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.

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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.

Media

Praise for the Book

“The individual triumphs described in Her Own Hero are the sort of satisfying stories that would go hugely viral today. . . . a thorough and fascinating examination of the eruption of one important insight into public American life: Women can successfully use force against those who are assumed to be more powerful.”  

~ The New Republic

“There are many pleasant surprises to be found in Her Own Hero. Rouse offers both a nuanced and intersectional assessment of self-defense within the broader social and political realities of early twentieth-century America and the explicit agendas of first-wave feminism and Progressive Era reformers… Rouse’s arguments for the inherently radical challenge raised by the bodily empowerment of women remains compelling and, especially when it comes to women facing violence in their own homes, relevant.” 

~ Pacific Historical Quarterly

“Here is a story that seems to have been hiding in plain sight, requiring an innovative historian to tease it out of the records… Rouse’s work not only expands the scholarship on gender, culture, and the empowerment of women in the early twentieth century, it also offers many lessons for our own day.”

~ Western Historical Quarterly

“Hatpins, yes, but also boxing gloves. Who knew that around 1900 women were signing up for lessons in jiu-jitsu and taking boxing classes? Wendy Rouse catalogues a grab bag of Progressive era thought and anxieties in favor of womens self defense training from new women rhetoric about womens physical and political emancipation to fears of white slavers, menacing male strangers, and rising Japanese cultural and political power.”  

~ Elizabeth Pleck, Professor Emerita of History, University of Illinois, Urbana

“Her Own Hero is interesting, engaging, and makes important contributions to the scholarly literatures on the history of gender, the history of feminism, and early twentieth-century U. S. history. Wendy Rouse insightfully reconstructs the strategies that proponents of womens self-defense employed to counter assertions that self-reliant women were masculine and deviant. A terrific, influential book!”  

~ Jeffrey S. Adler, author of First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920

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