Her Own Hero

The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement

288 pages

August, 2017

ISBN: 9781479828531



Add to Cart Available: 7/14/2017

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Wendy L. Rouse teaches United States History and social science teacher preparation at San Jose State University. Her research interests include childhood, family, and gender history during the Progressive Era. 

All books by Wendy L. Rouse

The surprising roots of the self-defense movement and the history of women’s empowerment.  

At the turn of the twentieth century, women famously organized to demand greater social and political freedoms like gaining the right to vote. However, few realize that the Progressive Era also witnessed the birth of the women’s self-defense movement. 

It is nearly impossible in today’s day and age to imagine a world without the concept of women’s self defense. Some women were inspired to take up boxing and jiu-jitsu for very personal reasons that ranged from protecting themselves from attacks by strangers on the street to rejecting gendered notions about feminine weakness and empowering themselves as their own protectors. Women’s training in self defense was both a reflection of and a response to the broader cultural issues of the time, including the women’s rights movement and the campaign for the vote.  

Perhaps more importantly, the discussion surrounding women’s self-defense revealed powerful myths about the source of violence against women and opened up conversations about the less visible violence that many women faced in their own homes. Through self-defense training, women debunked patriarchal myths about inherent feminine weakness, creating a new image of women as powerful and self-reliant. Whether or not women consciously pursued self-defense for these reasons, their actions embodied feminist politics. Although their individual motivations may have varied, their collective action echoed through the twentieth century, demanding emancipation from the constrictions that prevented women from exercising their full rights as citizens and human beings. This book is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction to one of the most important women’s issues of all time.

This book will provoke good debate and offer distinct responses and solutions.


  • "In the cultural imagination, women's self-defense training is often traced back to the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s, in which self-defense classes doubled as consciousness-raising sessions. In Her Own Hero, historian and martial artist Wendy Rouse digs deeper, locating the movement's birth in the 1910s and '20s. In this era, women across the country—mostly white and urban-dwelling—took up boxing and jiu-jitsu, with the specific purpose of warding off male attackers. White men tended to be suspicious of these lessons, and sought to frame them as needed only in response to deviants and non-white threats . . . but the training helped kick-start conversations about genuine threats—husbands, for example—that would resurface with force decades later."

    Pacific Standard

  • "Wendy L. Rouse examines the self-defense movement through an intersectional feminist lens. . . . Rouse explores boxing, jujitsu, street harassment, the suffrage movement, and domestic violence to provide historical context to the 20th-century women’s movement . . . a compelling read."

    Bitch Magazine

  • "The individual triumphs described in Her Own Hero are the sort of satisfying stories that would go hugely viral today. . . . a thorough and fascinating examination of the eruption of one important insight into public American life: Women can successfully use force against those who are assumed to be more powerful."

    The New Republic

  • "Martial arts turn out to be a great lens for examining increasing freedoms in a time of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, though the book also gives a clear overview of America’s prejudices and limitations. A highly readable study whose historical accounts of sexism and xenophobia bear repeated discussion."

    Foreword Reviews

  • "The book’s unique selling point is its examination of women’s motivations to learn Japanese martial arts and the ways in which they used their training to forge a sense of their own identities."

    Martial Arts Studies

  • "Here is a story that seems to have been hiding in plain sight, requiring an innovative historian to tease it out of the records... Rouse’s work not only expands the scholarship on gender, culture, and the empowerment of women in the early twentieth century, it also offers many lessons for our own day."

    Western Historical Quarterly

  • "Hatpins, yes, but also boxing gloves. Who knew that around 1900 women were signing up for lessons in jiu-jitsu and taking boxing classes? Wendy Rouse catalogues a grab bag of Progressive era thought and anxieties in favor of women’s self defense training  from new women rhetoric about women’s physical and political emancipation to fears of white slavers, menacing male strangers, and rising Japanese cultural and political power."

    —Elizabeth Pleck, Professor Emerita of History, University of Illinois, Urbana

  • "Her Own Hero is interesting, engaging, and makes important contributions to the scholarly literatures on the history of gender, the history of feminism, and early twentieth-century U. S. history. Wendy Rouse insightfully reconstructs the strategies that proponents of women’s self-defense employed to counter assertions that self-reliant women were masculine and deviant. A terrific, influential book!"   

    —Jeffrey S. Adler, author of First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920