Women’s tournaments: Meaningful challenges

By Eliisa Keskinen
Author’s note: The following text is already published elsewhere , but I wanted to publish it also here. Many thanks to Matias Parmala who helped me editing the article. 

As long as I have been involved in competitive HEMA, the discussion on whether there is a need or if it is even ethical to hold women’s competitions has continued. I wish to bring up some of the practical reasons to have women’s tournaments, both for women’s sake and for HEMA’s popularity’s sake. I am aware that some people have ideological objections, but I will not discuss them here. I will also approach tournaments as an integral part of HEMA, and so will not directly discuss the more general reasons for or against tournaments.

It is often said that this is a martial art, and you should be able to fight anyone. However, tournaments are by nature an artificial game, not a fight, and that the best way to learn to fight anyone is not necessarily to fight everyone. If one sees tournaments as training, as many do, it is important that this training offers meaningful challenges and a sense of progress. Others want to compete for competition’s sake, or view it as a test of their martial ability.

The common thread between all these reasons for participating in tournaments is that they are supposed to achieve something greater than simply participating in a tournament, and it is neither good training, nor a good test, nor very rewarding, to participate in tournaments where you are by nature disadvantaged to the point that your chances of winning the toughest fights are virtually none. Why is this? Because it does not take skill to get mediocre results year after year, nor does it test anything: what is the meaning of a test you’re unlikely to improve on? You do get a bunch of fights, but it is very difficult to get a good sense of progress, especially after a certain point. It does take some amount of courage to risk injury, but at the same time since one is going in as an underdog, there is no risk of losing face.

If a large segment of potential fencers, in fact over half of the earth’s population, lack a meaningful competitive environment, many of these people will be lost to HEMA. One only needs to look around at an average HEMA event to see that this is probably already happening, and has been going on for years. This is also not the case in similar activities with established women’s series, such as sport fencing.

You can see the effect of this in the tournament scene: the Swordfish 2012 women’s tournament probably had more female participants than any other modern HEMA tournament has had. If there was no social call for women’s tournaments, this would be not the case. Of course it takes time for this to take effect: the Swordfish 2009 ladies’ tournament had a mere five participants, but those brave pioneers paved the way for the rest.

Swordfish 2012 women's tournament participants. Photo by Willeke Snijder

Swordfish 2012 women’s tournament participants. Photo by Willeke Snijder

There is also a need for role models for female beginners, non-competing practitioners who are still interested in tournament results and young people who might not practice HEMA but are fascinated by the world of historical swordplay. It does make a difference that female role models exist, and for that purpose it is good to have female champions. Imagine if someone asks, for example, who is the most successful female HEMA fencer in the world? Without women’s tournaments, the answer is likely to be someone who did well in an mixed tournament, but did not win. Which is more inspiring: that, or female champions in large, international female competitions?

A beginner’s tournament in no way replaces a woman’s tournament: it does not create role models, and while it does offer the possibility of progress, there is no point for someone to compete in a beginner’s tournament year after year if she is no longer a beginner, but at the same time winning the mixed competition remains an unrealistic prospect. Frankly, I find the concept that women’s competitive HEMA should revolve around beginner’s tournaments offensive, as it defines women in HEMA as second class practitioners.

So why are women disadvantaged in mixed competition? Let us look at some facts about differences in physical prowess between men and women. For strength, Olympic Weightlifting provides a good example (table below): in the 69kg weight class, the world record for snatch for men is 165kg, while for women it is 128kg. This is a 22% difference!


If we compare world records in two speed-based sports (table below), the 100m sprint and 50m freestyle swimming the difference is smaller, but still there: In 100m sprint, men’s and women’s world records are 9.58s and 10.49s respectively, and in 50m freestyle 20.91s and 2.,73s. This is a difference of 8.7% and 11.9%, in two sports where having a greater mass is not an advantage in itself.


In swordplay one needs both strength and speed (which has been written down at least as far as the 15th century!), and even at the highest levels of training women have a natural disadvantage in both. It is possible for individuals to be stronger and faster than individual men, of course, but the higher the bar of the mixed competition is raised, the less likely it is that a woman can physically challenge the top men in a tournament. As mentioned before, the opportunity to win tournaments is valuable in itself, and merely the opportunity to take part and get mid-level results cannot replace this. This is true not only for women as individuals, but also for the sake of having a strong female presence in competitive HEMA, and by extension all of HEMA.

Now, obviously women can and have won mixed tournaments, but the differences in statistical physical ability do make it more and more unlikely at higher levels. People say you can compensate with skill; but skill training is equally available to everyone so it cannot be used to bridge that gap. However, the trend that a women’s tournament can get more women to participate in competitive HEMA, and thus give them the experience and skill benefits of actively fighting in tournaments, actually makes it more likely that a woman will win a prestigious mixed tournament. I’d say this means that regardless if women can compete at the highest levels of mixed tournaments, at this point in time women’s tournaments are a positive force.


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