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Do some women learn martial arts differently to some men? (Guest post)

The blogger Miles Kessler recently published an interesting article called, Masculine & Feminine Principles In Aikido – 3 Common Mistakes.

Kessler makes it clear he is not equating “masculine” with men, or “feminine” with women – he is speaking in terms of principles, which often cut across physical gender. His theme is the integration of these masculine / feminine principles to create oneness through Aikido.

Kessler sees three common mistakes preventing this integration. They are:

  1. Polarization (identifying too strongly with one of the poles)
  2. Confusion (not clearly understanding the difference between the two poles)
  3. Refusing Distinctions (making it taboo to differentiate between “masculine” and “feminine”, and thus failing to understand either pole).

Kessler’s article focuses on the individual’s personal experience. But he also challenges us to think about how these “mistakes” play out more broadly, in the culture of our own dojo.

And for me, the first one really struck a chord. I’ve been thinking for a while, that because the martial arts are generally male-dominated, there are some ways in which more “masculine” ways of doing things are sometimes unconsciously valorized in the dojo – by both men and women.

This is no one’s “fault”. It’s just an expression of the way many of us have been conditioned to think and perceive. And all too often, we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

One example I’ve noticed is that inexperienced men and women often tend to be “bad” at ukemi (receiving throws) in different, gender-specific ways.

Many (not all) women start off very scared and hesitant to fall, and so it takes a long time before you can throw them properly.

Meanwhile, many (not all) men start off by hurling themselves around and crashing into the mat with force and a loud slap of their body.

I don’t believe either of these is “worse” than the other. They’re both awkward and need refinement. True ukemi is a perfect blend of hard and soft.

But in my experience, what I’m identifying as the “feminine” version of getting it wrong is far more likely to be seen as wrong – and labelled as an inability to take ukemi. While the “masculine” variant is seen as a more normal, expected stage of the learning journey. In fact it is often valorized and even encouraged in many dojos.

A second example is to do with the use of strength. We are often told that beginners tend to rely on muscular strength at first; and over time they learn to relax and use technique instead. It can take a very long time to reach this stage; and I’ve seen this over-reliance on strength in many men and women, unfortunately including myself.

But I’ve also seen another, completely different process at play. This is where a student (more often a woman, although by no means always) starts martial arts with apparently no strength whatsoever, and can’t seem to summon up any kind of power from anywhere. But over time, their strength and power start to emerge, making them a better practitioner.

Some of us may start from one pole, and some from the other. Ideally we meet in the middle. In theory, I can’t see any advantage to either path – only the fact that they are different.

But in real life, an over-strong beginner is often likely to be instinctively evaluated as more competent and promising than an over-weak beginner. Again, learning to temper hardness with softness is often seen as the “normal” learning process for many martial arts; while learning to temper softness with hardness may not be recognized in the same way. The subtle expression of this (probably unconscious) judgement from teachers and peers may then contribute to the first student persevering – and the second giving up.

But if we can value and support both starting points equally, we may find those weak and timid students doing as well in time as the strong ones . . .

It would of course be very wrong to slip into uncritical gender essentialism. But the idea that some women might sometimes travel a different path to some men is not new. Carol Gilligan challenged Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, because it apparently “proved” that men were more highly developed than women. Gilligan argued that this was only because Kohlberg’s stages were male-oriented; and that women’s morality generally developed in a different way. [1]

Maureen Murdoch adapted Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, and developed an analogous roadmap for the Heroine’s Journey, to address the specific psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women. [2]

So with all the emphasis on integrating yin and yang through martial arts training, and perhaps especially so in Aikido, it’s possible that there may be scope to think in terms of different starting points, different experiences and different journeys – all on the way to the same ultimate goal of integration.

[1] In a Different Voice. (1982).

[2] The Heroine’s Journey. (1990).

Picture credit: Aikido Premantura by Darij & Ana via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can find her blog at and like/follow her facebook


11 thoughts on “Do some women learn martial arts differently to some men? (Guest post)

  1. This was a great post – thank you. I will look into the other articles you have mentioned and reflect on how this has affected my experience of aikido. I’ve always wondered how in my aikido classes whilst ‘strength’ is said not to be essential to aikido, in ‘testing’ it is always fallen back on. It is a little like letting ‘quality’ drop from project management and only ever judging a project on it being ‘on time’ and ‘on cost’.

  2. That’s a brilliant analogy Gillian . . . as you allude to, it’s often said you can’t let one of those three aspects (of project management) slip without affecting the others, as they are each meaningless and insufficient in isolation – but when integrated and triangulated with the others, they become important and meaningful success measures.

  3. Hi Kai,

    Great post and thank for expanding the topic. I loved some of the distinctions you made and the way you shed light on some problematic issues that can seep into dojo culture (ex. “…an over-strong beginner is often likely to be instinctively evaluated as more competent and promising than an over-weak beginner.”).

    Dead on with Kolberg and Gilligan who put forward very important work on this topic that has largely been marginalized by post-modern pluralism.

    Thank you!


  4. Thanks Miles, I got a lot out of reading your original article, as it feels like these are central ideas to reflect on, in trying to understand martial arts in general, and perhaps Aikido in particular . . .

  5. Great article. One problem is with martial arts is that many of us who are physically weak have to build up our muscles and endurance plus trying to do the techniques correctly before we can learn about spiritual, softer side of it. It is muscle first and then intellectualism later.

    Another problem is that many of us were never support or encourage by society to develop both masculine and feminine sides in order to be a more developed person.

    Great article

  6. Great to hear from you as always Gunther. I agree with you that opportunities to develop our masculine and feminine energies in balance can be limited in everyday life; and this is yet another reason to appreciate and make the most of martial arts training . . .

  7. Thanks for this.. I think I make the more typical “guy” mistakes, trying to muscle some things through without technique. And I worry a lot about hurting other people. Sometimes I have a difficult time finding training partners b/c I’m a lot bigger and stronger than most of the women but not as strong or big as lots of the guys. I think what you say about seeing women’s mistakes more as mistakes and men’s as more of a natural part of the learning curve is right. It reflects the gendered nature of martial arts, even ones like Aikido that are supposed to be better for women.

  8. Hi Sam – I identify with what you say a lot, as I’m also quite physically strong, and also worry a lot about hurting people (which I know holds me back). I think that if you have the option to use muscular strength, you probably just do for a while, regardless of your gender.

    When people say that women have the advantage in aikido, because they can’t rely on strength, so they master the techniques more quickly, I just laugh really, because that certainly isn’t true for me. If I’m having trouble moving someone big and heavy, I still absolutely slip into trying to use strength, despite knowing very well that this is “wrong” (and often doesn’t work anyway!)

    But in line with the article above, I don’t feel judged for this flaw, because it’s so much the norm. Which may not always be the case for some women and men who come in all timid and apparently unable to use any strength at all – which is the opposite scenario, and I believe less often recognised as a legitimate starting point . . .

  9. Thank you so much for this article. I found it very moving because it reminds me of the different ways my daughter and sons approach sport.

    1. Thanks Isabel it’s lovely to know this resonated with you from your own family’s experience 🙂

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