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"All Humans Should Have the Right to be Safe from Violence" - An Interview With Dr. Wendy L. Rouse


It's Women's History Month!


And we could not be more excited to have Dr. Wendy L. Rouse, author of "Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement and associate professor of history at San Jose State University here to teach us a bit about the history of women's self-defense and violence prevention education.


Welcome, Wendy!


Q. You’ve written two books about the history of women and children in the Progressive Era. How did you become interested in the subject?


A. The Progressive Era has always fascinated me as a period of study in part because it was a dynamic era of fervent reform. I find the Progressives inspirational for their optimistic belief in the future and their commitment to improving their world for the better. Women and children are often erased from history. But, women and children are central to the story. They played active roles in bringing about reform. I want to tell their stories.


Q. What inspired you to write about the history of the women’s self-defense movement?


A. I would say that it was my own study and teaching of women’s self-defense that led me to the topic, but it actually took me quite a bit of time to decide to research the history of women’s self-defense.


I have studied martial arts since I was ten years old. I began with Shotokan karate and earned the rank of Shodan.


Beginning in college, I studied Uechi-Ryu karate and eventually earned the rank of Yondan. I began teaching my own students and taught women’s self-defense courses as well. During that same period of time, I was working on my degree in history and even went on into graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in history.


But through all those years, I never even thought about studying the history of women’s self-defense. I honestly did not think it had a very long history earlier than the 1960s or 1970s. I had always been told that our teachers were the first generation of women to break into the male-dominated martial arts.


The image was from the early 1900s and showed a woman using a classic martial arts palm-heel strike to defend against an attacker on the street... That image is now the cover image of the book.

It was not until I was working on my dissertation research (an unrelated project) that I came across an image in an old newspaper that surprised me. The image was from the early 1900s and showed a woman using a classic martial arts palm-heel strike to defend against an attacker on the street. This was so fascinating because it challenged everything I thought I knew about the history of women’s self-defense and women in martial arts. I had to know more. That sparked my desire to understand the roots of the women’s self-defense movement in the United States. That image is now the cover image of the book.


Q. Where else in history can we see violence prevention education in action?


A. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s generated a renewed interest in women’s self-defense. Paralleling what has often been referred to as the second wave of feminism, a second wave of women’s self-defense also emerged. Once again women sought both political and physical empowerment. But beyond that, they were also having bigger discussions about the realities of gender-based violence and seeking larger structural changes. They challenged gender stereotypes, a sexist patriarchal system, and a pervasive rape culture.



We can even see a third wave of interest in women’s self-defense that seems to have developed in the 1990s that focused on verbal and psychological as well as physical strategies for women to protect themselves. During this period, self-defense training became mainstream and it was more common for women to take short self-defense seminars or workshops.


Q. In an article you wrote for ESD Global, you stated that:


“It is vital to understand the historical context of women's self-defense as a movement, both in the past, and in the present. Today's empowerment self-defense focuses on empowering women to strengthen not only their bodies, but also their voices. ⠀


In modern feminist self-defense classes, women learn that they have a power, a power that has been denied them for centuries.

In modern feminist self-defense classes, women learn that they have a power, a power that has been denied them for centuries.”


What can we learn from the beginnings of the women’s self-defense movement? What has changed? What hasn’t?


A. In the early twentieth century, women were motivated to learn self-defense because men sexually harassed and physically assaulted them on the street, at work, and at home. They had been told that they were too weak to protect themselves and needed to rely on the “good” men in their lives to be their protectors.


In the early twentieth century, women were motivated to learn self-defense because men sexually harassed and physically assaulted them on the street, at work, and at home. They had been told that they were too weak to protect themselves and needed to rely on the “good” men in their lives to be their protectors.


But, self-defense training taught them that they had the ability and the right to fight back. This feeling of empowerment reverberated throughout their lives.


They had similarly been told that they were not smart enough to vote and needed to rely on the men in their lives to make political decisions for them.


Women rejected this notion and fought for the vote.


Women were empowering themselves both politically and physically.


What most surprised me in studying the history of women’s self-defense is how much has not changed. Today, individuals are motivated to take up self-defense training for similar reasons as women in the past. Self-defense training continues to be a tool of empowerment helping people discover their voice and their power to fight back.


Q. How would you like to see the movement evolve in the future?


A. Self-defense instructors need to be flexible and willing to evolve with changing times and the changing needs of our students. The self-defense movement has already evolved substantially especially in moving toward greater inclusiveness and intersectionality.


Accessibility is also crucial. Self-defense training should be more widely available and accessible to any individual who desires to learn it. In the past, formal self-defense training was primarily a privilege only available to those who could afford to pay for it. Therefore, typically only white, middle-class, young, able-bodied, cisgender women had access to self-defense classes. We have seen some gradual changes in accessibility but still so much work remains in ensuring that this training is readily accessible and available to everyone.


Q. What are some steps that can be taken to make violence prevention education programs, including ESD, more accessible and more inclusive?


A. It needs to be free and accessible to all people regardless of their sex assigned at birth, gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, or age.


Ideally, empowerment self-defense would be taught to all children in the schools along with social-emotional learning and anti-violence curriculum. All humans should have the right to be safe from violence.

Ideally, empowerment self-defense would be taught to all children in the schools along with social-emotional learning and anti-violence curriculum. All humans should have the right to be safe from violence.

Wow. We learned so much. Thank you so much for sharing, Wendy!


Learn more about Dr. Wendy Rouse and her book, "Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self Defense Movement."

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