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In Georgetown Day School’s gym, a young woman grapples with an assailant out of a B sci-fi movie. Her attacker’s body is encased in bulky padding, and his head is a huge half-sphere shielded with green mesh. When the woman aims a kick to his knee, he shouts angrily and shoves her backward to the wrestling mat.
Like a boxing ref, Rosalind Wiseman circles the action; when the masked mugger gains an advantage, Wiseman coaches the woman to fight harder. From the sidelines, six more young women cheer as the muggee at last disables the man with slicing “ax kicks” to his head.
Wiseman is conducting a self-defense class; the armor-clad man is her partner, James Edwards. The seven senior-high students in attendance, from various local schools, have already taken Wiseman’s 12-hour basic course and advanced to the intermediate level. Each will be “mugged” twice this evening. “The simulated attacks are critical,” Wiseman believes. “You have to be able to practice against somebody who’s moving, and you have to know what it feels like to be attacked, but do it in a safe environment.”
The first round of attacks complete, Edwards shrugs off his helmet. Without the headgear, he shifts from threat to tutor. “When you get the upper hand, keep it,” Edwards advises. “Some people got it, then waited to see what was coming next.” He and Wiseman offer some more hints—a “high-low-high” jabbing strategy, for instance—before once again preparing to do battle.
These classes weren’t always such a cooperative effort between women and men. When she began teaching, Wiseman recalls, “The women were being empowered, but the thing that was binding them together was their fear and hatred, and that was directed toward the male instructors….Some of the male instructors said to me, James included, “Look, I don’t feel like being a punching bag….’ And so I gave the guys more leeway…, and immediately the dynamics were so much better.”
The strategy appears to be working, but there have been three years of trial and error. Wiseman, 25, and Edwards, 27, incorporated their company, Woman’s Way, in February 1992. It expanded from a shoestring venture in the couple’s apartment to a busy operation with its own Bethesda office; a nonprofit branch, the Empowerment Program, was recently added. Wiseman—Woman’s Way’s official founder—offers self-defense courses for women 14 and older; self-esteem workshops for fifth-through-eighth graders; coed date-rape, gender-mediation, and teen-pregnancy seminars; and a new book, Defending Yourself: A Guide to Prevention, Self-Defense, and Recovery From Rape. In her book, which Noonday Press invited her to write, she describes the abusive relationship between herself and a high-school boyfriend; this was, she says, “a catalyst, but not my whole motivation” for working with teen-agers.
Wiseman’s proponents feel that Woman’s Way fills a crucial niche. According to Nadia Moritz, executive director of D.C.’s Young Women’s Project (which Wiseman assists on its anti-violence campaign), “There are very few community resources devoted to violence against teen women….But 60 percent of women who are raped [according to a 1992 National Victim Center report] are younger than 18, and many girls 12 and under experience violence, most often from an adult.”
Wiseman’s self-defense courses give partici pants a means of physical protection, as well as a psychological boost. But simulated attacks aren’t for everybody. “One of our biggest things is walking the line between scaring women…so they can overcome their fear, and scaring women just to terrorize them, to re-instill their helpless feeling,” Wiseman says. “In the younger girls, we really saw that [simulated attacks were] not appropriate.”
Only girls 14 and older are considered psychologically ready for the faux muggings. So, on another afternoon, Wiseman sheds her martial-arts role. She’s discussing self-esteem with sixth graders at the National Cathedral School (NCS), and when she asks for an example of a female stereotype, the 14 girls present raise their hands and begin talking all at once.
“Some guys say St. Albans is harder than NCS, and that we’re not as smart,” says one girl, pointing out the rivalry between the neighboring boys’ and girls’ schools. Another student says it’s important for girls to be pretty, but adds that many scientists and astronauts aren’t beautiful, yet have great jobs. A third girl notes that “boys come all different too, like we do, and we’re kinda stereotyping them ourselves.”
“I am not dissing boys,” Wiseman responds. “I think they have as much going on [personally] as you guys do….and they have a lot to offer.”
This seems to bolster the class, and they begin a lively dialogue on Barbies (“I heard that if a person was born with a body like that, she wouldn’t be able to live”) and smart girls who play dumb when they flirt. All seem eager to contribute.
Camilla M. Vitullo, headmistress of NCS, isn’t surprised at this level of enthusiasm. “Sixth graders are becoming mature, they think about what words mean, they’re defining themselves,” she says. “It’s the perfect time [to introduce a self-esteem program].”
Vitullo says that three parents have commented on Wiseman’s course. Two were “overwhelmingly positive,” but one feared that Wiseman was preaching a “feminist agenda.” Vitullo, undeterred, cites NCS’s mission to “educate the whole child” and teach girls to respect one another.
Self-esteem workshops aren’t only for the privileged few at the 30-plus private schools on Wiseman’s client list. With the money it earns from parents and schools, Woman’s Way subsidizes programs for community organizations. And it’s taking on some national patrons as well: Nancy Withbroe, cadet senior program specialist of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, says she selected Wiseman’s seminars because Wiseman is “young, and fun, and girls connect with her immediately on a personal level. She gets them talking….She gets them to think about their own values.”
On some days, that’s not an easy thing to do. At 10 a.m. one Saturday morning, Wiseman speaks to 15 sullen Girl Scouts, ages 12 to 14. Asked individually why they chose to attend a self-esteem workshop, most of them mutter, “My mother made me.” It’s chilly in the basement of Silver Spring’s Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church, and this crowd offers little hope of warmth.
As she did at NCS, Wiseman asks the participants to name some stereotypes. After some listless responses, she changes her tack. She tells them to flip through magazines and choose a positive image of a woman, a negative image of a woman, and a photo that represents themselves. The scouts grab for Sassys and Glamours. Nobody wants Working Woman.
Yet the exercise doesn’t go according to plan. One girl is too shy to present anything at all. One displays a photo of a male model, and says mockingly, “I picked this as positive because he looks so good. That’s positive, right?” Another girl picks a photo of women bodybuilders as her negative image: “Men are masculine, and women are feminine, but that’s not feminine,” she explains, tossing the scrap aside.
Wiseman asks the group if muscles make a woman bodybuilder less of a woman. The girls quietly agree that the bodybuilders have chosen to look this way. But they’d rather argue about one ultrathin model’s tacky, skimpy outfit—chosen as negative only because the woman “has bad taste.” “Men don’t read these magazines—women read these magazines,” Wiseman prompts. “What message is that sending to women?” Her audience won’t say.
But near the end of the hour-and-a-half session, there is a breakthrough. Wiseman, to illustrate girl-vs.-girl hostility, asks for three volunteers to do a role-playing exercise. Amazingly, almost every Girl Scout raises her hand. After the chosen actors play some scenes—in which a popular “queen bee” tells another girl to dump her unpopular best friend—their reticent peers applaud.
“These girl-on-girl discussions—about why girls are so cruel to each other—are sort of traumatizing because they remind you of being in [eighth] grade,” Wiseman says later. But traumatizing or not, the role-playing has broken the ice. If these girls are unclear on the concept of female stereotypes, they’ve clicked with Wiseman on another level.
The instructor seems frustrated by the overall encounter, but relieved that the girls have spent time thinking about the media, self-image, and competitiveness. “You’ve gotta start with young people,” Wiseman explains. “[Woman’s Way’s] adult programs are longer than the teen programs for a reason: The women have so much…less faith in themselves, and we have to spend so much more time with them.”
“I don’t see this as a Band-Aid program,” she says. “I want this to be a wholly integrated approach to these issues.”