Class, Feminism and Miss USA Nia Sanchez

nia-sanchez-black-beltRecently Nia Sanchez, a Nevada resident, won the title of Miss USA 2014 and her response to the famous “final question” inspired a feminist critique that revealed the contentious historical issue of class in feminism. Jennifer Lee had a chance to talk with Sanchez for The Broad Side about her response.

My advice to feminists of the blogosphere is this — Nia Sanchez is what a feminist looks like.

The final question in the Miss USA contest is asked before the votes are tallied and a winner is picked. The question posed to Sanchez was, “Recently, Time Magazine revealed that 19% of U.S. undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault in college. Why has such a horrific epidemic been swept under the rug for so long and what can colleges do to combat this?”

She first addressed the reasons why a school would hide this crime by saying that bad press was something they would want to avoid. Then she added that she is a 4th degree black belt in a martial art, saying,“… I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself and I think that’s something we should start to implement for a lot of women.”

Confidence. Defend yourself. Implement. This answer was heard by more than the seven million viewers. Media coverage is a megaphone to the world and if you are lucky enough to get the opportunity you give it your best shot. Nia Sanchez seized the day. But, who is she anyway?

The attack

Surprisingly, many feminists thought that the 24-year-old Sanchez didn’t answer the question correctly, as if it is part of a standardized test. As a result, Sanchez, now Miss USA, found herself in the middle of a small firestorm.

One feminist journalist addressed Sanchez’s answer with an article condescendingly titled, “Sorry Miss USA, a Black Belt in tae kwon do is not the solution to campus rape.” This article hits on traditional themes that have been thrown around for decades in order to denigrate self-defense for women. One of these themes is that the sheer size and bulk of some men are no match for even the most seasoned martial arts expert. Huh? This antiquated idea ignores the deep lessons learned from self-defense about building confidence, sharpening intuition and changing ways of thinking about women’s strength.

Online feminist critiques snowballed into a predictably hostile Twitter pile-on that included personal insults and accusations that Sanchez just wasn’t smart. Some of the critical tweets reflected rigid mindsets claiming that Sanchez “bungled the answer” as if only one answer is correct. Some scolded her — “The answer to high rates of campus rape is simple: DON’T RAPE.” Name me one group throughout history who has willingly given up power? And this tweet makes no sense. “Let’s hope Miss Nevada uses her media tour to reiterate that teaching girls self-defense is NOT the best way to protest against assault.” Would anyone tell a man to teach boys not to learn how to defend themselves?

Why did the feminist criticism of Sanchez take place? The answer is class. Sanchez didn’t refer to herself as a feminist. She has no college degree. She writes for no academic journals. She has no byline. She was an outlier and she bravely spoke her words alone.

There is something different, yet familiar about Nia Sanchez. I wanted to learn more so I contacted her. I asked her opinion of the criticism leveled against her. She replied confidently, “… I was a little surprised by the reaction to my final question answer and was not expecting the reaction from some people. However, I do realize that not everyone is going to agree with the opinions that I have. I feel strongly that women can be empowered to learn self-defense in order to protect themselves in unexpected situations. I don’t see anything wrong with women taking action into their own hands and support it completely.”

Sanchez and self-defense

When I asked Sanchez about her childhood, she said, “After my parents divorced, I was raised by my dad. From as far back as I can remember he was teaching me to be aware of my surroundings and teaching me what to do in case a stranger tried to approach me. I think that as a woman we are all a little bit more cautious in certain situations, especially at night when we are walking alone. How I was raised with my martial arts background helps me to feel a little bit more prepared in those types of situations.”

Sanchez lived for a time in a women’s shelter with her mother. Women’s shelters were first opened in the 1960s when feminist ideas were becoming widespread. Feminists understood the need for women in crisis to have safe places to live so they could rebuild their lives.Clearly the experience affected her because Sanchez makes it a practice to volunteer in a woman’s shelter in Las Vegas, Nevada called Shade Tree.

During the early part of the women’s liberation movement feminists encouraged self-defense for women. My first self-defense class was in 1980 and my teacher, Marianna Kaufman, who is now 69-years-old, holds three black belts in various martial arts. When I told her of Sanchez’s answer, her initial reply was, “That’s wonderful.” She continued, “Studying martial arts does so much more than [teach] techniques, it builds your confidence in many areas of your life …. I wish it were part of school curriculum rather than just an option. It would be very nice and change lots of situations in the society if girls could have that option of studying it.”

I asked self-defense instructor and author Ellen Snortland to elaborate. She said, “I can’t think of a situation that a woman or girl wouldn’t find value having had a good self-defense background. The whole argument that women are not big enough to defend themselves is specious and not accurate. Sometimes, that’s true, just as it would be for men fighting each other. However, size is only one factor, not the determining factor.”

