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Found Feminism: HANDS OFF! Women’s Self-defence, 1942 style

2012 November 9

It’s not automatically feminist for self-defence books to point out that women can be in physical danger from men. I wrote a previous post for BadRep on suffragette Edith Garrud, who produced a leaflet describing a woman being attacked as she walked home at night, as well as a short play in which a wife defends herself against her drunken husband. In both those writings, she showed the woman in a routine or domestic situation defending herself using the ju-jutsu that Edith was teaching (in 1910!).

Well, it’s maybe not surprising that Mrs Garrud’s guides were written from a feminist standpoint, but I wasn’t expecting quite the same level of realism from the very military William E. Fairbairn in a book I stumbled across this week.

A policeman and soldier, Fairbairn knew a LOT about combat. I mean, really. No, REALLY. As the ever-excitable website Badass of the Week put it:

Fairbairn was stationed in Japanese-occupied Korea from 1903 to 1907, and he spent the majority of those four years learning everything he possibly could about the long-lost art of epically kicking the fiery rainbow-living sh**fire out of every living thing on the planet until the only things left inhabiting Earth are multi-colored protoplasmic bags of liquefied organs and bone shards.

What made him unique was that he didn’t mind fighting very, very dirty if it meant you won. And so he did win, usually against street gangs and organised crime rings in Shanghai, where he served with the police. And he then taught that to the commandos, and special forces, the pre-CIA, he invented the SWAT team and tactics still being used today, had a black belt in judo certified by the guy who invented judo, and allegedly held a six-week training course in ‘silent killing’ which included using only a normal stick. He is an enormous figure in Western close-combat history.

In 1942, Fairbairn wrote a book which was marketed in the US as HANDS OFF! Self Defense for Women. Where the feminist interest comes in isn’t that he wrote it at all, or that it contains full-strength combat moves while being aimed solely at women, but that he included paragraphs like this:

It frequently happens that you meet a person who is very proud of his gripping powers and takes great pleasure, when shaking hands, in gripping your hand with all his strength, apparently with the idea of convincing you that he is a real “he-man”.

It is a very simple matter for you to take the conceit out of him – place the point of your right thumb on the back of his hand between the thumb and index finger, as in Fig. 27A.

The cover of a book called HANDS OFF! showing a 1940's illustration of a woman defending herself against a man using her umbrella across his neck. The figures are surrounded by green impact lines radiating outwards.

The cover of the book, featuring a young woman and her trusty umbrella.

The thing which struck me about the whole book is his attitude, which coincides completely with Edith Garrud’s where she wrote “Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves ‘men’ are not worthy of that exalted title.”

Fairbairn assumes that the male attacker in his examples – who grabs, threatens or harasses a woman – deserves no mercy from the terrifying array of STONE-COLD KICKASS which she is then encouraged to perform in return. And he does so not with a tone of patriarchal protectiveness, but of dismissive contempt for the man and righteous calm practical advice for the woman.

In some places, he qualifies his including the more extreme moves with a ‘should you need to’, but it always seems to be cushioning language for civilians frightened at the thought of personal combat, not at all because the reader is a woman. In his introduction, the only differences he cites for women are in typical averages of height and muscle strength, never some imagined intrinsic weakness of will or emotions. That stuff was rampant in 1942, and not including a word of it is impressive.1

What’s also nice to see is that he classes any unwanted touching – such as a man stroking a woman’s knee when sitting next to her at the theatre or cinema – as serious enough to warrant a physical response. Damn right. Also, ouch. (He calls the resulting arm-lock ‘The Theatre Hold‘ and notes that while his photographs show just two seats together, if it was done when there is a row in front, ‘the opponent’s head would have been smashed onto the back of the front seats‘.

The opponent. For a knee-stroke. YES.

Sadly our attitudes to the public groping of women have relaxed a great deal, but it’s nice to find a manual with no condescension, a frank regard for the dangers women face, and the emphasis placed on a woman’s right to her own body. In 1942.

At no point does he even begin to discuss the idea of victim-blaming, that the woman could have ‘brought it on herself’ through dress or actions. It doesn’t come into it.

I’m currently developing self-defence classes for women and have to always keep in mind a level of force which will seem very reasonable in law, and frankly, the attitude in this book is a breath of fresh air. Because I didn’t have to go any farther than the partner I’m demonstrating moves with to find a woman who has had her knee stroked creepily by a stranger in public in the last six months, as well as her boob grabbed in the last week and frequent close approaches by strangers, the temptation to step things up to Fairbairn’s level is mighty high. (But then, I think the appropriate legal response to street harassment should be the sound of a woman drawing a sword).

So well done to Col. Fairbairn for producing a work with a respectful tone and the rare inclusion of harassment scenarios aimed solely at empowering women. If you’re in need of some (eye-wateringly violent) advice on how to fend off attackers, check out his book here. Just bear in mind that the suggested responses might be viewed as legally off-the-scale today!

(And don’t do the thing with the umbrella in Fig. 34, because seriously, sheesh.)


  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: For some more context, this post has some history of sexist media treatments of women’s boxing. Since, uh, we’re on the subject of gendered perceptions of who does and doesn’t do martial arts. []
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