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 shit.
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.”
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.”
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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.
Classes were abuzz with talk of missing girls. Women spoke about cutting their hair short, since so many of Bundy’s victims had long brown hair. Kathy Reid, who was 19 years old when she joined FKU in 1974, can still remember the fear that was so pervasive at the time: “I remember a lot of those girls’ names that disappeared.” Reid herself was being stalked by an ex-boyfriend, and she lived in the University District where Bundy was targeting many of his victims. At that point, the police actively discouraged women from fighting back against attackers; the idea was just to submit to the attack and hope for the best. Women felt like they had nowhere to turn, and the bustling college town had devolved into panic and paranoia. “I was having nightmares about him, about all of what was going on in Seattle. Just a lot of fear and anxiety around getting assaulted,” Reid says.
It was similarly personal for Kathy Greenwood. She joined FKU in 1973, having recently survived a string of traumas. She had been mugged on the street, held captive by an abusive boyfriend, and raped by two strangers, all within the span of a year. She’d moved to Hawaii to recover, only to suffer a near-death experience there that sent her back to Seattle. Upon her return, a friend signed her up for Bateman’s class. “Before everything that happened to me, I had not really been involved with feminism,” says the soft-spoken Greenwood. The group quickly became a refuge for her. It was she who came up with the name Feminist Karate Union, also known as FKU, a play on “fuck you” if you say it fast.
While some students came exclusively to learn self-defense tactics, many, like Greenwood and Reid, wanted to immerse themselves further in the world of martial arts. Tournaments were the highlights of this period. FKU did well. “I’m going to take some credit for the growth of women in male-dominated [karate] schools around the area,” Bateman chuckles. “When they saw my students winning, their little capitalist brains thought, ‘Oh, there’s another market.’ Women started getting better training everywhere, and I think that’s because they saw my students.”
These early tournaments were often messy affairs, but always memorable. Bateman would get into spats with judges who called the students girls instead of women. Suzanne Mitten, FKU’s first black belt after Bateman, often showed up on zero sleep after working all-night shifts (she’d “sleep later,” Reid remembers her saying). During the 1974 women’s tournament in Wisconsin, some students went to the Women’s March in Madison, met some local ladies and went on a wild night out where they learned “The Bump” (an iconic 1970s dance move where one jumps to the side and bumps hips with a partner). The group credits themselves with bringing the move from the Midwest to the dance clubs of Seattle. Greenwood broke her big toe during that tournament, but when the time came to celebrate afterward, she made it to the dive bar regardless. Pitchers flowed. “We were literally swinging from the rafters of the bar,” says Greenwood. “We could be wild.” In the end, she recalls, she was drunk enough that she left her trophy on a street corner.
Greenwood used to pass her ID back to Linda Kenoyer so that she could get into the post-tournament celebrations. Kenoyer was 18 at the time and the self-described baby of the group. She had just dropped out of college and hitchhiked across the country, making it to Seattle the year the Bundy murders started. “Violence and the fear of violence is a part of women’s lives. We all experience it on some level,” says Kenoyer. “I was a hippie and I was a cab driver and I was a feminist and I was out in the world and I refused to let the fact that I had the fear of violence keep me from doing anything.” She went on to become one of Seattle’s first female firefighters. Kathy Greenwood was one of the first women to work security at the Seattle shipyards. Kathy Reid worked at one of the first women’s clinics in Seattle, and when she became a mother, her daughter spent so much time in the dojo while her mother trained that she learned to count in Japanese before she did in English.
Bateman had always encouraged ambition in her students, and almost all of these women ended up getting their black belts. Some even became instructors at the dojo for a time and came to help Bateman in the wake of her attack. Most have moved out of Seattle and drifted away from their former karate teammates by now, but they all still attend the annual FKU demonstration when possible.
When I arrive at the dojo, it immediately feels like home. The instructors are endlessly patient. The echoes of encouragement are juxtaposed with a chorus of punching bag slaps. Women unsheathe weapons while asking you how your day was. Moments after I walk in, they give me a blue T-shirt with the signature FKU logo on it: a fist punching through the circle at the center of the female cross symbol.
FKU is now an established karate school with a tournament schedule, a master sensei in Hawaii, and lots of doting parents who sign up their kids. Much of this is due to the work of Sensei Aleeta Van Petten, current chief instructor and the last student at FKU to learn karate from Py Bateman herself before Bateman retired.
“Martial arts teach you to do things you never thought you could do,” says Van Petten. “I was always kind of fearful of going places if I was alone, but with karate I developed a sort of confidence and now people don’t mess with me.”
All of the sensei, both past and present, echo the sentiment that without Van Petten FKU could have easily fallen apart at the seams in the 1990s or early 2000s. The money, personal resources and countless hours Van Petten has committed to the organization have secured its survival whenever enrollment has stalled.
“I had to keep the school going for the women,” says Van Petten. “I saw a lot of women who had no self-esteem, who had been abused, and I couldn’t teach every woman in the world how to defend themselves or how to stand up for themselves … but I could teach a few.”
Van Petten, like Bateman before her, rules with an iron fist. “Aleeta is a straight shooter,” says Sensei Judy Lytle. “She does not take it easy on anyone, and she’ll tell you if you are doing something stupid.”
When Lytle first joined, she was experienced in karate, but her background was in an alternative Korean style, making her “very much the new kid.” Van Petten started coaching her one-on-one before class in preparation for her black belt test. When she passed the test, she assumed the coaching sessions would stop. “Nope. Every week she still shows up and pushes me,” says Lytle, tidying up her already perfectly slicked-back ponytail.
