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Putting the Her in HEMA

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

“Are you just in costume? Or do you actually know how to use that?”

That’s just one of the many gems I have heard as a woman in HEMA.

It can be challenging at times to be a woman in what historically has been a male-dominated sport. Though it still is, ladies in HEMA is on the rise and our experiences are starting to shape the community around us. This week, I thought I’d share my experiences as a woman in this quickly growing sport and how it’s been enlightening as well as jarring. I can’t speak for all women and when I say women, I mean all those who identify as women, but I can represent the corner of it I have inhabited and perhaps offer insight.

When I started my HEMA journey a year ago, I had never participated in a combat sport before. It was intimidating. Not the actual doing, mind you. I watched my older brother do judo for years and therefore was subject to sibling skill share sessions (I mean when we fought he used judo and I did my best to pick up so as not to be taken down by that again) and so the mechanics weren’t entirely foreign. Being a dancer meant engaging is various kinds of weight sharing and quick-paced contact improvisation that included lifts, rolls, and sometimes literally throwing of bodies. The physical acts of HEMA didn’t intimidate, but the thought of walking into a room full of men to learn did. All kinds of worries cropped up. Would I be judged? Made fun of? Would there be mansplaining?


One of those three things definitely happened.

The mansplaining was, for the most part, entirely innocent, meaning the men didn’t even -realize- they were coming off as overbearing and insulting. They most likely saw themselves as being “helpful”. I experienced this week after week and took it upon myself to spark some conversations with the instructor regarding the female perspective. I gently explained that while I was able to deflect, ignore, and in one instance, outright state that those with penises in the room were pretty lucky I was a chill lady, some women could find it offensive and perhaps it would even push them from the sport. It prompted a discussion over how to cultivate a culture that discouraged the behavior. I am happy to say that over time, the environment shifted through careful crafting of the student experience by teachers as well as more women being involved and visible.

Mansplaining aside, I will say that most people I have encountered in the HEMA community (and this is just me, not meant to represent all experiences) do not sexualize the fact that women are sword fighters. For me, all of that has come from the outside world. Questions like the opener of this blog are usually accompanied by smug grins and just plain weird vibes. I was once told that a dude would join us for sword fighting at an event if “I get to fight her”. Cue bro pose and horrible “Hey, babe” look. I have never had an exchange like that with my male HEMA counterparts. There is no undertone of “hur hur hawt” and all hugs post fight have been professional kind gestures. So it feels like the issues I’ve come across are varied with intra-HEMA vs inter-HEMA complexities.

Popular culture has absolutely played a role in over sexualizing the female fighter. We’ve all seen various comics on the subject, but this one from EleyonArt is one of my favorites.

It’s long been offered us that in order to be badass fighters, there still -has- to be a high jiggle factor. Well...that’s crap. Ladies, jiggle if you WANT to and don’t if you don’t. That’s outside the ring because when we fight in HEMA, we are all wearing the same highly padded gear that covers from head to toe. We look the same.

Being an ambassador of women in HEMA has been extremely rewarding. At a recent appearance at Wizard World Comic Con in Austin, the emcee was taking questions from the audience. I was suited up and ready to fight a fellow student with messers and a young girl dressed as Spider Gwen eagerly raised her hand. When offered the mic, she proudly stated, “I want the girl to win”. It may sound silly, but I got a bit mushy hearted. She was depending on me to represent. To show that girls can be just as good. (For the record, I took my opponent to the ground and stabbed him thoroughly) I love being able to demonstrate that women have a place in this sword waving world. That we are just as capable and just as fierce.

I am grateful for the women in HEMA who have paved the way for people like me. I am grateful for the men in HEMA who are willing to shift their perspective. I am grateful for the HEMA community at large for giving this nerd a place to thrive.

I am a feminist.

I am a fighter.

And as one of my favorite shirts says, “I am small and sensitive, but also fight me.”

HEMA on, Wayne.

HEMA on, Garth.

- The Fearless Nymph

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