Susan Brownmiller
Susan Brownmiller

Fellowship Title:

Street Fighting Woman: A Setback

Susan Brownmiller
June 21, 1973

Fellowship Year

June 12, 1973, New York City


When I filed my last report on self-defense instruction I was still in a state of temporary euphoria; the hitherto unknown world of punches, jabs, knees and kicks having been but recently unveiled before me.

There is no point now in pulling my punches. I am dictating this new report propped up in bed on many pillows, shoulders braced in a stiff white harness. On Thursday I broke my collarbone in class while trying to execute a forward fall from the running position. The events leading up to this catastrophe shall be briefly described. An attempt at analysis will follow, although what sense can be made of this ridiculous state of affairs still escapes me.

I began the study of ju-jitsu under Milton Lederman, a 30-year master of the art, at the newly opened Japan Cultural Center. Having joined the class a month or two after its formation, my overriding concern was to catch up to the other students and this I felt I was successfully accomplishing when I detected a rumble of trouble in the dojo. Perhaps the first sign I had was when sensei Lederman began extolling the superiority of Chinese kung fu over the Japanese systems. This was followed by several disparaging comments by master Otani himself on sensei Lederman’s old-fashioned techniques — remarks made out of Lederman’s earshot. One evening we were informed that senseiLederman had retired and sensei Masami Kudo was taking his place.

The instructor quickly becomes a father figure in a self-defense class and now we were precipitously orphaned. The loyalists among us held a farewell luncheon for Lederman at the 23rd St. Horn and Hardart, his choice. Lederman’s choice of this Horn and Hardart it turned out, was part of his own counterstrike. It was half a block from the McBurney YMCA and after the blue plate special we were led into the private offices of the Y’s athletic director. The idea, apparently, was that our class might transfer to one of the Y’s instructors. For reasons I need not go into we did not conclude arrangements with the Y.

Our loyal band bade farewell to Lederman on the corner of 23rd and 7th. He told us he was going to Miami to develop a practical self-defense program for senior citizens. As he shook my hand he paid me a fine compliment. “No problem with you, Susie. I can tell you’re going to be a tough old lady.”

Kudo was a young Japanese and a disciple of Otani. He did not speak much English and he was unusually coy about revealing his age. I judged him to be about 24. Kudo’s system was shorinji-kempo. It consisted of fast, circular movements, staccato kicks and nasty wrist locks and punches. I found kempo to be thoroughly delightful and suited to my own staccato style.

I flourished under sensei Kudo for a full month during which time the class escalated from two nights a week to three. My sense of accomplishment under Kudo’s tutelage, however, was not shared by the other students. One after another the men in the class, a lawyer, an architect, a sculptor and a cellist, fell by the wayside. The women stuck it out.

Irregular attendance and a high drop-out rate characterize self-defense classes or, indeed, any adult-education course not directly related to career. The women, who had known each other before the class and who had entered the program with a high degree of motivation, showed great perseverance and group esprit.

The men’s interest may have been lessened by the fact that they joined the class to learn how to fight other men and ended up spending much of their time playing cooperative fall guys for the women. The standard class procedure was to pair off. One person took the part of the aggressor and the other played fall guy. This worked well when we were paired off woman against woman and man against man, but this was not the reality of street confrontations.

The women felt keenly that we needed the larger, tougher male bodies to work against, while the men felt that additional work-outs with us was not only a waste of their time, but actually increased the possibility of their getting hurt. I can see in retrospect that the women’s insistence on using the men, who despite their superior strength were scared beginners just as we were, was a continuing cause of tension in the class.

Male/female tension reached its peak at the Japan Cultural Center when Kudo began instructing the women in the effective deployment of kicks and punches to the male genitalia. I must admit that of all the women I jumped into this activity with the most enthusiasm. Here at last was a real female advantage in fighting! Traditional inhibitions against this type of aggression were clearly operative for the other women.

The men, I observed, were downright resentful. They displayed a mixture of anxiety, fear and protection of their sexual organs that I found astonishing. I should make clear that in all of our assaults we stopped short of actual physical contact. But the men, unsure of our control or perhaps uncertain of our real intentions were skittish participants in these exercises. Thus it was that I learned an important truth about male bodies and male conventions against dirty fighting.

A note to myself from this period which I pinned to my bulletin board reads as follows:

So — “breaking balls” is not just a euphemism! Kudo says that with practice we ought to be able to do it.

