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Feminism and Fencing: Metaphor and Reality

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Dawn Hathaway

December 19, 2008

Critical Feminist Studies

Professor Anne Dalke

Feminism and Fencing: Metaphor and Reality

The history of fencing is thought to parallel the evolution of civilization (A History of Fencing). I think it was an idea like that which caused me to think about fencing as my metaphor for feminism. Fencing has become a large part of my life since I saw how much I loved it. It also has to do with the fact that the people I have met through taking up the sport here have practically become my family. Something that concrete and important is generally at the back of my mind and it is interesting to recall in conjunction with new ideas. Therefore, for my performance, I analyzed how one fencing bout was like using the principles of feminism. After the presentation I went further with my metaphor and thought about how the sport as a whole, not just my experiences with it could continue to represent my feminism. I’ll start at the beginning, because the history of fencing is interesting as is the history of feminism. It started with Ancient Egypt and Rome, then developed through the Dark Ages, went on into the Renaissance, and then slowly, but surely evolved into the increasingly popular sport of modern fencing. “Fencing has always been regarded as more than a sport; it is an art form, and ancient symbol of power and glory, and a deeply personal, individual form of expression (A History of Fencing).” It seemed very easy to compare two personal, individual forms of expression.

Fencing is thought to have been developed in Ancient Egypt around 1200BC. There is evidence found in carvings that depict a bout with masks, protective weapon tips and judges. That is about as close to modern sport fencing as you could get in the ancient world, but fencing had an interesting journey to go through of centuries of changes before it was brought back to this and then improved upon to become what it is today (A History of Fencing). Fencing had to go through waves like feminism, before arriving where it is today. Both can probably go farther and will soon, the way society is changing.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans decided that they preferred short swords and light spears, unprotected of course, which took the Egyptian form of sport fencing and brought it closer to the realm of the battlefield. In 471 AD, the fall of the Roman Empire brought in the crude weapons of the barbarian invaders, and fencing regressed a lot during the Dark Ages. The equipment/weaponry was not as advanced, and the act of fencing became far more brutal. Fencing as a sport is as much of a cultural construction as feminism is as a belief system (A History of Fencing).

In the Renaissance, fencing was starting to become more modernized again. During the fourteenth century light, fast weapons, such as the rapier began to come into fashion again. This was actually a response to the cultural conditions of warfare. Sword fighting had to be improved upon, because the invention of gunpowder made the heavy armor and the wielding of large, clunky weapons obsolete. It was necessary to change with the times. If feminism didn’t adapt into each wave, it would have been left behind, obsolete like the old clunky weapons. If you need something sharper to protect yourself, you need to make sure you have it (Fencing Facts).

The sport took a turn toward the development of modern fencing in the fifteenth century. The first two fencing manuals were published in Spain, and it was first popular there, but sword guilds soon sprung up all over Europe following the publication. In 1500 the Italians began using the rapier and started inventing the footwork technique that has been adapted for modern fencing, most importantly the lunge and advance lunge. Therefore, it developed more through the fifteenth century and allowed the Spaniards to document it. It is no coincidence then, that in the sixteenth century there was a dramatic increase in dueling (A History of Fencing). As feminism organized, more people got involved as well, each adding their own ideas as to what their feminism is, building the movement.

Not wanting to be left behind, Queen Catherine de Medicis of France brought in Italian masters to develop a French Fencing Academy. It was recognized by her son, King Charles IX in 1587. Fencing was upheld as a noble and important sport in France, and the French fencing masters earned honorary titles from the king. They were given the opportunity to study and work extensively with technique, so it was no surprise that they were the first to classify and define attacks and parries. The Italians had already laid out a lot of the groundwork through their footwork development, but the French worked with that and put in a lot of their own blade work. In 1573, Henry de St. Didier was the first fencing master to publish a complete treatise. He was also the first to advocate for the extensive use of the epee, rather than the rapier. Up until this point, only one form of sword had been used heavily throughout the majority of Europe (A History of Fencing).

