Ladylike Behaviour: Portraying and performing ‘womanness’ in HEMA

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Original article 28 Feb 2015

(Note: This article was originally written as a paper for an anthropology class called ‘Pleasure, Power and Gender in Sport’. The original article can be found here.)

By Linde Simpson

‘I don’t emphasize it [being a woman] at all. I take a perverse amount of pleasure surprising people when I take off my mask (although it doesn’t happen as much any more). I want people and the HEMA guys to know that I am one of you, I can fight as well as you, and if you try to baby me ’cause “Imma girl” I will beat the snot out of you.’ (J., USA)

Sports have long been considered a masculine thing. Elizabeth Hardy, in her study on ‘apologetic behaviour’ by female rugby players, writes: ‘It makes sense, then, that sport participation came to be associated with masculine traits, such as aggression, strength, power, dominance and violence – all traits of hegemonic masculinity’ (Hardy 2014: 1). She goes on to describe the risks women run of being considered masculine when they participate in sports, and the ways in which female Canadian rugby players deal with this. Hardy is not the only one to write about these issues; there are countless articles recounting the many different ways in which women identify themselves and their gender in sports. However, HEMA is not one of them. From my personal experience I know that gender issues are less obvious in HEMA than in sports in which women’s and men’s divisions are completely separate in both training and competition.

Unlike many other sports, there is barely if any difference between the ways in which men and women are expected to dress when participating in HEMA. This is clear to see when observing a sparring match; all combatants, be they men or women, are fully covered with protective equipment, which creates a certain degree of genderless anonymity. This, in turn, inspires many – men and women alike – to personalize their gear, for example by painting their fencing mask or adding patches to their jacket. Commonly worn patches are those of a national flag or the fencing club one belongs to, both signs of belonging to and identifying with a certain community. However, alongside and sometimes instead of these, another is patch often found worn mostly by women: the blue-black Esfinges patch.


Esfinges is, as we all know, a group promoting women’s participation in HEMA. The public Esfinges Facebook page is followed by men and women alike, but the private Facebook group allows only women as members and is a place where women discuss HEMA and gender-related topics. This is where I decided to ask whether anyone emphasized their being a woman while practicing HEMA, for example by adding an Esfinges patch to the usual full-body protection worn by fighters, as shown in the following picture made at Swordfish 2014 in Sweden, Europe’s largest HEMA tournament. Pictured are Eliisa Keskinen and Claudia Krause after the Women’s Longsword finals. The blue patch on Krause’s left arm is the Esfinges logo.

The replies I received were very mixed, though within the group of women who did not feel the need to expressly emphasize their being female, there was a general trend of still wearing or wanting to wear the Esfinges patch because they appreciated and felt a sense of belonging to the community, much like any other fighter might want to wear their national flag to represent their country. This led me to think about gender not just as something to be performed and presented, but also as a community that one can feel an allegiance and belonging to. In this article I will explore both of these aspects of gender when it comes to sports and conclude by examining the role that Esfinges plays in this all.

Performing ‘woman’

‘I think I’ve always focused on showing my individuality. … I have to be me when I practice sword, and I’ve never been “one of the guys” and have never desired to be that type of woman, so I’m sure it’s also reflected in a lot of other ways I’m not aware of. … Also I do like to feel “pretty” when I practice, it’s a default need, if I don’t like how I feel in my clothes it affects my mood, so I don’t ever schlepp about in blah clothes.’ (H., USA)

