Martial arts have traditionally been the domain of the strong male. Despite the stories of mythic woman warriors who rode with the boys and fought alongside them as equals and even superiors, this was always the exception rather than the rule. Samurai women were taught to protect themselves and their families yet how many of us can name any of these fighting women? No, it's pretty much a boys club and the few females who get let in are the ones able to play as the boys do.
There are probably more women doing Aikido on a percentage basis than any other martial art, although that would be just a guess, I have never seen figures on this. Despite their wide participation, which goes back to the early days in the 1930's in Aikido's development, women are notoriously absent from positions of prominence in Aikido. I know of no female instructors who have regularly taught at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo. In it's hard to find any woman acting in the capacity of dojo cho in Japan, regardless of what organization one is referring to.
The contribution of the wives of the prominent instructors are sometimes alluded to when the Shihan recount their young days as uchideshi but then only in reference to their caretaking roles even though many of these wives trained as well. One almost never hears reference to women in terms of their skill on the mat.
Not until one leaves Japan does one encounter significant female presence in the ranks of those teaching the art. But even overseas, the leadership of virtually all Aikido organizations is almost entirely male. Woman may have significant responsibility, and in fact be indispensable to the various organizations, but their efforts are largely in support of the male leadership of these organizations.
I believe that Aikido should be different. I think that few would maintain that its raison d'etre is imparting fighting skills to the public yet we continuously use a performance standard which places, not just women, but the less athletic, and the elderly of both sexes at a disadvantage when compared with the young male practitioners of the art.
Recently a book on Aikido appeared in which the author, a senior Aikido practitioner, stated that any fourth kyu male in his dojo could take any woman in Aikido in a fight. The sheer lack of sensitivity it took to make such a statement tends to hide the fact that it also shows a complete misunderstanding of what Aikido is all about.
First of all, Aikido is not a combat art as normally taught. The techniques of our art are derived from a system which was taught to members of the samurai class and only make real sense when considered, not as a comprehensive empty-hand fighting system, but as part of a wider system which assumed that both the practitioner and his enemy were armed. When the equalizing effects of weaponry is removed as a factor, a distinct advantage is had by the student who is more physically powerful and can over power his adversary. This advantage exists until the opponent reaches a very high level of technical skill at which time attempts to use that type of physical power would no longer have any advantage but would rather be a detriment to the strong but not as skilled practitioner. If one were to look at Aikido from a true combat standpoint in which the practitioners were armed there would be a great equalizing factor between men and women and pure physical power would be secondary to smooth and quick movement and an understanding of openings.
Since normal practice of Aikido is done empty handed (unless one is doing actual weapons training), a distinct advantage is had by those of larger stature and more aggressive disposition in terms of overcoming their partners. The problem here is, of course, that Aikido isn't primarily about overcoming one's partner. Masakatsu Agatsu is the term the Founder used to describe the point of Aikido training. "True Victory is Self Victory" is clearly not about how to defeat some outside enemy but rather it's about dealing with our own internal demons. When O-Sensei said Aikido is the True Budo, he didn't mean that Aikido was the most bad-assed fighting system. He meant that Aikido was, in his mind, the fullest expression of the aspect of Budo which teaches us how to live fully, to see ourselves as caretakers rather than destroyers.
The Dan system was originally set up in an attempt to assure that a certain quality level was maintained in the art. The real problem with this was that the system tended to focus on only one set of criteria, the technical, martial side of the art has been greatly favored over other factors and not to the overall benefit of the art. We are all familiar, I am sure with various high-level teachers who, while having a certain relatively high level of technical expertise and martial ferocity in no way embody the basic values which we would like to incorporate into our lives. Just as in the case of measuring intelligence in which the focus on the IQ has given way to a recognition that there are actually multiple types of intelligence and that a given individual could excel in one and be quite ordinary in another, our Aikido hierarchy needs to better reflect the different contributions one can make in an art which has so many facets.
I met a woman just recently who had started Aikido well after her fiftieth birthday. She has now been training for well over ten years and feels that Aikido has changed her life. In an Aikido world which only values strength of technique and difficult ukemi this person has no real status. Yet her age, while making it difficult to train as physically as the young folks do, gives such a depth to her practice that she is in a position to address in a meaningful way all sort of folks for whom instruction from someone like myself would have less relevance.
There are all sorts of Aikido teachers out there who are quite capable of going toe to toe with some hypothetical aggressor but who lack the ability to speak in any meaningful way to the hearts of a group of students whose needs don't really encompass daily requirements for self defense techniques. There are a quite large and growing number of teachers who, while not being terribly interested in the martial application side of the art, are taking technique into whole new realms of exploration and can provide great insight into the connection between physical technique and the spiritual side of the practice. Many of these teachers are female instructors who have run dojos for years and have a tremendous depth of teaching experience, often bringing students into the art who would never have been interested in training in the more macho world of traditional martial arts including much Aikido.
This is not to say that there aren't women who have successfully gone toe to toe with the men in their training and succeeded. Virginia Mahew, Pat Hendricks, Mary Heiny, Lorraine Dianne, Patty Saotome, etc. all managed to get ahead in the male dominated hierarchy of Aikido. But this shouldn't be how we measure success. Women should not have to measure their worth according to their ability to be "like the guys." To insist on this is to place only secondary emphasis on the contributions which they make well in excess of what their male counter parts often make.
It has been my experience that women are generally more interested in the social/relational aspects of the art than in the martial. The community bond between dojo members is often created more through the efforts of a group of female students within a dojo than by those of the men. It has been my experience that the women within a dojo are far better at nurturing students who are emotionally damaged or are physically less confident.
In the absence of a different way of recognizing the wide-ranging nature of accomplishments and contributions, the Dan system should be administered in such a way that equal recognition is given to those that are contributing to the growth of the art in any such substantial way. The female instructors who have well over thirty years of experience in both training and teaching but who still find themselves down a rank or two below their equally experienced male counter parts should be brought up to parity. There should be more female instructors on the seminar circuit. The high-level teachers should go out of their way to include senior females as well as males as ukes. It makes a strong and very public statement about the support they can expect from their organizations.
No more should we encounter the dojo which places the male students at the top of the technical and hierarchical heap while the women, all ranked in the second tier, do all of the organizational and administrative work thereby actually keeping the school going for the men. No more should we recognize the accomplishments of women only to the extent that they resemble those of the men but also for the unique contributions they can make which perhaps most of the men can't or won't.
Aikido must be inclusive to accomplish what the Founder saw as its essential mission of bringing people together. People may have exceptional talents teaching children, they may be exceptionally nurturing to those of us who have been damaged in various ways. We will find those individuals who have great insight into the spiritual side of the art and they may not be the ones who are best able to show how to handle a roundhouse kick to the head. Instructors should make it a priority to create a new generation of instructors both male and female, young and old, who are empowered to make their own explorations of what Aikido can become and our organizations should support these teachers in following their visions. It is only by doing this that Aikido can grow in such a way that it is both inclusive and has the elements which a widely divergent group of practitioners requires.