In the seventeenth century the “fleuret” or foil was developed as a lighter training weapon. The foil was much easier to learn with and was also a lot safer for practice. When a fencer was not actually dueling, even back then, they generally didn’t want to take out their opponent. Due to this concept in order to improve safety, the right-of-way rules were developed. These were a set of rules that defined a series of alternating attacks and defense. This was an incredible turning point toward modern fencing, because in two of the three modern fencing weapons, the right-of-way rules are taken almost word for word from this point. It is generally understood that it’s not a good idea to just rush at an opponent that is clearly attacking you with their blade extended. Suicide missions are not allowed. If you are attacked, you are expected to defend yourself before making your attack on your opponent. This was developed first as a safety precaution, because training duelists were far less likely to impale each other if they are not attacking each other at the same time (Fencing Facts). This point in the development of fencing symbolizing a specific point in the development of feminism for me. The movement from second wave to third wave feminism was characterized by a lessening of radical feminism that was rather stigmatized by the end of second wave to a more controlled way of dealing with things. It turned into more of a conversation.

In the eighteenth century, the epee took a turn as the most popular weapon in Europe. A new weapon was also designed around the same time. The Hungarians developed the saber, which was based on the cavalry sword of the era (Fencing Facts).

In 1780, the French fencing master, La Boessiere, invented an even safer bout yet by inventing the fencing mask. Fencers didn’t have to worry about getting their eyes poked out, and this sparked a lot of new development in non-fatal technique and strategy (A History of Fencing).

Fencing finally made its way across the Atlantic to America with immigrant French and Italian masters. The first American fencing school was established in 1874. Due to the fact that fencing had long since become a non-fatal, and increasingly safer sport in Europe, American fencing never had the same violent roots, and was always considered to be a non-harmful sport. Dueling didn’t die out until World War I, but the majority of fencers were not duelists (A History of Fencing).

Fencing was one of only four sports to be included in every modern Olympic Games. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the Olympics was a fencer, and insisted on its inclusion. Men’s saber and foil were part of the first Olympic Games in 1896. Men’s epee joined them in the events in 1900. Women’s foil was added in 1924. Foil fencing was one of the first sports in which women ever got to compete in the Olympics. However, women’s epee was not added until 1996. By the time most of my history sources were published, women’s saber was still not an Olympic sport. However, we finally saw it happen in 2004 with amazing results (Fencing Facts).

In the twentieth century, the French, Italians and the Hungarians were true masters of fencing. The International Fencing Federation (FIE) was founded in France. These countries’ training methods maintained mastership until the 1950’s when the style of the sport changed to emphasize speed and mobility. Fencers then started relying on touches that would have gone undetected before electric scoring devices were invented. Pretty soon, there were no longer national fencing techniques. Now fencers are much more reliant on cultivated individual technique (Fencing Facts). The individual gets to shine here. Cultural construction changes and moves away from the spotlight as one of the most important things in conditioning fencers.

The modern sport of fencing might look kind of strange next to most people’s romantic ideals of sword fighting, but fencing actually has some pretty interesting characteristics that are unique. For example, the tip of a fencing weapon is the second fastest moving object in sport. It is second only to a marksman’s bullet. Even fencing today does take some of its rules from historical dueling. Modern fencers may not actually have to draw blood, but the 750 gram weight test for the tip of a weapon ensures that a touch is scored with sufficient force, based on the amount of tension it takes to break the skin. Originally fencing bouts went until they were over, like a duel, until a bout in 1930 managed to last seven hours. Now there is a three minute time limit for a five touch bout, and nine minutes with two one minute breaks for a fifteen touch bout. Fencers wear white, because before electric scoring, weapons had ink soaked cotton on the tips of their weapons so it would show up if the point hit the opponent on target. Although, at least in my opinion, feminism has begun moving in a new realm altogether, since it encompasses so much more now than traditional feminism, it still carries on ideas from its history (Fencing: A Modern Sport).