To better understand the ways in which women ‘perform’ their gender, there are a number of theorists who I think are important to keep in mind. First, and foremost, is Judith Butler, a gender theorist best known for her concept of gender performativity: the theory that what we consider a gender is not a natural category, but something that is performed, accepted as normal, and reproduced through the continued performance of that which is considered normal. Her theory follows closely with Foucault’s discourse: the way in which certain issues are talked about, thought about, or otherwise portrayed. The discourse can change over time and is constantly enforced by all who participate in it. For Butler, gender performativity is the way in which gender is expressed in this discourse. For both Foucault and Butler, discourse can change depending on the circumstances. However, ‘[a]lthough there may be multiple acceptable femininities with regard to one’s situational context (culture, location, time period, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.) (Chow 1999), Lenskyj (1994) argues that there is one correct version of femininity, which is termed hegemonic femininity.’ (Hardy 2014: 1). Hegemonic femininity could be described as the foundations on which other versions of femininity are based, and at its core we might find ideas of women wearing dresses, heels, looking pretty and acting in a non-dominant, non-threatening way. The way in which this hegemonic femininity may be found in slightly different versions of femininity, for example the femininity of female fighters in HEMA, is illustrated in the following photograph of the women in INDES, an Austrian HEMA club:


In this photograph, the women of INDES chose to have a photoshoot in which they all wore black dresses in a way to demonstrate their femininity after a women-only seminar. The femininity they chose to display relates closely to the hegemonic femininity.

In going against the discourse of the situation, or the aforementioned hegemonic femininity, discipline plays a role. Discipline is a term that Foucault is well-known for writing about. He argues that discipline can occur both by the individual to themselves and by others to the individual. In Butler’s gender performativity, disciplining might happen when a woman acts in a way which is considered masculine, thereby breaking the ‘performance’ she is expected to give. This break in performance may cause the woman to feel unfeminine and undesirable and may cause backlash from others.

In Elizabeth Hardy’s article about women in Canadian rugby, the role of discipline, both by the individuals themselves and by others, becomes clear. Hardy examined the ways in which female athletes were portrayed by the media as specifically feminine in a way to ‘make up’ for their being an athlete, something considered masculine. She notes that ‘although female athleticism is increasingly celebrated, those athletes who wish to be marketed must still be feminine and pretty in the “out of sport” context’ (ibid.: 3). This expression of femininity to ‘balance out’ the perceived masculinity can be seen as a way to prevent backlash that might occur otherwise. In her article, Hardy looks specifically at female rugby players because of the sport’s association with depicting and glorifying ‘a defiant, unreconstructed form of masculinity, the kind of tough, hegemonic masculinity that books no opposition to the celebration of male supremacy through the aggressive body-in-action’ (ibid.: 4). In other words, a sport that is considered to be so masculine that any women who participate in it can be considered to be going against hegemonic femininity. This is a situation in which disciplining happens almost immediately; a large issue in Hardy’s article is female rugby players being stereotyped by the media as being lesbian. To combat these assumptions, Hardy describes many female rugby players as portraying themselves as very feminine outside of a sport context (self-disciplining) or being portrayed by the media as very feminine outside of a sport context (disciplining by others).

Comparing the situation Hardy describes to HEMA is, in a way, difficult because media only recently have become interested in HEMA as a sport. So far, no HEMA practitioners have been individually covered by mainstream media as far as I know. However, both Al Jazeera and the New York Times have done short video reports on HEMA events. In Al Jazeera’s report on Swordfish 2014, the narrator, Paul Rhys, introduces Jessica Finley as follows: ‘Contests are open, and American Jessica Finley relishes her chance to pit her skills against men’ after which Finley is filmed explaining that ‘there is a certain amount of fear factor, and there is a certain amount of tactical consideration you bring to the game. They’re likely stronger than you, but you try to factor that in in ways that are demonstrated and written about in our medieval texts and try to apply your own fight to that moment’ (Rhys 2014). Compared to the other fighter interviewed, Axel Pettersson, Finley’s coverage is very gender-focused. Pettersson is praised for his winning of many tournaments and has a moment to explain why HEMA appeals to him, while the only moments we see Finley is when she speaks about being a woman in HEMA. This can be used to illustrate Hardy’s claim that ‘women athletes are always framed by their status both as athletes and as women’ (Hardy 2014: 2). Interestingly, when the New York Times’ Mac William Bishop covered the Longpoint 2014 tournament in September, three out of five

participants who were interviewed were women – one if which the aforementioned Jessica Finley – and none of them were asked about anything relating to gender. Finley’s explanation of how fighting against men ‘works’ in Al Jazeera’s coverage could be considered a way of justifying her – or any woman’s – presence, a reaction to a quite subtle disciplining: having to explain her presence as a woman as opposed to being praised for her achievements as an athlete. In the New York Times report such a reaction is unnecessary, as the women interviewed have no need to defend themselves against disciplining from others.


