Before the man showed up, Py Bateman was having a regular day. She had swung by the karate dojo to let in some students and was now arriving home to freshen up. Her friend would be picking her up soon. They had plans to go to a folk festival. The man must have hid behind the low wall separating her deck from her house, because as soon as she stepped up to let herself in, he was at her neck with a knife. Her first thought: Oh sh*t.
Bateman snaked her hand between the knife and her throat. She grabbed it by the blade, the steel slicing into her palm. She kicked back into the man's groin, and he fell forward, sending them both to the floor. She'd tried breaking free, but his limbs were too long for a tuck-and-roll maneuver to work. The man had slashed her eyelids, and it was becoming increasingly hard to see, but she kept coming at him. She assumed that would be the end of it. She remembers thinking: Most men who attack women they don't know will run away if you start to fight back. Why isn't this guy running away? I better hit him.
So she hit him. He hit her back. The brawl went from the back porch to the living room and back. Bateman doesn't remember everything; she'd later piece together the broad strokes of the fight from the scene it left. At some point, Bateman's friend arrived to pick her up, and upon seeing the back door open and blood splattered beyond it, the friend ran to a neighbor's house and phoned the police. By the time they showed up, the man was gone.
Thirty-six years later, Bateman is confident about how she handled the situation. The pale scar on her palm is a testament to the years of karate training that freed her from the attacker's blade.
It was 1969 when Bateman first stepped into a karate studio. She was 22 years old at the time. She had moved to the Pacific Northwest for grad school, interested in the social movements brewing there at the end of the decade. Bateman was not an athlete. She'd never participated in any sports before. But aside from a few patronizing comments by male classmates, she was encouraged by her early experiences. "I didn't expect to be good at [karate]," says the now 73-year-old. "But it turned out I was really good at it."
Py Bateman (out center) and others photograph a fight scenario for her 1978 book "Fear into Anger." | (Py Bateman/Courtesy Narratively)
At the time, women were, by and large, not part of the karate community in the United States. This was before the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that ensures that women and girls cannot be excluded from any education program including sports. In 1969, the omission of women wasn't an explicit rule at karate studios; it was just how it was. Bateman paid no mind to the norms of the time. "I was obsessed. I didn't understand why we couldn't have class on Christmas," she says with a chuckle.
It quickly became clear that Bateman was a worthy opponent for her male peers; she remembers eliciting laughs from judges at the time, who were incredulous at the sight of her 5-foot-2-inch frame landing successful blows. "People weren't used to thinking of women in that way. As equals, I mean," says Bateman.
Her frustration, then, was a primary catalyst that led her to found, in 1971, what would later be named the Feminist Karate Union (FKU) — frustration that extended beyond the walls of the male-dominated dojos to women's role in society. That summer, Seattle's Sky River Music Festival had seen multiple reports of sexual assault, reflecting the grim lack of accountability that persisted even in the wake of the supposedly "free love" 1960s. Meanwhile, women in Seattle were organizing their own independent training programs for trades whose male hegemony had effectively iced them out of entire industries like construction and electrical work. A general outrage with the indignities and violence that women were expected to bear privately had not yet captured the zeitgeist, but the women's liberation movement of the 1960s was building momentum. As anti-war protests sparked around the country and second-wave feminism grew in popularity, Seattle was home to a bubbling resistance of its own.
Feminist groups of the day offered lessons in survival skills, and Bateman had partnered with them to teach some self-defense classes before, but FKU marked a departure with its explicit focus on building karate skills for women. "The women I taught were coming from a place of never having trained, of never having pushed their bodies," says Bateman. This was before it had become a cultural norm to enroll in a self-defense class with a group of girlfriends or take a free one-hour session at work. "One of the women who ended up getting a black belt from me, the first time she sparred, she burst into tears and ran out of the room," says Bateman. "Can you imagine? You have never been in this position before and somebody hits you! She wasn't crying from pain; she was crying from the emotion of it all."
At first, FKU was a humble affair, with a few women coming regularly to the tiny rented space in a school ballroom to learn self-defense basics from Bateman, but that all changed when serial killer Ted Bundy began murdering women in the Seattle area around 1974.
After his capture in 1978, Bundy would confess to more than 30 killings, though the number is believed to be much higher. He targeted young women, invading college dorms and university apartments. College students disappeared at a rate of one per month. Sometimes Bundy would disguise himself with crutches or arm slings and ask his victims to help him carry groceries or get something from his car before attacking them. He preyed on kindness and goodwill.
With Bundy's reign of terror came a massive influx of women to Bateman's classes, so many that Bateman began teaching three classes a day, plus more on the weekends. Students filled the ballroom of the University of Washington, where Bateman, the sole instructor at this point, taught practical skills for getting out of holds. Survival was the mission.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.