Dear Truck Driver,
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called my attention to the fact that “the truck driver paid back a loan for someone who got a Ph.D. in gender studies,” and so it is with appreciation and in recognition of your sacrifice that I write to acknowledge the tax payment you contributed toward forgiving $10,000 of my student loan debt, acquired as I earned my doctorate in gender studies.
I don’t think Governor DeSantis realizes how much we have in common. For when I studied the 2019 Bill before Congress (H.R. 5145)—the Promoting Women in Trucking Workforce Act—I felt a sense of kinship between us. Without those in my field of gender studies, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure might not have thought of solving the truck driver shortage by finding ways to bring more women into the trucking workforce.
When your daughter gains access to professional opportunities, like a career in trucking, or law or science or engineering, I get warm fuzzy feelings knowing that we both played some part in her expanding opportunities, and that you played a part in me playing a part.
When I draft a policy on harm to children who are sex trafficked, I will think of you then, too, and hope that my own work has made you a bit more aware of the traffickers using truck stops for human trafficking. Here again I feel that my work in gender studies has a lot in common with the efforts of your groups like Truckers Against Trafficking.
I realize that people with doctorates tend to earn substantially more money than those without college degrees, and so in my lifetime I might contribute hundreds of thousands more in taxes than you’ll pay into the system. And so it is with humility and gratitude that I will help pay, with my taxes, for your children’s education, for the government programs that I am far less likely than others to need, for the PhDs in transportation and engineering, and for the roads you drive on to make your living. It is the least I can do to pay it forward.
Keep on truckin’,
On behalf of the 50 total people in the U.S. who earned a Ph.D. in Gender Studies in 2020
When you see news reports on the effectiveness of self-defense programs for empowering women and preventing assaults, you’ll often see people posting criticisms that we really ought to be “teaching men not to rape.” The comments typically go something like this: How about we teach MEN not to rape women? Women cannot prevent rape. Women are sick of well-meaning advice, which only makes us live in fear and limit where we feel safe to go in public. We resent the implication that we have some kind of obligation to become self-defense experts so that we are not victimized by men.
This refrain by women (and Kurt Cobain, too), who consider themselves progressive, is, however, an example of what Lauren Berlant famously called “cruel optimism.” Cruel optimism is wanting something that is not very likely to happen. Like when a woman, influenced by a romance-novel fantasy, keeps on hoping that her man will become a prince even though he is an abusive jerk. Or like when you use Twitter hoping to have constructive intellectual dialogue.
Berlant describes cruel optimism as a relation that exists “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (Berlant 2011, p. 1). So the optimism comes from the the way in which one’s plan for the future is tied to one’s identity, even though one’s attachment to the desired outcome may take place in conditions that make realizing one’s desire, as our 1970s magic 8 ball would say, not likely. The cruelty comes from being attached to an object, outcome, or scene of desire when this attachment is against one’s interests or undermines the aim that brought you to it in the first place.
There is a fantasy of men having one big collective ah-ha moment where they finally learn not to rape. Yes, it ought to be the case that nobody rapes, or steals, or cheats, or murders, or embezzles, or, according to some of our students on course evaluations, pairs a striped sweater with a flowered skirt, but the continued pursuit of this as the ideal fantasy–to the point of dismissing strategies that are shown empirically to work–is how feminists exhibit cruel optimism.
In the end, as we review in a commentary for the journal Sex Roles (free access can be found here), women’s self-defense (doing it in the moment as well as training to practice the techniques) is effective in preventing and thwarting assaults without resulting in victim blaming or restricting women’s freedoms. Let’s let data, not cruel optimism, steer the sexual assault prevention movement.
The news is filled with horrifying examples of White people, many of whom are women, calling the police on Black people. In these situations, where a White woman has called the police on Black people BBQing, bird watching, swimming — in other words, living — she is clearly the party who is menacing the other party, even if she frames herself as fearful or in danger. She does not go it alone; she calls, from her cell phone, on government authorities to help her. She is, of course, confident that they will help her, not harm her.
