“Her Own Hero”Women’s Self Defense Has a Sordid Anti-Immigrant History


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This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

In Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, Wendy L. Rouse examines the self-defense movement through an intersectional feminist lens. “Women’s self-defense figuratively and literally disrupted the existing power structure,” she writes, but white middle- and upper-class women often used self-defense training to reinforce existing hierarchies. Learning self-defense enabled white women to work outside the home because it “shatter[ed] preconceptions about feminine fragility,” but it also allowed those same women to teach working-class and immigrant women the tactics in a white savior–esque fashion. Rouse’s class analysis of women’s self-defense is one of the book’s strongest aspects for this reason.

Rouse explores boxing, jujitsu, street harassment, the suffrage movement, and domestic violence to provide historical context to the 20th-century women’s movement. She argues that the women’s self-defense movement largely rose out of “racialized and gendered concerns about the future of the Anglo race and indeed the future of the nation.” For instance, Americans showed an increasing interest in learning jujitsu around the time of World War II, when hysteria about Japan as a world power and fear of “yellow peril” was rising. Jujitsu challenged preconceived ideas about the dominance of Western martial arts, such as boxing and wrestling, so it was exoticized and appropriated to reassert American imperialism.

In the current political moment, similar concerns are manifesting with the rise of white supremacy and white nationalist movements. Her Own Hero comes out as Americans are showing renewed interest in learning the art of self-defense. Marginalized folks have signed up for classes in droves following the election of Donald Trump, mirroring the historical purpose of self-defense as a means of empowerment and protection for oppressed people. The parallels to the current day may be more coincidental than purposeful, but it makes for a compelling read.

Rouse also offers an in-depth analysis of street harassment and the news coverage it received in the early 20th century. The author often uses the term “cultural anxiety” to describe how white people deal with identity-related shifts, and that was very present in the conversations around street harassment. Victims of street harassment, Rouse writes, were almost always depicted as innocent white women who “risked sexual violation and moral ruin by an immigrant threat.” Similarly, in 2014, anti–street harassment organization Hollaback! released a video that was widely criticized for depicting white women as victims of street harassment from primarily Black and Latino men.

During the 20th century, nativists used street harassment to paint immigrants as inherently criminal and dangerous to white Americans. These days, Trump calling Mexicans rapists and advocating for the creation of an office to investigate crimes committed by undocumented people demonstrates that we have not made much progress as a society. Whenever white people feel their power is threatened, we see that “cultural anxiety” reflected in a resurgence of white supremacist ideals.

Rouse also analyzes the differences in the ways the press reports on street harassment against white women versus Black women. Black women were rarely mentioned in newspapers as victims of harassment, though they were subjected to it. This is a trend that continues with Black women, particularly Black trans women, who are often left out of mainstream reporting on street harassment even though they are most likely to be victims of violence. When Mary Spears and Islan Nettles were killed by their harassers, mainstream media remained silent.

Analysis of the intersection of queerness and self-defense is largely missing from the book. A mention of the necessity for self-defense for LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people would have provided another lens, given that “corrective rape” and other measures have forced LGBTQ people to develop tactics to protect themselves. 

As Rouse proclaims, “[W]omen’s self-defense training disrupted existing gender stereotypes and countered the myth that men were women’s natural protectors.” Ultimately, this movement equipped women with the tools to defend themselves and set the stage for freedom in the public sphere, in the political realm, and in their private lives. 

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Britni de la Cretaz
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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.

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