“Is okay if you break one,” he says with a grin. “He still has another.”

The men do not think this is funny. Kudo and I giggle. Then he says, “Serious! No joke. Very important.”

It is hard not to laugh, and I recognize a touch of hysteria in my giggles. The tension is great because I know that this is my one real advantage in fighting men, and that a man himself is breaking the male code by teaching it to me.

Much of what I was learning in the name of ju-jitsu would be called dirty fighting under Western standards. Integral to Japanese systems of unarmed combat is not only the rule that all assaults are fair, including attacks on the easily injured male genitals, but also that a prime and necessary element to effective fighting is to take the enemy by surprise — in other words, a sneak attack. It was drummed into us over and over that we, and especially we women, needed to give ourselves every advantage and gentlemanly conventions must be disregarded. Exposed to this new thinking I began to reexamine World War II propaganda surrounding the Japanese so-called sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise strike on America’s naval base has gone down in Western history as the ultimate in Oriental infamy. Viewed in the light of established traditions of the Japanese martial arts, Pearl Harbor was nothing more than correct military behavior.

Studying the mechanics of ju-jitsu brought me face to face with my ambivalent aggressive instincts. I have always been a verbally aggressive person, but only once or twice in my life had I resorted to physical violence.

One afternoon on 8th St. in April, 1971, I attempted to kick a young man who had just had the effrontery to goose me. Not knowing how to kick, I swung my leg with toes pointed straight ahead and wound up at St. Vincent’s emergency room with a sprained ankle.

This was the watershed incident that convinced me that I needed to study how to fight. But the night that Kudo stood before me and urged me to punch and kick his chest I found that despite his stationary target and all his genuine encouragement, I could barely make contact with his body. All of the women in the class, I should report, shared my inhibition and utter inability to hurt him. The men did not, and Kudo understood this. He never allowed the men to use him as a punching bag. They could inflict damage. Trying our damndest, the women were totally ineffective. The following week, after much solid practice in shadow kicking, Kudo asked us to repeat our efforts. This time he wisely padded himself with towels and this time our kicks and punches, landed. It was a great sense of accomplishment. I was thrilled.

The relationship I had with Kudo, and to a lesser degree with the other men in the class as well as with the women, was totally physical. We would hold each other firmly about the waist or shoulders for our various holds. We would nuzzle each other’s pelvis with our hips in preparation for a throw, and we would often wind up piled on top of each other on the mat.

By tradition, women have been excluded from contact sports. Ju-jitsu holds, I discovered, were an entirely new way of relating to men’s bodies, and to women’s bodies too for that matter. I found the experience of free roughhousing with no sexual implications to be very pleasant.

As Kudo taught us the kata (patterns) of shorinji-kempo I discovered to my chagrin how vastly inadequate my physical equipment was for the task. A brief rundown follows.

  • Slender neck: liability if grabbed by two large hands.

  • Thin wrists: similar liability; insufficient for breaking out of male wrist holds.

  • Small hands: inadequate for grabbing and holding large male wrists.

  • Elbows: surprisingly good weapons!

  • Arms: too short and thin for really effective arm bar which must cover opponent’s elbow.

  • Breasts: obvious area of vulnerability but tactfully avoided in class.

  • Thighs: more muscle required for effective kicks.

  • Knobby knees: protruding, bony kneecaps, my distress in a bathing suit or dress, prove to be my most effective weapon; an unexpected bonus !

  • Small, thin feet; slender toes: totally inadequate for grasping the floor and balancing; my worst impediment.

The prototypical Japanese wrestler’s body, squat and thick-footed, offers the ideal physical proportions for ju-jitsu by providing a natural low center of gravity and a solidly anchored base for pivots and turns. My thin, delicate feet, which I always considered a plus in terms of femininity, proved to be an irreversible liability in terms of balance. Similarly, my torso, usually described as lithe, seemed to work against me in ogoshi, the hip throws. The women in the class who were endowed with thicker feet and wider hips, though no more athletic or agile than me, seemed to have a natural affinity for the balance-unbalance ju-jitsu sweeps and throws. I tended to wobble badly, like a statue on a too narrow pedestal.

On the brighter side of the picture, my newly muscled thighs and natural percussive movements gave me a solid advantage in performing the standard karate kick, a two-stage motion consisting of a) lifting the thigh into “chamber” and b) striking out quickly, like a snake’s tongue, with the leg. With a bit of musculature, impudence and my natural speed, I discovered I could wing an impressive kick in a fair approximation of Mrs. Emma Peel.

