Representation Matters: Women's Voices in Self-Defense

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In 2020 I made it a goal to read only self-defense related books by women.

Since so few women have written books explicitly about self-defense* it has led me to read books that were not always directly related to the subject. Nonetheless they are powerful works that impact how women move through the world. From a lawyer/art historian on situational awareness to a feminist geographer who studies how women do, or don't, occupy and move through public spaces.

It's not that I have anything against self-defense books written by men. I've read plenty of them. I learned quite a bit, but I got to the edges of their value for the day-to-day life of most women pretty quickly. As one of this list's featured authors, Mary Anne Franks, says:

...white men have never been the primary targets of violent crime, and yet it is their interests and their view of the world that now dominates not only the legal but the social understanding of self-defense.

Representation matters.

Women are often the students in self-defense classes who defer their own authority to their male teachers. I once heard an internationally known self-defense instructor tell a class that men grab women by the shoulders, not by the wrists. Therefore, practicing wrist-grab escapes had little value. Clearly he had never been a young woman on dance floor. I told him that I had been grabbed my wrists a few times and that wrist-grab escapes were invaluable. He looked at me blankly and then just kept talking.

Women must own the conversation about their personal safety because we know better than anyone what we face.

Two confessions about this list:

  1. With just a few exceptions, this list is pretty white. I want to expand this list to include BIPOC as well as more representation of LGBTQ+. As targets of violence and aggression on a regular basis, these are the real self-defense experts. Let me know what awesome authors should be added to this list!

  2. Two books listed here I actually read in 2019 - but they are so darn valuable to this conversation I had to include them.

This list will continue to grow, so check back! But more than anything, I'd love to hear recommendations from you.

Self-defense isn't the domain of tough guys.

It is your domain. And it is interdisciplinary.

Own it.

* A recent Google search for, "self-defense books" returned

nearly fifty books on the first page. Three of them were by women.


Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma

Elizabeth A. Stanley PhD

What do a Harvard-trained political scientist, an Army intelligence officer, an MBA from MIT, a certified practitioner of Somatic Experiencing and an ordained Buddhist nun have in common? They're the same person in Elizabeth Stanley, PhD. With her unique combination of life experiences, Stanley has written the survival guide for 2020. The book is in-depth and detailed on how to manage uncertainty and chaos. It is highly accessible with practical skills you can start practicing right away.

What does this have to do with self-defense? Most often we think of self-defense as lists of physical or observational skills we have to master. But Stanley shares how by widening our window of tolerance, we can most effectively spot and manage threats and stress - making personal safety accessible to everyone, not just the young, fit and athletic.

She also breaks down the fight, flight, freeze response in an original way that answers a lot of questions about why we go with one response or the other. She has really upped my game as a trauma-informed self-defense instructor.

Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World

Leslie Kern, PhD

Reading this book felt like I was talking to my best friend. Most often when women and cities are mentioned in the same breath it has to do with DANGER! But this book celebrates the adventure and opportunities that women have in cities more-so than any other type of geography. Kern doesn't gloss over the inherent risks of dense public spaces - she meets them head on - both the realties and myths. And then she goes deeper by blowing up the myths (created to keep women docile) and practical ways we can address the negative realities. This book normalizes women as intrepid urban dwellers rather than victims.

Favorite quote: "I know that as a sensible adult, I'm supposed to look back and say, 'That was ridiculous! What were we thinking? It's a miracle we weren't murdered!' Instead I can't help but see it as a moment when our young friendship allowed us to experience the city in a whole new way, to test our own limits, and to gain a sense that the city could be a place for us. Those moments taking charge in our lives were possible because we never questioned that we could count on each other... friendship made freedom in the city a possibility for us."

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life

Amy E. Herman, JD, MA

Most often situational awareness is presented from a military or law enforcement point of view. For those who don't hold those jobs however, that perspective has some, but limited value.

Herman teaches Visual Intelligence to business professionals, medical personnel as well as federal and local law enforcement. What I love about her approach is that she presents environmental awareness in an accessible way for every day life without all the paranoia of "looking for the bad guy".

