The forgotten history of women in martial arts

Women in martial arts

The contribution of women to the history of martial arts, both as practitioners and pioneers, represents a significant yet often overlooked dimension of its heritage. Despite the rich tapestry of stories and achievements, the role of women has been underrepresented in mainstream narratives, which have typically favoured their male counterparts. This oversight not only diminishes the diversity and depth of martial arts history but also neglects the profound impact women have had on its evolution. Acknowledging these challenges is crucial not only for setting the historical record straight but also for inspiring future generations of martial artists by highlighting the accomplishments of women who have broken through the constraints of their times.

Historical Foundations and Early Pioneers

The annals of martial arts history teem with accounts of formidable women whose martial prowess spanned various cultures and epochs. From the female samurai of Japan, known as Onna-bugeisha, to the warrior women of China, these figures not only demonstrated exceptional skill in combat but also played crucial roles in their respective societies.

Among the renowned Onna-bugeisha was Nakano Takeko, who led a corps of female samurai during the Boshin War, a pivotal civil conflict in Japan’s history. Takeko’s leadership and martial ability exemplified the capabilities of Onna-bugeisha, challenging contemporary notions of gender roles. Her bravery and skill in the face of overwhelming odds remain celebrated in Japan, underscoring the historical presence and impact of women in martial arts.

Another iconic figure is Hua Mulan, whose story, though originating in Chinese folklore, is believed by some historians to be based on a real person. Mulan’s legendary cross-dressing to take her father’s place in the army showcases not only martial ability but also profound filial piety and courage. Her tale, immortalised in ballads, operas, and films, resonates with the themes of loyalty, bravery, and the breaking of societal norms, further highlighting the multifaceted contributions of women to martial arts and military history.

These historical figures, among others, serve as the foundational pillars of women’s long-standing involvement and influence in martial arts. Their stories, marked by courage, skill, and determination, pave the way for understanding the broader spectrum of women’s participation in martial disciplines. By revisiting and recognising these contributions, we begin to appreciate the rich and diverse legacy of martial arts as one that is equally shaped by women’s achievements.

The 20th Century – New Frontiers in Martial Arts

The 20th century marked a significant turning point for women in martial arts, characterised by the advent of international competitions and the gradual integration of women into global martial arts communities. This era witnessed the slow but steady dismantling of barriers that had previously kept women on the fringes of these disciplines, allowing for a greater expression and recognition of female martial artists on a worldwide stage.

A quintessential figure during this transformative period was Keiko Fukuda, a pioneering judoka whose contributions to martial arts extended far beyond her achievements on the mat. Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1913, Fukuda was the last surviving direct student of Kanō Jigorō, the founder of Judo. Breaking through the thick ceiling of gender constraints, in 2011, at the age of 98, she became the first woman ever to achieve a 10th dan from the Kodokan Judo Institute and the United States Judo Federation, the highest level in the martial art. Fukuda’s dedication to Judo was matched by her commitment to teaching and promoting women’s participation in the sport. For over half a century, she taught in San Francisco, spreading the principles of Judo and empowering countless women through martial arts. Her legacy is not just in her ranks and titles but in her role as a trailblazer who exemplified perseverance, dedication, and the pursuit of equality in martial arts.

Breaking Through – Women in Competitive Martial Arts

The narrative of women’s breakthrough in competitive martial arts is vividly embodied in the story of Ronda Rousey, an Olympic judo medallist who transitioned to become the UFC’s first female champion. Rousey’s journey from earning a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics to dominating the MMA scene underscores the expanding vistas for women in combat sports. Her victories in the octagon, characterised by her signature armbar submissions, shattered preconceived notions about women’s place and capability in competitive fighting. Rousey’s impact transcended her fight record; she became a symbol of female strength and resilience, inspiring a new generation of women to take up martial arts and combat sports.

Another notable figure is Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medallist in judo, who has successfully transitioned to MMA, further evidencing the expanding opportunities for women in combat sports. Harrison’s transition echoes the growing trend of female martial artists crossing over into MMA, proving that the skills honed in traditional martial arts are both valuable and viable in the competitive MMA arena. Her achievements not only in judo but also in MMA highlight the potent combination of skill, discipline, and determination that women bring to the world of combat sports.

These pioneering women, along with countless others, have carved paths through the competitive martial arts landscape, challenging stereotypes and expanding the opportunities for future generations of female martial artists. Their stories of triumph and challenge signify a broader shift towards inclusivity and recognition of women’s rightful place in the martial arts world, a legacy that continues to inspire and evolve.