These examples, and many others like them, remind us that not all “defense” responses are performed in response to real or perceived threat. Many of these women, such as the White woman who called the police on the Black bird watcher, were neither in danger nor in fear. In other words, it was not a defense-of-self situation whatsoever. Such women were not defending themselves, nor were they expressing a healthy sense of empowerment. They were expressing racist, narcissistic entitlement. After all, the bird watcher, Christian Cooper, was the one setting a boundary with the woman in the park, Amy Cooper (no relation), who was violating the dog leash law. He asked her to put her dog on a leash. Her response (to call the police) seems to have been grounded in her belief that he had no right to ask her to modify her behavior. Rather than being threatened by his actions, she simply did not like his actions.
Challenges arise when we are confronted with situations we do not like, but there is a fundamental distinction between a situation one does not like and a situation in which one’s personal, psychological, or physical safety is threatened. One of the benefits of ESD training is increased awareness — awareness of the situation, awareness of our own internal responses, and awareness of the many things that can contribute to feelings of vulnerability, discomfort, and fear. ESD teaches the increased personal and situational awareness that helps someone determine which situations are risky, which situations are safe, and which situations might be dislikable or even uncomfortable but are not necessarily risky or dangerous.
Clearly, Amy Cooper did not like it when Christian Cooper asked her to put her dog on a leash. Did it make her uncomfortable? Perhaps. What had he done? He had set a boundary — reasonably, appropriately, and safely. Was it within his rights to make that request? Absolutely.
Her response, to call the police to report an “African-American man was threatening [her] life”, demonstrates no awareness, either of the external situation or what might be internally driving her reaction to it. Instead, not unlike the perpetrators of sexual assault, she shows entitlement, she ignores his boundaries, repeatedly, and she escalates the situation in an attempt to do what she wants.
No ESD instructor would frame Amy Cooper’s actions as self-defense, or label her behavior as “empowerment.” ESD instructors believe everyone gets to set healthy, safe, and appropriate boundaries, that we all get to assertively defend those boundaries, with the goal of tailoring our responses to meet the specifics of each situation, to maintain our safety – not simply to get our way. ESD teaches women how to set boundaries and to be entitled to their own boundaries; this is very different from teaching women to be entitled to ignore or encroach on other people’s boundaries. That isn’t self-defense; that’s perpetration.
ESD does not teach women to engage in narcissistic entitlement or become carceral feminists; ESD training teaches women to accurately evaluate risk and response, so that they can maintain their own personal, psychological and physical integrity — not infringe on someone else’s.
As the United States celebrates the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote, let’s remember the bad-ass women who fought for this right–literally fought, like with jui-jitsu and stuff. And so we thank Dr. Wendy L. Rouse, author of the groundbreaking historical book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, for this guest blog post.
Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu and Suffragist Self-Defense
The year 2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States, which declared that a citizen could not be denied the right to vote based on sex. As the anniversary approaches and historians begin to reexamine the traditional narrative of women’s suffrage history, new details emerge revealing just how contentious the campaign for the vote really was.
You already know that suffragists petitioned, lobbied, rallied, marched, and picketed. You also already know that militant suffragists endured arrest, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding. But did you know that radical suffragists took up boxing and jiu-jitsu to physically prepare for the political battle for the vote?
Suffragists were fighting for much more than the vote. They hoped the vote would empower women to break away from the confinement of the domestic sphere, eliminate gender-based discrimination in education and employment, and protect them against violence. But women were told that they did not need the vote because their brothers, fathers, and husbands would protect them. Suffragists, however, challenged this myth of the natural protector, citing cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault to arguing to the contrary that men were frequently the perpetrators of violence against women and children.
