Book review: Women in the Martial Arts, ed. Carol A. Wiley

Women in the Martial Arts, edited by Carol A. Wiley, was published in the early 90s. Many of the themes which come up are still relevant today.

The book is a collection of essays written by female martial artists from many different arts, ranging from T’ai Chi Ch’uan to Aikido, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and more. With more than 20 essays included, there are a wide range of viewpoints.

I found parts of the book slightly tedious, as it seemed to confuse “martial arts” with “self defence”. Although they do overlap, and martial arts can be very useful for self defence, they are not the same thing. The title of the book led me to believe it would be about martial arts, and I was hoping for more philosophy.

However, there were some very interesting essays on, for example, doing Aikido from a wheelchair, how the teacher-student relationship changes for various combinations of genders, and the meaning of “power” in the context of martial arts.

Many of the essays comment on the relative paucity of women in the higher grades of martial arts, and I feel this is still the case. Yes, women do train, and women do get promoted to high grades, but there are far more men at those ranks than women.

The low number of female role-models is an ongoing issue in many spheres of life, not just the martial arts. From CEOs (8 in the FTSE 100 as of Oct 20211), politicians (6 out of 23 cabinet members in the UK as of Feb 20222), to aircraft pilots (90% male as of 20213), too many careers lack the visible proof that women are valued.

What can we do about this?

If you are a woman, don’t be afraid to start (or continue!) a martial art. If your first experience isn’t great, try a different style. Train hard, get good, and stand proud. It will take time – most useful endeavours do – but it will be worth it.

And everyone – treat your training partners as people, not as “man” or “woman”. Yes, some techniques may need adapting based on your body shape, but that is true for the difference between a short fat man and a tall thin man as much as it is between a man and a woman.

Do you have experience learning or teaching as a woman in the martial arts? What are the most interesting things you have noticed about it?

Are you a woman who is considering starting? What most worries you, and what are you most looking forward to?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. * please note that "ten or more" is still something.

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