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An open letter to the men in the HEMA community

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by Meg Floyd

This is a subject I haven’t spoken on before on this blog, partially because of its inflammatory nature, and partially because I thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie. However, a series of incidents over the last several years, as well as shifts of politics in the community, makes me feel I can wait no longer.

There has been a growing narrative in this community that the women who fence must be on constant alert for sexism and oppression from our male counterparts. That the HEMA community is somehow hostile to the inclusion of women, or doesn’t take them seriously or view them as legitimate athletes. There could be any number of reasons that this narrative came to be—but I feel I must set the record straight. How do I put this gently?

The idea that HEMA is full of sexists and men seeking to hold female fencers down is complete, pure, and utter bullshit.

Not only is it bullshit, it perpetuates a narrative of women fencers as victims, and this troubling idea that you must be a woman first, and a fencer second. And the people perpetuating this troubling narrative are in the community are, by and large, fellow women.

I’ve seen a mounting sense of anxiety and fear among my fellow instructors, the men, that they must be wary of doing anything that can be perceived as “sexist” or “chauvinist.” Do they have a women’s class or not? Do they have a women’s tournament at their event or not? There’s a palpable fear of blowback from the online community, from certain people who seem to love nothing more than creating an uproar while appealing to their apparent superior moral authority.

I’ve seen this narrative drive a wedge between women and men in the community, and frankly, I don’t like it.

The most notorious incidence of “sexism” in the community is the somewhat infamous Wiktenauer ad, featuring a certain redhead who had the misfortune of showing cleavage. I’d like to set the record straight and say that I made that ad. A woman. At no direction from a man. Holding it up as a troubling sign of “sexism is the community” is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s basically calling one of your fellow women sexist toward you. And bluntly, I’m not even sure how that’s possible. If you have a problem with it, blame me. Not the men in the community.

I’ve been studying HEMA since 2007, attending events since 2009, and competing since 2011. I feel comfortable saying I’ve been around the online community long enough to have witnessed its general development, particularly since 2012. Before the beginning of a certain group, your gender did not matter. Literally no one cared that I was female. It was a non-issue. Competitions were opens, and I liked that.

However, there was a growing concern in the community. There were so few women. How to get more to participate? In late 2012 or early 2013, I was approached by a male instructor I’m friends with to speak with another woman about the starting of an all-women’s group, which I have since left. Why do I mention this? Because the group that’s widely been lauded as improving women’s participation and involvement in the HEMA community was facilitated, at least in part, by a man introducing women to each other. There were men pushing for the creation of this group from the start.

The community seems to forget that, so I’d like to remind you.

Who were the tournament organizers that started providing women’s tournaments so women could compete against each other? A significant proportion of them (my suspicion is the majority) were also men.

Who are the coaches, the instructors, and the fellow students that most female fencers learn from and fight with when they’re first coming up in their clubs as new students? Men.

All I have seen since the beginning is the men in HEMA bending over backwards to make women feel included, supported, and welcome in this community. This is why the persistence of a narrative of men as oppressive sexists and women as victims inside the community really bugs me. It demonizes men and strips women of their own agency. I’ve seen it create this division between the men and women in this community, a division I think on the whole is destructive. When I look at men in HEMA, I see my teachers, my peers, my heroes, and my students. I do not see people with a subtle or not-so-subtle agenda out to get me or hold me down or back because of my gender.

The pressing need to get women involved in the community is always near the top of issues simmering in the community, but you know what? Ladies, if we want to participate in HEMA, we need to show up and fence. I, for one, want to give some credit where it’s due to the men in the community who have been silently, and vocally, supporting us all along. Thank you.

Regards,

Meg Floyd

Editor in Chief

HEMA News

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13 thoughts on “An open letter to the men in the HEMA community

  1. Pingback: An open letter to the men in the HEMA community | Write. Create. Innovate.

  2. Reblogged this on Write. Create. Innovate..

  3. Well spoken, Meg!

  4. Since our group begining we are just coleages and training partneres so … Dont over complicate!

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Meg.