Women’s experiences advocating for the vote, both in the United States and across the Atlantic in Great Britain, only further seemed to prove their point. The British suffragists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) experienced brutal incidents of violence in their encounters with anti-suffrage men and the police. They organized deputations and marches demanding their right to be heard. Nicknamed “suffragettes” by a mocking press, WSPU members adopted the name as a badge of pride. The suffragettes faced unruly mobs of men who heckled and assaulted them on the streets. Rather than coming to their aid, police officers assaulted and arrested the women. Bloodied and bruised in violent clashes with anti-suffrage mobs and the police, suffragists were affirmed in their conclusion that they could not rely on men to protect them.
In this violent context, self-defense training took on explicit political meaning. In 1909, jiu-jitsu expert Edith Garrud began teaching a course that she called “ju-jutsu for suffragette self-defence.” Garrud also specially trained a group of suffragette women to serve as the “bodyguard” for WSPU leaders. But after discovering that detectives were spying on them, the bodyguard was eventually forced to train in secret, hiding from the police, and changing their meeting locations to avoid discovery. By 1913, the WSPU leaders were recommending that all suffragists train in self-defense. Sylvia Pankhurst, addressing a suffragist meeting insisted: “We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu.”
“Ju-Jutsu for Suffragette Self-Defence.” Women’s Franchise 2, no. 53 (July 1, 1909): 667.
“If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!” Sketch. July 6, 1910, 425.
British suffragettes and their radical tactics inspired American suffragists. Several American women traveled to the United Kingdom to join the WSPU and participate in the protests. Zelie Emerson, a young woman from Michigan, was inspired to join the cause after hearing Sylvia Pankhurst speak about the WSPU in Chicago. Emerson experienced multiple violent confrontations with the London police. On two separate occasions, the police fractured her skull with their batons. Emerson protested her arrest and imprisonment at Holloway through hunger, thirst, and sleep strikes. Upon her release from jail, Emerson helped organize Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End People’s Army which drilled in “the use of clubs, fists, and jiu-jitsu” explicitly to protect suffragettes against the brutality of anti-suffragists and the police.
“Suffragists Take up Jiu-Jitsu.” San Francisco Examiner. May 2, 1909, 44.
Suffragists in the United States never organized a bodyguard or a People’s Army. Instead, the militant tactics of the WSPU sparked intense debate among American suffragists. Most mainstream American suffrage organizations insisted that such militancy was unnecessary in the American political landscape and refused to publicly endorse such tactics. Individual suffragists, however, recognized the value of women’s self-defense training in this context. Sofia Loebinger, a leader of a suffragist group in New York, expressed admiration for the actions of the English suffragettes who practiced jiu-jitsu insisting that: “Strong situations need strong women.” She admitted that although it might not assist American women directly in achieving the right to vote: “boxing would be a good thing for women if only to teach them to concentrate their minds on one thing at a time. The ballot, for instance.” Recognizing the transformative potential of physical training in strengthening women for their political fight, Loebinger hoped that American suffragists would design self-defense courses modeled after the British example.
Although suffragists in the United States experienced much less physical violence than the British suffragettes, their personal experiences with harassment and assault challenged them to reconsider their views about women’s right to use force when necessary. American suffragists who took to the streets to demand their rights endured verbal, physical, and sexual assault from anti-suffrage men and the police. The 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. ended in chaos as spectators pushed their way into the streets, blocking the path of the floats and marchers. Anti-suffrage men hurled insults at the shouting that the women should have “stayed at home where they belonged.” Women and children endured sexual harassment from observers who made lewd comments to them as they marched by. Marchers reported being pushed grabbed, pinched, tripped, and shoved by male spectators. Over one hundred suffragists were sent to the hospital to seek medical treatment for their injuries. A Congressional investigating committee appointed to investigate the incident, chastised the police for failing to stop the violence and egging on the assailants.
Greeley-Smith, Nixola. “Suffragettes Will Cultivate Muscles and Fight Like Amazons for Her Ballot.” Evening World (New York, NY). April 11, 1911, 3.
