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First Wave Feminism and Self-Defense

March 14, 2019


​Most of my knowledge about women training in martial arts at the beginning of the twentieth century has come from jokes and cartoons such as the Punch item, “The Suffragette Who Knew Jiu-jitsu,” featured on p. 129 of Wendy L. Rouse’s Her Own Hero. That cartoon shows a woman who has just thrown several cops over a fence standing ready and able to take on the horde of officers cowering away from her.


As a woman martial artist, I know women can fight, and, as a feminist, I know that when men make jokes about women beating up men, they are trying to belittle something that scares them. However, I had no idea that so many women in both the United States and the United Kingdom took up boxing and jiu-jitsu to protect themselves in the early 1900s, nor that some of that training was tied to the suffrage movement and other radical feminism of the times. 

Rouse gives us the story of those women, but she does more with the subject than that. While she is a serious martial artist who must have been delighted to find so many foremothers, Rouse is an equally serious historian—a professor at San Jose State University in California—who does not neglect the complex social issues of this period. It is impossible to talk about protecting women and avoid issues of both race and class. Further, women’s interest in fighting skills was part of their general interest in athletic activities previously denied to women, and their push to do these things came at a time when, at least in the United States, there was a physical fitness push for men, particularly white, upper-class men. Rouse used a large number of primary sources such as newspaper and magazine articles as well as books published at the time, along with data from law enforcement and courts to definitively document the real experiences of women during those years. By pulling together all this information, Rouse has broken new ground and expanded our understanding of women’s history.


This book is important for several reasons. First, it provides detailed data and analysis on the physical training that accompanied the feminist movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fight for the vote often involved real fighting, especially in the United Kingdom, and the push by women for expanded rights led them to recognize other areas, such as self-protection, that were important to them. The resistance of the powerful to efforts by women (and many others) to obtain reasonable rights often leads to radicalization, and the suffrage movement was no different. 

Second, it shows that the issues surrounding women’s physical skills did not suddenly arise with Second Wave feminism beginning in the late 1960s. The so-called medical opinions that physical activity of all kinds would harm women’s reproductive systems that were used to keep women from playing sports into the 1960s were debunked more than a hundred years back. Rouse points to the work of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, who received her medical degrees in 1864 (United States) and 1871 (France) and wrote of the importance of physical activity for women. 

She also notes that while women studied both jiu-jitsu and boxing, many of the courses taught “modified versions of the manly arts in an effort to avoid upsetting traditional class and gender roles” (p. 190). The classes often morphed into ones aimed at shaping women’s bodies into the ideal of the day—a pattern that has re-emerged in the present with the “kickboxing” classes offered to women at many gyms. But it is still important to note that many women did take up fighting arts for serious purposes at a time when most lacked the basic civil and political rights we take for granted today.

Third, Rouse is all too aware that self-defense studies, the suffrage movement, and the push for other rights of the time were affected by the racism and class issues of the day. The specter of danger from Black and “foreign” men in the narratives of stranger rape and “white slavery” encouraged middle- and upper-class white women to study self-defense, despite the fact that, then as now, most of the dangers for all women came from family, friends, acquaintances, and employers. The “mashers”—similar to today’s cat-callers and other street harassers—tended to be professionals or skilled tradesmen, most of them white and native-born. (It is interesting that claims against mashers were taken seriously in the early twentieth centur