When the topic of violence against women is discussed, many feminists contend that we should be more focused on getting men to behave differently than with teaching women and girls self-defense techniques.
One of the most recent examples of this was when Nia Sanchez, Miss USA 2014, was blasted by certain feminist writers because when she was asked in her pageant interview about college sexual assault and violence, instead of talking about mens’ roles, she said:
“… 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.”
One feminist journalist mocked Sanchez’s answer with the remark, “Sorry Miss USA, a Black Belt in tae kwon do is not the solution to campus rape.” But stepping back from the frought world of Gen X feminist commentary, the more practical question is this — Would every girl and woman benefit from learning self defense?
Self-defense instructors Ellen Snortland and Lisa Gaeta say yes. Their book, “The Safety Godmothers: The ABCs of Awareness, Boundaries and Confidence for Teens” is a collection of stories from many women who have used their self-defense training classes at IMPACT Personal Safety of Southern California in real life situations. The book is for all teens, but the focus is on all girls and women. It deals with the nuts and bolts of self-defense and the cultural expectations around the topic of women and fighting back.
As a feminist and the mother of a girl, I found the book important because there are feminists who think that learning self-defense precludes the necessary task of eradicating male violence and dismantling “rape culture.” Yes, stopping male violence is of the utmost importance, but I believe that teaching all women self-defense is just plain common sense.
The Safety Godmothers echo my sentiment. They hear from many frustrated students that having to learn self-defense is unfair and that violent men “should stop being violent.” Snortland and Gaeta’s respond that “the males that are interested in being violent are not listening to us…so far. It might take a good knee to the groin to make some of them hear what we’re saying, which is “Stop!”
Some feminists have problems with girls and self-defense and there are many parents who feel teaching self-defense will be too frightening for a child. The Safety Godmothers succinctly explain the inconsistencies in this approach. We are already teaching children self-defense. We teach children to look both ways before they cross a street. We teach them to buckle up in a car. We tell them not to talk to strangers. According to the Safety Godmothers we can also teach them how to physically defend themselves in dangerous situations.
They want to “change the conversation” from one where we see women and girls as being victimized by male violence to a conversation that shows us that it is possible for women to defend themselves.
Who are the women fighting back?
This book can be read in one sitting or you can read a section at a time. It’s structured as an ABC guide of experiences and testimonies of teen girls who fought back after having taken self-defense courses. The young women’s stories form the core of the chapters and the girls are given nicknames inspired by the alphabet: “Susan Stands Her Ground, “Inez Intervener,” “Mary, Model This,” and so on. After each dramatic testimonial is a short analysis from Snortland and Gaeta who give their expert opinion on how the girl defended herself.
The first story in the collection is Abby Attacks Back. Abby, a fifteen-year-old Los Angeles school girl, was physically attacked while walking in her neighborhood. Fortunately Abby had been trained in self-defense and bit her assailant on the arm and then quickly broke his knee, his nose and bruised his testicles. She also shouted loudly “No!” which brought out out the neighbors and the police. Using your voice, according to the authors, is a necessary tool in self-defense. “Abby’s” attacker was arrested and they found out he was a wanted rapist.
In their commentary, the Safety Godmother’s provide a little-known fact about Abby’s tactic: the vulnerability of the knee. The writers inform us that “it takes only 15 pounds of force to break one and virtually anyone can do it.”
Another story is about a seventeen-year-old girl they name Gina Giant Slayer. Gina saw her ex-boyfriend (who was violating a restraining order) coming towards her as she exited a store. Upon seeing him, she immediately got into a ready stance — both feet on the ground with her hands held up ready to fight. He ran towards her and Gina “heel palmed him right under the chin.” When her attacker stopped to hold his jaw Gina kneed him quickly in his groin. The fight continued until her attacker was on the ground and the security guard was beside her, who said that he had never seen a girl fight like that. Gina shouted for people to call 911 as left the area and called the District Attorney’s office.
Changing the conversation
When men fight back, it’s expected. We don’t hear arguments about how unfair it is that a man had to use physical force to defend himself. We don’t question it. When women fight back, it’s big news. And that’s inequality.
Recently, a jogger in Pittsburgh was assaulted by a man who pulled down her running shorts. He started to run away when the jogger yelled at him and told him to stop. The jogger was a U.S. Deputy Marshall and she yelled for others on the trail to call 911. When he kept running she ran after him, caught up with him and kicked him in his crotch and punched him in the face. The police arrived and arrested him. The U.S. Deputy Marshall was clearly confident enough in her skills, physical strength and power in law enforcement to chase after her attacker and get him into custody.
Running after an attacker is not something that authors Snortland and Gaeta would ever teach, after all self defense is to protect yourself first and get out of danger.
The Safety Godmothers want their readers to understand that fighting back is natural. Male violence doesn’t get wished away nor does it get eradicated by demanding that men stop. If that were the case, the ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria would have had a conversion experience after reading an essay about rape culture. By the way, in the current war in Iraq, Kurdish women, numbering in the thousands, are fighting the ISIS as part of the Women’s Protection Unit. One female soldier said, “ISIS is our biggest enemy right now. As long as they are on our land, rape and kill our women we will fight them.”
The Safety Godmothers know that self defense is a necessary part of life. As a feminist, this book reinforced my belief in women’s power to defend themselves and now I know that Safety Godmothers, Ellen Snortland and Lisa Gaeta have my back.
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.