Women in Karate

by Stephen LaBounty (2007-09-25)
Woman gif

"Some day we'll even see women taking Karate."

Ominous words to be sure for 1963, and not falling on willing ears. I had never in my career trained with a women alongside as a peer. In '63 I thought the possibility of doing so was so remote that it was ludicrous at best and from a practical standpoint, impossible. We/I would say: "Hell, the next thing you'll see is women playing basketball or baseball. How're they gonna do that in skirts or Capri pants?" (Living proof that fashion IS recyclable.) "What happens when...well you know...that time of the month appears?"

But come they did and thank God for it. Prior to understanding what Yin and Yang were all about, the Kenpo world revolved around a bunch of club guys getting together sometimes four times a week to pound on each other in an efficient and economical fashion. There was no need for any other study of the art, just the physical and the fact that, then, the strong did make the rules.

I remember that at the first Internationals there was a woman contestant. Her first name was Ruby and I won't embarrass myself trying to spell or even remember her last. She entered the men's division since it would be at least two years or more before there was a women's division, and though she lost, she made a noise in the Karate world that we still hear today. No one watched her opponent. Most of us were sitting in our seats, mouths agape, wondering if we were going to see this upstart die right before our eyes. The fight wasn't an easy one, but she didn't die and we, mouths still agape, were incensed that she didn't.

But because of her, Ed Parker, Al Reyes Sr.(who I remember had the first women's division, at least on the West Coast) and others brought our sisters, wives, relatives, lovers, etc. to be part of this ever-burgeoning art and its sport aspect. The Yin had arrived, saturated with Yang when needed. I still recall being taught the cat stance. When I first saw it, I thought that my teacher had "gone over", "come out' or whatever the term for the day was. I didn't see the practical usage of such a silly stance, yet when I first saw Mr. Parker do it, I knew it had to be okay.

So here we were, trapped in early sixties chauvinism, wondering if the end of the warrior art was at hand. Time, our dear friend and mender of all things, gave us the camaraderie of our female counterparts. The problem was that we wouldn't let them be athletes. When they began doing tournaments, and remember these were the days without gloves, foot pads and headgear, we had the tendency to stop the flow of a match and thereby deny one contestant or another the benefit of using their arsenal to score points. I guess we thought that they would break or something.

In the technique lines, the sparring classes and the like, no one wanted to work with the women. It wasn't that we didn't like them; it really was they just didn't hit hard, and they...had limited targets! But through the efforts of Malia (Bernal) Dacascos, Mikie Rowe, Nancy Davis, Linda Denley, Denette (Crosson) Zaninovich, Doreen Congliandro, Lupe White, Chuck Norris' student Kim Burbidge and on and on, we began getting hit pretty hard, watching them "break a nail" and continue fighting without tears, and take hold of their position in the martial community.

Today there are so many women on the tournament circuit, as the heads of the schools, even in the grappling world (though they have been competing in 'catch' wrestling for some time) and as the moving forces in the development of the martial community, it is almost hilarious to think of how gently we treated them.

When I began to train in Shiatsu, my teacher was a Black Belt in Judo from Japan. Her magically-healing hands were gnarled and twisted, and under her straight black hair was the small beginnings of a cauliflower ear (noticeable only by one who knows of such things). The visible wear on her body spoke as a testament to her fortitude to learn her Father's art.

Today I am proud to have women as role models for the human side of the art. Dian Tanaka, Doreen Congliandro, Marj Johnson, and a host of others who ask for no favors, and want to be taught the warrior art so they can pass it on to everyone who seeks the lesson.

They DO hit hard, and often, and proudly wear the dents of a dedicated student and iron worker.