Strategic Living

Girls Fight Back! The College Girl's Guide to Protecting Herself, by Erin Weed

Know a young woman?daughter, sister, best friend's kid?beginning college? Send a copy of Girls Fight Back! in your next care package. Erin Weed, founder of the organization Girls Fight Back!, wrote this book especially for college women. It has lots of good information on easy and doable ways for any college woman, from freshman to PhD candidate, to enhance her safety.

Weed's saga began when her good friend and sorority sister, Shannon McNamara, was murdered in 2001. Since then, it's been her calling to educate women on real risks and safety strategies. A recent college graduate herself, she speaks the language of today's college girls. This book is positive and upbeat, emphasizing what women CAN do to keep safe while enjoying the full richness of college life. And indeed her message is of joy, richness, fullness. Of recognizing how even just the threat of violence can rob women of really living and loving life. And, more importantly, of recognizing how much women can do to stay safe.

Part of what makes this a great book for young women heading off to college is its brevity: short, engaging, easy to read. Weed writes in contemporary college lingua franca about today's girls' real concerns. Stories from real life, from the lives of women Weed's met over her travels and speaking on campuses, graphically illustrate her points. Most young women on campus can recognize themselves and their issues in these pages.

One example of her use of "college-speak" is her adaptation of Gavin De Becker's list of ploys and manipulations. In The Gift of Fear (whose first chapters are among the best about intuition and recognizing manipulation), De Becker names some of the ploys "forced teaming," "typecasting," and "too many details." Weed rewrites them as "there's no U in team," "engaging insults," and "t.m.i (too much information)." Her explanations are shorter, as in a paragraph rather than a page or two. And the story she uses to illustrate all the ploys is not De Becker's woman returning to her apartment with an armload of groceries but specifically a college woman returning to her apartment after an evening of partying.

In some ways this book's brevity is also a flaw. She gives short shrift to domestic violence (about 3 pages), which is the single most common cause of women's trips to the local emergency room. While she has great advice on all those little boundary violations that can signal dating/domestic violence, she has little on what to do if you are in that sort of relationship, or if your best buddy is.

Reading is not doing.  Physical skills require at least initial physical learning with qualified instruction and feedback. To her credit, Weed spends little time on technique, instead recommending that women actually take a class.  I am, however, disappointed in her suggestion that women look to the campus or municipal police department.  Better referral sources are to be had from sexual assault and battered women's organizations.

In addition, Weed makes no mention of the women who created the current wave of feminist women’s self-defense over 35 years ago. Nadia Telsey, Jaye Spiro, Annie Ellman, and Janet Aalfs, to name a few, are still teaching and training teachers today. While Weed claims to have learned from the best and gives credit to male instructors whose base is law enforcement, she neglected to explore the groundbreaking, self-defense work of women, whose efforts laid the foundation for Weed’s own mission. What does that say about women’s empowerment? Women have for decades taken the lead to educate law enforcement institutions about violence against women, and continue to struggle to get them to consistently take the problem seriously. I would encourage the author to empower herself by finding out what women are doing for women’s self-defense.

While much of the advice in Girls Fight Back! focuses on one's awareness and attitudinal habits, these and other non-physical skills also need practice. Good self-defense classes provide that venue with feedback and reinforcement, as well as a supportive environment to enhance learning. As a self-defense instructor for over a decade, I've found that skillfully facilitated classes with others break down the sense of isolation, finding others who are also concerned about safety and have their own stories to share.  This greatly helps increase one's confidence and knowledge, which are among the best predictors of a woman's successful self-defense.  And Weed highly recommends you find such a class.

Still, the best book on women's self-defense is Debbie Leung's Self-Defense: The Womanly Art of Self-Care, Intuition and Choice. Published 15 years ago, it's advice is still right on. Alas, it is out of print. However, Debbie Leung has copies for sale and can be contacted by email at self-defense@earthlink.net.  Gavin De Becker's book, The Gift of Fear (from which Weed borrows extensively), is also excellent.

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