The book includes fun exercises that are family-friendly. And she takes awareness training further with sections on how to assess your own biases that may color how, and what, you see.

Know My Name: A Memoir

Chanel Miller

I'm not gonna lie, this was a tough read. This is the account from Chanel Miller about her assault and legal battle against rapist, Brock Turner.

As tough as it was, her writing is remarkable, both searing and at times delightful. She truly has a gift to write and makes this tough subject a page-turner.

I learned a lot about our broken and callous legal system and the toll it takes on victims. As I finished I was inspired by her strength.

The Liar the Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play

Maija Soderholm

Though highly recommended to me by a number of folks, I put off reading it because I'm not interested in sword work. But while the drills she covers are specific to sword work, the principles apply to movement in general and can work with a range of weapons.

The key differentiator with this book is in its title - its about moving with deception and misdirection to keep the threat at a disadvantage. This approach is invaluable particularly for women as we navigate public spaces.

Favorite quote: "If you are not in a position of superior power you must find another way to control the situation, because not leading the dance is way too risky."

Mindful Thoughts for City Dwellers

Lucy Anna Scott

I picked up this pocket sized treasure while browsing the gift shop at the L.A. Central Library. It is a delightful little book with passages that offer alternate perspectives to typical beliefs about cities.

Favorite quotes:

  • Urban living it is assumed, is too boisterous to provide peace, too pressured to allow time to connect – to the moment, to others and ourselves. … it is my hope [to] show you how nourishing a metropolis can be – an environment with the potential to help us to see more, hear more, feel more.

  • Cities are just as adept at fostering trust & a sense of community as anywhere because they are so open & diverse. Trust grows out of people interacting with one another & the more of those interactions we have with others, the more at ease with humanity we can be...”

ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life

Stacy Sims, PhD

This books has been a game changer for me as my own body ages and my life-long martial arts training was becoming harder. I was steeped in the philosophy of "no pain no gain" for decades which has more recently become unsustainable.

A central theme to Sims' work is that what we know about fitness and nutrition for woman is based off of studies done on young men. But as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, in her research with women, she is finding new information and wisdom specifically for women.

That approach continues to inspire me to keep being specific in my own research. The challenges and needs of women in the areas of violence are not the same as men and we need to address that specificity in order to be effective with prevention.

Academic Articles:

How Stand-Your-Ground Laws Hijacked Self-Defense

Mary Anne Franks, JD, MPhil, DPhil, Krav Maga instructor

Favorite quotes:

  • ...the right to self-defense should not be based on fear. It should be based on principles of autonomy, which must in turn be based on equality and justice and efficiency.

  • ...racial minorities, in particular black men, are placed at a considerable disadvantage when the right to self-defense is conflated with the right to be armed

Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat: Stand Your Ground, Battered Women's Syndrome, and Violence as Male Privilege

Mary Anne Franks, JD, MPhil, DPhil, Krav Maga instructor

Favorite quotes:

  • So, while it is convenient to imagine a gun-toting woman thwarting a lurking rapist, such a scenario is extremely statistically unlikely...

  • And that is, of course, precisely why proponents of Stand Your Ground, conservative pundits, and gun activists use the stranger rape example. Its value is purely rhetorical. It allows proponents to claim concern for women's safety, and even more importantly, to label opponents as "anti-woman," without actually challenging entrenched, daily violence against women. It is utterly safe to condemn the stranger rapist he is an outlier, a monster; he has no legitimate authority and poses as much (or more) of a threat to patriarchal interests than he does to actual women. Stranger rapists have "real" victims, victims who are virgins or married or are assigned some other strict role within the sexual economy. Stranger rapists disrupt sexual order and destabilize men's entitlement to and control over their wives, girlfriends, or daughters. The stranger rapist can be vilified without indicting mainstream society. Women who fight back against stranger rapists pose no threat to social order or challenge cultural gender-disciplining norms. They do not, in short, challenge the average man's authority or make him consider whether he too is a legitimate target for violence.

Blogs on how racism shapes the ideas of self-defense:

Psst: Amazon wants me to let you know this article contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it inspire me to recommend it. These are just damn good books.

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