My punches, while stronger than the other women’s (thanks to the semblance of muscle in my upper arm), were never performed with authority (thin wrist problem), but I turned out to have a dynamite secret weapon in my knobby knees. Yet even my knees, alas, let me down at the Japan Cultural Center. While excellent for short, close body chops, they proved to be my utter disgrace in the ritualistic, prostrate kneeling that began and ended each class. On the command of rizu rei, all ten of us were supposed to kneel and bow, forehead on the mat, a solemn moment. What invariably happened on the command of rizu rei was that nine of us would solemnly kneel and bow while the tenth would wriggle and squirm about in acute discomfort. I quickly grew to dread the call of rizu rei.

Toward the end of March I was felled by a combined blow from a tenacious flu virus and an infected molar. In my absence the women in the class, led by Susan, staged a rebellion against Kudo. His informality and his giggling, two qualities which I found endearing, grated on the other women. They asked for a new instructor. When I returned to the dojo I found that our little band, sans men, was now being taught by Master Otani himself. A third sensei in three months is two sensei too many, I believe, but I cheerfully reentered the arena.

On my second night back, and still stiff from the first night, Master Otani encouraged me to perform a new kata, a forward fall from the running position. “Your friends can do it, why can’t you? ” he challenged me. With the red flag of competition waving before my eyes I threw myself into the forward fall, a propulsion midway between a cartwheel and a somersault. I did it on nothing but grit. On my fifth try I heard an awful pop as I completed the roll. It was, I later learned, the sound of my left clavicle busting.

As I review what happened that evening, I feel the blame for this freak accident must be shared by Master Otani, the Japanese martial-arts code of putting one’s complete trust in the sensei, and my own competitive personality. Master Otani was not sensitive to the fact that I had just reentered the class after an absence of a month and a half and could not be expected to catch up instantly to the other students. I think perhaps that he did not even realize that he had confused me with Vickie, whose attendance had been irregular of late, but whom he had given some instruction in the new forward fall.

His encouragement of me to perform as well as my friends is a standard goad in the martial arts. Indeed, class rank was an important part of our training process. Each night we would be lined up according to our competence for the ritualistic bows. (Kudo alone of our three instructors dispensed with this procedure.) Having joined the class last, I started off as the fifth ranking woman. Before my illness I had advanced to third. When I returned, I was deeply conscious of my loss in rank. Susan and Kathy had pulled way ahead of me. I was eager to reestablish myself as one of the better students.

After four attempts at the forward roll I was exhausted. I laughingly pleaded with Otani to let me stop because I didn’t know what I was doing. He told me to try it one more time. That is when I had the accident.

There had been no serious accidents in the month with Lederman and in the month with Kudo, but under Otani’s tutelage, Cile broke her toe and I broke my clavicle. Otani owns the dojo and he is a very prideful person, eager for success. He admitted to us that he had never taught beginners before. I believe he had never taught women either.

As I sat on the mat in a hot sweat, gradually realizing that something was very wrong with my collarbone, Otani’s attitude, while warm and solicitous, was a dismissal of any real damage. “Nothing the matter,” he announced to the dojo. And to me he said, “Happens all the time in Japan. I could press back into place but a little afraid because you are a woman.”

Broken bones cannot be “pressed back into place,” even in the mysterious East. Otani knew better, I think, but he did not want to spread panic in his dojo.

It was I who suggested that perhaps I ought to go to the hospital. Relieved, Otani graciously offered to accompany me. I told him I preferred to go with one of the women.

In the most unfathomable incident of the evening, the two women I knew best in the class, Susan and Kathy (ranked #1 and #2 respectively) made no move to escort me. Ann, a movement acquaintance who had joined the class that night, responded quickly and beautifully, as did a fellow who had just dropped in to observe the class. As I was gently being led out the door by Ann and the Good Samaritan, I turned back to look at the mat. Susan and Kathy were into a new kata. They cheerfully waved in my direction.

Later they told me they were “surprised” to hear that I had really broken a bone.

Received in New York on June 21, 1973

©1973 Susan Brownmiller

Susan Brownmiller, a freelance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. This article may be published with credit to Ms. Brownmiller and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

Susan Brownmiller
Susan Brownmiller