Throughout all human history, female wrestling as well as any other combative activities, were just rare exceptions. Yes, there seemed to be Amazons, Spartan female wrestlers, British and Polynesian female fist fighters but those were just isolated phenomena rather than large scale traditions.
The times were dramatically changed when in the late 20th century women from all over the world burst into Judo. All the sudden, this wrestling style turned out to be the most appropriate world wide combative sport for women. Moreover, owing to popularization of female Judo, many people in the world to their great surprise received evidence that women look very good when wrestling; that they handled the former men-only activity very skillfully, artfully and firmly, delivering and taking throws, chokes and other tough Judo techniques. Actually, Judo seems to be more female than male sport – it was not without reason when the founder of Judo Jigoro Kano famously repeated, “If you want to really understand Judo watch a women's training”.
As a matter of fact, men’s and women’s Judo developed in parallel. Since Judo was born as a version of Jiu-Jitsu, during first decades, Judo and Jiu-Jitsu were considered by male and female practitioners as two forms of one martial art.
Jigoro Kano, the inventor of the sport of Judo was also a founder of female Judo. He personally examined his wife Sumako in Judo technique. They got marries in 1891. Female servants in his home not just performed housekeeping works but also taught girls who wanted to enter into Judo. The experiment of Mr. Kano with acquainting women to the inherent men's activity was successful. First female competitions were held in 1925 in Kodokan. Noritomi Masako, who entered Kodokan in May 1925, then wrote the popular book "Judo for women" which was republished many times. Kano's daughters didn't disgrace the honor of the family and worked as Judo teachers. The elder daughter Vatanuko Noriko became headed the Judo section in Kodokan; Takadzaki Atsuko also dedicated her life her father's business. One of the Kano's students, Miyagavo Hisako founded her own school Sakuragako. All her girls achieved high dans. In 1926 women's division was officially opened in Kodokan. Kano always encouraged women to practice Judo. Nonetheless, for a long time official female Judo championships were not held in Japan, which was famous by its conservatism. Keiko Fukuda (born 1913), the last surviving student of Kano Jigoro, is the highest-ranked female judo practitioner in the history, She is the first and, so far, the only woman promoted to 10th dan in the art of Judo. Fukuda's personal motto is: "Be gentle, kind, and beautiful, yet firm and strong, both mentally and physically."
From Japan, female Judo began its victorious journey to countries and continents. In the first part of the 20th century, a pleiad of female Judo practitioners appeared in Europe and America. Women practiced Jiu-Jitsu and Judo in athletic clubs – along with men or in women only clubs. In 1906, one of the first European Jiu-Jitsu and Judo female enthusiasts, practitioner and trainer Mrs. Roger Watts (Emily Diana Watts) wrote the book “The Fine Art of Jujutsu”. Later, Edith Garrud began teaching Jiu-Jitsu and Judo classes for the women and children of London.
The article "Japanese woman teaching American girls secret Japanese self-defense system" was published in the Sunday issue of the journal "New York World" as of May 29, 1904. It said: "These women learn a special art of self-defense and they advanced so far that are able to lift and throw a person weighting 200 pounds (90.5 kg) without any problems. They would instantly topple an opponent swiftly running toward them just by one touch of a knee, wrist or a cheek using his own strength against him." The women described in the article are the rich fashionable ladies: Maria Luisa Galley, Davis Elkins, Grace David Lee, Katrina Elkins, Jessie Allis, Re Lewis Smith Wilmer. They wanted to demonstrate to the world that they are free and they are able do any athletic trick not worse than such men as Theodore Roosevelt hated by feminists.
Judo's international profile was boosted by the introduction of the World Judo Championships in 1956. The championships were initially a fairly small affair, with 31 athletes attending from 21 countries in the first year. Competitors were exclusively male until the introduction of the Women's Championships in 1980, which took place on alternate years to the Men's Championships. The championships were combined in 1987 to create an event that takes place annually, except for the years in which Olympic Games are held. At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, women’s Judo was introduced as a demonstrating sport. In 1992, the official Olympic debut of women's judo occurred in Barcelona. Coincidently or not, but since women rushed into the sport, Judo competitions became widely popular all over the world.
Ingrid Berghmans of Belgium must be placed at the first position in the
world wide surge of female Judo. Berghmans (also known as Ingrid Vallot) was
born in 1961 in Koersel, Belgium. Ingrid Berghmans ranks as one of the best
female judokas of all time, having won six world titles and seven European
At the age of 19 she won the first world championship for women's judo at Madison Square Garden (New York);
she won two medals: a bronze medal in their category (-72 kg), and a gold in the open category. A year later, Berghmans
was announced the first "Sportswoman of the Year". Ingrid Berghmans won a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games,
where women’s Judo debuted as a demonstration sport. In the 1980s,
judo still was predominantly male sport and in that sense Berghmans was a bit
ahead of her time. Being absolutely stronger than the most of other female
fighters, she often practiced against male opponents.
She preferred it that way, claiming most women put up “the same fight a rag doll would”. Her six world
titles in Judo, five of which came in the Open category, support her title of
the first known strongest female grappler of the world. In her native Belgium
Berghmans was voted “Sportswoman of the Year” in eight separate years and it was
therefore no surprise that she was also voted “Sportswoman of the Century” in
Belgium, ahead of some of the country’s great female tennis stars.
In 1982 Ingrid was awarded the
"National Award for Sports Merit".
Her last gold medal in the category -72 she obtained during the European Championships in Helsinki in 1989.
Since 2001 Berghmans has been working as a trainer and put them non-sporting people to move. For many years, Ingrid has been the 'Chair of the Athletes Committee' in the International Olympic Committee.
In Ingrid’s heyday, Judo was the only female combative sport internationally recognized and wide popular among women. Therefore, Ingrid Berghmans can be considered as the very first female grappler being fairly proven absolutely the strongest in the world.
Ingrid Berghmans can be rightfully named ‘The Combative Women for all Seasons’.
Female Judo is not pretending, it is very real!
Photo by David Finch
We are grateful to David Finch for his excellent photographs
Text is Female Single Combat Club's Exclusive
Photo by David Finch, Judophotos.com