Susan Brownmiller
Susan Brownmiller

Fellowship Title:

Street Fighting Woman

Susan Brownmiller
March 5, 1973

Fellowship Year

February 27, 1973, New York City


On the first of February, 1973, my placid, sweet, pacific lifestyle underwent a significant change. I began my rigorous program of self defense instruction. I am now the possessor of one judo gi, size 3, and my sensei is Mr. Milton Lederman, 5th degree ju-jitsu black belt and master of all oriental martial arts.

The reason I have given over my Tuesday and Thursday evenings to Mr. Lederman is this: I want to know if an average-size woman properly trained in unarmed combat can actually defend herself against a male aggressor. If this hypothesis is true, it has stunning implications with regard to the crime of rape.

Japanese systems of self defense have appealed to me for some time. The Japanese are a small people and their techniques of unarmed combat are geared in a Zen kind of way to neutralizing and deflecting an opponent’s superior size and strength. If it works for them, it should work for American women. The way I feel now in New York City, it’s either unarmed self defense or get a gun.

I have not embarked on this program lightly. Physical aggression has never been my style, although I will admit to being a mistress of verbal aggression. Femininity, whatever that means, has always been important to me, too important perhaps. Well coordinated and reasonably athletic — for a woman — long-standing pride in my thin wrists, overall grace and slender body has been totally antithetical to a concept of physical strength. Until I saw 96-pound Olga Korbut compete in the Munich Olympics I even harbored a totally irrational feeling that superb physical training might turn me by perceptible degrees into a Babe Didrikson Zaharas. Also, I don’t like fighting. Since I’ve been a child I’ve always covered my eyes with my hands and crouched down low in my seat at the movies when the shooting and punching begins. But after two years of psychological revving up and one year of diligently going two times a week to an excellent, uptown exercise studio — there was no point in starting self defense without a semblance of muscle in my thigh — I feel ready to begin. Not only am I ready, I am determined to excel. I am going to be — dare I say it? — a holy terror, a street fighting woman.

The search for the perfect dojo and the perfect sensei was not easy. Discouraged friends who have gone this route before were quick to warn me that the more disciplined and authentic the gymnasium, the more sexist the instructor. A tour of some city dojos convinced me that this was true. An American female student is treated gingerly by most of the Japanese instructors. At one dojo I visited, the two women students in a class of twenty men were summarily ordered off the floor when the men began their push-ups, an act hardly designed to build their self confidence, let alone their bodies.

Another problem of these Japanese self-defense courses seems to be that the rigorous discipline imparts what I can only call a drastic “head trip.” I have always found authoritarianism highly unpleasant. Shouted commands and bowing and scraping strike me as patently ridiculous. But I am willing to suspend my distaste for the time being. Authoritarianism might just be a way to stimulate quick, reflexive action, a necessary goal. More problematic is something else that seems to happen to many karate students. Friends who have “really gotten into it” tell me that their original motivation — self defense — has been replaced by what they call “the search for inner peace,” and this inner peace seems to be accompanied by curious food habits and a deep immersion into oriental mysticism. Since feminism is my trip, I have no room in my head for any other exotic junkets.

My quest for the right combination of authenticity and practical instruction led me to the newly opened Japan Cultural Center on West 13th Street. “Japan Cultural Center” is a hilarious misnomer. The dojo of my martial aspirations is a freshly painted cavernous loft, presided over by one Yoshiteru Otani, who bills himself as the ranking master of all martial arts. Otani has come to America to make his fortune on the new rush of interest in self defense. As a concession to “the cultural” his printed brochure gives vague promise of classes in flower arranging and tea ceremonies for those who desire such gentle instruction.

Otani’s fearsome physical appearance embodies all of my preconceived stereotypes of a master of self defense. He is short, squat and barrel-chested and looks like he stepped straight out of a Kurosawa movie. He has adorned the walls of his dojo with imposing pictures of himself in action. One, a rather well rendered oil, depicts him with raised sword leading a group of fellow samurais through knee-deep water. “I think that’s their form of water polo,” I quipped one evening — and turned to face a smiling delegation of Japanese visitors. We bowed. So much for my flippancy.

Otani is our head sensei, but above him, on the wall, is a framed photograph of Shigaro Kano, the founder of the modern art of judo from the ancient forms of ju-jitsu. (Judo is for sport; ju-jitsu is for combat and killing.) In the hierarchy of bowing at the Japan Cultural Center, the last and most important bow we make is to the framed photograph of Shigaro Kano.

