Women's Only Tournaments

I have loosely followed a couple of different conversations that have touched on this topic within the HEMA community. The first is about a Trans woman who has been denied entry into the Pacific Northwest HEMA gathering Women’s Longsword tournament. (In short on this: I am in support of her inclusion. I think that at best the decision to deny her was insensitive, non-inclusive, and not well thought out or researched; at worst it was bigoted.) The other conversation has been about removing Women’s Only events altogether. The reasons stated for this include: 1. Women’s only tournaments are sexist toward men. 2. If women don’t want to be hit hard we can make special low power tournaments to accommodate them and the men who feel the same way. 3. If women want to be empowered in our community they need to take it up by fighting with the men and not hiding out in their own field.

Before diving into this issue, I’d like to point out that I am a cisgendered, straight, white man. That means that I am privileged in society and this community. It also means that my perspective is skewed by this in ways that I can not ever truly understand. So readers should take my opinion (and those of others with the same privilege) with a grain of salt. The most informed speakers on these issues are women and Trans martial artists in our community. I’m writing because many of these people do not feel safe expressing their opinions or don’t feel they have a platform from which to write. If you are a female-identifying member of our community, I hope posts like this can help you find a forum to speak and I invite your feedback to my piece.

What Is The Purpose of a Women's Only Tournament?

There are a couple reasons that event organizers cite for running events for women only:

1. Women and men are genetically different and like in any sport it is more fair, as with different weight classes, to put women against women and men against men in order to give the “weaker/lighter” sex a fighting chance to be champions of something. In this argument, the thinking is that men have some genetic advantages in sword fighting based on strength and mass. If a woman and a man put in the same amount of effort in preparation for an event, the man will win simply because of his genetic advantage, so the event can’t possibly be fair.

2. There is a social power imbalance between women and men in our community (and our society). This leads to an environment where many women feel unsafe or unwelcome in events that include men (especially because the events are populated by a steep majority of men) and feel more comfortable fighting against other women than they do against men. These tournaments may also give women a feeling of solidarity and support amongst others who face similar challenges and share their experience. Overall, a women’s only tournament encourages greater participation from women which is a benefit to the community as a whole.

I think both of these reasons come from generally healthy motivations, even if I feel that the truly valid of these two is the second one (more on this later). In general I believe that event organizers want a greater level of participation in our martial art from women and this is one of the ways they are trying to make that happen.

I don’t personally care if there are women’s tournaments. What I care about is that women feel safe and comfortable joining and participating as ongoing members of our community. If women’s tournaments are what women and trans members of our community feel gives them this safety, I am in support of it.

Arguments People Present Against Women’s Only Tournaments

Sexual Genetics Don’t Matter

The argument: To win a sword fight, a fighter can bring many different kinds of advantages to bear. Even between two men, the strongest and biggest may not necessarily be the winner provided the smaller one knows how to work with their own body to maximize their own advantages and minimize those of their opponent. A woman should be able to beat a man regardless of these genetic variances provided she trains a strategy that leverages her own advantages.

Sexual genetics may not be a good argument regardless as there are many different body types among men, based on their genetic backgrounds. Many men may face the same challenges that women face. These men do not have their own tournaments (though, as mentioned before, in some sports they do through weight classes).

I personally agree that the goal of martial arts is to help people leverage knowledge against brawn. Smaller and weaker people are definitely able to beat heavier and stronger ones. Some advantages definitely give you an edge, at least early on in your experience, but most can be overcome. If there really were some insurmountable advantages that men had genetically, it would make sense for us to have women’s and men's only tournaments, like many amateur sports. However, if the issue is simply strength and weight, weight classes would be a far more sensible division than sex.

To those who are advocating weight classes or lighter power tournaments. I applaud these ideas and feel they may have a home in HEMA events for those who want to operate at a lighter level. However, is this what the women of our community want? Does it truly satisfy their concerns? Are we listening to them or simply waxing on based on our own viewpoint?

There Is No Power Imbalance Within Our Community

The argument: Many people feel that these tournaments are unnecessary because the social playing field is already even. In fact many suggest that women’s only tournaments may be a cause of the power-imbalance because they give the idea, through their existence, that women *need* their own tournaments and are thus not capable of fighting and beating men.

