Her Own Hero: How Self-Defense Became Acceptable for American Women

I was a seventeen-year-old college freshman when I realized I was being stalked. It started when a 27-year-old graduate student, whom I did not know, began showing up wherever I was on campus. Then he started following me off-campus. After I filed multiple reports with campus police, the Dean of Students summoned me for a lecture about my stalker’s rights. I eventually escaped unscathed but only with the help of my family, friends, and university police.

Even after moving cities and changing schools, I spent too much time anxiously looking over my shoulder. My new university offered a free women’s self-defense class called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD). I signed up and spent the whole week terrified of the final evening of the class when the women would don boxing gear and fight off an attacker, a police officer in a RedMan suit.

The women in the class bonded over our shared experiences and fears. We helped each other get in and out of boxing gear that final night and cheered each other on as we fought off the instructor. I took great pride in being the only participant able to injure the instructor through the RedMan suit. (Sorry, officer!) After the course, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t as anxious about my safety in public or private.

Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) Self-Defense Training at California State University University at Monterey Bay.

My positive experience with women’s self-defense led to my interest in Wendy Rouse’s Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement. I had no idea that as early as 1900, women were taking self-defense classes similar to the one I had taken. Rouse’s work details two major obstacles to developing a women’s self-defense movement in turn-of-the-century America. First was the reluctance to allow middle-class women to exercise or be physically active. Second was society’s unwillingness to admit that women regularly encountered violence from the men in their lives.

Rouse shows how the physical culture movement, eugenicist fears of race suicide, and the feminization of jiu-jitsu helped make women’s self-defense training acceptable in American society. The physical culture movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century promoted physical activity for women as essential for survival of “the Anglo race.” Women used the movement to justify their entry into sports previously reserved for men. As long as the larger goal was to strengthen women for “their roles as wives, mothers, and preservers of the race,” American society accepted women’s physical training.1

Theodore Roosevelt laughing. (Library of Congress)

As Americans became familiar with Japanese martial arts at the turn of the century, American men seemed obsessed with jiu-jitsu. In response, the American press insisted it wasn’t as “manly and honorable” as boxing and wrestling. Rouse uses this argument over which martial art, and by proxy, which race and nation, were superior to show how fighting styles were intertwined with concepts of masculinity, race, and nationality. President Theodore Roosevelt himself trained in multiple martial arts. Rouse maintains that he supported the physical culture movement both “as a means of fighting emasculation” for individuals and as a way to strengthen “the virility of the nation as a whole.”2

Roosevelt hired experts in jiu-jitsu and judo, which was derived from jiu-jitsu, to train him at the White House. He complained of a sore throat after judo instructor Yoshiaki Yamashita put him in a stranglehold. In response, Roosevelt seized Yamashita’s throat, but then promptly passed out. One can only imagine the Secret Service, first tasked with protecting the president only after Roosevelt’s predecessor William McKinley was assassinated, watching these matches in horror.

Commander Takeshita Isamu at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905. (Library of Congress)

Despite the injuries of the overtly masculine Roosevelt and his subsequent decision to back off training, Rouse details a series of arguments Americans used to denigrate jiu-jitsu (and therefore, the Japanese) including the suggestion that jiu-jitsu was effeminate by arguing that it couldn’t hurt “real men.” Feminizing jiu-jitsu also served to make American society more open to allowing women to learn the practice. Over time, Americans came to expect and even encourage girls to train, and jiu-jitsu was seen as less threatening to their femininity than other forms of self-defense. For example, the 1913 Girl Scout handbook recommended lessons in both firearms and jiu-jitsu for scouts.

The media fondly reported stories of women who responded to attacks with jiu-jitsu. When Hisaso Sota appeared in court to testify against her attacker, the judge requested that she demonstrate the move she’d used to defend herself. Sota, herself less than 100 pounds, threw the 165-pound Japanese interpreter across the courtroom to the cheers of spectators and the laughter of the judge.

By World War I, some even argued that self-defense was an American woman’s patriotic duty, something women owed to the nation on top of all of their other war-time obligations. Rouse describes American nurses training in boxing before going overseas as a way to prevent wartime sexual assault, which they believed was prevalent based on American propaganda about the German military.

While exercise became acceptable for middle-class women, American society remained reluctant to acknowledge that women regularly faced violence from the men in their lives. Myths about who perpetrated violence against women also helped to make it acceptable for white native-born women to train in self-defense. We still see this today. Despite my personal experience as a stalking victim, women are far more likely to be attacked by someone they know in private than by a stranger in public. Even still, American women are taught to fear strangers and public spaces.

The women’s self-defense movement arose in the context of middle- and upper-class white women increasingly working outside the home encountering mashers, men who harassed women on public streets. The media publicized these encounters, which led some to call for women to abstain from entering public spaces alone. Most mashers were native-born white men but Rouse found that “a common cast of sinister characters, including the flirtatious masher, the foreign white slaver, the black rapist, and the shadowy stranger, played lead roles in the stories generated in the public imagination… [although] the suspects rarely lived up to the stereotypes.”3

Although it was untrue, the stranger-danger myth made women’s self-defense palatable. Women fight-training didn’t seem so radical if they were constantly under threat of assault. Additionally, as the myths racialized the most dangerous threat to white women, women’s self-defense was “a means of protecting white women against attacks from non-white men and therefore helping to preserve their bodies for white men.”4

Cover art for Her Own Hero. (©NYU Press)

Rouse argues that while popular media focused on the myth that gave cover for women to pursue self-defense training, women’s self-defense advocates acknowledged the reality of violence against women. Some jiu-jitsu instructors even advertised their classes as being effective against domestic violence.

Rouse also shows the links between women’s physical and political empowerment. She focuses on how suffragists fought back against the idea that women needed a man to protect them. American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton encouraged young women to “carry a small pistol” in public and to have an “immense Newfoundland dog whenever she is in danger of meeting her natural protector” in private.5

Rouse details the violence suffragists faced during the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC and how they responded in kind to protect themselves. She concludes that suffragists understood the connections between women’s political and physical empowerment and that their political oppression was linked to their “physical and sexual subjugation.”6 If women could not count on male protectors to shield them from violence, they couldn’t count on men to adequately represent women in the voting booth either.

The connections between women’s physical empowerment and political rights brings Rouse back to Roosevelt, who had a nemesis in Martha Blow Wadsworth. (Despite Stanton’s advice on Newfoundlands, Wadsworth actually owned multiple St. Bernards.) Wadsworth often recreated Roosevelt’s physical stunts or challenged him to competitions. In response to Roosevelt’s martial arts lessons, Wadsworth invited Fude Yamashita, the wife of Roosevelt’s judo instructor, to offer a judo class on the White House lawn for DC’s elite women.

Rouse’s fascinating analysis of the origins of women’s self-defense in the Progressive Era will prove useful for those interested in the history of women’s rights, martial arts, or masculinity. Rouse ends by noting that many of the early arguments for and against women’s self-defense can still be seen in some form today. She concludes that the value of self-defense for women has been proven time and again. I couldn’t agree more.

Notes

  1. Wendy L. Rouse, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2017) 4, 25. Return to text.
  2. Rouse, 121. Return to text.
  3. Rouse, 94. Return to text.
  4. Rouse, 109. Return to text.
  5. Rouse, 119. Return to text.
  6. Rouse, 139-140. Return to text.

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