“There’s a lot of bull — ritual in these martial arts,” Lederman told us one evening as he put us through our bows — and immediately endeared himself to me. Lederman is white and Jewish and has been studying various forms of oriental self defense for thirty years. “One day you look around and it’s been a lifetime,” he told me wistfully. He is a black belt master of judo, karate (kicking and hitting), aikido (a purely defensive system based on the joints), ju-jitsu, kung-fu (Chinese karate with a lot of elbow action and circular movements), kendo (performed at the dojo with bamboo poles) and some other disciplines that I haven’t yet sorted out. He is teaching us his own special potpourri, geared to coping with the New York City streets and muggers. He is, happily for me, most partial to his women students. “That’s mean, that’s really mean, you’re going to be a killer,” he loves to tell us. (Half of the students in this class are women.)

I joined after the class had been in progress for one month, so I had a lot of catching up to do. On my first official night, Frank, the other new person, and I were assigned to learn four basic falls: side fall, back fall, over-the-shoulder fall and front fall, all performed with whopping, slapping arm motions on the tatami (mat). Frank has sixty pounds on me. I was determined to be very assertive and do better than him. I did, but I was thoroughly black-and-blue and aching for the rest of the week. “You have to eat lots of jello and bananas,” Lederman told me. I have since been eating lots of jello and bananas. My skin, which always bruised easily, shows no indication of changing its stripes. (I have just recalled that my incredible propensity for black-and-blue marks was another hallmark of my “femininity.”)

The femininity concerns of the four other women in the class is fascinating to observe vis-a-vis their fighting styles. Susan Edmiston is the best of the women. She leaves her mink coat and her ladylike behavior at the door and works out with pragmatic efficiency and a real grit which surprises me. Kathie Paulsen looks like a perfect Japanese maiden when she goes through her motions. She wears a French gros-grained ribbon in her hair and feels she is accomplishing something when the ribbon comes loose. She was the second best woman until I came on the scene and I expect that she will soon forego her pretty ribbon. Vickie Pellegrino, our most glamorous student, wears her false eyelashes in class. When the eyelashes are absent I notice that her toenails are painted pink. When Vickie takes a fall her hair falls adorably over her eyes, Susan Haywood style, but I sense that like Haywood, Pellegrino is essentially a gut fighter. She could be fantastic. Cile Lord is the oldest, the tallest and potentially the best of the women, but she hangs back shamefully and therefore loses out in class time and attention. I think she is afraid of her own potential strength.

One evening after class master Otani asked us to stay for a few minutes while he showed us something. He took a fistful of change from his pocket. “American money,” he said with wonder. “Powerful weapon, and legal. When you walk down street and bad man approach, throw money in his face. Can blind. Practice throwing.”

We promised to practice. Otani then tried to show us an elbow-in-the-solar-plexus routine for occasion when “bad man” grabs us from behind. We had trouble getting it. “Okay,” I said to Lionel, one of the men in the class, “Grab me from behind.” Lionel did. He lifted me off my feet, whirled me around and was about to dump me unceremoniously on the tatami when I tapped him twice, the honorable signal for leggo-uncle-I’ve had enough.

“So you’re the famous women’s liberation writer,” Lionel said smugly. I must report that Lionel has since quit the class. He didn’t like the idea of working out with all those smart-ass women.

In contrast to Lionel is Phil Maggio, a young Filipino green belt who is the best of the men and whose assigned role it is to play fall-guy for the women. Phil “falls” for us with sincerity and a genuine concern for improving our techniques. I told him he shouldn’t be paying for these classes since he has to suffer so much extra abuse.

At the end of my first month of self defense instruction I can report that I have more or less successfully learned the principle of the wrist lock, a basic, nasty twisting against the joint that causes real pain and can drive an opponent to his knees if properly applied.

I have also learned the rudiments of two throws: a hip throw and an over-the-shoulder throw, which work spectacularly when we women practice against ourselves but which rarely work when we are pitted against the men. The women have been assured that our mastery of the technique will eventually compensate for the men’s brute strength.

The three cardinal principles of ju-jitsu are:

  1. Unbalancing your opponent

  2. Fitting your body into his, to your advantage

  3. The throw, the kick, the hit, or some other punishment

Everything must be accomplished swiftly. Unbalance. Surprise move. Devastation. Very tricky. In fact, “trick” is the word I hear most frequently in class.

The standard “hang loose” at-the-ready position for all tricky movements is jigo-tai, a bent-knee stance with legs stationed parallel. For someone accustomed to standard French ballet fifth-position attitudes of plie and releve, jigo-taiis an esthetic abomination, a hulking gorilla walk that will take some getting used to.

Received in New York on March 5, 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