Shortly thereafter, local suffrage organizations and women’s clubs began organizing private boxing and jiu-jitsu classes for their members. These classes were mostly held in secret to avoid attracting negative attention. In March 1913, two weeks after the violent Washington D.C. suffrage parade, a group of suffragists in St. Louis determined to study boxing to better protect themselves in their fight for women’s rights. They hired a prize-fighter to instruct them and began quietly training at a local gymnasium owned and operated by a German immigrant woman named Louise Bodecker. A local reporter broke the story describing boxing as the latest fad among suffragists. The boxing instructor confirmed the existence of the class but refused to provide any more detail. The fighting suffragists likewise declined to be interviewed and chose to keep their identities anonymous.
Suffragists in Badger, Washington, were similarly motivated by recent incidents of violence against suffragists to take up lessons in boxing. A boxing academy “for suffragettes only” opened sometime in the summer of 1913. A visitor to the boxing club noted the ferocity of the women’s abilities, commenting, “The suffragettes take as kindly and naturally to the art of self-defense as a duck does to water.” The use of the term “suffragettes” in referring to these American women suggests that the author clearly associated these suffragists and their actions with the radical suffragettes of Britain.
“Boxing Lessons Now Fad of Suffragists,” Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas), March 20, 1913, 3.
Women’s self-defense courses became increasingly more common in the United States as women recognized the political implications of their physical empowerment. In 1917, suffragist Louise Le Noir Thomas reflecting on the trend of women’s self-defense classes attributed it to the larger “feminist rebellion” that was occurring in women’s lives as a result of the suffrage fight. She insisted that women would no longer “be called the ‘weaker sex.’” By training in self-defense a woman was boldly declaring that it was “not unwomanly to protect herself.”
Thomas, Louise Le Noir. “How a Woman Can Protect Herself,” Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT). Magazine Section. April 14, 1917, 1.
Suffragists like Thomas believed that a woman who studied self-defense represented the ideal modern New Woman: both politically and physically empowered. Suffragists understood that winning the vote was an essential first step to their quest for liberation. They also increasingly recognized that women’s political oppression was directly linked to their physical subjugation. Radical suffragists who advocated boxing and jiu-jitsu insisted that a woman has the right and ability to defend herself and self-defense therefore became an important symbol of a woman’s total liberation.
Wendy Rouse is an Associate Professor of History at San Jose State University. Her research examines the history of women and children in the Progressive Era. Her most recent book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, explores links the history of women’s self-defense with the campaign for the vote in the early twentieth century.
An Open Letter to Our Many Friends in the Blogosphere (but not including the guys who keep sending us dick pics):
- Must be between 200 and 1,000 words in length
- Contributor must be academic (sorry, we love non-academics and self-defense practitioners but the point of our blog is the scholarship on self-defense)
- Must be rooted in, or about, the scholarship on self-defense applied to a current issue
- Must not violate copyright
- Must not be published elsewhere, although we are OK with simultaneous posts (e.g., published here and published on your own blog on same date)
- Humor and creativity are encouraged!
- No dick pics
How to submit: Send submissions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We promise to get back to you within 30 days.
We can’t wait to hear from you!
Jill & Martha, aka SJFB 1.0
Ask any feminist if men have power because they are bigger and stronger than women and you’ll get an answer that things are far more complex than this, gender is socially constructed and institutionally maintained, and that sex inequality determines how we see our biology rather than our biology being the cause of the inequality.
And yet, when we start talking about training women to fight off sexual assailants, feminists are often the first to object. We have witnessed multiple instances of this objection and we have offered multiple possible explanations for it. Here’s one more, rooted in a style of handling power.
The feminist literature is full of discussions of power as dominating or controlling another person. A subset of the feminist literature discusses power as a form of empowerment (eg., finding your power, empowering yourself to exert more control over yourself or your circumstances). This view frames power positively as competence. For instance, ecofeminist Starhawk frames power as a positive energy that “emerges from within.”
Those with institutional authority and privilege can exert their will using power as a physical or economic force. This is primary power. This is the power women talk about seeing/feeling/fearing when a man pulls his pants off. There’s a thinly veiled threat that rape or murder could be next. There are other ways to exert one’s will, of course. Nietzsche calls this secondary power. This is the power that someone lower on the food chain has to exert their will in certain circumstances, such as when a woman student comes on to a male professor with the office door closed only to say he harassed her, knowing that his untenured butt would get fired.
