Interview with Progressive Era Historian Wendy Rouse: The Beginnings of the Women’s Self-Defense and Empowerment Movements

Dr. Wendy Rouse took her first step into the world of martial arts at the age of ten after watching The Karate Kid. She took to history when in college, focusing on the Progressive Era of the United States, eventually earning her doctorate. During her research for her dissertation, she found something that later inspired her to publish Her Own Hero in 2017. Today, Dr. Rouse talked to us about her book, the beginnings of the women’s self-defense movement, and how suffragettes used martial arts as a way to empower them. All images provided by Wendy Rouse.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Dr. Rouse! Thank you for joining us today!

Wendy Rouse: I am happy to be here!

MAYTT: You began studying martial arts at the age of ten. What initially influenced you to begin training and ultimately continue your association with martial arts? What specific aspects of the arts would you say drew you to start and do those aspects still inspire you today?

WR: Honestly, I started training in martial arts because I saw the movie Karate Kid. No joke. When I was ten, I saw the movie and I said to myself: “I want to be like him.” Then I signed up for a karate class through the local parks and recreation district. I struggled to learn the techniques so much. I was not at all athletically inclined. The only reason I kept training was because I had fantastic teachers who encouraged me to keep going. I trained from age ten through my entire adult life. I primarily studied Shotokan karate and Uechi-ryu karate. Later, I dabbled in Krav Maga and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve always loved studying the martial arts.

MAYTT: With the rise of martial arts and other physical type activities that were once normally associated with men and masculinity, now being pursued by more and more women out of both personal interest and empowerment, how have martial arts helped you face and deal with interpersonal and societal problems alike?

WR: Women have always studied the martial arts. I think that is one of the myths I try to bust a little bit in the book. When I was studying martial arts as a young person, my instructors would talk about how rare it was for women to be in the martial arts. The myth that we were told was that our teachers were the first women in the martial arts. But, when I was researching the book, I discovered that women had been studying boxing in the United States since the late nineteenth century. When jiu-jitsu was first introduced in the United States in the early twentieth century, women eagerly signed up for lessons. I think understanding this long history of women in the martial arts helped shift my thinking. We belong and have always belonged. Women have always been a part of the history of martial arts, even though that history hasn’t always been told.

MAYTT: I can see how that can be a tough myth to break. Being first interested in the Progressive Era, mainly dealing with immigration, where did the connection between martial arts and the suffrage movement first permeate? When was it that you ultimately decided to work on and publish Her Own Hero?

WR: I had never planned to write a book about the history of women’s self-defense or women in martial arts, even though martial arts were always a part of my life. I studied history in college, earned my Ph.D. in history, and still the thought of writing a history of women’s self-defense never really crossed my mind. I honestly thought that the history of women’s self-defense was a short history that only went back to my teachers’ generation. One day, I was working on historic research for my dissertation, when I came across an image in an old newspaper from over one hundred years ago that depicted a woman using jiu-jitsu to fight off an attacker. This picture challenged everything that I thought I knew about the history of women in martial arts and women’s self-defense. I wanted to know more. I saved the article and began the research from there. The image that first inspired me to write the book is now the book cover.

MAYTT: You mentioned in an interview with Martial Arts Studies that many martial artists, self-defense instructors, and martial arts historians enjoyed the book, who are primarily lay people compared to academically trained scholars. Why do you think that is and what do you feel draws these demographics to the subject matter more so than other groups? From your experience, how do these demographics view your work?

WR: I think the people who care most about the history of martial arts and women’s self-defense are primarily practitioners and teachers. I love that about this book. I love that the people who want to read it are those who are actively practicing and teaching martial arts and self-defense. I think it is very important that we understand the history of what we are teaching so we can better understand and convey its significance in our present.

MAYTT: The idea of self-defense and self-preservation within a new physical, social, and political environment influenced many of the early women of the suffrage movement to learn jiu-jitsu and boxing. Does this need for self-protection still hold true for women today? Do you feel the increased discussion of sexual and domestic violence toward women in recent years have influenced women to pursue the martial arts?

WR: I believe the primary motivator for women (and also men) studying martial arts has always been as a means of self-protection. The desire to be able to protect and defend ourselves from violence is basic to our survival as human beings. There is a physical empowerment that comes with martial arts training. But for women, especially, studying self-defense is also a form of political empowerment. The women I studied, who lived in the early twentieth century, were fighting for their right to vote, but they were fighting for much more than that. They were fighting for the right to attend school and pursue a career of their choice. They were fighting for their right to inhabit public space. They were fighting for their right to live in loving and equal marriages. They wanted to do all of these things free from harassment and sexual assault. For centuries, women had been told that they needed to rely on men to think for them, to vote for them, and to protect them. These women were loudly saying: we are capable of doing those things ourselves. Women today who study self-defense find a similar sense of personal and political empowerment.

MAYTT: In the United Kingdom, Edith Garrud helped instruct suffragettes jiu-jitsu in preparation for bouts with the police. In the United States, those who usually trained and taught jiu-jitsu were American men or Japanese immigrants. Who were the people who taught the art to women and were they treated differently as well by the larger community for teaching women?

