When my friend Brandy asked me to accompany her to a “women’s arm wrestling event” a few months ago I happily obliged. As it turned out I was about to participate in the first ever meeting of the “Boston Arm Wrestling Dames,” or BAWD, a local branch of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW).
I recently came across two posts by Salty Eggs’ staff writer Tara Nieuwesteeg that tackled the sport – particularly whether events like the one I attended – are feminist in nature. In the first post, “Ladies Arm Wrestling is a Thing,” Nieuwesteeg writes:
It’s not completely clear why this is a feminist endeavor. Yes, it’s females doing something cool. As with roller derby, here are a shit-ton of like-minded people who probably feel very strongly on things like reproductive rights, equal work for equal pay, women’s healthcare, and a general message of promoting women as people. Don’t get me wrong: What they’re doing is awesome. But should ladies’ arm wrestling really take off (which I suspect it will), it would be nice to see these women use their collective arm strength for something not just awesome, but maybe a little bigger, too.
In the original posting, Nieuwesteeg’s commentary was prompted as a reaction to a NYT article that called the sport “feminist.” However, after hearing from participants, and supporters of CLAW and its chapters, she was still hesitant to apply the label, titling a follow up post, Is Lady Arm Wrestling Feminist? Yes, But…
As with many commenters on the original article I was unsure about why Nieuwesteeg questions whether these events are feminist in nature. She answered, in the follow up, by addressing commenters and arm wrestlers directly:““Calling something “feminism” just because it consists of women doing something fun and bad-ass isn’t enough anymore.””
The mission of CLAW is to “empower women and strengthen local communities through theater, arm wrestling, and philanthropy.” Yet somehow, this mission falls short of feminism in Nieuwesteeg’s view because it is somehow not enough or perhaps too frivolous.
Here’s where I disagree with her – and with the “but” in the title. As I posted on twitter, there’s always room for any of us to do more or do bigger , but what does “bigger” mean? And what qualifies as big enough to be feminist? While CLAW is fairly young as an organization, it’s had an impressive impact in its short existence – and it continues to grow at a rapid pace with leagues springing up all over the country. (Boston is about to host it’s second “brawl” and has already had to switch to a much larger venue).
Poking around on the CLAW main site, and visiting the sites and pages of a few other affiliated chapters, it’s easy to see the reach the wrestlers and these events have had. During the inaugural event I mentioned earlier, the Boston arm wrestlers raised $2,000 for Elizabeth Stone House, a local charity that works with homeless families and helps victims of domestic violence. CLAW reports over $175,000 raised for charities ranging from domestic violence shelters, family planning advocates, rape crisis centers, LGBTQ organizations, and many many more.
I would argue that CLAW, and its spinoff organizations, are not about just fun and bad-assery (and even if they were, why does that exclude them from feminism). At their core, the arm wrestling events that CLAW puts on are about empowering women whether through entertainment or advocacy – and I fail to see what is not feminist about that. Moreover, womens’ arm wrestling is a subversive form of entertainment. Having attended a bout in my home city, I can say, confidently, that this is not anything near what you’ll find on main stream television – this is not male-gaze driven entertainment – it’s about women’s voices.
I find something inherently troubling and dangerous for feminism as a whole if, within the movement, we are questioning the identities of those participating in events like womens’ arm wrestling bouts. CLAW provides a safe space for women to embody characters, satirize pop culture, politics and current events, while socializing and effecting meaningful change in their own communities. Why, I wonder, does it seem to Nieuwesteeg that these things need to be exclusive?
While I don’t believe it was the intention, Nieuwesteeg’s posts are indicative of a problematic and exclusionary attitude prevalent in the overall movement today. Personally, I find it neither productive, nor helpful, to question the identity of anyone who self identifies as feminist or to infer that their own particular brand of activism is lesser because it does not meet some as yet determined standard.
As women (and feminists) we’ve got enough on our plates finding our own spaces and making our voices heard – does publicly diminishing the efforts of other women, by suggesting they “do more,” really help? There’s a suggestion in here that the women involved in arm wrestling events do more – without really knowing, fully, what it is that they all do, or are inspired to do by these events, in the first place.