The Modern Era and Beyond

In the modern era, women’s participation in martial arts is not just reshaping the disciplines themselves but also recasting societal perceptions about gender and sport. The inclusion of traditional martial arts like karate and taekwondo in the Olympics serves as a testament to the growing recognition and validation of these disciplines on a global stage. Importantly, it offers a platform where female martial artists can showcase their prowess, competing on an equal footing with their male counterparts. The visibility and success of women in these arenas have been instrumental in challenging longstanding stereotypes about women’s capabilities in combat sports.

Further supporting this shift are communities and organisations dedicated to promoting female martial artists. The International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame, established to honour and recognise the contributions of women boxers. This is one entity not only to celebrate the achievements of female athletes but also provide much-needed support structures that help to nurture the aspirations of young girls and women entering the world of martial arts.


Reflecting on the journey of women in martial arts, it’s evident that their role has been paramount, breaking barriers and setting new benchmarks. From the ancient warrior women of historical lore to the Olympic champions and MMA trailblazers of today, the female contribution to martial arts is both rich and diverse. Their stories of perseverance, excellence, and leadership in predominantly male arenas have not only redefined women’s participation in these disciplines but have also served to inspire countless others to pursue their passions irrespective of gender constraints.

As we look to the future, the progress made thus far promises an exciting and more inclusive landscape for women in martial arts. Yet, the journey is far from over. Ongoing efforts to recognise, celebrate, and amplify women’s achievements in martial arts are essential to ensuring that the legacy of these pioneering figures continues to flourish. The significance of their contributions transcends the realm of sports, offering powerful narratives on resilience, equality, and empowerment. It is incumbent upon us to honour their legacy and support the continued growth and recognition of women in martial arts, paving the way for future generations to chase their dreams unencumbered by gender biases.

Women in martial arts: hall of fame

Here’s our compilation of the most inspiring female martial artists. Who else do you think should be on this list?

Keiko Fukuda (April 12, 1913 – February 9, 2013) – Last surviving student of Judo’s founder Kano Jigoro; first woman to achieve 10th dan in Judo.

Ronda Rousey (February 1, 1987) – First American woman to earn an Olympic medal in Judo (Bronze, 2008); former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion.

Kayla Harrison (July 2, 1990) – Two-time Olympic Gold Medallist in Judo (2012, 2016); PFL (Professional Fighters League) champion.

Mackenzie Dern (March 24, 1993) – Multiple-time World Jiu-Jitsu champion; competing in the UFC strawweight division.

Lucia Rijker (December 6, 1967) – Dutch boxer and kickboxer, dubbed “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.”

Gina Carano (April 16, 1982) – Pioneering figure in women’s MMA; accomplished actress.

Michelle Waterson (January 6, 1986) – Former Invicta FC Atomweight Champion; UFC fighter.

Amanda Nunes (May 30, 1988) – First woman to become a two-division UFC champion and the first and only fighter in UFC history to defend two titles while actively holding them.

Holly Holm (October 17, 1981) – Former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion; multiple-time world champion in boxing.

Cris Cyborg (July 9, 1985) – Former Strikeforce, Invicta FC, UFC, and current Bellator Women’s Featherweight Champion.

Angela Lee (July 8, 1996) – First-ever ONE Championship Women’s Atomweight Champion.

Kanako Urai (Asuka) (September 26, 1981) – Japanese professional wrestler and former mixed martial artist, currently signed to WWE.

Jorina Baars (October 18, 1988) – Dutch Muay Thai fighter, undefeated in kickboxing.

Valentina Shevchenko (March 7, 1988) – Multiple-time UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion with experience in kickboxing and Muay Thai.

Bea Malecki (August 23, 1991) – Swedish mixed martial artist and former Muay Thai fighter, competing in the UFC bantamweight division.

Yuka Tsuji (October 10, 1977) – Pioneer in Japanese women’s mixed martial arts; former Valkyrie Featherweight Champion.

Felice Herrig (September 18, 1984) – American kickboxer and mixed martial artist who competed in the UFC strawweight division.

Zhang Weili (August 13, 1989) – First Chinese and East Asian champion in UFC history, former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion.

Claressa Shields (March 17, 1995) – Double Olympic gold medallist in boxing; competing in PFL as a mixed martial artist.

Meisha Tate (August 18, 1986) – Former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion and a key figure in the rise of women’s MMA.

Joanna Jędrzejczyk (August 18, 1987) – Former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, known for her striking skills.

Rose Namajunas (June 29, 1992) – Two-time UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, known for her dynamic fighting style.

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