Modern Martial Arts Research:
A Woman’s Developing Role within the Martial Arts
Dr. Amanda L Jenkins
Martial arts study and practice is of great benefit to both men and women alike. Women martial artists often bring things to the disciplines that their male counterparts do not. However, many women martial artists daily face the combined obstacles of sex bias and lack of resources in the martial arts. As women in the martial arts, we are continuously reminded that we are but a small representation in a man’s art, and that we are here only by the permission of the stronger male contingent. We want to change the face of our world and our martial arts, and teach others to respect us for our strengths and our knowledge. It is well understood that this is will be no easy task. Women martial artists have fought just as long and just hard to reach this spot, and in some cases we have fought even harder. In order to understand the future of women in the martial arts it is first important to look at our roles in martial arts history. This paper will review the impact that women have had on the martial arts and then discuss how women can be greater influence on the future of martial arts.
This work is dedicated to all the women who have come before and mastered one or many martial arts. They have served as an inspiration for all of us who have come after.
Women’s roles in the martial arts have always been changing. In the battle tales of most countries, the focus is almost completely on the deeds of the nobility and warrior classes. These tales, passed down by blind bards much as Homer’s Iliad, present warriors as archetypes: the tragic Loser-Hero, the Warrior-Courtier, the Traitor, the Coward, etc. Women warriors are almost never described or even mentioned. Women’s roles in such tales are slight: the Tragic Heroine who kills herself at the death of her husband; the Loyal Wife who is taken captive; the Stalwart Mother who grooms her son to take vengeance for his father’s death; the Merciful Woman whose “weak” and “feminine” qualities encourage a warrior chieftain to indulge in unmanly empathy and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children, who later grow up to kill him; and the Seductress who preoccupies the warrior leader and diverts him from his task with her feminine wiles. Finally, almost casually mentioned, are women en masse: either slaughtered or “given” to the warriors as “spoils-of-war.” Unless one is willing to imagine a conspiracy of silence in which women’s role on the battlefield was suppressed in both historical records and battle-tales, it is a fair assumption that women warriors were very unusual. This is borne out by the prominence given to the few women about whom accounts are written. Some of those will be discussed here.
Southeast Asia is known for its specialized Weapon Fighting Arts, from Krabi Krabong in (Thailand), Kiris and Tongkat in (Indonesia), to Kiris, Barong, Bolo, and Rattan Stick in Eskrima (a group of styles also known as “Kali” or “Arnis” from the Philippine islands). The technical emphasis of these arts is always on the forearm , and the lower leg (from foot to knee), and not on the torso or the skull, although that can be considered a target once the opponent is stopped in the attack. The combat practice is in drill methods to improve timing and reflexes. And so it became like learning to play a “musical” instrument, or saying poetry, although in this instance the “poetry” is based on multiplying of one technique with another and coming up with various advanced techniques from fundamental counter routines. This “multiplication” factor between fundamental counter techniques became known as Kali-Kali.
Historically, these arts are traced to India. They appeared during the age of the Maja Pahit Empire in Indonesia, which was the age of design and development of the native Fighting art systems in the Indonesian archipelago. Indonesians credit these arts to the work of the Nine Wali who appeared in different regions of Sumatera and Java. Traders had arrived from Arabia and India during the 7th century, first to north Sumatera island and then across Java to south-central Philippines. Haji Omar Din of Malaysia, a renowned master of the Lincah system, credits the old native culture of Rampur, India, (the Bin Ot (staff), and the Gatka stick fighting arts) with influencing the southeast Asian weapon arts. A legendary teacher of these arts was a blind girl, known as the famous “Blind Princess” in the Philippines. Women are credited with designing Limb attack-based martial arts in two instances: first the Filipino Eskrima, and then in Wing Chun Kungfu (in southern China, and Hong Kong) which is also a Limb Attack and Trapping based system.1
Japanese martial arts are more straight line fighting styles, than the circular techniques of their Chinese cousins. Japanese arts range from empty hand martial systems to joint locking and throwing systems to styles devoted entirely to weapons’ practice. The art of karate (kara-te), which means empty hand, is commonly believed to have come to Japan from the island of Okinawa, where fighting with weapons was banned for many years. There are Japanese martial arts that teach archery and special long weapons, such as the naginata, a long handled knife made famous as a women warriors’ weapon. All Japanese martial arts have their roots in the principles of bushido, the way of the warrior. Japanese martial arts are seeped in tradition and discipline to one’s teacher and to the art itself.2
For many women interested in Japanese martial practice, there is the image of the woman warrior bearing a naginata in the protection of her home and even on the field of battle. Although it is a glorious image, it is difficult to separate fact from fancy because of the almost complete absence of historical records that document the role of arms-bearing women. The most famous Japanese women warriors are Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen (sometimes called Itagaki). Interestingly, for both of these women the naginata was not their weapon of choice. Tomoe Gozen was described as a general in the troops of Kiso Yoshinaka, Yoritomo’s first attack force. She was described as especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swords-woman. She was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors. Her last act, on the verge of Yoshinaka’s defeat, was to buy time for her husband to commit seppuku. She rode into the enemy forces and, flinging herself on their strongest warrior, unhorsed, pinned, and decapitated him. In the interim, however, Yoshinaka was killed by an arrow. Another legend states that she survived to become a Buddhist nun.
