Breaking Barriers? Unpacking Women’s Empowerment in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts

By Justen Hamilton

Women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) is among the fastest growing sports in the world. Long existing on the margins of combat sports, women are now routinely punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and strangling opponents into submission in front of sold-out crowds in the United States and around the world, as women’s “cage fighting” has suddenly become a very lucrative business for combat sports promoters. Catapulted by the meteoric rise of WMMA superstar, Ronda Rousey, WMMA has quickly gone from being viewed as a sideshow attraction to a major professional sport in just a few years’ time. As of 2018, MMA is now more popular with both men and women ages eighteen to thirty-four than major U.S. sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, and, globally, WMMA now has a bigger fanbase than almost any other professional women’s sport. While women have participated in other combat sports to varying degrees throughout history, no women’s combat sport has been met with the level of curiosity and attention than that which has been given to women’s mixed martial arts. 

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows athletes to use a wide range of fighting techniques to seek victory by knockout, submission, referee intervention, or judges’ decision while competing within the confines of a ring, or more commonly, a cage. Its athletes incorporate techniques from numerous martial arts disciplines—including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling, karate, and boxing—and wear minimal protective equipment to create the most “realistic” form of combat sport. MMA is most commonly associated with its premier organization—Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—and is colloquially referred to as “cage fighting” or “ultimate fighting” by outside observers. Although women were prohibited from competing in the UFC until 2013, women now account for more than 15% of their total roster and are featured in most MMA events throughout North America and across the world. 

While media coverage of WMMA has ranged from moral panic to acclamation, in recent years, WMMA has increasingly been framed as a site of women’s empowerment. Drawing from popular feminist language, media have routinely portrayed WMMA athletes as revolutionaries “breaking barriers” to liberated female subjecthood through their participation in the violent and hypermasculine world of mixed martial arts. The UFC has also capitalized on this empowerment discourse, itself, with marketing taglines such as “breaking barriers” and “women’s empowerment [with] a whole new look” (UFC.com) while other MMA promotions have even begun holding all-women’s events, such as ONE Championship’s September 2021 event, “Empower.” This framing of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment raises interesting questions for the sociology of gender: Who are these new female subjects? In what ways are they challenging and reproducing gender? And to what extent should we characterize their participation in this new sport as “empowering”?

These are some of the questions I explore in my recent article in Gender & Society. Drawing from interviews with 40 professional WMMA athletes, as well as more than four years of ethnographic fieldwork on the sport of WMMA, I take seriously this notion of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment and attempt to unpack what that means—not just for the athletes themselves, but also for women in general.

I find that although women’s participation in MMA offers potential to challenge patriarchal constructions of womanhood and influence feminist social change, this potential is not currently being realized. Rather, WMMA athletes’ experiences in MMA only seem to strengthen their beliefs in “natural” sexual difference and male superiority, as well as instill in them an ideology of individualism that blinds them to inequality and allows them to believe in a world where  social change is unnecessary and even undesirable. I conclude therefore that rather than empowering themselves, paradoxically, these athletes are actually disempowering themselves by ignoring the existence  of gender inequality and undermining their potential to serve as agents of feminist social change.

The implications of my findings are that we must resist the inclination to see women’s participation in any traditionally “masculine” arena as inherently empowering. Rather, we should be embracing more radical and collective visions of women’s empowerment that incorporate intersectional concerns with class, sexuality and racism. While the symbolism of women fighters may be encouraging to feminist observers who strive for a more equitable society, such symbolism does little to alter the lives of women when the social and structural forces that constrain women’s lives remain unchallenged. Only by first addressing these barriers can we actually begin to break them. Only then may martial arts and combat sports fulfill their potential as spaces of women’s empowerment and combat sports athletes as allies in women’s liberation.

Justen Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His research is situated at the intersection of gender, sport, and ideology.

Why does the beginning of the marriage matter? Women’s marital transitions, empowerment and abuse in Myanmar

By Stephanie Spaid MiedemaSan Shwe, and Aye Thiri Kyaw

Relationships are all about power.

