Women Warriors, A.K.A. “Warriors”

While Empowerment Self-Defense has been around for 40 years as an holistic system of self-defense, originally designed by women for women to practice violence prevention strategies in a safe space, earlier forms of organized women’s self-defense started popping up in the United States and Britain over 100 years ago. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’d like to remember this history with appreciation to the historians who have brought us these stories (please see the Resources list at the bottom of this blog).

“The best protection any woman can have is … courage.”

—Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“Woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself.”

—Susan B. Anthony

The history of women’s self-defense tracks closely to the women’s rights movements of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Several decades into the women's suffrage movement, American and British women turned to self-defense in the form of boxing, wrestling, and martial arts, especially jujitsu and judo. "Women between the 1880s and 1920s empowered their bodies to fight violent stranger assaults, political disfranchisement, and family violence through their training in the 'manly arts of self-defense,’” write Wendy L. Rouse & Beth Slutsky.

Women began organizing for the right to vote in the first half of the 19th century, led by heroes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and so many others. In the United States, it started with Seneca Falls, the 1848 woman’s rights convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott after having been excluded from the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention because they were women; the convention launched the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. As women found their voices and inner strength over the decades, they also found their physical strength. There was a need. After Seneca Falls, after countless lectures and marches, women began to enter the parts of public society from which they had previously been banned, the parts that had been considered the domains of men. When they did this, they received pushback. And sometimes, that pushback was violent. Police officers, jailers, men on the street, husbands, fathers, and brothers pushed back collectively and separately on sidewalks, in jails, in public spaces, and in private homes. So women learned how to protect themselves.

“Reformers and suffragists led the way…arming women with the physical skills they need to defend themselves from attacks—or at least fear of attack—on the streets as they negotiated their place in the public space of the city,” say Rouse & Slutsky, historians. As female boxing and martial arts gained popularity, so did women’s self-defense. Sometimes it was organized, sometimes it was individual women finding the inspiration within to protect themselves from attackers.

In 1905, British actor and gymnastics teacher Edith Garrud trained suffragettes to evade the police and to defend themselves, putting on short self-defense skits. She used her knowledge of jujitsu plus what she’d seen and learned from newspapers and her own creativity, according to Irene Dellinger. And unlike many others at the time, Garrud also taught and promoted self-defense as a means of stopping domestic violence assaults. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, actor Florence Le Mar held self-defense workshops for the women in her vaudeville act, and she published self-defense tactics. At about the same time, in Oakland California, a telephone operator named Nellie Griffin was approached by a man on her walk home from work. He made several advances and grabbed her arm. Griffin replied by punching him in the face. She later told reporters, "I have waited too long for some bystander to take up the fight for me, but as no one ever volunteered, I was compelled to assert my rights.”

The history of women’s self-defense is full of stories like these, a woman waiting for someone else to step in, only to realize that she had to be the one to step up.

Harrie Irving Hancock, who wrote a book about jujitsu for women and children called Physical Training for Women by Japanese Methods (1905), declared that the term "weaker sex" needed to be "stricken from the language.” In 1909, nursing student Wilma Berger fought off an attacker on a street in Chicago, impressing witnesses. She then demonstrated her self-defense technique on unbelieving policemen, throwing a detective as she had her attacker. Berger had studied under Tomita Tsunejiro, one of the Four Guardians of Kōdōkan judo.

Women of this era also understood the impact they could make just by being seen, women like Washington heiress Martha Blow Wadsworth. Wadsworth put her privilege and access to good use, organizing a jujutsu class for women in a very visible place, the lawn of the White House.

It’s not that history had never seen powerful women before. On the contrary, history is brimming with women who used their intellect, their wits, their beauty, and their brawn to wield power and sometimes live outside the narrow confines of a woman’s world. Take the surprising number of female warriors. Fu Hao of ancient China was a military general with in command of 13,000 soldiers around 1200 BCE. Tomyris, a warrior of Central Asia in 530 BCE, won a war against a Persian king. Queen Artemisia commanded five ships for the Persian King Xerxes when he invaded Greece in 480 BCE. Cynane, half-sister of Alexander the Great, was trained to fight—and to defend herself—by her mother, the Illyrian Princess Audata, in the 4th century BCE. Amanirenas, queen of the Kingdom of Kush, successfully lead her army to victory against the Romans in Egypt from 27 to 22 BCE. The Celtic Queen Boudicca made a valiant effort to rid Britain of Roman rule in 60 CE, winning battles against the Roman legions. Triệu Thị Trinh was a Vietnamese warrior who took her homeland back from China in the 3rd century CE. Abyssinian Queen Gudit took her throne and ruled by force 700 years later. Tomoe Gozen of Japan, wearing armor and wielding a large bow and sword, fought fiercely in the Genpei War of the 12th century. In 18th and 19th century western Africa, thousands of women fought in an elite fighting force that commanded fear and respect among the people—the Dahomey Amazons’ ferocity in battle was legend.