The second famous woman warrior is Hangaku Gozen, daughter a warrior family of Echigo province. She was known for her strength and accuracy with the bow and arrow. In 1201, after the feudal government attempted to subjugate one of her nephews, the warriors of Echigo and Shinano revolted. Besieged in Tossaka castle, she held off the enemy from the roof of a storehouse. After being wounded in both legs by spears and arrows, she was taken prisoner and presented before the Shogun Yoriie. Drawn by her beauty and dignity, Yoshito Asari of the Kai Genji courted her and they married. According to one account, they lived the rest of their lives in peace, but in another account, she was killed while assisting in the defense of the Castle.
Thus, at least in the earlier periods such as the Heian and Kamakura, women who became prominent or even present on the field of battle were the exception rather than the rule. This does not indicate, however, that most women were powerless. However, this does not consider the bushi women who were pioneers, helping to settle new lands and, if need be, fighting, like women of the old western territories in American history. Some bushi clans may even have been led by women. This can be inferred from the legal right given to women to function as jito (stewards), who supervised land held in absentia by nobles or temples.3
Korea is a predominantly mountainous peninsula 600 miles in length first inhabited by Tungusic tribes from central Asia in about 3000 B.C. The legendary figure Tan’gun is said to have formed the first Korean Kingdom in 2333 B.C. China introduced bronze into Korea in 108 B.C. This introduction, combined with the fact Chinese military colonies with a greater understanding of agricultural sciences were pushing their way onto the Korean Peninsula, led to a rapid progression of both weaponry and farming for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula. This was the beginning of what became known as the, “Three Kingdom Period” of Korean history. During an extensive period of war, in the 6th Century, the first highly formalized group of martial art practitioners came to be organized on the Korean Peninsula. They were known as the Hwa Rang. This aristocratic warrior group, is what is attributed to unifying of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.
The Hwa Rang (Flowering Youth) warriors were first envisioned by King Chin Hung of Silla. Though his kingdom had its army, he believed his soldiers were not of an exceptional nature – which is why his country could not defeat Koguryo, Paekche, and the invasive T’ang. Therefore, he set about to organize a group of young talented noblemen who were exceedingly loyal to the thrown and could be extensively trained in all forms of warfare and then successfully go into battle. The problem was, however, how to secure and evaluate aristocratic men of this caliber. To this end, two beautiful court women were selected to gather men around them. The names of these two girls were Nam Mo and Chun Jung. Several hundred men did, in fact, congregate in their presence. Chun Jung became jealous of Nam Mo, however. She poisoned her wine and threw her in the river, killing her. Chun Jung was subsequently put to death by the Royal Court and the group of men surrounding them disbanded. Those chosen men, now referred to as Hwa Rang, were trained in all forms of martial combat, as well as continuing their studies in Buddhism, Ki science, and the arts. The martial art instruction program of the Hwa Rang warriors included, developing their bodies by climbing rugged mountain and swimming in turbulent rivers during the coldest months of the year. They trained in all forms of known hand-to-hand combat. The primary system of which was named Su Bak. The Hwa Rang were additionally taught to use weapons unyieldingly. They were trained with the sword, the staff, the hook, the spear, and the bow and arrow. The Hwa Rang are believed to have invented the martial art system of foot fighting named, Su Bak Gi. It is believed this new dimension to combat was added by the Hwa Rang due to the extensive mountain running endurance training they practiced. As their leg muscles were developed to exceptional levels, they began to incorporate formalized kicking techniques into their overall system of hand-to-hand combat. Therefore, Su Bak Gi is believed to be the source point for the advanced kicking arsenal the Korean martial arts possess. Interestingly enough, at the head of the Hwa Rang hierarchy were women. Not a single woman, as some historians have falsely claimed, but, several women. These female leaders were known as, Won Hwa or “Original Flower.”
