Advance: Bostonian women to arms

Robyn Alman poses with a sword at Athena School of Arms Feb. 10. Photo by Mikayla Heiss / BU News Service

By Mikayla Heiss
BU News Service

Robyn Alman’s purple-framed glasses rest on her nose. Butterflies flap in her stomach as she faces a helmet-clad opponent. Distributing her weight evenly, she advances, right-foot propelling her forward. When the distance is optimal, she thrusts out a steel piece, aiming for the heart. Metal rings as two swords meet; the match has begun.

As female sword fighters establish themselves in the modern world, they form support networks and adapt their combat skills to face a historically male-based culture. An instructor at the Athena School of Arms, a Cambridge facility studying martial arts, Alman has watched female membership rise. The recent surge of female sword fighters may be due to popular culture, such as “The Witcher” and “Game of Thrones,” creating a buzz around the fighting style. 

When a female faces a male opponent, chances are the man will be taller, according to Our World in Data average heights. Body size and longer reaches give men an advantage, said John Clements, director of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. But no matter the sex, a fighter should always evaluate an opponent in a similar fashion, searching for countermeasures, such as getting closer, Clements said. 

“There’s always ways to be able to counteract,” Alman said. With pink-painted fingernails wrapped around a sword hilt, Alman observed students practicing drills. “If you’re able to know the strategy of how to fight someone, you can always win over someone who might be taller, heavier or stronger.” 

Stereotypes can also clutter the arena.

“I’ve gone against guys who may have a perception that they don’t need to fight as hard against me,” Alman said. “So, a lot of times, me going into a fight with someone is having to prove to myself that I can fight with as much control and power as anybody else.”

Women sword fighters may turn to the females around them for inspiration. For Alman, fellow Athena instructor Julie Olson is a motivator. Female sword fighters can also meet on Facebook or during tournaments. The number of women’s divisions in tournaments has risen, offering a space for females to compete at a pace comfortable for them, Olson said. 

History also provides women with role models. The Royal Armouries I.33 manuscript, created between 1270 and 1320, illustrates a female, dubbed Walpurgis, training with a sword and buckler, which is similar to a shield, wrote Katherine Hager, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina, in her thesis.

Two women engaged in eternal sword combat present visual evidence of female gladiators in a first- or second-century relief, according to The Classical World

In modern day, Alman grabs a case from the conveyor belt at Logan Airport. To the average onlooker, it is a plain golf bag. But the inside tags marking the bag to have been opened by TSA indicates its true contents. Lifting the load, Alman exits the airport, just another woman with a sword.  

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