Her Own Hero

Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement

The surprising roots of the self-defense movement and the history of women’s empowerment.  

At the turn of the twentieth century, women famously organized to demand greater social and political freedoms like gaining the right to vote. However, few realize that the Progressive Era also witnessed the birth of the women’s self-defense movement. 

Some women were inspired to take up boxing and jiu-jitsu for very personal reasons that ranged from protecting themselves from attacks by strangers on the street to rejecting gendered notions about feminine weakness and empowering themselves as their own protectors.

Through self-defense training, women debunked patriarchal myths about inherent feminine weakness, creating a new image of women as powerful and self-reliant. Although their individual motivations may have varied, their collective action echoed through the twentieth century, demanding emancipation from the constrictions that prevented women from exercising their full rights as citizens and human beings.

Get the Book

Related Publications

Blog Posts

“How Our Fierce Feminist Grandmothers Fought to Claim Their Space.” Ms. Magazine. July 28, 2017.

“The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement.” From the Square. New York University Press. August 8, 2017.

“Fighting for the Vote: Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu and Suffragist Self-Defense.” See Jane Fight Back Blog. Scholars on Women’s Self-Defense. February 10, 2020.

Journal Articles

“Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam: The ‘Unmanly Art’ of Jiu-Jitsu and the ‘Yellow Peril’ Threat in Progressive Era America.” Pacific Historical Review 84, no. 4 (November 2015): 448-477.

“Empowering the Physical and Political Self: Women and the Practice of Self Defense, 1890-1920.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 13, no. 4 (October 2014): 470-499.

Book Excerpts

“Every Woman Her Own Bodyguard.” Longreads. January 10, 2018. 

“Gloves Off: Women’s Self-Defense.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Magazine of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi 98, no. 1 (Spring 2018), 26-29.

“For Fun and Freedom These 19th Century Female Fighters Got in the Ring.” Timeline. May 31, 2017.