“The sport of fencing is fast and athletic, a far cry form the choreographed bouts you see on film or on the stage. Instead of swinging from a chandelier or leaping from balconies, you will see two fencers performing an intense dance on a 6-feet by 44-feet strip. The movement is so fast the touches are scored electrically – a lot more like Star Wars than Errol Flynn (Fencing: A Modern Sport).” Modern fencing competitions have two different styles of bouts. First there is a round of pools, in which a fencer competes against a small group of people, fencing each person in a five touch bout to determine the seeding for direct elimination. The direct elimination bout is important. Each fencer gets matched up with an opponent and they fence a fifteen touch bout. The loser is eliminated, and the winner moves on to the next round to fence another bout of fifteen until there is only one fencer left (Fencing: A Modern Sport). This is exactly what I tried to demonstrate in my performance of the fencing metaphor: the fencing bout. The setup of fencing bouts is also important for the metaphor. First you have an almost friendly, roundtable chat. Then, there’s direct elimination, in which you have to fight with all you have to stay in the game.

The three weapons of modern fencing, foil, epee, and saber, each have their own unique personality. Some fencers choose to learn all three, while others direct all their energy toward perfecting their technique in one. Some people choose to expand their feminisms, and some believe strongly, wholeheartedly in one thing.

Foil is known as the sport of kings. It is the descendant of the light court sword used by the nobility to train for duels. Touches are scored when the tip of the weapon touches valid target area, which is the torso only. The really advanced foil fencers still employ classical techniques, but the flexible nature of the foil blade lets the modern foil fencer attack from seemingly impossible angles. They try to whip or flick the point at the back or flank. Parrying these attacks is very difficult, so foil has evolved into a complicated game of multiple feints, ducking and sudden, explosive attacks. Foil is one of the modern weapons that use the right-of-way rules. To gain right-of-way, a fencer must begin the attack first, parry their opponent’s attack, or cause their opponent to miss. If a fencer makes any sort of hesitation, they lose right-of-way. If two attacks hit simultaneously, it is counted as a tie and no one scores a touch (Fencing: A Modern Sport).

Epee is freestyle fencing. It is the descendant of the dueling sword. It is heavier than the foil, and it also has a stiffer blade and a larger bell guard to protect the hand. The entire body is target area for the epee, so this weapon is fought the most like an actual duel. There is no right-of-way, so it is a fencer’s prerogative to hit their opponent first without being hit. Simultaneous attacks are counted as double touches, because of the lack of right-of-way and both fencers get a point. Epee is generally slower and more cautious, because a lot more is at stake. Epee involves a lot of strategy and patience, because most epeeists don’t attack outright, they make some false actions and get a feel for what their opponent might do before making their move. It is also more common to find an epeeist that is a purely defensive fencer (Fencing: A Modern Sport).

Saber is the weapon where you can hack and slash. It is the descendant of the slashing cavalry sword. The saber is the only weapon with which it is possible to score touches with the edge of the blade as well as the point. The target area for saber is above the waist – torso, arms and head. During the time of the cavalry weapon, it wasn’t considered honorable to hurt an opponent’s horse, so below the waist is still off target. Saber is the other weapon that uses right-of-way rules, but they are used in a slightly different manner than in foil. Saber right-of-way is much less forgiving of hesitation, allowing the opponent being attacked much more of an opportunity to attack in preparation. Saber technique is the exact opposite of the patient, defensive epee. Saber right-of-way strongly favors the fencer who attacks first, and a mere graze of the blade registers as a touch. Therefore, saber is a much faster, aggressive game (Fencing: A Modern Sport).

The weapon distinctions have an interesting place in the hearts of fencers. We get into the childish “girls rule and boys drool-esque” teasing about the weapons. Some people have even assigned gender distinctions to the weapons, but I never wanted to, because that is just pandering to gross stereotypes. However, no matter what weapon a fencer chooses to compete with, fencing is far more graceful than the historic duels. “Much of the fencing bout consists of the preparation, during which a fencer simultaneously determines their opponent’s true intentions while feeding them false information of their own. The complexity of this deadly ‘conversation’ between the two opponents represents one of the more subtle beauties of the sport (Fencing: A Modern Sport).”

