It’s not always easy being a woman in a heavily male-dominated dojo.
One day last year, our sensei showed us some martial uses of a tenugui (hand towel). At one point we were supposed to be flicking the end of it into someone’s face as a distraction. But I just couldn’t get the movement – even though everyone else seemed to get it easily. Not for the first time in my training life, I felt pretty stupid and uncoordinated.
But in the car on the way home, another student explained: Don’t worry – it’s just something all boys know. We learn it when we’re kids and we snap towels at each other in the changing room. I guess you never did that!
I had to laugh, because I couldn’t even imagine wanting to snap a towel at a naked friend, either as a child or now. But it was helpful to understand that everyone else in the dojo that day had internalised that movement years ago, while my body had never actually encountered it.
There’s a serious argument at stake here, about how many women can enter martial arts training at a much lower starting point than many men –
– due to our limited experience of physical play and exploration, roughhousing and so on. (This is of course not true for all women).
Iris Marion Young’s classic essay: “On Throwing Like a Girl” explains why many girls and women can’t throw, kick or punch properly (let’s be honest here rather than politically correct) as a result of the intense socialisation inflicted on us to be “feminine”.
But today’s article is not a critique of the disadvantages women can face in martial arts training (although I’ve written about this elsewhere). It’s more of an exploration of how being female – or socialised as feminine – might actually give us some advantages over our dojo brothers . . .
None of these points are true for all women or all men – sadly point four in particular is completely untrue for me. But generalising wildly, here are five advantages we may have in the martial arts . . .
1. Many women have years of training in copying and memorising choreographed sequences of movements
Aerobics is unquestionably a female-dominated activity; and it often gets a bad rap from feminists. Roberta Sassatelli writes,
The success of aerobics videos, for example, has been interpreted as evidence that women are still victims of a patriarchal regime which obliges them to worry about their appearance, training to the exclusive advantage of the male gaze, so reproducing an uncompromising, commercially promoted body ideal (Weitz and Dinnerstein, 1998).
Others portray aerobics as a form of female-dominated physical activity which segregates women, fails to promote self-acceptance and focuses on fat in ways reflecting the obsessions which haunt women with eating disorders (Lloyd, 1996; Maguire and Mansfield, 1998).
I can see, and sympathise with these arguments. A training regime of just aerobics feels like it could be so limited and anaemic compared to a life of Karate; and I’d love to see more women explore the darker challenges of the latter.
Yet everything has its yin/yang (in/yo) aspects; and as Leslea Haravon Collins says, aerobics is full of contradictions, as it can actually be both oppressive and empowering for women at the same time. I for one still enjoy a nice hour of copying and learning aerobic dance routines with a roomful of other women. It’s fun, absorbing, freeing, light and satisfying.
And when all’s said and done it’s still a form of training – and I’m pretty sure that years of aerobics can give us a substantial advantage in the task of picking up the “road map” of a new kata; or any other sequence of moves in the dojo.
Arguably this is an area of insecurity and even disadvantage for men. Freytag (2008) and Myers Smith (2006) both found that a core reason for low male participation in aerobics was that:
Men said they did not like choreographed dancing as they claimed to lack coordination. Not being coordinated enough made them appear incompetent, especially in front of females.
[…] Popular media supported these findings that men felt self-conscious, intimidated, and awkward in group exercise classes (Antrim, 2005; Horton, 2010).
This is not to say that women are intrinsically any more coordinated than men. But while our dojo brothers as boys may have been learning to kick and punch, and snap towels; and all kinds of other cool things which now stand them in good stead for martial arts training, dojo sisters are perhaps more likely to have spent our time practising dance routines in the playground and later at aerobics classes, which develops certain other useful skills.
The blogger Jackie Bradbury makes a similar point about cheerleading – another stereotypically “feminine” activity: I believe that cheering in my youth gave me the skill sets to learn and perform kata/anyos/forms pretty quickly.
2. We’re highly skilled in non-competitive play and exploration as an end in itself
Research has shown that boys and girls tend to play quite differently.
Boys’ games typically include football, basketball, baseball, war. They tend to be competitive and have clear goals, rules and roles. Julia T. Wood notes: the emphasis on individuality and competition. Also we see that these rules accent achievement – doing something, accomplishing a goal. These are valuable skills.
Meanwhile, girls’ games typically include school, doll, house. Traditional girls’ games are open-ended – they aren’t goal-oriented or structured by rules. The focus is on cooperation, exploration and learning to negotiate relationships.
And research has shown that women take this learning into adult communication patterns. Women are said to be less likely to vie for MVP (most valuable player) status and more likely to seek to level the playing field and enjoy interactions for their own sake.
What does this mean for martial arts? As so often, both approaches are needed (yin and yang). Goals and rules are fundamental pillars of martial arts training.
But so too can be circular, non-competitive exploration and discovery. When practising with a training partner, we’re not trying to “win” – we’re trying to learn (play!) together and enjoy the process for its own sake.