FKU is still an all-women’s school, with the exception of its kids’ classes, which welcome all gender identities and allow boys to stay if they understand and promote the dojo’s feminist values. Over the last year, they have been working on doing outreach to the LGBTQIA+ community and communities of color. Many students have found solace in this commitment to FKU’s founding principles.
“My first dojo wasn’t a super healthy training environment, especially for a teenage girl,” says Nikia Fenlin Antioquia, the current president of FKU’s board. When she trained with guys who didn’t want to hit women, her trainer would goad the boys into action. “Don’t let a girl beat you!” she remembers him shouting. “He would try to get them angry in order to hit me.”
Students and sensei alike speak of the confidence learning karate at FKU has given them. For Kiera Azar, who is visually impaired, karate has given her confidence in her body, especially as she’s gotten older. She remembers walking into FKU in 2006, unsure if she was going to be able to manage a sport that depends on a keen sense of coordination — but 14 years later, she is on the road to earning a black belt. “I feel like I’m more able to get out my door. I’m less willing to sit at home. I have more confidence to be out in the world.”
Cheerie Truong initially came to FKU for her daughter, hoping karate could help change the girl’s trajectory after she experienced intense bullying at school. “[My daughter] had low self-confidence partly because of the way I was raised,” Truong says. “[I was] raised to never talk back to parents or adults. It is rude — you don’t express what you want to say [or] what you need.”
At first, Truong’s daughter resisted the sport. She went to class unenthused and begged to quit after just a few days. Truong asked her to give it a month. Soon, her daughter started asking to come back to class. Truong was thankful to see her daughter open up and find a passion that challenged her — so Truong decided to give it a try herself.
“I had always wanted to join,” says Truong with a coy smile. She has been training for almost four years now and intends to become a sensei herself one day.
The Feminist Karate Union has lasted for nearly five decades and will continue to shift and adjust. It is currently weathering the pandemic by teaching karate classes via Zoom and socially distanced in the park. Its students and sensei have remained doggedly determined, in FKU’s typical style. Despite its scrappiness over the years, not all of today’s students know FKU’s turbulent history: its origins in women’s lib organizations, its relationship to Seattle’s most notorious serial killer, Bateman’s defiance of the dojo’s master sensei. Some have looked through the old photos of FKU marching in Pride Parades or talked casually with Van Petten about the early days, but a lot of the current students aren’t even sure if the Py Bateman they’ve heard about is still alive.
Bateman (who is very much alive) has watched FKU persevere throughout a number of catastrophic historical moments. She founded the group simply to give women a fighting chance. “We just wanted to help women strike their independence, determine their own lives,” Bateman says. FKU was always bigger than her and her original class of students. It was born out of women’s discontent and rage. That rage remains relevant today. Speaking about the current political climate, Bateman’s demeanor changes: “I’ve never been more scared than I am now.”
When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, class sizes at FKU doubled. Sarah Hein was a part of this “Trump Bump,” as she calls it. Her beginners’ class was the biggest the dojo had seen in a few years, and its connection to the political moment mirrors the infamous “Bundy Bump” that FKU experienced in 1974. Women came for a variety of reasons. Some felt hopeless, some scared about the future, but most felt angry.
Hein had seen “Feminist Karate Union” printed on a friend’s T-shirt ages ago, but after the 2016 election she immediately enrolled in a beginners’ class. “Women are taught like, ‘Oh I don’t want to hurt anybody … I don’t want to seem too aggressive,’” she says. But now the kiai scream is one of Hein’s favorite techniques.
Kiai is the Japanese term for a shout, yell or war cry. It is used to declare your fighting spirit. It’s a tool to reassure yourself, intimidate opponents and showcase your desire to prevail in whatever circumstances you are facing. At the beginning, being loud didn’t come naturally to Hein. “I didn’t want to go too overboard, so I [thought], ‘I’m just going to giggle this off and do it half-assed,’” she recalls. “That’s super lame because that is not how you learn to effectively defend yourself.” Now Hein unleashes her guttural kiai unabashedly.
There is something radical about a group of otherwise polite and agreeable women in a room screaming. It was something I didn’t know I missed until I walked through the door.
When I showed up to FKU’s studio last summer, it was my first karate class in 10 years, and I was nervous. I came to karate through my mother, who got her black belt as a teenager in Yugoslavia. In the 1980s, she participated in karate competitions across Eastern Europe — and was an undeniable talent. When civil war erupted in the 1990s, my family fled to Canada. Karate was off the table. My mother had three jobs and three young children and little chance of returning to the sport at the level she had left it. Instead, she enrolled my two younger sisters and me as soon as she could. I was 5 when I started.
Karate irrevocably altered the way I thought about my body. As a little girl, I was enamored of my strength and proud of my calloused knuckles. At that age, it was my earnest belief that if I ever got into a scary situation, my karate skills would be what got me out of it. I pitied the idiot who dared to kidnap me from the playground because I knew exactly what soft fleshy parts of his body could be destroyed by my roundhouse kick. My skills have grown rusty since then, but the basics have not totally left me.
“It feels good to hit something, doesn’t it?” Sensei Judy Lytle asks me with a wink during my last class of the weekend. I’m sweating. There’s an angry face made of duct tape on the punching bag I’ve been practicing on. For the final exercise of the class, each student gets a full minute to unleash upon the bag. This is the time to go as hard as you physically can, with a kiai after each hit.
I’m hesitant about my punches and the sound of my screams, but as soon as I start, my fear is replaced with strength. I had forgotten what that felt like. Sensei Lytle calls out my time. I’m only 15 seconds in. I’m already exhausted, but I keep going.