As Korea entered the twentieth century, they were plagued by expansionist activity at the hands of Japanese. The Yi Dynasty, which was considered Korea’s, “Age of Enlightenment,” came to an end in 1909 when Japan occupied the country. Thus, the transmission and advancement of Tae Kyon ended.4
Women Martial Artists in the 21st Century
The entry of Asian martial arts into the Western world has happened to coincide, through no particular design, with the transformation of women’s role in society. Women of the late twentieth century have risen into prominence in business, science, and as players on the political stage. The victimization of women in domestic violence and sexual and physical assault is still rampant, but it is increasingly countered through legislation and political activism and, on a personal level, through women’s pursuit of fighting skills to defend themselves. Ever greater numbers of women are involved in martial arts and self-defense training.
Even in countries such as Iran where the role of women is very limited martial arts is having a great effect. On January 8, 2003 the First Women’s Karate Festival was held in Tehran. During the one-day festival, three thousand karatekas from Tehran province performed different movements of 23 styles. Head of the Iranian Women’s Karate Association said her office started its work in 1990 and now over one million female karatekas from 18 provinces are under umbrella of the association. Eshrat Shahmohammadi added karate is the most popular sport among the women, adding that since the establishment of the association 1,730 judges and 1,300 coaches have been trained at different levels.
Difficulties Women Experience
There are distinct differences between men and women, differences that seem to come into focus under the harsh light of the martial arts. Martial Arts may be perceived by the uninitiated as a purely masculine sport, but female martial artists disagree. And as to whether it will diminish a woman’s femininity, that depends on what traits she counts as feminine and how she perceives herself according to those standards. A woman who is feminine, and knows it, may feel even more feminine as a result of practicing the martial arts. To put it another way, taking karate and being pretty are not mutually exclusive. You can do both at the same time.
The general public sees karate as a contact sport, in the realm of blood sports such as boxing, football, and rugby. Even at a time when physical fitness is so highly valued and self-defense is so important, women hesitate to get involved in the martial arts. The words “karate” and “martial arts” conjure up images of sweating bruisers punishing each other in the name of discipline — images that just don’t fit the way most women want to see themselves or want others to see them. It is no wonder, then, that women fear the benefits of martial arts will be, at the same time, detrimental to their femininity. Consequently, the amount of aggression a woman learns to use in martial arts class should make no difference to her “real” femininity (how she sees herself). A more realistic fear, perhaps, is how her actions lessen her femininity in other people’s eyes, especially when these traits become a part of her life outside the karate class.
In spite of the firm establishment of a person’s sexual identity, a woman’s femininity can crash head-on with institutions or settings, such as martial arts class, that work against it. Adolescent girls invariably giggle when they must practice kicking an “attacker” in the groin. Adult women may not giggle, but they feel the same embarrassment and overwhelming reluctance to be so crude while “everyone in the world” is watching them. Even women who master their sense of propriety enough to go through this “little game” of self-defense may refuse to spar or exchange blows as part of an exercise. They might even say, “I can’t hit him. I might hurt him.” This attitude isn’t logical, but it’s a part of being feminine. Femininity nourishes and heals the wounds, but does not cause the wounds.5
If a woman does learn to attack and actually hits someone, causing an immediate bruise or bleeding, they quite often are overly apologetic. They want to go over and hug the abused person and tell him or her it’s okay. They show great restraint in simply saying, repeatedly, “I’m sorry.” When a woman in a sparring situation cries, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s been hurt. In most cases, her tears are a release from a buildup of frustration, not a result of getting hurt. If a woman has stayed in karate long enough to be involved in sparring, she can hide her pain just as easily as anyone. If she got hit, she’s likely crying because she’s frustrated she didn’t, or couldn’t, block the attack. In sparring, a woman is colliding with her femininity on all sides, and crying works very well as a release of tension. Even so, she tries to hide the fact she is crying, because this is another feminine trait not acceptable in the martial arts.
