Self-Defense for Women
by Joanna Bourke
The writer Joanna Bourke introduces a selection of images demonstrating self-defence for women. These pictures were chosen following a period of research into ‘how to’ photographs in the Getty Images Archive and from other collections Getty Images represents.
In the 1870s, middle-class women carried ‘dagger-fans’ when alone in public places; in the early 1900s, they hosted ‘jujitsu parties’ for friends; by the 1970s, no consciousness-raising group would be complete without the equivalent of the feminist self defence programme called the ‘Nutcracker’s [sic] Suite’; and in the twenty-first century, enterprising young women are designing and marketing ‘anti-rape’ underwear.
‘How to’ guidelines for women showing them ways to physically fend off attacks have a long and provocative history. One of the earliest books in this genre was published in 1906 by Emily Diana Watts (usually known as Mrs. Roger Watts), one of the first female instructors of the Japanese art of self-defence in the western world. Entitled The Fine Art of Jujutsu Watts’ book was introduced by Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford. It spread the word that even women from elite backgrounds could become martial athletes and fight off as well as with men. This message was spread further in a series of photographs by a woman known only as ‘Miss Sanderson’. Sanderson was a prominent fencer and instructor in self defence in Edwardian London. The photographs illustrates her unique system of self defence, which invariably used an umbrella or parasol. Commentators were clearly in awe of Miss Sanderson. A 1904 article in the fitness magazine Health and Strength reported that her "blows fell thick and fast. Down slashes, upper cuts, side swings, jabs and thrusts followed in quick succession, and the thought arose, how would a ruffian come off if he attacked this accomplished lady, supposing she had either walking-stick, umbrella, or parasol at the time?" Sanderson proved that the powers of self defence could be "developed as readily by members of the fair sex, as by those of the male persuasion".
The interests of Watts and Sanderson were unusual but not unique. Edwardian society was becoming increasingly conscious of the need for women to stand up for themselves. Even novelists like H. G. Wells penned sympathetic portraits of women aggressively defending their ‘honour’. In Ann Veronica (1909), for example, he describes the way the heroine began to "wrestle fiercely" when sexually attacked by a male companion: she "had been an ardent hockey player and had had a course in jiu-jitsu", Wells noted, adding admiringly that "her defence ceased rapidly to be in any sense ladylike, and became vigorous and effective... A small but very hardy clinched fist had thrust itself with extreme effectiveness and painfulness under his jawbone and ear".
Of course, it helped that the martial arts were championed by some of the most glamorous women of the time. The dazzling actress and vaudeville dancer Gaby Deslys, for example, could be seen doing the ‘Jiu Jitsu Waltz’ with her companion Surye Kichi Eida, an instructor at the Japanese School of Jujitsu in Oxford Street, London, both of whom were probably keen for the publicity. For young women wanting to know ‘how to’ defend themselves against attack, seeing glamorous figures like Gaby Deslys portrayed in self defence photographs emphasised both erotic strength as well as desirable, feminine vulnerability.
Not everyone believed that women should be taught self defence. Mary E. Hamilton, New York’s first policewoman and the Director of the first and only all-female police precinct in Midtown Manhattan (it lasted between 1921-23), had argued persuasively for the arming of policewomen and their need to have the same rights of arrest as their male counterparts. However, when she introduced jiu-jitsu training, many supporters worried that policewomen were at risk of becoming ‘little men’.
Hamilton was forced to recognise that self defence was a feminist issue. As early as 1908, women such as Edith Margaret Garrud were training suffragettes in the martial arts in order to help them physically resist policemen and anti-vote antagonists. On one occasion, Garrud was protesting outside of parliament when a policeman said to her: "Now then, move on, you can’t start causing an obstruction here". She replied, "Excuse me, it is you who are making an obstruction", before (so the story goes) tossing him over her shoulder.
From the 1970s onwards, glamour, sensationalism, and exaggerated accounts of derring-do were becoming unpopular amongst a new generation of feminists. Engrained bodily reserve and a disdain for unfeminine emotions – such as anger – were identified as the real reasons women failed to defend themselves against masculine aggressors. A shift can be seen in instructions concerning ‘how to’ defend oneself. Books such as Py Bateman’s Fear into Anger (1978) and Susan Smith’s Fear or Freedom (1986) launched a forceful critique of ‘femininity training’ and encouraged women to become more aggressive. Why should a woman have to sleep with an umbrella next to her bed in fear of a home invasion and strangulation when they could use their carefully-honed agility against brutal force? Women were encouraged to dig metal keys into their assailant’s eyes. Screaming was recommended, rather than abhorred. Women were not required to ‘look pretty’; they could grunt and screw up their faces.
Of course, there were exceptions. Some ‘how to’ images continued the tradition of emphasising the femininity of women warding off attackers. One advertisement for an electronic device capable of giving assailants an electric shock pointedly displays a ring and manicured fingernails. But the shift from ‘good manners’ to physical feminism was complete.
Thanks to Brian Doherty and Melanie Hough at the Getty Images archive for their help. And to Bob Thomas at Popperfoto for making the Beldam originals available as part of the research.