WR: Women in the United Kingdom and the United States were taught martial arts both by men and by other women. Edith Garrud is the most well-known instructor because she boldly and very openly taught British suffragettes jiu-jitsu in a direct challenge to the police. Women in the US trained in jiu-jitsu under men instructors and other women. They trained both publicly and privately. US President Theodore Roosevelt was largely responsible for the popularity of jiu-jitsu in the US. He hired a jiu-jitsu instructor named Yoshiaki Yamashita to give him lessons in the White House. Martha Wadsworth, a wealthy Washington, DC heiress didn’t like Roosevelt and his constant posturing and use of athletics to gain media attention. She decided to duplicate every physical feat he had ever attempted. So, in 1904, when he was practicing jiu-jitsu, she organized a class for Washington, DC women and girls. She actually hired Fude Yamashita, the wife of Roosevelt’s jiu-jitsu instructor and a highly-skilled martial artist herself, to teach a class that included the wives and daughters of prominent Congressmen. They wanted to prove that women were just as capable of studying (and teaching) jiu-jitsu as men.

MAYTT: That is interesting! During the waves of feminism in the 1960s to the 1970s and during the 1990s, respectively, there was a major resurgence of interest in women’s self-defense. How were martial arts as a whole connected to those waves? Did self-defense help define those feminist movements or were they more of a “back burner” issue?

WR: The popularity of self-defense does seem to ebb and flow, parallel to the rise and fall of women’s rights movements. My book focuses on first-wave feminism and women’s self-defense in the era from about 1900 to 1920. But the 1960s to the 1970s and the 1990s witnessed the emergence of what has been referred to as the second and third waves of feminism and the rebirth of a much broader women’s self-defense movement. These new self-defense movements were committed not only to the physical empowerment of women but to larger discussions about the realities of violence against women. Activists focused on dispelling the narrow emphasis on the dangerous stranger and looked instead at the multiple sources of harassment and violence that women encountered on the street, in their places of employment, and in their homes. They also focused on challenging harmful gender stereotypes, a sexist patriarchal system, and a pervasive rape culture. Their fight continues to the present day.

MAYTT: In your own efforts with teaching women’s self-defense over the years, what were some of the similarities and differences you found from the modern method of women’s self-defense to the self-defense taught and learned by Progressive Era women and suffragettes?

WR: Today’s Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) courses have their roots in earlier feminist self-defense courses and definitely in the self-defense learned by women in the Progressive Era that I studied. I use the term ESD very specifically here to refer to a specific type of women’s self-defense that has its roots in feminist self-defense. Not all women’s self-defense courses follow this model today (and I think they should). The key similarity between today’s ESD courses and the self-defense courses of the Progressive Era and the feminist self-defense courses of the 1960s, 70s, and 90s is the focus on empowerment. The idea is that women have both the ability and the right to protect themselves. Today’s ESD courses go even further. They focus more on teaching verbal and psychological as well as physical strategies for women to protect themselves. But in the end, today’s Empowerment Self-Defense courses focus on holding the perpetrator responsible and they recognize the work we can do as a society to help end harassment and violence.

MAYTT: As your own research has pointed out, the modern interpretation of women’s self-defense was born out of the suffrage movement. What other lasting effects from the suffrage movement still influence many in the intersectionality of our society today in your opinion?

WR: The impact of the suffrage movement is wide-reaching. This is a big question. Scholars have substantially explored this issue over the past few years, looking at the effect of the women’s suffrage movement. So definitely take a look at the latest research on the history of the women’s suffrage movement. I’ll focus, therefore, just on the physical aspect of the suffrage movement. I argue that the suffrage movement really highlighted the idea that women are strong, powerful, and capable. This was evident in the ways in which suffragists physically put their bodies on the line to fight for the vote: from physical battles with the police to their hunger-strikes in prison. The suffragists proved that women were capable and strong. They challenged outdated notions that women were inherently incompetent and weak. Women today have the ability to participate in all sorts of activities from sports to careers that were previously reserved for men because women were told their bodies were weak. The suffragists changed that. This is a legacy of the suffrage movement that we tend to forget when we narrowly focus on suffragists as merely winning the vote.

MAYTT: Final question. What do you feel are some of the lessons learned from the beginnings of the women’s self-defense movement that would still be applicable in today’s society? Is the core ideology of the movement still the same? Additionally, what do you believe would be some specific steps that individuals and society at large can take to ensure that the likelihood of sexual and domestic violence are reduced? Do you feel more government involvement is needed?

WR: I do think the core ideology of feminist self-defense has remained fairly consistent. Feminist self-defense challenges the notion that men are women’s so-called natural protectors and instead highlights the ways in which some men, often the very men women are taught to look to to protect them, have perpetuated violence against women. Feminist self-defense focus on the idea that women are capable of defending themselves and in fact have the right to protect themselves. Feminist self-defense reminds us that violence is often a spectrum that is more than physical and teaches a broad array of strategies from verbal to psychological as well as physical techniques. Feminist self-defense focuses on the message that all people have the right to live without fear.

Reducing sexual assault and domestic violence requires focusing, as many feminist self-defense courses do, on the larger societal structures that fuel the perpetuation of violence. This is a more holistic approach to combating violence that begins with and moves beyond just the individual. This way of thinking about self-defense calls on all of us to work to be active bystanders and disrupt violence, in all its forms (verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical) when we see it. This requires us to challenge and begin to dismantle the root of our oppression: the various sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist structures that are responsible for the many forms of violence. In other words, as powerful as we are as individuals, we must also work together if we hope to end violence.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us! We definitely learned something about the women’s suffrage movement and feminist self-defense!

WR: Thank you for having me and you’re welcome!

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