If women are more comfortable using secondary power, then our advocacy of physical and verbal resistance just smacks too much of primary power for feminists’ taste. These same feminists often prove themselves to be very comfortable with secondary power plays– for example, encouraging women to file Title IX complaints, investigating people, etc, etc. These are all ways feminists are completely comfortable seeing men go down. If I were a man, I’d much prefer to have had the temporary pain of my testicles twisted than to have lost my job or chance to finish my education.
If we take the claim, made by many in the gay rights and feminist movements over the years, that sexuality ought to be democratized, then we must rethink some of the popular positions on issues like dating, hooking up, and resistance to sexual assault. We must demand not simply respectability but responsibility. As R.W. Connell noted in an essay back in 1995, while the AIDS epidemic spawned a kind of collective responsibility in sexual practice in the gay community, this project of responsibility was not adopted in the heterosexual community. As a way to illustrate how conventional, hegemonic heterosexuality can absorb some aspects of feminist radicalism without really changing the power structure, Connell points out the 1975 best selling book, The Total Woman, by Evangelical Christian Marabel Morgan. Morgan advised women to employ the pro-sex ethos of the time–for example, by wearing make-up and sexy outfits–to please husbands under whose total authority they lived. As Connell put it, “The wife becomes an erotic doormat.”
If we want to democratize heterosexual relations, it will take more than just pole dancing at parties and being willing to hookup in one-night stands, often while drinking and drugging. It will take a willingness to set boundaries, deciding what you are OK and not OK with, and fighting back–in the moment–when/if you have to. Otherwise, college women on the hookup scene today are a contemporary version of the Total Woman–using eroticism to reinforce men’s power and control rather than to contest it.
Dear Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Hello! First, we hope it’s ok that we call you RAINN. Second, happy 25th birthday! In keeping with the third wave of the feminist movement, we’ve all been emphasizing the importance of women’s being free from coercive defilement–whether that is by family members, dates, acquaintances, coworkers, intimate partners, exes, or strangers. It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for so long.
We were so pleased when we saw that you have an entire page on your website devoted to “Steps You Can Take to Prevent Sexual Assault.” For we here at See Jane Fight Back have been reviewing the scholarship that shows how self-defense–training in it and/or doing it when threatened–is tremendously empowering for many women, changes the scripts of our rape culture, and helps prevent sexual assault.
So imagine our disappointment, RAINN, when we realized that you say nothing about women resisting sexual assault (which is, after all, a key step they can take to prevent it). Turns out you only talk about how someone can help prevent the assault of someone else, as a bystander. This is not even data-driven advice.
While we hate to rain on your 25th birthday parade, we are deeply concerned that you are providing information informed more by some ideology about how it’s men’s job to change, not women’s, and that it would be victim-blame-y to share with anyone the research that verbal and physical resistance (self-defense) works to thwart assaults in individual situations and at a norms-changing societal level. (By the way, we do not think advocating self-defense is victim-blame-y.)
Your page for college students on preventing sexual assault also omits any mention of physical and verbal resistance, even though on this page you do risk blaming victims by telling them to be sure they have their smart phones set in certain ways to avoid attack, to have people they can contact at the ready, to have cash on hand, and also to keep their drinks covered so no one can drug it. Obviously, we should be teaching men not to drug our drinks, too, but we agree with you that it makes good sense to alert women of the things they can do given that, currently, there are people drugging drinks. For this same reason, we believe in telling women they can yell, kick, poke, push, and punch.
Sadly, RAINN, you tell women a variety of protective measures they can engage in but never tell women they can, and have a legal right to, resist an attacker verbally or physically. They can, and they do.
RAINN, please consider what the CDC has said about data-driven prevention advice and programs. You are robbing women of the information that could truly empower them and prevent assaults. And you’re old enough to know better.
