by Meg Floyd
I’ve been thinking about whether I should write this post for a while, partially because I’m not sure whether I’m interested in other people’s opinions of my thoughts, nor am I sure I have anything uniquely insightful worth sharing. I also needed some time to process everything that went on last weekend, and what, if any, conclusions, I could draw from it in a meaningful fashion.
I was at the Purpleheart Armoury Open last weekend, which is one of the larger North American tournaments, and certainly one of the oldest. (It started as the Hammertertz Forum Gathering in 2010, then became Fechtschule America 2011-2013, and is currently Purpleheart Open.) It was the first big open I competed in in 2013. (I did LP 2011, but that was just 30-odd people, and the Meyer Open in 2012, but that was also pretty tiny.) At that time, women’s tournaments were just starting to be a thing. I didn’t like them. I refused to fight in the women’s tournament at Fechtschule America that year, and only fought in the open. I won one match and broke my thumb and index finger.
I’ve gone back and forth on women’s tournaments in general over the years. After the World Wide Open in 2012 and right up until Swordfish 2013, I refused to fight in them at all. Women’s tournaments in the beginning were tiny, the skill level was markedly lower, and I felt bad about any successes I had in them, like they weren’t “real.” Ask me which medal I feel most ambivalent about, and it’s the bronze I won in Germany in 2012, in a tournament of five people when I still fenced in jeans and hadn’t really trained at all.
However, the years have got along, and a few things became clearer to me with the passage of time. If we want more than one or two women at tournaments, other women have to participate and lead the way. Yeah, women’s tournaments suck in comparison to the open, but that’s because there’s so few and so many of the women fencing are new. The years have passed and it’s gotten markedly better. The first women’s tournament I’ve ever fought in that I would call a legit tournament with really good fencing and a lot of people was Longpoint’s women’s longsword last year, in 2015. Thirty or so fighters, and some of them really excellent. (Please, social media, hush your cries of “the women are more technical”; largely we haven’t been over the past few years at the not insignificant number of tournaments I’ve attended. We’re catching up, but we’re still behind.) But the fact that there were thirty women, not five, says something. The fact that some of them had been training longer than a year or two or three says something too.
Another thing that’s become clear to me is there is a bad part to the success of women’s tournaments: fewer women in the open, especially as events make it an exclusive choice to compete in women’s or the open. Making this is an exclusive choice is something which, as an organizer, I totally understand. But tge one thing that drives me nuts, above all else, is the supposition that women should be fighting in women’s and not the open because it isn’t “safe.” I know one club here in North America that won’t even let their female students compete in the open, ever. (Here I snort at a school telling their students whether or not they’re “allowed” to do anything, being dues-paying adults, but I digress.) It’s a bloody longsword tournament. It’s not supposed to be safe! Safe from likely catastrophic injury or death, yea. Safe from all injury, bumps, and bruises, no. I would not characterize myself as God’s gift to Lichtenauer fencing in any way, and I’ve been competing in opens since 2011 with nothing worse than bad bruises and a couple of broken fingers. Choose to compete where you may, but don’t tell our new female fencers they don’t have a place in the open. And yet I’ve seen more male coaches, and worse, certain noted female fencers doing just that. And I blame you. Oh yes, I blame you. I blame you for limiting the future of female fencers who don’t even know they have a choice.
I realized another thing about women’s tournaments–that people need different things at different times in their training journeys. Last year, in 2015, after years of competing a lot and working hard and losing a lot, what I needed were goals to succeed at. I needed to win. I competed in four women’s longsword tournaments last year, went to finals in three, and brought home a silver from two. I still feel kind of ambivalent about these medals, considering my performance in the opens over the years. (Read: not well.) If the open was harder, surely that was the “true” test in my mind for how I was doing in my fencing. Winning a match in the open at LP this year was the most proud I’ve ever been of myself in my fencing career. However, the fact that I medaled at these events gave me some much-needed confidence at a time when I sorely needed it. So I take those medals for what they were, a note of progress.
As the years have marched on, more and more events are choosing to make competing in the open or the women’s longsword tournament exclusive options. PHO was one such tournament this year, and so I chose the open. I was the only woman. I think there were 8 or 10 women in the women’s tournament. I can think of at least one who would’ve done well in the open, who bluntly, I think, belonged there. I hope she signs up one day. She’s really good. I hope well-meaning but chauvinistic currents of HEMA culture don’t convince her she shouldn’t, but then again, she’s a grown ass woman who can make her own choices.
The next thing I learned is that while women’s, overall, have been a net good for the community, they are no longer what I need personally. The confidence gained from wins is too overshadowed by the ambivalence of constantly wondering if it’s on some level a hollow victory.
So this past weekend there I was, in the open. I had four matches. Three were narrow losses (within a couple of points.) My pool fights, over all, were fantastic. I fenced better than I’ve ever fenced in technical terms, in any women’s, in any open. The only thing I can credit that for is the 5-6 days a week I’ve been fencing since last winter, and really hitting the manuals to redesign our curriculum, and having a lot of very good people in my club to fight with. I had several people come up to me after the tournament and tell me how much they loved watching me fight, and that they wanted to fight me. This meant more to me than any medal I’ve ever gotten. In the end, I was fine with where I was, and how I did, and felt satisfied that it was as real a piece of feedback as I could get from something like a tournament.
So in a nutshell – set your own standards. Stand by them in your own training. Don’t confuse what’s right with you for automatically being what’s right for the community at large. They may not be the same thing. And always, train hard, keep pushing, keep fencing.