So you’re a lady who wants to swordfight

Maybe you just saw Wonder Woman. Maybe your recent Lord of the Rings marathon has rekindled your interest in chopping things up with large swords. Maybe you fenced in middle school and would like to reintroduce recreationally stabbing people back into your suburban life.

Image result for wonder woman sword
Wonder Woman, the hero 2017 needed.

But where do you start? Is what you see on the Olympics really going to quench your need to kill orcs? Is the local LARP group going to fulfill your desire for a workout that leaves you exhausted and sweaty? Is it going to be weird to Google “people who swordfight in [your city]”?*

This post is the quick and dirty guide to how to take up the sword as a lady, written for you by a lady who likes swords. (Epee, longsword, and military saber, to be specific.) Your options are listed below in approximate order of “how many people participate”. Each option is evaluated on what they bring to the table and how welcoming they are to women. If you’ve got special considerations like religious clothing or physical disabilities, check the notes at the bottom.

*(The respective answers are probably not,
probably not, and definitely not, if you’re wondering.)

Option One: Sport Fencing

Yours truly was president of the University of New Mexico Fencing Club from 2016-2017. Responsibilities included “dramatically telegraphing my wins to visiting highschoolers”.

The gist: If you want a new hobby that’s fast and athletic and has an interesting history without being “historic”, sport fencing might be your deal. Fencing is a fantastic way to make friends and get a workout. You’ll probably be into sport fencing if you played tennis when you were younger and grew up on The Princess Bride but thought that Westley and Inigo were just a tad too flashy. If you’re fond of longswords or pouring over historical manuscripts, you may want to look elsewhere.

What about womenSport fencing generally has an even split between men and women. Quality gear is available for women, and women’s and mixed competitions are both common.

How can I get into itFind your local fencing club! Out of all the options listed here, sport fencing is the easiest one to get into because clubs exist in most major cities in Europe and North America. (Things are spottier elsewhere.) Googling “fencing schools near me” should find clubs near you. If that doesn’t work, try this link. Many colleges have fencing clubs, too, which can be a great way to try out the sport at a low cost.

Option Two: Classical Fencing

I’m unsure what exactly is happening here, but I am sure it was awesome.

The gist: Classical fencing attempts to preserve a style of fencing from the early 20th century, somewhere between dueling styles and sport fencing. It tends to look more restrained than Olympic fencing because fencers treat the swords as if they’re sharp. In parts of Europe (and some US schools), the lines between classical fencing and Olympic fencing are rather blurred. If Olympic fencing seems too much like a game and too little like a duel, you’re very interested in bladework, and you like a more gentlewomanly game, classical fencing might be your thing. (It is not, however, my thing, so I recommend you read this and take my description with a grain of salt.)

What about womenTentatively, classical fencing seems to be welcoming to women and to have a better gender balance than HEMA. (I welcome comments on this, though!)

How do I get into itHere’s a map of classical fencing schools.  They’re not as common as Olympic/Sport fencing schools, especially outside of the US.

Option Three: HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)

Tanya Smith
Tanya Smith looking super awesome in a shoot for The Village Voice. Photo by Brad Trent.

 

The gist: HEMA will probably be your thing if you like history, grew up wanting to be Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, or are interested in learning how to stab, slice, and pommel strike people with different weapons. It is for you if you look at sport fencing and say, “But what if we could just shove people over? Also, there aren’t nearly enough concussions in this sport for my tastes.”

It is not for you if you are not okay with breaking fingers and sweating more than should be humanly possible in a group made mostly of men who are taller than you and throw you to the ground on the regular. It is also not for you if you are deathly allergic to elitism or internet arguments.

Real talk, though: HEMA is a hugely varied movement. You can hang around and just translate or read historical documents, you can do some book lernin’ and some fighting, or you can mostly just hit people with weapons.

Fun side note: a HEMA fencer started the #WWGotYourBack thing. (Thank you, Eva, for improving all our lives by showing that you can indeed stick a sword down an evening dress and yes, it is a super awesome look.

What about women?  Women are a minority in the HEMA movement. Something like 10% of my first club was made up of women — I was one of two. That said, there’s a bustling internet community for women HEMA-ists called Esfinges and gear suitable for women is becoming more common. Women-only events are becoming more common, too!
Since we’re getting into options that include longsword, let me clear up a common myth: longswords are not too heavy for women to wield. They’re about half the weight of a newborn child (which is a statistic you can throw at any uninformed dude who hassles you, right before you throw a sword at them).

How do I get into itFind a local HEMA group using the club finder. Can’t find one? Start one yourself! Lots of clubs start as newbie study and practice groups. HEMA is more accessible internationally than classical fencing but less so than sport fencing.

Option Four: Armored Combat League

Picture from LadyArwynn16’s DeviantArt showing the first ACL women to compete in the national tournament. (She’s second from the left.)

The gistIf you look at HEMA and think “it’s cool but I want a hobby even more brutal and physically challenging!”, ACL fighting might be for you. If you would like to be Brienne of Tarth when you grow up, ACL might also be for you. This stuff is rough. It’s got a reputation in HEMA circles for being brutal and kinda technique-less and a reputation in normal-people circles for being terrifyingly badass (and still brutal). If you’d secretly rather use an ax or a mace instead of a sword, ACL’s got you covered.

What about womenWeeelll, women aren’t super common in the ACL. The armor is really frikin heavy and the online presence gives major bro’s club vibes. But maybe you can make this article go viral in your circles of sword-loving ladies and we can change all that! In the meantime, check out this interview with Sandra Lagnese, an ACL fighter, for a hit of inspiration.

How do I get into itIf you live in New England (hi, neighbor!), you’re in luck! If not, your options will be spottier. Find a chapter here (and start saving up for your armor because, while it looks awesome, it ain’t cheap).

