Scholar and fighter L.A. Jennings talks feminism in the world of Mixed Martial Arts

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Feminist scholar/fighter L.A. Jennings has seen her share of gender bias in the competitive arena. Now a retired a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Sanshou and MMA fighter, Jennings spends most of her time training both men and women at her Denver gym, Train. Fight. Win. But she's also a scholar working on her Ph.D. in twentieth-century American literature.

At this Thursday's edition of Feminism & Co.: Full Contact at the MCA Denver, she will be discussing the intersections of these two very powerful forces in her own life. In advance of her speaking engagement, Jennings spoke with Westword about being a feminist fighter, and how she works to dispel the myth that women only want to fight for self-defense.

See also: - MCA Denver's Feminism & Co. 2013 lineup announced - Artist Rachelle Beaudoin on Kathleen Hanna's "Slut" proclamation and co-opted sexuality - MasterMind: Sarah Slater, founder, Titwrench

Westword: Can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do? L.A. Jennings: I'm a graduate student at the University of Denver, finishing up my fourth year and I'm getting my Ph.D. in English literature. I'm defending my dissertation next month, so I'm very close to being done. My area (of study) is twentieth century American literature and theory and criticism, which is how I got into the feminism side of things. My dissertation is on detective fiction and this character of the femme fatale. That's my academic work.

While I've been in graduate school and while I was back in Florida getting my master's, I got into training in martial arts and I started competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submission wrestling. I used to compete in a competition style called Sanshou. It's basically Chinese kickboxing -- kickboxing with throws and takedowns. I used to compete in that, and I was trying to get into an MMA fight because those were very, very hard for women to get into six years ago. It was impossible. The first fight that was offered to me was to go straight to pro against a woman who was already five and zero -- that didn't make any sense.

My husband and I moved to Colorado about four years ago to start my program. We owned a gym back in Florida, and we opened one here and now I'm more on the coaching and training side of things; I don't really compete myself. But I have a lot of guys and girls I get ready for various events: MMA, grappling, kickingboxing and stuff like that.

I was doing that and then through my master's program, I started doing some research on feminism and seeing if there was anything out there about feminism and martial arts. At the time, there really wasn't. The only voices that were out there were talking about women learning self-defense. Which is great and very worthwhile, but it's very different from being an actual fighter. I started writing short articles about what it means to be a woman and to train and compete in this very male-centric, almost subculture.

Once I finish my dissertation, I'll be writing a book on the history of women in fighting sports. I've been contracted to do that, and it should be out in 2015. Why were you tapped to speak at Feminism & Co.?

It will be me and another woman, Harmony Hammond, an Aikido practitioner who is from a different generation of feminists, when they were getting into it for self-defense purposes. So I think one of the reasons they tapped me to do this was to talk about it in terms of being an athlete and doing martial arts. The full-contact sport, which is what I do and what I train people to do as a woman, now.

That's sort of a different approach between self-defense and doing it as an athlete. I'm going to mention this in my talk, but when I was first competing, I was interviewed for an article and the reporter completely discounted my entire story about being a competitor and just kept talking about self-defense; I've never trained in martial arts for self-defense. It's that I don't think it's worthwhile, it's just not what I personally do. But for some reason, to the writer -- who was male -- it seemed inpossible that a woman would want to do this type of activity for the pleasure of it, not because I'm afraid of being raped all the time.

That seems to be a common problem -- a writer's agenda interfering when they are talking to a woman about something that seems to be out of our "normal scope" of expertise. And it's interesting that martial arts is generally positioned to women only as self-defense. I used to train at a pro gym back in Florida, and I was the only woman who was training. A lot of time when I was training and a girl would come in, it is very easy for her to get frightened off. It was a bunch of very, very meathead guys at this particular gym. Also, they didn't take the time to treat a woman like she could be a prospective fighter.

So that's something that I try to do at my facility: I take all of my girls seriously. About 75 percent of them want to learn something cool, but they want to learn it correctly. Then I have a group of girls that I am getting ready to compete -- two of them in the next six weeks will be doing a Muay Thai event.

It is getting better -- back in 2005 and 2006 when I was training a lot and competing and getting ready to fight, it was very different. It's only been seven years, but it has improved so much. They had the first-ever women's boxing in the Olympics this past year. Now, they just had the first women's UFC fight. It's just continually improving. And it's not just because of the women; it's also because of the men out there who have been training partners and coaches and who have taken a lot of these fighters seriously.

Doors open for Feminism & Co. at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at the MCA, 1485 Delgany Street; the program begins at 6:30. Tickets for that night are $17, $12 for members. Tickets for the full program, which runs Thursdays through April 11, are $89 ($59 for museum members). For more information, visit www.mcadenver.org or call 303-298-7554.

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