A Century of Women Fighting Back

Tuesday, 14 November 2017, 06:15:18 PM. A new book traces the 19th-century beginnings of women's self-defense training.
One June day in New York City, Lillian Ellis was home alone with her younger siblings when a friend of her father came calling. Who knows why? Perhaps he meant to meet her father and was surprised to find Lillian alone, or perhaps he intended to rape and murder her before he walked in. All we know now is that he tried to strangle Lillian and broke a vase over her head, fracturing her skull, though she still managed to fight him off for half an hour, and lived. The year was 1920, and Lillian was twelve. In the local paper, her survival was credited to her knowledge of jiu-jitsu. As Wendy L. Rouse details in Her Own Hero: The Origins of The Women’s Self-Defense Movement, such stories were becoming almost common at the dawn of the 20th century. A rise in women’s employment and social independence coincided with increased immigration, which led to a confluence of racist and sexist anxieties that left white upper and middle class Americans with a discomfiting awareness of their bodily vulnerability. With Teddy Roosevelt, a devotee of muscular feats, serving as president, a newly physical, newly public life was promoted, and urban media outlets obligingly documented the remarkable confrontations that ensued—many of them involving women beating off their would-be attackers.  HER OWN HERO: THE ORIGINS OF THE WOMEN’S SELF DEFENSE MOVEMENT By Wendy L. Rouse NYU Press, 288 pp., $35 The individual triumphs described in Her Own Hero are the sort of satisfying stories that would go hugely...Read more
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