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Women in Martial Arts
by Olivia Chang

"Silly me," I thought as I snapped out or my daydream. How could I possibly have imagined that I could fight side-by-side with Jean-Claude Van Damme to ward off evil villains. Maybe it was the movie Lethal Weapon 3 that shed a glimmer of hope. Rene Russo Photo Rene Russo played a feisty Internal Affairs officer with impressive martial arts skills who held her own as she and Mel Gibson fought off "cop-killers" - hardly your usual femme fatale role. She repeated her role as Sergeant Lorna Cole in Lethal Weapon 4.

As a martial arts movie buff, it was refreshing to see a female action hero. In years past, martial artists Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Bruce Lee were afforded the opportunity to bring their skills to their larger-than-life characters on screen. This was not so for their female counterparts. Russo's role seemed to be the exception. For decades, female action heroes were few and far in between.

Arlene Limas photo

When Arlene Limas won the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in Tae Kwon Do, and world kickboxing champion, Kathy Long, did stunt doubling for Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, I thought that at last the time had come for an emergence of female action heroes. This was not to be. Limas' popularity was short-lived and Long has not been heard of since.

Women martial artists have not achieved the kind of success that male martial artists have. This Hollywood trend reflects the reality of the outside world. Martial arts is a male-dominated activity. Women participating in martial arts should expect reactions from people ranging from total support to subtle condescension to downright derogation.

Here are a few candid thoughts about women in martial arts. In general, parents seem supportive of their daughters taking martial arts. They feel that in our crime-ridden society, it would be greatly beneficial for them to learn to defend themselves. In addition to learning effective self-defense skills, these women also develop self-confidence and get a challenging workout. From my experience in teaching women's self-defense, however, husbands and boyfriends at times tend to belittle or intimidate their wives and girlfriends when they learn that their women are taking this type of class.

National Women's Martial Arts Federation Logo

At martial arts schools, women may encounter other obstacles. Our very own publisher and editor, Mariette Pan, a 12-year veteran and a second degree black belt in Tang Soo Do (Korean karate), shares that whenever she visits a new school, men tend to underestimate her abilities. They would be somewhat condescending, holding back their techniques and "taking it easy." It would not be long, of course, before they realized that they had to keep their guard up if they wanted to stay on their feet. Like many people, they do not understand that karate is both an art and a sport. It is not necessarily just size and strength that are the basis of success, but the combination of speed, power, technique, control, and mental discipline.

Sometimes society's reactions to a woman taking martial arts can be more annoying than anything else. A lady out on a date often is jokingly called upon by her date to protect him in the event of danger. Because she knows martial arts, it is assumed that she is ready to perform as needed, almost like a certified walking security system. Also, at social functions, there is never a shortage of requests for her to "show her stuff." Some people think there is something cute about a female taking martial arts.

Their male counterparts are often respectfully spared such attitudes. Worse still, women sometimes may be challenged to a duel by men who need a boost to their egos. An experience in college illustrates this case. A fellow student, twice my size, challenged me to fight him while we were in a room full of people. It was something that I was used to shrugging off and generally ignoring. However, this student persistently followed me around the room and finally "threw" himself at me. Meanwhile, other men in the room were cheering him on. They felt that this student was asking for it and deserved what was due to him. That day I was forced to exercise a great deal of restraint as I struggled to keep my fists to myself and feet on the ground. I quickly departed, leaving him standing there all by himself. It was an uncomfortable situation that potentially could have gotten out of hand.

These are just some of the problems women taking martial arts may encounter. It is good for them to be prepared to handle different physically threatening situations that could come their way. While the family is generally supportive, women must be aware that there are uninformed people ready to give them a hard time. They often will be put to the test of mental and emotional control, both of which are vital to the discipline of martial arts. It is only then that they will maximize the potential of the art and use it in an effective manner, as needed. While self-control and self-defense are important aspects of martial arts, endurance, quickness, strength, muscle toning, and self-confidence also are developed. The benefits of taking martial arts are totally invaluable.

Olivia Chang has been involved in the martial arts for over seven years and holds a black belt in traditional Japanese karate.

Publisher's Note:   Despite the belief of some, involvement in the martial arts does not make a woman less feminine. Quite the opposite, training in the martial arts can give women the confidence to be as feminine as they like with less fear of physical danger.

Martial arts sites for women:
Women Kickin It
National Women's Martial Arts Federation
Martial Arts for Women

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