  6. While valid poionts are made, it shows a minor lack of knowledge in a couple areas (for example the fact that you think if you made the ad, it can’t be sexist, um no. Women can screw other women over plenty, congrats, you drank the kool-aid, you are willing to sexualize other women for gain!). And the group is Esfinges for those who may not know, and I argue the narrative isn’t all men in HEMA are sexist jerks. Instead, it is “some men are sexist how do I deal with them when I come across them in a sport that i love?” Telling women they just need to “show up” is kind of shitty if they have a guy in the group creeping on them, and they don’t know who to ask for help, or how to address the situation (though the idea of “narrative” is yours i don’t feel any type of narrative has been formed in esfinges, we just talk about everything from equipment to crappy situations that arise).

    Instead of saying, there is no issue, how about accepting that there is and encouraging a forum where it can be discussed. If someone doesn’t feel safe talking about something, they won’t talk about it and it will continue. So instead of patting the HEMA community of the back and saying nothing is wrong, how about saying “we work so hard to include everyone, please be aware when people around you (male or female) are messsing that up, and make sure every member of your club, no matter how new or old, know MULTIPLE people in the club who are safe to talk to (as one of those people could be the problem, and they will need to talk to someone else with authority). This world is far from perfect, and HEMA suffers from just as much imperfection as anywhere else. Esfinges is great, but these conversations need to happen all over HEMA as well. There are things about class dynamics discussed in Esfinges that draw massive response. And slowly over time they might trickle into the HEMA community at large, but they are conversations that are a must, otherwise I fear the direction HEMA will go.

  7. How about a quote about those ‘oppressive sexist men’, because I don’t remember any.

    I do remember a ‘Guys, please don’t do that’ around some advertising that was questionable. I think you are the one overreacting at what I see as fairly gentle criticism that normal systemic sexism that does exist in society carries over into HEMA, because, well, d’oh, we’re not hermits.

  8. On the outset here, Meg – I’ve seen you around the online community. I think you and I generally line up on most things. I always tend to “like” what you have to say. I can totally see your position & I thank you for posting this since I believe modern gender politics (in the world – not just HEMA) are a very real issue we should openly discuss since that’s the only way to solve some of the problems we have that come with both denying and over-reacting. Anyway, while I’m not a man, I hope it’s alright if I address at least a couple of things from this open letter *wink* (though more may come once I let things sit for a bit):

    First, what’s between your legs or what gender you identify as has nothing to do with your being a sexist. If you believe that one gender is inferior, then you’re a sexist. Your gender & the gender you view as inferior or treat as inferior is irrelevant. So, it’s possible for a woman to be sexist against women and for a man to be sexist against men just as much as a man can be sexist toward women or a woman toward men. Don’t think that’s the case with you & I didn’t get that impression from the ad…. In fact, I wasn’t really clear on why there was such a ruckus about that ad, but…yeah. Onward.

    Second, I agree that many men have been right there along with women throughout history, supporting & fully participating in the fight toward equality – in HEMA, tool. Do I think that HEMA is home ONLY to the sort of men who are in that camp? Nope. HEMA is diverse. We have people from all over the world with different worldviews & varying opinions on EVERYTHING. It’s a statistical impossibility to get 100% agreement from the whole of HEMA practitioners on ANYTHING. So, the idea that the world in general has sexists of all stripes, but HEMA somehow has avoided attracting even one of them seems as ludicrous to me as saying that every man in HEMA is out to hold women down. Like it or not, sexists can be fencers, too!

    Third, I’d offer that many of us are lucky enough to have supportive communities made up of forward-thinking folks who prefer for all students to arrive being fencers first – not parents or adolescents or whatever profession or religion you claim, etc. Even though my personal experience with HEMA hasn’t included a ton of sexism, it exists (just like everywhere else) & it’s a very real issue for some. There are people who have to deal with cultural biases, religious constraints or any other number of issues that you won’t find in every country around the globe. Diversity and global participation doesn’t just mean we get to have manuals transcribed into different languages; we’re dealing with A LOT of cultural, social & even legal factors that make individual experiences vary in both positive and negative ways. To dismiss the fact that a woman seeking training in a Sharia Law country, for example, will most definitely have a different experience from a woman walking into a KRON fencing center in CA is more than disingenuous. In short, our mainly non-sexist experiences don’t negate the existence of sexism in the whole of the HEMA community. Just like someone else’s experience of sexism doesn’t mean that ALL HEMA men are sexist. Know what I mean?