Despite the presence of a hegemonic femininity, it is important to note that ‘the meaning and categories by which we understand and live our daily existence can be altered’ (Leitch 2001: 2485). Hegemonies can and do change – what is considered feminine can therefore change and has changed. As noted before, what is feminine depends entirely on social context. There are already different perceived categories of ‘woman’, both in daily life and in sports. In daily life, we have a different set of ideas when we think about ‘housewife’, ‘business woman’, ‘tomboy’ and ‘pop star’. They all fall within the category of ‘female’, but have been placed on a scale from ‘feminine woman’ to ‘masculine woman’. This shows the difference between the binary categories of ‘woman’ and man’ and the scale from ‘feminine’ to masculine’. This ‘scale’ also comes up in some sports.

In Gender in ice hockey: women in a male territory by Gilenstam, Karp and Henriksson-Larsén, female ice hockey players showed to have a traditional view of men and women, with men being perceived as ‘born to play ice hockey’ and women as being ‘too emotional’. This assumption of how ‘normal’ women intrinsically ‘are’ is also an assumption of what men should be: ‘Although many, if not all, men do not achieve the apparent mental and physical status of hegemonic masculinity, many men and women behave as if it represented actuality.’ (Woodward 2007: 26). In other words, though the reality is far from it, we as a society have hegemonic ideas of what men and women are, without them being completely based on reality. In sports, these assumptions become extremely visible: ‘Without the gender prefix, the ice hockey player is a man’ (Gilenstam et al 2008: 239). The assumption exists that because ice hockey ‘is’ masculine, those who play it are men. ‘[B]y this, the female player is constructed as something else, a deviation from the male norm in ice hockey and from the traditional image of a woman’ (ibid.). In this article it becomes clear that the interviewed female ice hockey players are aware of their deviation from the norm. They describe themselves as being another, different kind of woman, one more masculine and less emotional than ‘normal women’ but not as ‘naturally competent’ as men. Through identifying themselves as an ‘other’, they both perpetuate the gender categories and go beyond them. To link this situation to Butler’s gender performativity it could be said that these women know that what they do goes against the hegemonic performance of femininity, and so they perform a different kind of femininity. This different femininity, which they describe as being an ‘other’ kind of woman, attempts to use the positivity associated with masculinity in sports, but only works if once again ‘balanced out’ by sufficient femininity:

‘The players describe the astonishment on people’s faces when they say they play ice hockey, and the players seem to find it amusing, as well as making them proud … It is as if they change in the eyes of the observer; they gain positive qualities associated with men. … Some of the players are more strongly built and they do not describe the same positive reactions; they only describe astonishment. It seems as if it is less positive to perform a male sport if the woman does not look feminine enough’ (ibid.: 242).

Considering this citation, we could ask questions about the earlier photograph of the INDES ladies in dresses. Why do they dress up after training? What inspired them to put on dresses, something typically associated with femininity? To emphasize their ability to fight despite being women? To embrace their femininity? Or could we read it as apologetic behaviour, making up for the masculinity of fighting? Either way, the answer is linked to gender performativity. These women might have felt the need to emphasize their womanness, and did so by performing their gender in a way they perceived to be typically female through one of the most hegemonically feminine objects there is: the dress.

