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.
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."
"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."
"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."
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
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
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