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On The Issues Magazine - Fall 2008
The Water We Swim In: Rescuing Ourselves

by Ellen Snortland

Women are terrorism experts. Females all over the world, in developed and developing countries, deal with the possible threat of male-on-female violence daily — it is the most common, insidious and often unexamined form of terrorism there is. And yet, how many of us know how to defend ourselves with the only thing that is with us at all times: our own bodies? Far too few. Wake up, sleeping beauties! The prince ain’t coming, and sometimes he’s the problem.

As the author of Beauty Bites Beast:

Awakening the Warrior Within Women and Girls, christened a “how-come” book as opposed to a “how-to” self-defense book, I am an unlikely advocate for women and girls’physical self-defense training. I grew up in a gentle Norwegian-American home in the Midwest with a loving father and a well-educated mother with many privileges and advantages. My little town was “safe.”

As a middle-aged woman, by outward appearances, I seem harmless. However, I am proud to say I’m a completely dangerous mammal, and if someone were to threaten me or a loved one, I am prepared to kick serious ass. And I am devoted to having a critical mass of women become dangerous too. The more dangerous more of us are, the safer we will all be.

I am on a life-long mission to educate women and girls on physical self-defense as a physical literacy issue, a domestic anti-terrorist measure, and a human right — a necessary ingredient in the quest for women’s liberation. In fact, the Third Article of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

One definition of “terror” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is: “violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.”

Predators and rapists are “terrorists” using “destructive acts,” that is, rapes and assault, intimidating the population of women and girls to conform to the patriarchal “demand” that we remain compliant and “feminine.” Notice that the news of a single rapist in one area of the city tends to put all the females on high alert.

Given that female independence is a relatively new idea, we are in transition from “chattel” to “citizen.” Historically, it used to be that our physical safety was the responsibility of our “owners,” whether that was a father, husband or sometimes, uncle or brother. Indeed, if we were not virgins, our property value plummeted and our father was honor-bound to marry us off at a “discount” or had to fake our “purity,” depending of course on our class or how much he had for our dowry.

With our declaration of independence, we also need to be responsible for our “security of person,” since we now “own” our own bodies. Waiting for all men to behave or other men to protect us is often a fool’s game.

Am I saying all men are rapists? Of course not. Not all men subscribe to the rules of patriarchy. Many women also enforce the rules of patriarchy as rigorously, if not more so, than males. What I am saying is that our culture is so permeated with undistinguished patriarchal rules, it’s as if patriarchy is the water we swim in, air we breathe and the rules we follow, often unwittingly or unconsciously.

Many women and girls still live with the vestigial fairy tale that someone else will rescue them. To end our own terror, women must reclaim their natural ability to be physically dangerous in order to achieve true freedom. Only then can we live happily, if not “ever after,” then most of the time.

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Ellen Snortland is a non-practicing lawyer, performer, playwright, columnist and documentary film-maker. See the trailer to the “Beauty Bites Beast” documentary here or visit her web site,

Also see: Sallie Bingham in this issue of On The Issues Magazine


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