Sidekicking Sisters – No Longer a Footnote

The Martial Arts Woman is a labour of love that evolved out of a passion to produce a work that would serve as a testament, a celebration and a source of inspiration for the female fighter. That certainly appears to be have been its creator’s intention, but the work exceeds even this weighty self-mandate. This book undermines the arguments of those who are blind to the battles women have and continue to fight exclusively in the martial arts subculture.


Although the title is also the moniker adopted by its creator, Andrea F. Harkins, a second degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, the work contains many autobiographical essays written by other female martial artists. Some of these pieces are simply reflective pieces on singular aspects of the writers’ lives whereas others touch upon a lifetime’s career.


The 55 essays contained in the book are grouped into no less than nine sections entitled: Mindset, Validation, Femininity, Love & Commitment, The Fighter, Training, Courage, Positive & Spiritual and Perspectives. Validation is the largest section, containing ten entries, and Perspectives acts as a type of epilogue, containing a chapter of generic questions answered by the various contributors and a short conclusion written by Harkins.


The book is not merely a collection of essays by different authors talking about the martial arts. Rather it is a type of hybrid: part reflective meditation by the main writer, part biographical insights by others. Harkins’ view shapes the work and she is often clearly wearing her life coach throughout, but the words of the other writers rarely fail to take us off in several different directions.


The choice of contributors is clearly eclectic to help convey the diversity of female martial artists. Many, as one would expect, are instructor level veterans.  However, there are also students such as taekwondoin Reese Balliet, who was 16 years old at the time she wrote her piece Finding Confidence. Bullying is also at the centre of veteran karateka and martial arts cross-trainer, Lynda Niemczak Hatch’s No Longer Bullied. Hatch’s story is also one about overcoming physical disability. She was born as the only member of her family with profound hearing loss and was bullied at a school for deaf students. Her martial arts training do come until long after her bullying episodes, when she attended junior college. Such variety in these chosen martial arts writers is also clearly designed to demonstrate the wide assortment of conflicts – be they external or internal, tangible or intangible – that these many different women face.


However, a critic might argue that essays such as this are not gender specific. The 11 year old bullied child of the first example, who suffers from anxiety and depression disorders, might just as easy to be a story about a boy. Likewise, the profoundly deaf student who faced bullying through much of her childhood might equally apply to a male. However, these two and other non-gender specific stories come into harsh focus when the book is read as a whole. Hatch, for example, not only had to test for her shodan in Karate at 11 p.m., but all five of her sparring partners happened to be male. This starts to give the reader an idea of the unique disadvantages women face due to their gender.


Another insight into a world of male dominance on top of internal and external adversity comes in the form of Kelina Cowell’s plainly titled and very interesting Krav Maga Changed My Life provides us with the story of a woman that not only returned to martial arts after having to learn to walk again, but also had endured a life of physical (including sexual) abuse. Again, there are general aspects of this story that a critic might argue are not gender specific but when presented with the entire picture of Cowell’s life we see the all-too-familiar picture of how many women have often become targets for male predators.


The reader realises the extra battles the likes of Balliet and Hatch have had to face in their martial arts journey when the book’s creator/editor writes of the limited way women are looked at in this particular subculture. This is particularly highlighted in the section on Femininity and especially in Harkins’ Half Clad essay, where the objectification of women in martial arts is brought under the spotlight. The ever-reliable Jackie Bradbury, whose blog is a joy to read I hasten to add, is also quick to pick up this baton and run a strong lap in What is Femininity in Martial Arts? She doesn’t take any prisoners in the first paragraph and it is little surprising that she would contribute more than one standalone piece to the book.  


Joy Tuberville’s Against All Odds reveals how male-dominated the martial arts world has been throughout the 20th century and the clear misogynistic beliefs in Korean martial arts. Alex Gillis’s A Killing Art touched on this problem when witnessed first-hand the misogyny General Choi Hong Hi, the man most often dubbed as founder of Tae Kwon Do. Tuberville’s fascinating story uncovers the reason why many Korean instructors of her era had problems teaching women at a high level. This is derived from the story of the Wonhwa, the predecessors of the mythologised Hwarang. These influential and educated fraternal societies of women became rivals and the leader of one group murdered the leader of the other, resulting in the disbanding of the groups. This story – akin to the message in various fables in western folklore that portray womankind as the instigators of great sin – is at the root of Korean martial arts misogyny according to Tuberville’s sources. It was what she was told when she faced a prejudicial barrier when trying to train with Korean Tang Soo Do instructors. Nevertheless, Tuberville prevailed in her chosen art and defeated many men in open competition. She became the first and only woman to be rated in the top ten men’s division as a fighter in 1973 by Professional Karate Magazine.


Another essay worth mentioning to demonstrate the range of people Harkins has chosen for this work is Hateshinai Zanshin – Perpetual Vigilance by Sama Bellomo. Bellomo is a student of the martial arts who hasn’t yet achieved a senior rank. Nevertheless, her story and her personal battles are at least as tough as any one of the hardened fighters and experienced veterans. She lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition characterised by a severe collagen deficiency. Her joints are constantly prone to dislocation, she cannot regulate her blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, and her digestive tract is in a degenerative state that will ultimately lead to paralysis. Her life is one of perpetual pain and requires a constantly aware state of mind – hence the essay’s title. The type of intense and considered concentration a martial artist might take to train his neural pathways to better engage his body’s biomechanics when trying to improve a punch or a throw is around the same level of conscious awareness Bellomo has to utilise when getting out of bed. To call this piece inspirational or even motivational – which it is – seems patronising and superficial. There is no way anyone other than a patient of this condition can relate to the daily ordeal Belloma has to undergo. Nevertheless, the insight provided in this piece gives the reader more food for thought than any “mindfulness” guru could ever hope to offer. The style of this essay provides the reader with the precise detail and the need for deliberate action in martial arts. It is possibly one of the best arguments I have read for seeing martial arts training as an allegory for running one’s life effectively.


My attention was first drawn to The Martial Arts Woman via social media. The articles posted to promote this project often prompted quite a stir. Although the clear majority of people were supportive of The Martial Arts Woman and its writer/editor, Andrea Harkins, there were a vocal minority who seemed to voice the very issues this work sought to tackle. For many martial artists the idea that women should need to shed a special spotlight on their sex is a strange notion. As far as they are concerned the female issue isn’t relevant in their subculture anymore. They don’t believe that women are treated unfairly or that the martial arts world has a bias towards men. Going by the responses I read, any major issues regarding sexism in martial arts have been nicely cleared up in our so-called progressive age. The Martial Arts Woman is late as far as they are concerned. The battle for martial arts equality of the sexes is over. On the contrary the sheer incredulity voiced by the aforementioned critics highlights the very need for The Martial Arts Woman to exist as a project and a book. Women are still presented in a limited fashion in the martial arts media and few women are even close to strong positions of authority within the patriarchal associations that govern the mainstream martial arts world. Hopefully this book will be another strong step in the right direct to readjust that balance and offer more martial artists a wider view of the women that fight alongside and with the men in the combat art world.


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