The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement - Pacific Standard

The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement

In her new book, martial artist Wendy Rouse digs into the history of women fighting back.
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Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement.

Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement.

Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement
Wendy Rouse
New York University Press

In the cultural imagination, women's self-defense training is often traced back to the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s, in which self-defense classes doubled as consciousness-raising sessions. In Her Own Hero, historian and martial artist Wendy Rouse digs deeper, locating the movement's birth in the 1910s and '20s. In this era, women across the country—mostly white and urban-dwelling—took up boxing and jiu-jitsu, with the specific purpose of warding off male attackers. White men tended to be suspicious of these lessons, and sought to frame them as needed only in response to deviants and non-white threats: sociopathic "mashers" (the street harassers of yesteryear); foreign slave-traders looking to capture white women; black rapists. But the training helped kick-start conversations about genuine threats—husbands, for example—that would resurface with force decades later.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

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