Beauty Contests and women

Feminists have famously protested beauty contests. As a society we are still analyzing the effects of gender and appearance with critiques of high-heeled shoes, make-up, revealing clothing, shaving leg hair, and artificially coloring gray hair.

I have always seen the beauty contest as the career building parallel that sports is for young men. Both are used by young people to pull themselves out of financially limited circumstances. Don’t believe me? Former beauty contest winners include news anchors Diane Sawyer and Gretchen Carlson, actresses Sharon Stone and Halle Berry, talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Kathie Lee Gifford. Because of her success in the Miss USA pageant, Sanchez now has a greater opportunity to join these career ranks.


I was impressed by Sanchez’s bravery during the verbal attacks on her because women and girls are still raised to please people. Snortland had a great insight into this: “We have girls who tell us that their desire to please, or their desire to not be called a bitch, goes way down once they learn how to defend themselves.”

Sanchez told me, “I see it as a huge blessing to feel confident if I’m ever alone, and I really hope to be able to use this year to teach some of the things I’ve learned to other women across the U.S.”

I applaud Sanchez for learning self-defense. She inherited some of the principles from the women’s movement and incorporated them into her life. It was a common feminist belief in the 1970s that there were no leaders in the women’s movement because every woman was a leader. So to the feminists of the blogosphere, I say this: Nia Sanchez is what feminism looks like.

Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming!. Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project.

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  • Mindy Cameron

    So missing the point. She blames the victim.
    Not that self defense isn’t important.
    Beauty contests for women comparable to sports for men?
    We could talk for years, it is obvious you so miss the point regarding self worth.
    Opportunistic grab.

  • Janna Silverstein

    I couldn’t disagree with you more, Mindy Cameron. Certainly we can teach our sons to respect women and not to denigrate them, not to rape. But there are two parts to this equation: we MUST empower ourselves, because for every woman who teaches her sons to be thoughtful, respectful men, there are others who don’t have the time, the will, the ability to do so–and rape will be attempted. In that case, a woman does herself favor by being prepared–but hopefully, she’ll never have to be. Studying a martial art isn’t only about defending oneself. It’s about learning confidence and self respect. It’s about strength and fitness and personal power. Nia Sanchez is an excellent role model for young women. She’s taken control of her health, both physical and mental, and she’s exhorting other women to do the same. Would that we had more of those sorts of messages in the media today.

  • Thia

    Nia Sanchez (and this article) have a great message. Learning to protect yourself and take responsibility for your own safety is exactly what the feminist message should be. It is NOT blaming the victim, and it doesn’t ensure that you won’t be victimized no matter what you learn or how you arm yourself. But shouldn’t we teach women to do as much as is in their power to be safe and able to fight back? Should we not teach people to use condoms because it might be perceived as a slam on or “blaming” those who are HIV survivors? It’s ridiculous. I can’t believe the stance of so-called feminists toward a woman they should be applauding for being so empowered. I love Nia’s attitude and I love this article!

  • Marille

    So glad you did this interview Jennifer. I was so annoyed when that controversy erupted. and I think this quasi “feminist’ argument that self defense is not the answer to campus rape, is short sighted. if all college women had degrees in self defense and were less trusting to their male peers the rape number would be much much lower.
    In self defense I learned that speed is the key and not size for the force of a blow, as everyone will find out when breaking boards in martial arts.
    I smell an unholy alliance with the socialist camp, in this controversy. like the right occupies freedom, self reliance, initiative, power and the left with their female alliance with helping the weak, identifying with victims and opposing anything remotely associated with power. nothing against caring. of course there are many more actions on top of self defense one could mention such as publicizing campus rape, shaming colleges for their protection of rapists, but self defense for women is a key point in my opinion.
    many guys don’t like women with black belts. and often victim enroll in course. we should strongly work that girls get this into their curricula before they leave high school. there would be opposition from those who think that women need to stay weak or loose their femininity. I bet some of our supreme court judges would be opposed to all women learning self defense.

  • Lynn

    Seems to me that this is one of those situations where we need to ask, Why does it have to be Either/Or? Miss USA thinks women learning self-defense is the key to less campus rape… critics say the answer is teach men not to rape & that institutions are responsible…
    Why can’t both be true? Individual AND systemic change?
    I think a broader feminist analysis can include both taking back personal power (& yes learning self-defense is a great tool for that) and – at the same time – working with other feminists & allies to change institutions and undo the normalization of violence against women. Working to change the socialization of boys/men that teaches a toxic rather than healthy masculinity, working to unravel the pervasiveness of rape culture in media, etc etc — In other words, seeing the big picture & working to change it for all of us.

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