Moving beyond the metaphor, feminism finds itself into the reality of fencing. It is almost impossible for it not to, based on the advancements of women’s fencing finally becoming equal to men’s on the Olympic plane. In April of 2003, Keeth Smart (men’s saber) became the first United States fencer to achieve a number one world ranking. The second was Sada Jacobson (women’s saber). Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson took the gold and bronze medals respectively in women’s saber in the 2004 Olympics in Athens – the very first year of the women’s saber event. Mariel Zagunis was also the first fencer in the world to hold four world championship titles in one season: 2001 Cadet (U17) Saber World Champion, 2001 Junior (U20) Saber World Champion, 2001 Junior Team Saber World Champion and 2000 Women’s Saber World Champion (Fencing Facts). On the local level, we have a female fencing champion in the area. Delia Turner, the Veteran (40+) World Champion in women’s saber trains at the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia (FAP) downtown.

Another actual intersection of feminism and fencing that I am extremely curious to explore further has to do with the United States Fencing Association (USFA). The USFA does enforce the gender binary among fencers. On the USFA website with the membership listings, gender must be specified for each fencer: M or F. However, in glancing over the list I saw names of people I fence with and a few people have a gender listed that is not the one with which they identify. I plan to study this further, because there could be a few explanations here. Did they put the opposite gender on their registration form? Does the USFA put something down if someone did not specify something on their form? Due to the fact that most of the people I saw with this problem had rather ambiguous names, so this could be a possibility. Or is it simply a typo? I have not seen it printed anywhere, but around FAP rumor has it that the USFA may use a third, noncommittal gender category soon.

We started off the semester talking about personal stories, so I would like to end that way. We decided it was feminist to give the individual their chance to speak, so I talked with fencers that I know well, and it turns out that they have their own opinions about the intersection of feminism and fencing.

One of my fellow Bryn Mawr fencers was surprised by mixed tournaments, because she had only competed in segregated sports before. Today most fencing competitions are mixed, though there is more segregation at the collegiate level. Most sports are segregated on the basis of the belief that men and women have different inherent athletic abilities. Mixed tournaments acknowledge this difference and force people to overcome their own weaknesses. There are differences between men and women who fence, but they have to get inside each others’ heads which means thinking differently (O’Neill).

According to my coach, historically speaking, fencing was one of the only sports that was “appropriate” for women to fence, more specifically foil. Men’s and women’s fencing are very different, possibly because of the inherently different thought processes, culturalization, or perhaps in how training is approached. The difference is most pronounced in foil. Men tend to be more athletic in their approach (unfortunately), and women tend to be more tactical (La Londe).

Another male fencer from FAP believes that the difference is best seen in saber. Men tend to rely more on physical ability and women rely more on technique. Why? Most competitive fencers are teenagers and most teenage boys think beating a person down or chasing them off the strip is the same as skill. I really enjoy mixed tournaments, because you see less of that (Ching).

I had a similar conversation with a female fencer at FAP. According to her, fencing is a unique sport, because it requires equal levels of mental and physical exertion. Although men may be stronger, if a woman can out think her opponent, the physical advantage is nullified. Mixed tournaments exemplify the goal of feminism: they put men and women on the same playing field (literally) with no “handicaps” in either direction. There is the balance of equality that we’ve been looking for since we read Three Guineas. Feminism and fencing seem to go hand in hand because of the lack of gender separation in practice and at many events (Milestone).

Works Cited

"A History of Fencing." Advance Lunge. 1998. <>.

Bates, Jeanette. Personal interview. 11 Dec 2008.

Ching, Meng. Personal interview. 10 Dec 2008.

"Fencing: A Modern Sport." USA Fencing Official Website. 2008. United States Fencing Association.


"Fencing Facts." USA Fencing Official Website. 2008. United States Fencing Association.


La Londe, Ahren. Personal interview. 11 Dec 2008.

Milestone, Jessi. Personal interview. 10 Dec 2008.

O'Neil, Anna. Personal interview. 9 Dec 2008.