Option Five: The Society for Creative Anachronism

Image result for sca heavy fighting
Picture of something I’d very much like to be a part of, snagged from the SCA’s website.

The gist: The SCA is full of people who do all sorts of historical things like sewing, dancing, and swordfighting. If you like reenacting history more than pouring over manuscripts, if you prefer your academics include hands-on components, if you want to be a Viking when you grow up, if you’re more into medieval warfare than dueling, or if camping with 10,000 other people and then fighting some of them sounds fun, then the SCA might be a good option for you. They do the same sort of thing that HEMA-ists do, but with more of a focus on creatively living aspects of history than strictly recreating martial techniques.

What about women? There are a lot of women in the SCA, although female heavy combat fighters are still a minority.

How do I get into it? Not all SCA groups have fight practices, but you can find your local group here.

Option Six: Stage Fighting

Image result for babes with blades chicago
I would like to be them, in a future existence. (Babes with Blades’ Julius Ceasar.)

The gist: Did you try sport fencing but were told that “this is not Zorro” or that you were “telegraphing your moves?” Have you devoured every single Errol Flynn film? Are you an actress who’s trying to convince Hollywood/Broadway/Bollywood/the indie circuit that you should be given a weapon more often? Are you interested in dying dramatically several times on Monday and coming back for more on Tuesday? Would you like to learn how to fake pull hair as well as wield a sword? Stage fighting might be for you!

Unless you’re going to be a fight director or a stunt actress, stage fighting tends to be a skill you aquire but don’t really pursue as a full time hobby. It’s well matched with Eastern martial arts, HEMA, and classical fencing.

Side note: while researching this article I discovered Babes with Blades, which is a theater company that “uses stage combat to place women and their stories center stage”. If you’re in Chicago you should check them out!

What about women?  Yes, women stage fight! And direct fights! And do stunts! Unfortunately, there will be fewer roles available to you than to the guys if you choose this for a career. As a hobby, however, it is (to the best of my knowledge) fairly egalitarian and open to women.

How do I get into it? Check out the Society of American Fight Directors workshops page to get started, or see if there’s a stunt school near you that offers combat training.

Option Seven: LARP (Live Action Role Play)

Image result for larp sword fighting

The gist: If you are vastly more interested in story than martial arts, if you grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, have ever attended a comic convention, or if padded swords ease your stressed mind, LARPing might be for you. If you are only interested in fighting and not in stories or if you like swords that actually look like swords (but hurt when you get hit), maybe look elsewhere.

What about women? Ladies LARP, too! I have a friend who does LARP boffer fighting and is a woman, but beyond that, I can’t bring much light to this subject.

How do I get into it? Because LARP events usually use padded weapons (“boffers”), no expensive armor is required. Some events (and some people at some events) will go all-out with costumes, however. Check out larping.org for an overview of the hobby or the LARP List if you’re already sold.

Option Eight: Lightsaber Fighting

A lady about to kill some sith or impress some small spectator children. Or both. Picture from the linked article.

The gist: If you knew who Aayla Secura was at age 8 and wanted to be her when you grew up, if you’d like a little more action in your fandom life, or if you’d really like to wow with that Jedi Leia costume at next summer’s Comic Con, lightsaber fighting might be for you. But who am I kidding, you probably knew this was for you from the title alone.

What about women?  Women aren’t super common in these circles, but they do show up! Kinda like women in the Star Wars films. Funny, that.

How do I get into it? Hit Google, Facebook, and MeetUp — saber clubs can be harder to find. You can also browse this (kinda old) list of saber clubs. If you’ve got time and money for the summer, there’s a convention you can attend.

Special Considerations

Note: I am not super knowledgable in any of these things, but I welcome comments from people who are in the know!

  • Ladies who need to keep things covered for religious purposes: all of these options should be good for you, since most of these activities involve a lot of protective gear. Head coverings (like hijabs) should also be fine for all of these as long as they’re appropriate for athletics.
  • Ladies who only wear skirts: classical fencing is probably your best bet at taking up the blade without tossing your convictions. Women who fenced in 1917 wore skirts, so classical fencers in 2017 can wear them too. Depending on your needs, everything but sport fencing probably has a work around. (This will depend on how flexible your instructors are, though.)
  • Trans ladies: your experiences will likely be dependent on where you live and how well you pass, unfortunately. Your best bet will probably be to contact trans people in groups that interest you via Reddit, Tumblr, etc. If you’re interested in HEMA, there’s a (rather new) HEMA discussion group for queer/trans practitioners here.
  • Ladies with physical disabilities: Sport fencing is the option that has established options for fencers with disabilities (check out wheelchair fencing)! You may be able to convince other groups to work with you, depending on the accessibility of their practice spaces and the gear available.

Notes of encouragement

  • While there can be a lot of elitism and cliquiness in martial arts and sword sports, there’s actually a lot of bleed through. Jujitsu helps other people in longsword, while my sport fencing background helped me. The SCA, sport fencing, HEMA, and classical fencing communities in Albuquerque all mix and collaborate, and I’m sure things are similar elsewhere. This means you’re not locked into anything you choose! A lot of HEMA and sport fencing gear can be used for other hobbies, too, so once you shell out for a basic kit you’ll be set for all sorts of swordplay.
  • As mentioned, many corners of the fencing world can be bro-ish or cliquey. If you are really not enjoying your new group of fencing pals, find something else! Seriously. Don’t let one bad experience put you off from what could be an enjoyable hobby, and don’t force yourself through a toxic situation just because you like swords.

If you’ve got questions or can’t find resources on something, please feel free to hit me up with questions! I’m more of a sport epee and HEMA person than an ACL or Classical girl, but I’d still be happy to help.

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