Though Butler’s gender performativity and Foucault’s discourse are generally rather subconscious processes, there is another approach to theorizing how people present themselves. This is the dramateurgical approach, coined by Erving Goffman in his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. As George Ritzer describes, ‘Goffman perceived the self not as a possession of the actor but rather as the product of the dramatic interaction between actor and audience.’ (ibid.: 376) In other words, the self is determined by how it presents itself, much like gender is the product of performances. In his approach, Goffman describes a front stage and a back stage. To illustrate these concepts, one might imagine a restaurant. The front stage is where the performance is held, the restaurant itself. It is the space where waiters act friendly and agreeable. The actors, the waiters in this case, have a personal front, the ways in which they dress, style their hair, the expression they wear, to make their role as a waiter believable. However, once they retreat to the kitchen, they enter the back stage where they might complain about customers with other waiters. The waiters may present themselves very differently once they are free from work and go to their friends. They

will rearrange their personal front, perform differently, and both the front- and backstage will change. Simply put, the performance people use to create their identity is a far more conscious process and very widely applicable in theory. When we compare gender performativity to the presentation of self, we might see gender performativity as the underlying ‘stage’ on which the self is presented, with the ‘believability’ of the act being comparable to discipline. According to Goffman, people use various techniques, like managing the personal front, to make their ‘act’ as believable as possible. Returning to the example of the rugby players who over-emphasized their femininity to ‘make up for’ the perceived masculinity of being a rugby player, we could say that they altered their personal front (looking more feminine) to create a more believable hegemonically feminine ‘self’.

To relate these theories to HEMA, a short introduction is necessary. In December 2013 the HEMA wikipedia-style website Wiktenauer created an advertisement that was shared on websites such as Facebook. It depicted a half-naked girl with a book. A number of women in the HEMA community reacted negatively – they argued that they suddenly felt objectified in a space that they had, until then, considered gender-neutral. Not only that, but the advertisement was aimed at men, while the community consisted of both men and women. Fairly soon many people had responded with their opinions, discussions were waged and disagreements were had. One of the reactions was a post made by Lee Smith on the HEMA Alliance messaging boards. His post began as follows: ‘It was a cute girl, with a book. Then in an instant a portion of the community is up with torches and pitchforks again. There is no nice way of putting this. We have much bigger problems with our image than a girl with a book’ (Smith 2014). He went on to explain what he thought were important ‘image’ issues the HEMA community faced, amongst which were ‘practitioners in bad shape’ and ‘bad fencing’, and ended his post with:

‘Your politics are like your religious beliefs. Keep them to yourselves, and out of the Historical Fencing/Fighting Arts. I do not care about your feminism, your chauvinism, your left, right, center politics, … your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, etc. … And for the love of the art keep your political views to yourselves.’ (ibid.)

This, of course, sparked even more reactions, though surprisingly few from women publicly, on the front stage. It is difficult to say exactly why without making assumptions, but one reason could be that some feared backlash, or discipline, for bringing ‘their politics’ into HEMA, as Smith had said. Perhaps they did not want to present themselves as feminists, or perhaps it was not part of who they wanted to present themselves as. However, the Esfinges private group showed itself to be a place in which women could discuss the issue amongst themselves without fear of judgement. Using Goffman’s theory we could therefore see the Esfinges private group as the back stage.

Uniting women

‘I’d rather wear something to represent my club because I feel more affiliated with that group than with the “women in HEMA” group. I do notice that I am more aware of being a woman in HEMA when I am representing as an instructor on events or fairs. I will still not emphasize it [being a woman] without reason, but will jump on the case quickly if I detect any hesitation in a woman or girl if this is something they could be doing too, and try to encourage any female participants if they need it.’ (P., The Netherlands)

Because of the large amount of HEMA websites and the small community, I have always found there to be

a very strong sense of a ‘global HEMA community’ amongst practitioners. Within this global community, various other communities can be discerned, such as regional communities (for example Dutch-Belgian and Scandinavian) and weapons, fighting styles and fighting traditions. Through Esfinges, another community becomes visible: a community based on gender. In this part I will try to explain how gender can also be studied as a community to explain the role of women in sports. Though it might seem like a strange association at first, I will be using theorists who concern themselves primarily with nations and nationalism because I believe their theories apply to all communities.