Family sociologists find that broader social systems of gender inequality affect women’s power within marriage. That is, when women are not valued in society as equal to men, they are similarly not valued in marriage as equal to their husbands.* There are consequences to this inequality. When women hold relatively less power within their relationships, they are at higher risk of experiencing adversity, such as intimate partner violence. This effect is particularly pronounced in countries with high gender inequality. When we think about gender, power and violence, we tend to focus, not surprisingly, on relationships that already exist.  We measure indicators of women’s empowerment, such as decision-making or gendered attitudes, within existing marriages.

But relationships do not form out of thin air. Rather, we transaugust_miedema_myanmar-map_flatition into relationships.

When we marry, we shift from single individuals to a two-person unit within the social institution of marriage. So, what happens to power during that transition? What if the beginning of the relationship is a pivotal moment in which the distribution of power is coded onto the future marital relationship? How does this change our thinking around women’s empowerment in marriage and risk of experiencing partner violence?  The long-isolated country of Myanmar (formerly Burma), nestled between China, India and Thailand, served as a unique site to test these questions. Continue reading “Why does the beginning of the marriage matter? Women’s marital transitions, empowerment and abuse in Myanmar”

A Cornerstone for Equality: Focusing on Women’s Global Political Empowerment

By Amy Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl, & Farida Jalalzai

Since the mid-1990s, nations’ adoption of some form of quotas for women’s representation in national parliaments has swept the globe; more than 100 countries have a constitutional, legislative or party policy commitment to this. This is a powerful sign of the dramatic change in global formal commitments to gains in women’s political empowerment. Yet, simultaneously, nowhere do women hold equal power to men in influencing and exercising political authority worldwide. This story of recent gains and resilient barriers plays out daily in our news, and for good reason. These are all threads of a compelling story of women’s global political empowerment, a story that nearly universally begins with profound discrimination against women. Thus the recent world transformation, at least in formal commitments to women’s global political empowerment, can no longer be ignored and at the same time demands deeper inquiry into its promise and limits.

The UN has declared women’s empowerment as the third of its Millennium Development Goals. Within this broad charter, political empowerment is one of a variety of areas, often less fully articulated and studied in comparison to economic indicators. Yet, gains in women’s political empowerment directly decrease the role of gender inequality as an obstacle to incorporation as social and economic equals, and open, rather than close, the political domain to all members of society. Continue reading “A Cornerstone for Equality: Focusing on Women’s Global Political Empowerment”

What’s Wrong with the CDC’s Public Health Model for Rape Prevention

By Jill Cermele & Martha McCaughey 

Rape pic_2.16.16

The 2014 White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses has mandated that in order to continue to receive federal funding, colleges and universities must step up their game, including providing rape prevention education.  The 2014 “Not Alone” report outlines the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public health model of sexual assault prevention, and reiterates the need for evidenced-based programming to combat rape and sexual assault.  The CDC’s public health model defines the terms and levels of prevention, and articulates what “counts” as primary prevention – namely, bystander intervention training and psychoeducation to shift rape-supportive attitudes.  As we describe in detail elsewhere (see McCaughey & Cermele, 2015), despite the overwhelming evidence that self-defense (training and enacting it) works both to stop rape and to shift rape-supportive attitudes, the CDC does not discuss or recommend self-defense training in its public health model. On the surface, the omission of self-defense training from the category of primary prevention is perplexing, considering the CDC’s own definition.  Primary prevention is defined as thwarting violence before it happens, while secondary prevention includes strategies and responses that immediately follow victimization, such as counseling or medical care, to address the short-term effects.  The CDC has consistently and openly argued that while teaching (often male) bystanders to intervene in and thwart sexual assault is an established primary prevention tactic, teaching women to intervene in and thwart sexual assault targeted against themselves is not. Continue reading “What’s Wrong with the CDC’s Public Health Model for Rape Prevention”