Women in the Martial Arts

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Nature, nurture, or a combination of the two . . . whatever the reason, it's a historical fact that most of the combatants in humanity's wars have been male. Thus, it isn't especially surprising that men have dominated the martial arts since their inception. This certainly doesn't mean that women don't practice or teach martial arts!

Women have been martial artists for much of recorded history. Greek legends described the Amazons, reputed to be unrivalled as archers. Early tales of Celtic hero Cu Chulainn told of a female warrior. Both no doubt had some basis in fact. Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta wrote of women warriors in Southeast Asia. The naginata is famous as the weapon of Japanese noblewomen - both for fitness and defense in wartime - and in the 1930s was taught to schoolgirls.

Several martial arts - notably Wing Chun (pp. 203-204) and one form of Pentjak Silat (pp. 189-191) - claim a female founder in their legendary history. Tradition has it that Wing Chun is named after the woman who founded it, and that the Silat style was invented by a woman who observed two animals fighting. Neither origin is verifiable, but these styles certainly attract numerous female martial artists. Silat, especially, prides itself on female participation and has many women students and masters. Kalaripayit (pp. 168-169), too, has legends of female practitioners and instructors. Again, it's difficult to verify these but they clearly show that the art isn't solely for men.

Many modern schools are open only to women or hold women-only classes. This is somewhat controversial. For artistic styles, it's of little consequence. For combat or self-defense styles that might be used against men, however, it's a valid argument that practicing only against women leaves out an essential element of training: employing techniques against opponents of the type you're likely to face in an actual conflict. Suggesting that a women-only school produces poor or incomplete martial artists is a good way to start a fight, though!

In the sports world, competitive Judo has a women's division that features many competitors at the Olympic level. Mixed martial arts and professional boxing and wrestling have women's tournaments, too, and participation levels have grown steadily. In Japan, local Kyudo (p. 181) and Kendo (p. 175) schools and clubs are co-ed, and women and men sometimes compete head-to-head.

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