O Sensei (the founder of Aikido) said: We must foster the spirit of harmony in daily training. I’m blessed to train with men who are wonderful at this. But still – I can’t help wondering if the hours and years of many girls’ “training” in exploratory, collaborative play might give us some advantage in this way of being . . .
This yin/yang dynamic in martial arts training is expressed well through the Japanese word aite 相手 (literally mutual hand) which can mean both opponent and partner.
3. We’re said to be less likely to rely on strength
In all my years of training, I’ve heard this one a lot, especially in an Aikido context. People say to me (trying to be kind and encouraging!)
. . . do you know you have such an advantage? – women tend to learn Aikido faster than men, because they soon realise they can’t rely on strength. So they quickly give up on that and learn correct technique instead.
Lori O’Connell writes:
Usually women are smaller than the people they train with in the martial arts, being a male dominant environment. As a result, they often have to learn to be that much more technical, in order to be faster, more agile, more accurate, more efficient to be able to apply techniques on bigger, stronger partners.
If the woman has stuck out their training over the long term, they’ll often have developed greater technique out of necessity, and they pass on this knowledge to their students.
Sadly this has not been my experience, as I’m a physically strong woman, and thus as likely to unhelpfully try to use my strength as any man 😉 Still, it’s a commonly cited advantage of female martial artists, so definitely worth including here for those it does apply to!
4. It can be easier for us to instinctively understand and enjoy the role of uke
Returning to the problematic case of aerobics, another feminist critique of it revolves around the fact that it eschews competition and achievement; and is based on apparently low-value, “uncreative” activities such as following and repetition.
But some women would challenge this.
Amanda enjoys the act of following […She…] is expected to be creative and to take charge all day, and aerobics is a place where she can let some of that go […] Despite living in a society that values individualism and competition (Bordo, 1997; Brantlinger, 1990; Fiske, 1989; Sage, 1990), Amanda validates following as enjoyable and legitimate.
The Karate blogger Rachel Sag admits (in relation to her Tango class),
Women occasionally get to lead because invariably there are not enough men. However (and as much as my gender equality loving heart tells me I should not think this)….I prefer to be led (washes mouth out with soap). Perhaps relinquishing control and handing it over to someone else is good for me to do sometimes so when it comes to dancing I prefer to go with the flow than dictate the tide.
And is this really such a bad thing? O Sensei is supposed to have said that the role of uke is the hiden (secret) of Aikido.
Maybe I’m just biased because I’m so interested in gender issues, but I see the relationship between throwing and being thrown (for example) – as absolutely about an interaction of male (tori / nage) and female (uke) energies. Our task is therefore to master both evenly, and become able to express either one equally well, at the appropriate time.
And I freely admit that the role of uke has always come more easily to me than the role of tori, although this is finally starting to change now; and yes, this probably is to do with a lifetime of “training” by society to be feminine and yielding. But I don’t believe that this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different, and equally valid starting point . . .
5. We gain relevant wisdom through menstruation(??)
This one isn’t based on any facts or credible source – it’s just an fantasy thought experiment; and perhaps a bit far-fetched!
The feminist Gloria Steiner humorously came up with the following advantages of menstruation, which she believed men would claim if they were the ones to have periods:
Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”) [and] occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”)
[…] Medical schools would limit women’s entry (“they might faint at the sight of blood”).
[…] Without the biological gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets, how could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics– or the ability to measure anything at all?
In philosophy and religion, how could women compensate for being disconnected from the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death and resurrection every month?
Steiner was writing a satire, but seriously, I do sometimes wonder if being used to the frequent, regular, substantial sight of our own blood has implications for the way we understand the deeper, darker truths of the martial arts; and what is at stake when we learn to destroy other people’s bodies (and spirits).
And that’s not even mentioning childbirth, which may be much safer now (during the European Renaissance for example, childbirth was so dangerous that a woman would make out her will as soon as she found out she was pregnant) – but can still hold dark terror and risk of death even in the developed countries.
I don’t know the answer (if there even is one) – but will continue to reflect on this one . . .
As always, gender issues are complex; and so nothing in this article is to be taken as fixed or absolute.
However, it’s so easy to always focus on the disadvantages can women face in the martial arts, and so I’ve found it refreshing and fun to think up some counter arguments like this for once . . .
 Roberta Sassatelli. “Beyond Health and Beauty: A Critical Perspective on Fitness Culture”. In G Boswell and F Poland (eds) (2003). Women’s Minds, Women’s Bodies: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women’s Health. Palgrave Macmillan. Page 78.
 Leslea Haravon Collins. (2002). Working out the Contradictions: Feminism and Aerobics. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 2002:26. Page 86.
 Lynn Katherine Herrmann. (2012). Fitness and Fitting In: An Exploratory Study of Gender and Exercise. (Dissertation). Page 4.
 Julia T. Wood. “Gender”. In William F. Eadie (ed). (2009). 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. SAGE Publications.