Considerations for Female Practitioners
in Renaissance Martial Arts?

By J. Clements
ARMA Director

I was asked recently for my view on the subject of what, if any, considerations there might be for female practitioners of Renaissance martial arts -a historically masculine activity. Since over the years I have had, and currently do have, female students, I present some thoughts.

In my teaching philosophy, anyone who picks up a weapon becomes a fighter and a target -regardless of their physical nature. As to general training and exercises, I make no distinctions between the sexes, except during certain drills (such as the "touch" and "press" ones) where for safety and courtesy I instruct not to touch/strike to the chest.

Generally, in the same manner that I recommend a cup for males, for any contact sparring I strongly recommend to female practitioners a chest protector such as used in some Asian martial arts. Additionally, I typically suggest a tapering bastard sword for my novice female students. For acquisition of fundamental motions and core principles it's lighter, more agile, and more adept at thrusting, yet does not require the upper body strength for powerful cutting blows and counter-strikes as do more robust long-swords and great-swords. The weapon is more finely balanced for using closer and tighter movements rather than wider cutting arcs. I find it better suits female students and that they enjoy its versatility more than learning with other style war swords. The same moves must still be learned as for heavier and wider blades, but in my experience the tapered weapon is generally found to be better adapted to the natural inclinations of most female students (i.e., counter-thrusting in time as opposed to counter-cutting breaks or initiating powerful combination cuts). However, each person must always choose the tool they feel best fits their disposition as a fighter.

For similar reasons to learning with a bastard sword, I also find my female students enjoy study of the spear or long staff, it being an equalizing weapon which requires more precision than strength. Its length and agility permit the novice practitioner to focus more readily on tactical rather than on physical application of techniques. Further, I've noticed female students often take to learning the rapier more easily than do most of the male colleagues, since it is a foyning weapon of grace and finesse whose initial learning requires elegant repetition of core motions much more than strenuous physical exertion (indeed, it's been said before that female students are at first often more technically proficient in the rapier than males of equal learning).

One question often asked is about the obvious advantage male combatants have over females in terms of muscularity and body mass. Does physical strength play a role in Renaissance martial arts? Yes, certainly, as it does in any highly physical activity. However, the historical source manuals are more than clear that skill transcends strength alone and skill is a matter of several blending factors that are independent of gender. (The example I often give of the affect of nature's design protocols on fighting ability is, if you were to hypothetically jab the average female and male students equally hard in the chest with a stick, the male is invariably going to recover use of any disruption to his pectorals at a noticeably faster rate than his female peer. The same is true for a blow the lower abdomen or on the deltoid and bicep. The objective then for any student, is to learn to avoid getting hit altogether while sufficiently hitting back.)

A major problem faced by female practitioners of this craft in my experience is one faced equally by many males: the need for physical fitness. A degree of conditioning is requisite for higher learning and progress in the art. Besides this persistent issue, another is differences in physical toughness between the sexes in the realm of how easily each bruises and heals. Occasional muscular bruising and minor injuries are an inherent part of any strenuous close-combat weapon training. For biological and psychological/cultural reasons, males are generally more inured to this, but females in my opinion can more than aptly compensate by an appropriate mental toughness, thereby reducing it as a potential impediment to learning.

Unquestionably, temperament varies among all fighters. Psychologically of course, most males are arguably brought up participating in aggressive sports and aggressive play-fighting (even sword play) from childhood. Overwhelmingly without hesitation they take instinctively to the entire dynamic of "hurting someone" with a weapon while "trying to keep from being injured" in turn. Female practitioners, I note with respect, are naturally more nurturing and empathetic, and so must often be "taught" the concept of the necessary "martial mindset" for training in fencing skills that traditionally were a brutal affair of gruesome violence. In order to attain the proper bearing essential for approaching the subject as something more than just a pastime or game, appreciation for the warrior ethos is crucial. In my opinion, there is absolutely no reason this cannot exist regardless of a practitioner's gender. When this aspect is absent, it is an element which as a teacher I find the most challenging to instill in any student. It is a matter of effort on behalf of the practitioner. It is up to each student of this art to endeavor to challenge themselves to both know and overcome whatever weaknesses they may have.


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