Her Own Hero: The History of Women’s Self-Defense
San Jose State Associate Professor of History Wendy Rouse likes to tell the story of telephone operator Nellie Griffin, who grew tired of being ogled and harassed while walking home from work in Oakland in the early 20th century. One night, a man grabbed her arm after several denied advances, so Griffin punched him in the face. She later told a reporter, “I have waited too long for some bystander to take up the fight for me, but as no one ever volunteered, I was compelled to assert my rights.”
Author of Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self Defense Movement, Rouse discovered Griffin—and countless women like her, who adopted self-defense practices years before she had been led to believe—while poring over centuries-old newspapers for her doctoral thesis. Though Rouse had studied Shotokan karate for 10 years and Uechi-Ryu karate for 15 years, later becoming an empowerment self-defense (ESD) instructor, she had always been told that women weren’t actively practicing self-defense until the 1960s and 1970s, during the women’s liberation movement.
“Once I saw that the history goes back much further than the ’60s and ’70s, I started thinking about the messages self-defense instructors have been telling their students for over 100 years,” says Rouse. “How much has changed and how much hasn’t?”
Rouse examined the messages women have inadvertently internalized in the past: that women should always be accompanied by men while walking down the street, that they only be out in the daylight, that they be quiet and passive, that they take up less space, that the most common perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are the dark, shadowy “other”—conveniently constructed images of men of color, immigrants and whichever cultural scapegoat dominated the news at any particular moment.
“Even today, some self-defense instructors tell women they never should be alone on the street in an effort to promote safety,” says Rouse. “But that’s also telling women that their place isn’t on the street—their place isn’t in the public space, they are not supposed to be here. They are intruders. The public space isn’t safe for women. And that’s not okay, because the truth is we should have the right to walk safely down the street. It was illuminating to me how in some ways self-defense instructors themselves perpetuate the idea that women don’t have the same rights as men.”
Rouse’s research also revealed that the women’s self-defense movement mirrored the fight for the right to vote, both in England and in the United States. While English suffragists rallied to vote, they were subjected to police violence and public backlash, resulting in a counter movement that encouraged women to learn boxing and jiu-jitsu. Rouse says the suffragists’ logic was simple: if they couldn’t defend themselves in law, policy or the public sphere, then they needed at the very least to keep themselves safe. In the late 19th and early 20th century, American women were earning college degrees, ushering in the era of the “new woman”—educated, outspoken and unafraid of sharing her physical prowess if need be.
Rouse cites advice columns in American newspapers written by woman journalists who fielded anonymous questions about sexual harassment at work and in public. She describes these columns as examples of a “women’s whisper network,” a space where women could safely air grievances, out employers who exploited or abused workers and alert peers to community resources. Though the popular media depicted victims of sexual harassment as middle-class white women, Rouse says harassment was just as common among working-class women of every race. While women of color were less likely to report abuse, especially in the 20th century when the lynching of black men was commonplace, they did find ways to share their stories within their own communities.
A century later, when women took to social media to share stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the #MeToo movement, Rouse recognized the impulse for victims of sexual harassment to validate their experiences and implicate employers who had previously been exonerated or given a pass.
“The history of women fighting back and trying to protect their rights is continuous,” she says. “When I teach my students about women’s rights history, I often ask them if women are equal today. My students tend to say yes. But it’s important for them to recognize that inequalities still exist, especially when it comes to our bodily rights, our right to be free from sexual harassment and assault. We have not achieved that kind of equality. We’re still asking for these changes in behavior and we haven’t seen them. We haven’t achieved equality. We’re not there yet. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a #MeToo movement and its subsequent backlash.”
What gives Rouse hope? The proliferation of empowerment self-defense trainings and workshops, which she says encourage women and men alike to investigate the underlying cultural issues that perpetuate harmful messages about gender and violence. She is also happy to see trainings on consent for young girls and boys, reinforcing the idea that it is okay to voice one’s physical boundaries. Or, as was the case for telephone operator Nellie Griffin, to employ an effective upper cut when the situation demands it.