[Review] Women in the Martial Arts edited by Carol A. Wiley

I bought this book a year ago and have been reading through it in bits and pieces. I’m not the same kind of reader I was as a teenager when I used to devour books in long, single sittings. I read in glances now, from books and screen alike.  I hoard texts and pick away when I can stop myself from writing (or drawing, or training). I did eventually get through this whole volume.

Women in the Martial Arts book cover

“Women in the Martial Arts” by Carol A. Wiley (1992)

From the introduction

“These twenty-three essays present perspectives on the martial arts from women who have been training from seven to twenty years. These women represent twelve different martial arts, and many have trained in more than one style. This book is the first to collect the writings of women who have this depth and breadth of experience in martial arts.”

I write in books

Without inhibition! Some essays are barely touched, others are covered with heavily underlined passages, questions and answers in the margins, and many circled words. Sometimes just, “wow”.

This might be less of a review of the book’s quality (I don’t know how to judge that) and more of a re-telling of my experience reading it.

Looking back through on what I’ve written in this book over the last year, seeing my headspace when a moment in my life intersected with a page in this book, it’s clear to see which passages I could relate to.  Like a historical smell, an underlined passage takes me back to a week or month in this past tumultuous year.

If you read no further: I recommend picking this up and taking a few minutes with an essay, from time to time. There’s something valuable to be found here. You’ll also be able to read excerpts on Google Books here.

Age and experience

This book was written in 1992 and from the biographies of the contributors, it’s clear that I’m reading from the generation just ahead of mine.  Their began’s and until’s are settled quite confidently between 1971 and 1989, with years experiences averaging close to 12. I am young here at 30 years old and in about my 6th full year.  These writers were coming of age in the 1970’s, a huge and volatile time for women’s rights.  This was the decade of Rusty Kanokogi and “Black Belt Woman” magazine.  Just as women fighting for the right to vote in the U.S. and England understood self-defense was a valuable tool to gaining their freedom, many women in the 1970’s reacted to the violence of their lives by founding all-women martial arts schools and developing new styles and dismantling patriarchal power relationships.

There are contributors writing about racial discrimination, and disability.  Many of the contributors have personal experience with sexual abuse and violence.  Some of the women write with emotion and poetry, from pain and joy.  Others’ essays read like academic papers or statements of philosophy. Others are simple narratives and observations.

I mean – Wiley was right when she said, ‘depth and breadth’. I paid attention.

It’s going to be very hard to choose which essays to include in this post.

“Open to Change: Steps Along the Way”

Kathy Hopwood writes about growing up in a life of violence and poverty in the Washington D.C. projects in the 1960s and 1970s, how she left home at 15 years old.

It was the era of Vietnam war protests, love-ins, peace gatherings, and other hippie phenomenon. We considered ourselves revolutionaries working toward a new world. Make no mistake about the climate for women though, sexual harassment and rape definitely were a part of that culture – we just didn’t have a name for them yet.

Having no real direction in my life, I just floated along. At such a tender age, I had no education, no self-esteem, and no aspiration. I experienced many sexual assault attempts by both strangers on the street and guys I knew and trusted. I often wondered if I had giant bull’s-eye on me saying, “Here’s a perfect target.” Fortunately, I was not raped but I too often just escaped from an assault by the skin of my teeth. It seemed as though I was constantly negotiating for the rights of my body.

Hopwood goes on to describe how she sought classes at an all-woman karate school and how startled she was at the expectations: hard work, discipline, self-respect. She writes:

I was beginning to think this weird stuff was not for me. Besides, I couldn’t make a proper fist or get my feet into those awkward positions she wanted us to do for a side kick! In fact I couldn’t stretch, or bend, or get my knee up, or breathe, or most of all, not feel ridiculously silly. At the first opportunity,  I escaped to the bathroom and cried for a long time. I considered myself pretty tough from the years on the streets. Yet here I was crying my eyes out because my tough self-image had finally collided with my very real and very fragile self-esteem of being a survivor. This collision would change the course of my life forever.

