of an actual problem is sex abuse in the martial arts?  We have no reliable data, which, as any researcher will tell you, allows people either to disregard it out of hand, or to overreact, treating it as a larger problem than it actually is.

4.  One of my favorites - should (or can) women martial artists teach male students or not?  To me, this is a non-issue, but a real consideration to others.  I knew a female kalaripayattu teacher who could only keep male students for a few months; after which time they would start telling her how the techniques "should" be done, and she would kick them out.  It did seem that, for her, the men were a waste of her time.  On the other hand, in iaido, a sword is a great equalizer, and it doesn't take much strength to wield it effectively.  The same goes for kyudo, jodo and naginata.  I personally know women who have successfully taught men in these forms.

5.  Integrity.  How do you confront the fact that the guys don't think you're as good as they are?  Any senior practitioner knows this story (I will spare you mine).  Again, the issue is not personal stories but what they mean in the big picture of women's involvement in the martial arts.

How do we improve what's out there by adding to the field in a meaningful way?  A few suggestions.

1.  Improve writing skills.  If there is no book/journal editor to spend time with you, don't assume your piece is perfect, by all means get a friend with writing experience or a writing teacher to look at your work.  Be self-critical.  Ask yourself the hardest question for a writer: “So what?”  Take other people’s suggestions.  Please.

2.  Do your homework.  If you are going to write about women in karate, learn everything you can about the history, styles, etc.  Find or compile statistics on who studies, are they Japanese or Korean, etc.  If you cannot come up with a big picture, work on a smaller one, but please at least acknowledge that the big picture exists, even if it is "outside the scope of this book" (which really means, "I don't know”).

As a basic background text, David E. Jones' Women Warriors: A History (1997) is a good place to start.  Though there is a dearth of information on Asian women, there is plenty on African, Middle Eastern and European women's martial traditions and military history.  It will definitely place your aikido experience in perspective.

Tangentially, Joe Svinth and his colleagues with the Kronos database include women's experiences, primarily with boxing and wrestling, in Europe and the US .  Though it focuses more on women’s involvement combat sports, reading through the entries definitely gives one a feeling of a “march through time,” as opposed to “we are the trailblazers of women not afraid to learn to fight.”

3.  Make hard choices.  Ground any interviews in real information; for example, if your subject begins a rant on sexism in Japan (where she's never been), do you have the information to refute her assertion?  Are you going to confront her personally or contradict her in print and either way take the heat?  Discard material that's not good enough and start over.  In other words, if it turns out that your interview subject is not the expert she's cracked up to be, thank her for her time, and move on.

4.  Reduce emotionalism or interest in politicizing if your project is truly a scholarly one.  Save it for the opinion page.

People have asked me why I don't write a book on women in the martial arts.  Though I realize in some ways this paper comes in the form of a rant on the subject, there are some aspects of it that truly interest me.  If I ever gather the time and the money to do it right, a book may some time come to pass.  Otherwise, don't look for it anytime soon.


Burdick, Dakin
2002 "The double-edged sword: lessons from the Travis Maxon case" paper given at the 2002 Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, in Proceedings: Records of Meeting, GSJSA July 19, 2002 Issues in the Martial Arts

Cardoza, Monica McCabe
1996 A Women’s Guide to the Martial Arts  Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press.

Curley, Jody
1992 “Coming home: T’ai chi ch’uan as a path of healing” Women in the Martial Arts (C. Wiley, Ed.) Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, pp. 5-13.

Davis, Michael
2001 Personal communication.

Hoppe, Stephanie T.
1998 Sharp Spear, Crystal Mirror  Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Jackson, Shannon
1993 “Representing rape: Model Mugging’s discursive and embodied performances”  The Drama Review T139 (Fall) pp. 110-141.

Jones, David E.
1997 Women Warriors: A History  Washington and London: Brassey’s.

Svinth, Joseph
2002 Kronos: a chronological history of the martial arts and combat sports

Wiley, Carol A. (Editor)
1992 Women in the Martial Arts  Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

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