Long before starting BJJ, I did karate in a small dojo on the upper west side of Manhattan. My instructor at the time was well known (in karate, anyway) and our Friday night sparring class was where all the champions were- big black belt men with dark eyes, quietly taping up their hands in the corner. When you are young, and in a room full of fighters, you can’t help but absorb their energy, and this room was sweaty, on edge, and full of testosterone. I was one of only a handful of women who attended this class, and in my arrogant youth, I preferred it that way. Fridays were an exclusive club for those who could handle the fire, and I was in. I didn’t want a sisterhood. Who needs those girly girls with their pretty hair and makeup getting in the way? I thought I was so special. It’s easy to turn the isolation of being one of the only females in the room into a testament of your tenacity and strength instead.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy training with other women. In fact, once a year, we hosted a women’s sparring class. providing an opportunity for all the ladies to train together without the guys. It was fun to finally spar with people my own size and gender, especially since a few of these women were phenomenal fighters, but mostly it seemed like these exclusive classes kind of missed the point. There were women who never even took sparring, but would show up for the women’s class because they felt more comfortable there. This was all well and good, but wasn’t the point of fighting to challenge yourself, to conquer your fears? Sparring isn’t supposed to be comfortable! What was the point of coming to this class if they were never going to attend the others? I didn’t get it.
Eventually, I moved up in the ranks and I started co-teaching these annual women’s classes. I watched a timid woman put on sparring gloves for the first time and get to feel her own power. I watched other smaller women, like me, overcome their fear of contact. No, they still weren’t attending the co-ed classes, but it was a start. As time went on, I began to understand why, after an hour of sparring with sweaty men, it might be a relief to stand in front of another female.
It was around this same time that I started jiujitsu. which was not that different from those old-school Friday nights-very few women. Only the strong survived. I discovered that BJJ was harder. The moves were complicated. The contact was close. Suddenly, not having other women there mattered to me much more than it ever did in karate.
After a few years, I changed BJJ schools. The new place was different; the rolling was more cooperative than competitive. This room was full of women! Suddenly the badass BJJ girls were not just the super athletes. They were moms, doctors, teachers; they were regular people. Because the training environment was welcoming, these women felt comfortable despite the fact that there were men on the mats with them.
My husband and I have owned UWS Kenshikai Karate & BJJ for over 15 years. When he started the BJJ program, he also wanted an environment that was welcoming to all, a place where competitors and hobbyists could happily share the mats. Now, in our dojo many classes are half female, something he is extremely proud of. We train hard without having that “tough guy” mentality. We think hard about BJJ.We have rounds that are controlled and beneficial to both partners. Women fit in perfectly here.
I’ve come a long way from that karate girl who thought she was so tough. I am still not a big fan of all women’s classes, but I also understand why they might be valuable, especially in the beginning. More importantly, you need a co-ed class with students who know how to train in different ways with different people.
So what have I learned about the sisterhood? Having women on the mats is better than not having them, no matter what their journey has been.
Also, every one of us has a badass fighter girl buried somewhere inside. She just needs a safe place to grow.
Jennifer Fremon is a sixth degree black belt in Kenshikai Karate and a brown belt in BJJ. She and her husband run UWS Kenshikai Karate & BJJ in Manhattan, where she teaches karate to children ages 3 and up. When she isn’t attempting to heel hook giants, Jennifer enjoys drinking coffee, walking her dog, making doodle art, and watching the sun set over NYC. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her fierce 12 year old daughter, and thinks there is no greater joy than seeing a child accomplish something new.