Monday, September 30, 2013

Misty, Water-Colored Memories

I remember the first woman I saw in the dojo. She was a green belt, I think - and I was still in sweats and a T-shirt (hadn't even gotten my gi yet). Back then, I was so busy trying to figure out these hand, foot and body movements that I didn't realize I was one of only two adult females in a class of 30 people.

I also remember the first female black belt I ever saw. She was fierce in the dojo but really nice and humble out of it - and I still train with her to this day. Shortly after that, I met another female black belt - a sixth-dan who no longer really trained (although stories about how she had to sneak into the YMCA in a baseball cap to train with the men back in the 70s and how she once knocked out a guy she was sparring with a ball-of-the-foot roundhouse kick to his temple were legendary). So yeah, three women in the span of about four years.

I also remember every time I was made to feel like less than in the dojo because of my sex including:

  • How everyone thought it was a cute that the female first black belt I ever met knocked some hardened Marine on his butt his first night on the mat (when she was a teen) after he volunteered to be her uke for a self-defense technique. He was apparently so embarrassed that got up, walked out the door and never came back. 
  • Crawling on the floor after class looking for that same black belt's contact lens after some thug of an instructor sent it flying during sparring because she'd taken him to the ground during another training session a few days earlier. His payback was because he was also embarrassed about  being "shown up" by a woman whom he out-ranked.
  •  Being shown techniques by an instructor that would, as he put it, keep women from damaging their "freshly manicured" fingernails. 
  • Training as a brown belt and having every guy in the room wanting to turn up the dial when it was time to spar because no one wanted to get beaten by a "girl." 
  • Hearing a not-so-energetically done technique being described not as weak or inefficient, but as "girly" to the very young woman who had just done it.
  •  Witnessing a student with amazing potential be told that she was going to be a great female martial artist someday. 
Frankly, I'm tired of letting it go, ignoring it or assuming the person who said it didn't really mean it "that way." What other way is any of that supposed to be taken, I wonder? - because whether meant as an insult, said as a joke or uttered without ill intent doesn't matter; the result is still the same.

When I meet other female karateka at tournaments or seminars, I feel like we are kindred souls somehow - and they seem to feel the same. We almost always start out by asking and answering the same questions to/from each other: What do you study? How long have you been studying it? How old were you when you started? Is it easy to fit training into your busy life? To me they are students of their respective arts. It still shocks me to realize that in some places, we are thought of as FEMALE students, as if the distinction is a very necessary one. I don't quite get that, truthfully.

We've managed to show that phrases like "Stop acting like a retard!" or "That is so gay!" are so ridiculously insensitive. We've also managed to weed them out of our everyday vernacular as well. Here's hoping we can do the same for anything that ends with " a girl!"


  1. Your experiences are yours so I can't really say "that guy didn't mean it that way", and as you said, the results are the same anyway.

    I hope I can offer a modicum optimism, though. Even in a knock-down style like Kyokushin, our dojo doesn't do that macho "pander to the little woman" crap and it wont fly with me, if I ever find myself in an instructing role.

    I am no feminist, but I am a student of history and have some ability to recognize social trends. Seems to me that you, and women of your demographic (by that I mean seniority, not creed) are destined to be the tip of the spear, so to speak, for women in martial arts.

  2. I quote your post, "we are thought of as FEMALE students, as if the distinction is a very necessary one."

    In the sense of your post, not it is not necessary. In the sense of self-defense, it is necessary but not because you lack anything but more of a perspective of how females are in the current culture along with physical differences, i.e. in other words self-defense must be adjusted to each individual and their physical and psychological make up.

    I don't believe in segregation due to gender but do believe in adjusting the mostly male oriented martial arts to "work" for the female of our species simply because there are differences that both need to compensate for in order to make it work in defense, combat or the fight.

    The great thing about differences is most often someone being attacked on the street can count on the adversary being bigger, stronger and with a distinct advantage so training for that is a good thing.

    Where the rubber does NOT meet the road is the disparity of understanding by the male counterpart in martial arts. If they let go of the male ego and embrace the mutual beneficial model of uke-tori, etc. to bring about progress, efficiency and proficiency regardless, then maybe all this disparity of gender will truly disappear.

    Regards and Thanks,


  3. Women are as different from men as adults are from children. You can't treat a child like a mini adult and you can't treat a woman like a small or weak man. Men, women and children are three different but socially equal groups. In the dojo I don't want to be treated the same as a man because I'm not one. I'm proud to be a rare female in a male dominated environment and think I hold my own pretty well considering my small size. I only want to be treated with respect and as an individual. Slightly sexist banter said in humour between friends (male and female) I don't mind and can laugh along with (and give as good as I get) but bullying, revenge and being patronised by misogynistic males is unacceptable and frankly childish but it's their hateful problem not ours. Rise above it I say. Be proud of who you are Felicia and don't let the b***ards get you down.

  4. I just found your blog and I loved this post very much. It's good a good thing when we feel like we can call out the bullshit. It shows others that they're not alone or oversensitive in dealing with their own dojo's bullshit, and that there are people out there who get it.

    I hope to share this link at our women in the martial arts tumblr, We're always looking for writers like to you read and share.

    Thank you!

  5. Sarah - welcome and glad you stopped by. Feel free to share the link, if you like. Heading over to visit the tumblr page riiiight now :-)