Women who have taken karate long enough to become aggressive do not feel they are less feminine. There seems to be two reasons for this: 1) sexual identity is resistant to change; and 2) women no longer accept aggressiveness as a purely masculine trait. If they originally felt passivity was a desired feminine trait, they ended up readjusting their attitude to align with their perception of themselves as feminine women. They reason “I am feminine, yet I have learned to be aggressive. Therefore, femininity and aggressiveness are not mutually exclusive.” While society sees masculinity and femininity as opposites, the truth is, a person’s sexual identity can be found somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. Many women who do gain aggression through martial arts training believe the trait is a positive one – a good attitude change and that not being aggressive is a problem, both inside and outside the class.
Organizations for Women in the Martial Arts
There are many organizations that currently exist to support women in the martial arts. One of those is the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation. In 2001, NWMAF held their 25th anniversary celebration. NWMAF exists to promote the involvement of women and girls in the martial arts. Its purpose is to share skills and resources, promote excellence in the martial arts, and encourage the widest range of women to train in the spirit of building individual and collective strength. It holds martial arts as a path of self-discovery and transformation and as a means of transforming ourselves and the world in which we live. The Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors is another group founded to empower advanced women martial artists via paths of learning, training, and ranking. The AWMAI believes that passing on the knowledge from teacher to teacher adds to the power of the individual and the entire world of martial arts. Their mission is to enhance the learning experience and professional recognition of women martial arts instructors by actively promoting and encouraging instructor excellence through teacher training, school and organizational development, ethical standards, and rank recognition and promotion.
A third organization is the Black Dragon Association. It is an organization of concerned female martial artists working together to assist other women to achieve their highest possible goals in the martial art of their choice. The idea of this organization is to foster awareness of the strength and creativity of women as martial artists, and to act as a support network for those who have need of our help.6
Benefits Women have in the Dojang
Not only does martial arts study provide, redirect, and redefine a valuable human trait, but it allows women to excel in their own way, demonstrating that karate is not an activity for men only. Even in the physical realm, where you would think women are at a disadvantage, many women overcome deficits in size and strength through advantages in flexibility, speed, and endurance. Because their legs are much stronger in relationship to their arms, women can rely on kicks when men might punch. In training, women learn more quickly to combine muscular relaxation with focused tension to add power to their punches, while novice men are still using brute strength. Not given to using brute force, women are generally more willing to adapt strategies. Another benefit of being a female martial artist is the element of surprise. Many times, a woman’s male opponent discovers only too late that he has underestimated her abilities. In the case of self-defense, the element of surprise could give a woman the victory — and her safety. Women can also enjoy emphasizing the more aesthetic aspects of the martial arts. Poomse especially intrigues a woman’s creative/expressive impulse. The challenge is to combine the more “feminine” qualities — symmetry, rhythm, expression and beauty — with the more “masculine” qualities — power, intensity, and combat realism. It’s a challenge for both men and women.
Martial arts is an ideal way to teach women to be as they use to say in the ARMY, “be all you can be”. It is more than another work-out tool like kick-box aerobics. Martial arts training teaches self discipline and self respect. I began martial arts when I was a shy slightly overweight teenager with no sense of self respect. Over the years, the study of tae kwon do helped me through many tough situations and gave me the self discipline I needed to struggle through the rigorous demands of a chemistry PhD program (another male dominated society) and to go on an become a researcher for the military, again achieving what few women before me had done. I even went on the win the Army R&D award in 2001. Without my experience in the martial arts, I would never have been able to survive in these environments. However with the experience I gained, I not only survived, I thrived and made it easier for women to follow after me. Today, I have my own branch school with many young women as students where I teach what I have learned. In fact, I may be taking my 4th dan test with my first black belt candidate a young lady named Taylor. She like me has grown much through her experience with Tae Kwon do and has learned not to be intimidated by teaching and training other students even if many of them are men much older, bigger, and stronger than she is.
The legacy of women in the martial arts is far reaching. You don’t have to be a world champion or an Olympic competitor to be a role model to other women. (Although there are many women who are grand champions, and Olympic gold medal winners) Women can also be a role model for there male students as well. Women bring a softer more spiritual side to the martial arts. They bring beauty and grace to forms that were previously war-like. Women are natural teachers and as such can help other to be better teachers. As more women participate in the martial arts, the arts can only become better. Martial arts families where both mother and father are martial artists will create martial arts children with a more rounded holistic view of the arts. Each subsequent generation then will grow the martial arts into a life style, which can only serve to improve the civilization as a whole.
- Gulick, Connie; “The Women of Karate”, Black Belt Magazine; April 1986.
Dr. Amanda L Jenkins
4th Dan Taekwondo