I don’t necessarily think that martial arts is the sole whole-body-mind endeavor that demands we face ourselves, but it made those demands for me (in a different way that becoming a dancer did) and I’ve heard many other women write/talk about their own ‘collisions’.  Kathy Hopwood went on to found SafeSkills, a self-defense program and formed her own dojo.  She’s considered a pioneer in women’s martial arts in the US, and in self-defense.

She ends her essay in a way that left me writing one word in open blankness of that trailing page: powerful.

Teaching women to make a fist, kick a target, or let out a ferocious animal yell for the first time is an honor that I will treasure for the rest of my steps along the way.

“Oppression and a Warrior’s Way”

The essay by Maria Doest is only a page and a half and followed by my penciled in words: “oh sad so short i want to hear so much more”.  Doest is of American Indian and Chinese ancestry and writes a great deal in few words about the positive she found in the darkness of sexist and racist oppression.  Doest was at the time of publication a fourth degree black belt in Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate and is a stuntwoman and fight scene coordinator, “using her skills in the martial arts to change the way women are depicted in film when confronting violence.”

From her essay:

 While my brown skin has resulted in occasions of hurtful behavior by others, it has given me the  many positives. I understand by saying that I risk romanticizing my position as a woman of color, but my purpose is not to be politically correct. My purpose is to share my experiences as a woman of color in martial arts, and I believe the positive always outweighs the negative.

At the risk of sounding cliched, if I am in a negative situation I make it positive by changing it, by learning from it, or by removing myself from it. This way of living comes not from a specific familial example, but from my racial memory, a memory that is overwhelmingly positive while being realistic about oppression and genocide. If you focus on the negative it will eat you up and your oppressors will win. Positive energy, calm, laughing in the face of adversity, and light spiritedness – these are the ways of the warrior, the ‘do’ in karate-do.

 Debbie Leung & Karla Grant

The two most heavily marked essays were those by Debbie Leung and Karla Grant. I think this is the case, in part, because both of them dealt with the topic of violence against women and the social and political problems that create a culture of violence and victim-blaming. I think what’s frustrating is that these women are writing in the 1990s from their perspective going back into the 1970s and here I am now in the year 2015 and the struggle is still so similar.  The same problematic self-defense methods Leung and Grant take apart in these essays are still a problem today.

Both essays, “Martial Arts and Women’s Self Defense: Two Perspectives” by Debbie Leung and “Transforming the Victim Role” by Karla Grant, are informative and comprehensive, and it’s difficult to summarize them. Here are some highlights:


The link with martial arts makes learning “self-defense” a dubious option for many women. […] In addition, the issue of “self-defense” relates so closely to abuse and assault that thinking, talking, and doing something about it can feel especially frightening and risky in a male-dominated activity such as the martial arts. Some women, including me, took a big step and learned self-defense in martial arts schools.


Any society that trains half its population [women] to subjugate their will to the other half, and then exonerates the other half of behavioral accountability, is at least dysfunctional. The key to proper self-defense is to transform the traditional socialization process within each person and within the society. […] Self-defense must include empowerment because women’s socialization process disempowers them.

There’s so much more

There’s an essay by Lydia Zidjel about practicing Aikido from a wheelchair and the discrimination as well as support she experienced.  There’s an utterly fantastic interview with Lidia Alexandra Wolanskyj about Aikido and goes into detail about the intense emotional transformation that many people face. Marilyn May’s essay about ‘sensei worship’ and the complexities of unequal power relationships came to me at an important time in my life, if not a few years too late. (Which could mean that it’s actually right on time.) Anne Moon’s essay I think more than any of the others is really situated in a point in time when the feminist martial artists of the 1970s had deeply matured and it was now time to question what a feminist martial arts space looks like and how it sustains itself without repeating the ills of the former, patriarchal spaces.

A book worth reading, even if it takes a year.


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