BJJ is a male-dominated sport. At almost any academy you go to, you’ll find that the vast majority of practitioners are men. In tournaments, there are usually fewer women’s brackets than men’s, and within each bracket there are usually fewer female competitors. At the academy where I train, we don’t currently have any adult female practitioners – only recently have there been a few female kids that have begun to train.
I’ve often wondered why so few women decide to take up BJJ. Over the next few posts I’ll discuss some of the reasons why this might be the case, as well as some tips (from my perspective) for aspiring female practitioners.
Although there are probably many reasons for the highly skewed sex ratio in our sport, I think the picture becomes clearer when we examine Brazilian Jiu Jitsu within a historical context. I’ll try to keep the history lesson brief, since we’re probably all familiar with the story of the Gracie legacy. If you are not, you can check out a very well-done biographical documentary of Helio Gracie for free on Youtube.
BJJ is a fairly young martial art, and the techniques developed by the Gracie family were secretively safeguarded for many years after its inception in the early 1900’s. Only in recent decades, following the notoriety it garnered by the early UFC events, has BJJ begun to enter the mainstream martial arts spotlight.
Helio Gracie is considered among the most important figures in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history, both for developing the martial art and for his competitive achievements that promoted it. However, while his contributions to the martial arts cannot be overstated, the sexist attitudes of the early pioneers of BJJ are often glossed over in historical accounts. Indeed, Helio did not envision women participating competitively in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
In the documentary I referenced earlier, Helio explains that “a man’s life is directed towards fighting. A woman’s is to procreate” (15:29). He goes on to explain that “women were made exclusively to be a wife, mother, and take care of the children. . . Every woman who doesn’t do exactly this is not right” (16:02).
In another interview, Kyra Gracie (one of the most decorated female grapplers in the world, and the most famous female grappler in the Gracie family) explains that she was told to “leave this [to the men]” and was patronized by the male BJJ practitioners in her family when she expressed interest in competing in BJJ at a high level (3:10 of the interview).
Viewed within this context, it isn’t surprising that female BJJ practitioners are rare – until relatively recently, they were discouraged from actively participating. This attitude is a relic of an unfortunate past. Without a tradition of female practitioners in the sport, it is completely understandable that women remain underrepresented. Luckily, this overtly sexist position towards female participation in BJJ no longer exists in most academies. I’ve yet to hear of any current academies that openly discourage women from training (at least as part of their policy).
The hope, of course, is that any remaining barriers preventing women from taking up the sport will continue to erode. However, there may be additional, more subtle pressures that discourage female participation. Over the next several posts, I’ll discuss some of these pressures and share of my experiences of training with women.