Unfortunately, being a rare female warrior with armor, a shield, and a sword did not further the rights of women much. It was the suffragettes in their Edwardian corsets, high collars, long skirts, hats, gloves, and umbrellas who won women the vote and introduced the idea of women’s self-defense to the public.

The second women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s catapulted women to independence, at least in the West. It also brought a resurgence in women’s self-defense, precipitating the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation and in the years that followed, more and more self-defense groups organized by women. Innovators and trailblazers moved women’s self-defense forward by creating safe spaces, taking into account that attackers are likely to be known to their intended victims, that violence occurs along a spectrum, and that no woman should have to restrict herself in order to be safe. As the 1980s brought us IMPACT and became the 21st century, and the 21st century brought us the #MeToo movement, women’s self-defense experienced more significant growth within existing organizations and with new ones, like ESD Global, focused on training new instructors. It also became more inclusive, resoundingly rejected victim-blaming, and emphasized the empowerment element through a new name, empowerment self-defense or ESD.

“Even today, some self-defense instructors tell women they never should be alone on the street in an effort to promote safety,” says Rouse. “But that’s also telling women that their place isn’t on the street—their place isn’t in the public space…. And that’s not okay, because the truth is we should have the right to walk safely down the street. It was illuminating to me how in some ways self-defense instructors themselves perpetuate the idea that women don’t have the same rights as men.” Wendy L. Rouse.

Women's self-defense class at the Brooklyn Women's Martial Arts Center 1981.
(Image: Courtesy of Irene Dellinger)

We have seen what can happen when even one person with passion and purpose can make a difference. As the new kid on the ESD block, we at the Association of ESD Professionals hope to help carry on this movement our foremothers began, always protecting and promoting the interests of women and girls even as we welcome people who are not women into the fold. Through dedication, fortitude, sacrifice, and grit, we can prevent further violence. Change is possible.

Do you have a suggestion for a future blog topic? Perhaps you would like to guest-write a blog? Become a member of the Association today! And submit any suggestions to our Suggestion Box at the bottom of the home page.


Tristan Hughes, “10 Great Warrior Women of the Ancient World,” (September 14, 2021).

Julia Halprin Jackson, “Her Own Hero: The History of Women's Self-Defense,” San Jose State University’s Washington Square.

Ricky Riley, “5 Real Life African Women Warriors Throughout History As Badass As General Okokye And The Dora Milaje,” Blavity News (February 22, 2018).

Wendy L. Rouse, The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement, NYU Press (August 8, 2017) discussing her book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement (NYU Press, 2017).

Wendy Rouse and Beth Slutsky, "Empowering the Physical and Political Self: Women and the Practice of Self-Defense, 1890-1920," The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 470-499, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era (October 2014).

Patricia Searles & Ronald J. Berger, "Women in Society, The Feminist Self-Defense Movement: A Case Study" (March 1, 1987).

Mindy Weisberger, “Beyond Wonder Woman: 12 Mighty Female Warriors,” Live Science (June 2, 2017).

Matthew Wills, "How American Women First Learned Self-Defense," JSTOR Daily, citing and quoting Wendy Rouse and Beth Slutsky’s “Empowering the Physical and Political Self: Women and the Practice of Self-Defense, 1890-1920” (March 29, 2021).

Debra Michels, “Sojourner Truth,” Women’s History Museum (2015).

Potential Call-Out Quotes "I have waited too long for some bystander to take up the fight for me, but as no one ever volunteered, I was compelled to assert my rights.” —Nellie Griffin “Woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself.” —Susan B. Anthony "Women between the 1880s and 1920s empowered their bodies to fight violent stranger assaults, political disfranchisement, and family violence through their training in the 'manly arts of self-defense.’” —Wendy L. Rouse & Beth Slutsky Irene Zeilinger, “Suffragists, Actresses and Activists Do It: 100 Years of Self-Defence,” Open Democracy (December 9, 2016).

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