There’s a lot of conversation going on right now about what exactly it means to be a woman – what are the limits on women in our world and what should their role be?
We see women and men competing in fencing with a shared vigor. That goes from our youngest new fencers who are walking into the club for the first time to the veterans who have been at this for a long time. Not only are women in fencing powerful, but they’re gaining. Women’s fencing is growing!
Fencing is a sport that many people see as being rooted in male power and showmanship. However we have seen over the course of the history of women in fencing that it’s so much more than that. Women have carved out not only a place for themselves in the world of fencing, they’ve made it their own.
Where once the idea was that men were there to use their swords to protect women from harm, the real truth is that women don’t need protecting. Female fencers prove it!
Myths about women and fencing
Let’s start off by dispelling some myths regarding women fencers. There are a lot of them! But we’re only going to address just a few.
Myth #1 – Women are not as aggressive as men on the strip
It was once thought that women in fencing could not be as aggressive and competitive as their male counterparts. That’s not our experience! Women and girls are just as ready to take on their opponent as the boys are. Our female fencers go straight for the points, using their strategy to get exactly what they’re looking for.
Thirty years ago in 1988, the last barrier between women’s fencing and men’s fencing in America fell when women’s sabre was added to the Fencing National Championship. Before that, women weren’t allowed to compete in sabre on the national level. That battle took many years of pressure for the change to happen, even after women’s epee and foil included women. Women epee fencers faced almost as much of a struggle for inclusion as sabre fencers did, as again it was thought that they were too delicate to match up in aggressive epee matches.
Myth #2 – Fencing is too violent for women
Let’s first say here that fencing isn’t a violent sport. Though it’s got it’s roots in the art of battle, modern sport fencing is one of the safest sports. It’s of note that even women foilists once thought that epee and sabre were too violent and aggressive for women (they of course changed their minds once women were allowed to compete!).
It was said at the time that women’s shoulder’s were weaker than men’s and couldn’t handle the impact of the weapon. Naysayers also said that women’s midsections and chests would be severely injured if they were allowed to compete in epee and sabre. In fact, once women were allowed to enter competition they were initially denied the use of the pistol grip handle and only allowed the French grip, as it was thought that the pistol grip lent itself to injury.
However it would be ridiculous NOT to acknowledge that fencing is a combat sport, because it is. Women are fighters though! The female fencers that we know are fearless and ready to take on any opponent on the strip, and that’s both heartening and inspiring. Women in fencing don’t get hurt at any higher rate than men – it’s completely and totally a myth!
Myth #3 – Women’s fencing isn’t as entertaining as men’s fencing
This utter nonsense is something that women face not only in our sport, but across sports. Tennis, basketball, soccer, etc. have all had to face a wall of ignorance from sporting spectators and commentators who argue that women’s sports aren’t as fast paced and compelling as the men’s competition.
Let’s keep in mind that fencing is physical chess. It’s mostly about the mind rather than being about the body. Women fencers are quick-witted and focused. They look at their opponent and deconstruct their opportunities in the same way that men do – if anything we often find that especially our school aged and tween girl fencers are ahead of the curve when it comes to focus and attention.
The other thing to consider here is flair. Fencing is a sport that’s blessed with big personalities and passionate athletes. With the rise of fencing personalities like Mariel Zagunis, Lee Kiefer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Nzinga Prescod and Hurley sisters you’ll be hard pressed to say that women fencers aren’t entertaining!
Myth #4 – Women are new to fencing
Women have been fencing for hundreds of years, all the way back to the fencing schools in Europe when it all began. They certainly weren’t as involved as men were, and we unfortunately do not have great fencing schools that were founded by women as we do for men, but we do absolutely have accounts of women fencing in those days. Dueling women were a real thing!
French women’s fencing clubs began offering specialty women’s classes after WWI to attract more customers and keep their doors open. If it weren’t for women, many of those historic fencing schools might have gone out were it not for passionate women fencers!
Women’s fencing entered the Olympic games with individual foil in 1924, even before women’s gymnastics! Keep in mind that fencing is one of the original ten sports, there were no women at all in those first games. Team foil for women came in 1960. Epee wasn’t open to women until 1996(!) and sabre wasn’t open to women until 2004(!!). Still though, we have an Olympic tradition of women’s fencing going back almost a hundred years! Longer than many other sports.
FUN FACT: Women were required to compete in skirts in the Olympics until 1935. Women are amazing, because can you imagine being on the strip in a big fluffy skirt while doing your footwork?
What we do want to point out is that there’s a long tradition of women in sport fencing that’s marvelous! Valentina Vezzali, with her six Olympic gold medals and sixteen world championship gold medals. Mariel Zagunis who pioneered women’s sabre in the Olympic Games and is the most decorated female sabre fencer. Helene Mayer who at the age of thirteen stunned with world with her prowess in 1924. Laura Flessel-Colovic, known as The Wasp, who stung her opponents with her epee all the way to five Olympic medals. Jujie Luan, the first Chinese woman to win gold in foil and who made it to the Olympic games at age 50! And this list of phenomenal women in fencing can go on and on!
On the strip, on equal footing
For whatever else you might say about the power of women in fencing, the core truth is that we need women in fencing. Women fencers bring a skillset and a passion to the sport that helps to make it what it is. One of the best things about fencing is the inclusive nature of our sport – we welcome people of any age, any nationality, any race, any sexual orientation, any religion. It’s a beautiful thing. Women are just as much a part of that diversity as anyone else, and it’s critical for the success of our sport that we continue to tap into the power of women.
The most fascinating thing perhaps in the power of fencing is that, unlike many other sports, fencing is truly equal parts mental and physical acuity. That means that a man who has a height and weight advantage on a female opponent doesn’t have an advantage that he might have in swimming or boxing. Fencing as a sport puts men and women on equal footing, and we often see mixed gender bouts across age groups! In fact, smaller stature can be an advantage in fencing if used correctly against an opponent. What we see on the strip is that women are inventive, engaged, and passionate about getting that point.
Women are increasingly making inroads into traditionally male venues. We see them directing movies, leading countries, and running corporations. In sport, we’re seeing women’s sports gaining more popularity in the media and the focus turning from their looks to their athleticism. Today, six of the twenty-two members of the executive committee of the International Fencing Federation are women! What we’ve seen in fencing is this incredible transformation from a sport that was seen as being too violent for women to compete in, to a sport in which women are embraced and supported for their powerful abilities.
We can all agree that women are powerful. Whether it’s a woman demanding justice for herself or standing up to protect her children, women have an innate ability to command the energy in a situation. The next time you have the opportunity to see a woman walk up to and take her place on the fencing strip, take a moment to soak in the power of women in fencing. It’s a beautiful thing to see.