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Empowering ≠ Empowerment Self-Defense

Updated: Nov 19

This post by Dr. Martha Thompson originally appeared on the IMPACT Chicago blog.


All kinds of educational environments have the potential for that rush of feeling empowered but that feeling does not then make it empowerment self-defense.


The Empowerment Self-Defense movement is gaining traction and more and more people who have been teaching self-defense and martial arts are using that designation. I’m motivated to write this blog to clarify that an empowerment self-defense program is more than a feeling of empowerment.


“Empowering” refers to that exhilarating feeling that arises when an activity or experience builds our confidence, skills, or independence. Examples that can result in that feeling include climbing a tree or climbing a mountain; jumping double-dutch or jumping a stream; learning to read or learning to weave.


“Empowering” refers to that exhilarating feeling that arises when an activity or experience builds our confidence, skills, or independence.

I became involved in the women’s liberation movement at Kent State University in January 1970. I was heady with feelings of empowerment though I didn’t call it that then. I was also aware that I needed more and drew what seemed to me to be a very logical conclusion: if I’m going to challenge male domination, I need to be able to protect myself. In the context of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Anti-War movements, it seemed certain that working to dismantle patriarchy would, just like these other movements, entail physical risks and I wanted to be prepared.


In the summer of 1970, I signed up for a karate class to become stronger and learn self-defense. There was one other woman in the program and the men, from beginners to black belts, did what they could to humiliate us. In the midst of this mistreatment, I got to practice kicking and punching. No, I didn’t like how I was treated but I was elated I could see my biceps and deliver powerful kicks and strikes.


I’ve had other experiences since then where I’ve been in an excellent, mediocre, or crummy learning environment and felt that exhilaration of learning a new skill, feeling more confident, or building my independence.


Empowerment Self-Defense is More Than a Feeling



Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) is a philosophical, pedagogical, and methodological approach to addressing violence. It is rooted in the women's movement and feminism with a focus on ending violence against women and girls. As feminism and ESD developed, so have awareness of and attention to how intersections of gender with other systems of oppression, such as ability, race, nationality, sexual orientation, and social class affect expressions and framing of violence.


Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) is a philosophical, pedagogical, and methodological approach to addressing violence. It is rooted in the women's movement and feminism with a focus on ending violence against women and girls.

Below is a chart for a self-assessment list of sorts—the list is not exhaustive and I'm hoping

others will contribute to expanding what sets ESD apart from other approaches. I was motivated to develop this chart not to keep people out but to draw people in.


No program is perfect but if we want to call ourselves ESD instructors, then we are aiming for most of our work to fall consistently in the ESD column. Noting where our work doesn’t fit can give us a guide for areas to develop.


If the items in the non-ESD Program column more accurately represent our approach and we have no interest in changing, then we are teaching self-defense but not ESD.

(Click to enlarge)


Thank you to Donna Chaiet, President, Prepare Inc, for her suggested revisions on an earlier version of this blog. You can find a copy of just the chart "Is It Empowerment Self-Defense" here.


Martha Thompson

IMPACT Chicago Instructor

NWMAF Certified Self-Defense Instructor

Member, ESD Alliance

Participant, 2017 ESD Global Incubator

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