One of the biggest problems with this argument is that it is made by men in a community dominated by men. I hear very few women’s voices on this subject on open forums. In fact, when I do hear them, they are often shouted away and drowned out by men who are either nay-saying or claiming to be proponents for the female cause but still never shutting up long enough to hear from the group they claim to be supporting.

Women are actively talking about these subjects but that is happening in private forums where they feel they are safe and can be heard. Another clear sign that there is an imbalance.

If Women Want to Equalize the Power Imbalance They Should Fight Men

The argument: “Women should suck it up. If they want to be empowered and strong members of our community they need to get in there with the boys. If you want to make a place for women you have to take that place, just like the men have!”

I hear a small group of women make this argument as well as a large group of men. I am personally not strictly against this argument either. I absolutely believe to make change we do need to get out there in difficult waters. No group can responsibly sit back and just hope that change happens for them.

However, as men in a privileged position, how can we truly understand the size or shape of the challenge that women are facing? Who are we to say for a majority of women that the best thing for them is to get in and tussle with us? If a group in our community feels that a women’s only tournament is beneficial for their members to find their own power and be participants, why shouldn’t we offer that? I definitely look forward to an ideal world where everyone is, and feels, equally empowered and acknowledged. In that world we can let go of the women’s only event because it will be unnecessary. However that isn’t the world now and we have a large group of members (and potential members) in our community who feel that this type of event is a benefit for them. Note that even though there are some women who do feel comfortable participating in male dominated events, and may themselves not relate to other women’s challenges with these events, that doesn’t invalidate the position of those who *do* feel challenged.

"How about small men? Or gay men? Or any other group that feels they are affected by a social power imbalance? We can’t give everyone a special event!" Why not? If our goal is to be inclusive and expand the practice of our arts in the world (certainly my goal) any group that can support a tournament in numbers should certainly be welcome to have one if they feel it will better include that group. More groups and more people would only benefit all of us.

Women’s Only Tournaments Are Sexist Toward Men

The argument: Denying any group is a form of bigotry. We are harming men in our community by either not allowing them to have their own “men’s only” events or by having events they’re not allowed to participate in.

The issue with this type of argument in any power-imbalanced environment is that the group who enjoys the privileged position essentially has their own exclusive events already. We may in name say that an “Open” tournament is open to everyone, and even cite that there are already female participants, however, if the events do not feel safe and open to a majority of women who want to participate then they’re not truly open.

Men have open access to every event, and as a whole have no power or social challenges to face in their access. We are not in need of a men’s only event to feel welcomed or empowered; we as men have this privilege already, so it would serve no purpose.

Fairness is not about symmetry. Fairness is about genuinely understanding and meeting the unique needs of each group, so they can participate fully, even if the approaches applied are asymmetrical.

Women’s only tournaments are one of the ways we try to bring a disempowered group up; to bring them to a place of equality. When this equality is truly established, or a women’s only event is determined to not be a useful strategy anymore, then we should let go of them. However, the people we should be listening to in order to understand these needs and establish the ways of meeting them is the group who is affected: Women.

On Trans Members of Our Community

The argument to exclude a member of the trans community at PNWHEMAG seems to be one of bigotry hidden within an argument for creating a genetically even playing field. As I’ve stated above, I believe that women’s tournaments are there to help female members of our community feel welcomed and empowered. The genetic argument for their existence isn’t truly supported in our current format, nor would sex be a sensible division if we wanted one. We do a gross disservice to the trans members of our community, and our community as a whole, if we do not work with them, with true sensitivity and compassion, to feel welcomed in whatever identity they choose.

I hope that the organizers of PNWHEMAG will reconsider their position on this matter and work with female members of our community -- both trans and cisgendered -- to create an event where as many as possible feel truly welcome.


To close. I am a white, cisgendered, man. I enjoy enormous privilege for being so. I do not apologize for it but it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge it. I am also writing on a topic from that perspective. I easily fall into being one of the guys in this very pertinent comic. For that I’m sorry.

I celebrate the female-identified members of our community for having their own forums for discussion and fencing. I hope we as a community can grow to hear your voices more clearly and in time create a space of true equality.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.