    Last, the idea that women must constantly be on alert for sexism in this particular community is crazy – totally agreed. We shouldn’t be any more aware of it within the HEMA community than we should be while being involved in ANY activity out in the big, bad world. There are those who will ALWAYS look for something to be offended about. However, being aware & addressing an offensive behavior when it comes up isn’t the same as being oversensitive or creating a victim/oppressor narrative. There is absolutely no reason to think that every man in HEMA is out to get you as a woman…But there is absolutely no reason to dismiss the existence of sexism in this community altogether. Nor is it reasonable to shame or dismiss those who speak out about their experiences with it.

    Truly, I’m looking forward to some of the other replies and ensuing discussions this letter will start.

  9. Definitely a good post, and we should always discuss whether or not gender specific groups help or inadvertently hurt that group. I don’t have enough experience with HEMA to discuss whether or not this is a problem. However at my Bike Co-Op they have a women’s night for learning how to fix bikes. The point of this night is not rampant sexism, it’s more geared to the social dynamics that can happen in a male dominated environment. They simply found that some women weren’t learning how to wrench on their own bikes they were just standing there while 20 dudes fought to show off their mad wrenching skills (regardless of if they existed). I wouldn’t describe this as “sexism and victimization” no one thought the girls couldn’t wrench their own bikes, they just didn’t get a chance.

    While I agree with your central point that women should be the ones who decide if they need a separate group or not. I don’t think we should always assume that creating a women’s study group’s only goal is to combat victimization. Sometimes it could just be that dudes sometimes be pompous.

  10. No Woman in HEMA or in Esfinges believes or has ever said “all men in are HEMA are sexist” or any of the other misguided information that was mentioned. We respect our fellow HEMA men as much as they respect us. The article is a personal, highly exaggerated and dramatic response towards certain women in HEMA who were brave enough to share their negative gender based discrimination experiences with their community. To try to bully and shame them into silence on a public forum meant for professional HEMA specific content is unprofessional at the least and mean spirited and immature at best.

    Just because the author has not had any personal experience with gender based discrimination does not mean it does not exist. Would you claim there is no racism because you have not experienced it? Of course not. To say there is no sexism in all of HEMA is ridiculous because frankly, some women do experience it. If anything I often hear women avoid responding to chauvinistic comments for the fear of being labeled a feminist Nazi or some other form of backlash. Also while not actually naming the group, to try to misrepresent Esfinges as a man-hating group is irresponsible and couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Concerning last year’s Wiktenauer fundraising ad. Yes, some women contacted the administration and politely asked for them to use a different picture, because it made them feel uncomfortable. Yes, a woman wrote a blog on Esfinges about her personal thoughts on sexism in HEMA and used the ad as an example. There was no “uproar”; no one claimed men in HEMA are all sexist. Ironically any drama created by that ad was single-handedly started and fueled by the author of this article. Any anger or frustration from the women involved came as a response to the blatantly callous, immature responses, and attacks towards the woman who were against the ad, who wrote the blog and the women who defended them.

    Those women are not the ones creating a wedge between men and women in HEMA, the people who attack them for having an opinion and misguided articles and posts like these do.

  11. Hi, Meg– I’m ancillary to the HEMA Alliance community (in that I was already into studying HEMA through other venues, by the time the HEMMA formed), but I’d be very interested in talking with you about feminism and fighting, if we get a chance to meet face-to-face (I’m also a long-time STEM teacher and academic, who takes the gender inequality in education very seriously).

    Like I say, I really hope to be able to talk to you in person about this, but the one observation I’ll post publicly is this: the fact that you are a woman does not negate the possibility that your actions could reinforce sexist attitudes and behaviors. As a feminist man, I thought that the Wiktenauer ad you created played upon sexist tropes (which is not the same thing as calling it sexist). I wasn’t offended by it, but I was disappointed: I want to see women in HEMA displaying strength and fortitude. While it is not impossible to equate cleavage with those characteristics, I think that cleavage carries a meaning with it, which must be addressed for us to find the strength and fortitude within that sort of symbol. Frankly, I don’t think that your Wiktenauer piece did that work.

    So, consider that my invitation to talk. Or, ignore it– you have agency here. I’ll be at Longpoint this year, if you want to take up the issue, or you can reach me at jamey@klocktower.org or on Facebook as James Klock.