The first of these theorists is Benedict Anderson. In his book Imagined Communities he shows how nations can be studied as cultural artifacts and explains what causes individuals to feel a deep, natural attachment to them (Anderson 1996: 4). To immediately apply this to women in HEMA, we can ask why P. in the first quote in this section feels a responsibility to help other women in HEMA, despite not feeling like her gender is important. Likewise, we can ask why a group like Esfinges feels like it is their task to promote women’s participation in HEMA, or why INDES felt the need to host a women-only seminar. These questions illustrate that there is an assumption that being a woman is a natural part of any woman’s identity, that it is a natural category, and that there is a natural responsibility towards other women. Even in many (anthropological) gender studies in which gender itself might be questioned, the assumption that women are a category with an intrinsic allegiance to each other continues to exist.

Anderson highlights the feeling of ‘naturalness’ when it comes to nationality as well, and I think the assumption of all being part of the same group (be it nation or gender) is best illustrated in his explanation of why nations are imagined communities:

‘It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. … Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.’ (ibid.: 6-7)

If we take Esfinges as an example, the community is an imagined one because in a group of nearly 800 members, no one knows everyone and yet members feel enough of a sense of belonging that they wear the Esfinges patch. It is a community because the women of Esfinges are united in their being women who practice HEMA – the comradeship goes beyond age, class or nationality. Judging by how frequently ‘female discussion points’ (for example shaving armpits or legs) come up and are handled in a civil way (as opposed to discussions elsewhere on the internet), it is also a comradeship that goes beyond definitions of femininity. However, the female (HEMA) community is more than just Esfinges and might not even manifest itself as a conscious decision to belong. For example, when Eliisa Keskinen joined the discussion on whether there should or should not be women’s tournaments, one of her arguments was that there was a need for female role models to inspire other women (Keskinen 2014). This argument is based on the – likely subconscious – assumption that women need other women to be inspired by. The same assumption is visible in P.’s quote; she feels a responsibility towards other women despite claiming not to find gender important and despite claiming a greater sense of belonging to her HEMA club.

A far more conscious way of displaying belonging is through the patches worn by HEMA practitioners on their fencing jackets. As mentioned earlier, these patches are commonly used to represent nationalities, HEMA clubs, or, in Esfinges’ case, an idea or gender. The wearing of these patches could be seen as a way of using symbols to signify belonging to a group, or, taken a step further, as a symbolic reproduction of identity. This process is not unique to HEMA. Loïc Wacquant notes the same practice when studying boxers: ‘[T]he “regulars” of the gym express [the fact that they “share membership in the same small guild”] by proudly wearing boxing patches, T-shirts, and jackets bearing the insignia of the trade.’ (Wacquant 2004: 68-69). The wearing of patches can therefore be seen as a symbol for a far deeper and more complex social construction: belonging to an imagined community and using this community to construct an identity: boxer, fencer, or woman.

In Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism the author spends a chapter talking about ‘everyday flagging of the nation’, which he argues can be both a conscious and a subconscious process. The conscious process is the obvious one: the wearing and displaying of literal flags. If we once again use a theory about nationalism on gender and community instead, Billig’s work actually creates a bridge between performativity and community, like I have been trying to do. The chapter begins with a question and an answer: ‘Why do “we”, in established, democratic nations, not forget “our” national identity? The short answer is that “we” are constantly reminded that “we” live in nations: “our” identity is continually being flagged’ (Billig 1995: 93). With a slightly different wording, this citation becomes applicable to my topic: Why do women not forget their gender? They are constantly being reminded of their gender: their identity is continually being flagged. We have already discussed that not only national identity, which Billig discusses, but also gender identity is based on many assumptions of what gender is and how it is performed, and that there is a sense of belonging to a gender which, like a nation, calls upon a sense of responsibility and faces disciplining when ‘done wrong’. Billig goes on to say that ‘[t]he limp, unwaved flag and the embossed eagle are not sufficient to keep these assumptions in their place as habits of thought. These assumptions have to be flagged discursively’ (ibid.). When thought of in terms of gender, which is not just an M or F on a passport just as nationality is not just a flag, Billig’s words come remarkably close to gender performativity, though painted against the backdrop of a community. The ‘discursive flagging’ he writes about is the everyday incorporation of nationality into daily life, much like gender is incorporated in daily life; in going to restrooms, in products bought, in separate dressing rooms, in women-only communities, and, in some sports, in separate women’s leagues or competitions.

Conclusion: why Esfinges is important

‘I have the dilemma of wanting to look like a woman, [be] seen as a woman, but not treated as one, i.e. being patronized or treated extra carefully.’ (A., The Netherlands)

In looking at women in HEMA and other sports it has become clear that ‘woman’ can be seen as both a performance and a community. In gender performativity, being a woman means acting like a woman is

thought to be. Though the specific kind of femininity depends on the social context, its roots are always found in the hegemonic female. Challenging the boundaries of these categories of femininity or the hegemonic female results in discipline, both by the individual themselves and by others. In the context of sports, women might discipline themselves or try to navigate their way between categories by emphasizing their femininity to ‘make up for’ masculinity associated with sports. Gender as a community calls upon assumptions of the naturalness of gender as a category to which people feel an allegiance. To me, the combination of both gender as a performance and gender as a community illustrates the role of Esfinges as a group. I believe the key is the ‘horizontal comradeship’ that Benedict Anderson ascribes to communities. This may seem like a fairly unimportant or obvious thing, but when we apply ideas of discipline and gender performativity it becomes far more significant, as it proves groups like Esfinges to be a powerful method of defying categories of femininity.

In its creation of a private space and a public space, Esfinges has created what is essentially a back stage and a front stage in Goffman’s terms. The back stage is for women only, and this is where the sense of gender as a community becomes important. Because of the ‘horizontal comradeship’ that defies many categories – age, class, nationality – Esfinges’ private group has also developed a sense of community that goes beyond categories of femininity. This is important not just in challenging what femininity is, but also in creating a safe space for discussion where women have far less chance of being disciplined or feeling the need to discipline themselves.

We can also look at the situation of the Wiktenauer banner. If we link this situation to Foucault, we could ask ourselves who determined the discourse. On the one hand, we could consider Lee Smith – he made a very public post about it, and although some disagreed, some agreed as well. Or we could look at those who discussed the matter publicly. Many of them were men, but some responded through the Esfinges blog, creating a situation in which a female voice was strengthened because it was, in a way, backed by the imagined community of Esfinges members.

Through these processes, the very mixed back stage of Esfinges has created a rather unified image on the front stage: that of women, regardless of femininity. Because this front stage is accessible by all of the HEMA community, it immediately creates a space for women in the discourse of HEMA. When compared to the situation in the previously cited article about women in ice hockey, the importance of this space becomes abundantly clear. Because where women in the study by Gilenstam et al ‘were aware of the fact that the arena “belongs” to men, and that “real” ice hockey players are men’ (240), women in HEMA are aware that there is a space for them to discuss important issues, and that they are fencers. This is the strength of Esfinges, and its existence might prove useful to other sports in the future.

‘I think there are things that women specifically need that would help them in their development and that there are certain stereotypes out there that prevent women from training. So giving women a space to show they exist (Esfinges) is a way to have those outside stereotypes either be less, or ignored by those who want to take up HEMA. I do have to remark way too often .. that just because I’m female it does not mean I’m useless in martial arts, so it’s more like others emphasize I’m a woman when I say I do HEMA.’ (P., Mexico)

Link to original article


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