Martha & Jill
Among the many pop-feminist, girl-power-esque books out last year, The Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett, reviewed in the New York Times (lucky Jessica), tells women how to fight the power, with the help of your girl gang. Only without fighting.
Fighting, being mean, and anger are actually popular on the bookshelves in the pop feminism aisle. Here are some of the titles you’ll find:
—Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford
—Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
—Mastering Your Mean Girl by Melissa Ambrosini
Clearly, there is something appealing about the idea of empowerment, being powerful, resisting sexism, and fighting. These seem to define feminist empowerment today. The only problem is that none of these books is actually about learning how to fight.
The feminist taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Why is teaching women to fight, resist, and master meanness metaphorically, without including self-defense, a problem? Because, as we have emphasized, knowing you can fight physically is instrumental in knowing you have the right and the skills to fight metaphorically.
Looking for an empowerment self-defense course? These links might help:
Wishing you all an empowered and impactful holiday season and New Year,
Martha and Jill
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as we knew, and which we were shocked to discover that Donald Trump knew, but that may have been because it was mentioned by one of his the 15 or more women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Nonetheless, it has certainly contributed to raising awareness, including the scores of tweets in response to his proclamation. Those tweets ranged from snarky comments to video clips of his accusers to video clips of his own admission – nay, bragging – about committing sexual assault.
As college professors, we are accustomed to acknowledging issues on various months, and we do so happily, in a number of ways: hosting speakers, promoting events, distributing information, wearing buttons with slogans. Awareness is critical, and getting the message out in as many ways as possible is always a good thing. We’ve even worn jeans to support gay rights. Gay Blue Jeans Day is brilliant because everyone wears jeans and of course, part of the point of Gay Blue Jeans Day is to show that being gay is as normal and everyday as blue jeans.
But now, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, we’ve got to wear teal in support of SAAM this Tuesday, April 3. Teal? It was hard enough to find a font in teal, let alone an article of clothing.
Mind you, most professors have no sense of style. Worn-out shoes, broken fly zippers, and saggy old sport coats are commonplace in the halls of academe. Not that all academics wear pants and sport coats. Indeed, we’ve been to entire (politically conscientious, perfume-free) academic conferences where women were dressed in muumuus or clothing from Chico’s. And so as somewhat fashion-challenged college professors (although “fashioned-challenged” only applies to one of the authors of this blog, and we’re not saying who, but it’s not Martha), like many professors we often struggle with what to wear, relying on black and neutrals which always seem to match and don’t require changing shoes until the seasons require it. For SAAM, we used to be good – we’ve got a few variations on “no” t-shirts (one favorite says, “‘No’ is a full sentence.”), and the best part is that the t-shirts go with jeans.
So how about rethinking this teal plan? Something that middle-aged feminists and professors can more easily accomplish? We’re pretty sure we wore teal mascara back in the mid-80s, but that’s another issue, and fortunately, no photographic evidence seems to exist to back up that claim. It’s not that we think we look bad in teal (in fact, see our favorite hilarious list of what women over 30 should wear — don’t worry, it includes teal, and saffron, and ochre, and magenta, and…).
It’s just that it’s unclear what wearing teal actually accomplishes, in an era of activism where it’s awfully hard to keep track, and where, sadly, there are multiple issues requiring active resistance. We applaud, and thank, the young (and older) people who are speaking up so vociferously against sexual violence, racial violence, and gun violence, to name only a few. That’s work, and that’s hard, and it’s making a difference. We support these intersecting movements–ROY G BIV. Wearing a color, even a difficult one like teal, makes it too easy to simply post our outfit of the day on social media, and do no more. So wear what you like, including purple with a red hat, but wear it while marching, writing letters to politicians, advocating for self-defense training, and fighting back. Activism never goes out of fashion. And while Sexual Assault Awareness Month says wearing teal today shows that “everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence, and showing your support for survivors by wearing teal is one way you can embrace your voice for change,” we hope that people will discover many more roles to play in ending sexual violence–before it even occurs.