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Fighting Gender Stereotypes: How Martial Arts Can Empower Women

Fighting Gender Stereotypes: How Martial Arts Can Empower Women

Posted by Jacob Edwards-Bytom on 18th May 2021

Andrea Harkins is an experienced martial artist practitioner and instructor. She’s an author of three books and runs her own blog, The Martial Arts Woman. Her first book shares the stories how martial arts can empower women and how female martial artists and instructors can break through gender barriers in a male dominated sport.

Her work has been featured in Martial Arts Illustrated UK, MASuccess Magazine, Martial Arts Business Magazine, and The World Martial Arts Magazine. Her mission is to make the world a better place through martial arts and positivity. She was inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2017.

She agreed to speak with Made4Fighters to share her experience in the industry and advice for other female martial artists.

How did you get your start as a martial artist?

I began martial arts in 1989 because my husband wanted to try it. He did martial arts as a child and there was a community center nearby that had a martial art program. I did not like it at first. In fact, I hated the first class because I thought I could never do any of it. People were sparring, yelling, breaking boards and it seemed too difficult and scary for me.


You got your 2nd degree black belt while pregnant. How did you safely train during that period? What was the reaction from the martial arts community?

People in the audience could not really tell I was pregnant because I was fairly small framed and with my gi on it was not that noticeable. I had trained with the same instructor my whole martial art career and they already knew of what I was capable. Physically, I felt fine, but having had a couple of miscarriages in my past, I was cautious. My instructor didn’t want me to miss the test knowing that it would be a while before I would be able to return and I had worked so diligently up to then to achieve this. In the test, I did not spar or do falls, although I had done them enough in class to earn the rank.

What is an important life lesson you’ve learned during your journey as a martial artist?

The biggest lesson is that I am more capable than I realize. This is an important lesson for everyone. Martial arts teach you to break not just boards, but personal barriers. Once you face martial art obstacles you step back and reassess who you are and I concluded that I was not living up to my potential because I didn’t believe in myself or have the confidence. Once I gained the confidence in martial arts, I decided that fear of failure no longer matters. What matters is effort, drive, and taking risks that can better you in the long run.

How do you describe the relationship between martial arts and women’s empowerment? Is there one single martial art you recommend for women beginning their martial arts practice over others?

Let’s face it, women have a lot of worries and concerns and rightly so. Everywhere we go and everything we do is coupled with a slight fear that someone will try to physically assault us or try to prey upon our vulnerabilities. We are generally smaller and weaker than men, physically. That means that we need to learn ways to actively and inactively defend at all times.

Martial arts provide these tools - how to escape from grabs, empowering kicks and punches and how to use leverage and other skills to overcome larger sized attackers. This builds the confidence we need to live productive and powerful lives without always looking over our shoulder. There is no one martial art that I can recommend because it depends upon the woman’s motivation. Does she want to learn to spar and fight? Lose weight? Meditate? Flow? Break boards? Defend? Every martial art is martial and teaches martial aspects, although in different ways. Once a woman knows what she seeks from the martial art, she can choose the style that works for her.

In your book The Martial Arts Woman, you share the stories of women using martial arts practice to overcome their struggles and grow as people. Which has been the most inspirational for you?

There are so many inspirational stories in that book. I actually wrote half the book about my life in martial arts and the other half is from contributors. To pick one that is a favorite is nearly impossible!

One of my favorites is Master Kim Tran who escaped from Vietnam to later become a martial art master. I also appreciate Janice Bishop who unexpectedly became blind and had to reconfigure her whole life and training. There are also stories of women who suffered from cancer and used martial arts to overcome. And, of course, my own chapter called “Destined to Die” when I talk about how I saved my unborn child through my own unwavering commitment to my own truth, and not what doctors told me, as I learned in martial arts to follow my own truth. Each of the stories in this book reflect the ultimate power of the martial arts woman - the recognition that she can and will overcome thanks to her martial art mindset.

Your most recent book breaks down how to start your own martial arts program. What is the best business decision a martial arts instructor can make when building their own dojo or martial arts school?

Striving for success in life requires that you believe in yourself and are willing to work for your success. This is decision number one. Nothing else can happen if this is not in place. The next thing is to find someone who is already successful in doing what you want to do. I’ve owned my own program for many years and I know what is important to have. Use the advice of someone who has had success in what you are trying to accomplish and follow it. This book is a step by step “how-to” that covers finding a location, making business decisions, and using leadership as a tool.

How can martial arts instructors utilize social media to build their business and their online brand?

Everyone who wants to build a brand or a business really has no choice but to use social media! When I was writing my first book, my publisher said, “Now you need to promote yourself on social media and start posting pictures and information about you and your book.” That was a long time ago and the idea of promoting myself was really foreign to me.

I worked with a semi-professional photographer and he took a bunch of photos of me in my uniform. I started to post them and the followers rolled in. Building the audience is good, but then you must realize that only a small percentage of any audience actually takes action or purchases your product or service. The most important thing is to be genuine. Don’t try to be like someone else. Allow people to get to know you a little. Show pictures that spark interest or grab someone’s attention.

Test various platforms. I do not use Snapchat, for instance. It’s for the young and trendy and I am 58 so that doesn’t work for me. But, I do like Facebook and LinkedIn. Find what you like and what is important to you. Test different posting times and types of posts and then follow up on what is successful for you. Trial and error builds your knowledge and your social media abilities!