Liz Donovan (right) demonstrating the ‘wrist release’ to Brittany Bates (left)

What I learned in a women’s self defense class and a Q&A with our instructor Liz

SpareFoot recently held two women’s self-defense seminars to provide Women of SpareFoot with the starting skills and practices needed to stay in control of our bodies and personal space.

The classes were led by SpareFoot’s own Liz Donovan, a UX Researcher by day and bad-ass martial artist by night. We focused on ways to de-escalate a situation and remove yourself from harm. This is very different from a “you can make this guy submit” approach. I liked having an approach that focused on ending a confrontation as opposed to escalating one.

I wanted to understand how Liz became interested in women’s self defense, why she likes this model of self-defense, and what drives her to spread this knowledge to other women.

Before I get to that, a few of things I learned in the class:

Voice is a powerful tool — If you’ve never done it, practice yelling “Stop!” as someone walks towards you. This is a great exercise to do in order to get in the habit of controlling your personal space. It is incredibly empowering and there’s a pretty good chance they stop.

Strength isn’t everything — Body positioning and leverage matter when you’re trying to remain in control. We practiced turning sideways to make ourselves smaller and leaning forward so our hips were away from a potential grab. It was great to remember that even though I may be smaller or weaker than a potential attacker, I’ve got options.

I’m worth protecting — Women’s bodies are often treated as objects that are moved around even if intended to be helpful. I have a right to control that and to to stop people from coming into my personal space. So do you.

Q&A with Liz Donovan

How did you get started with Women’s Self Defense?

I think most women can identify with this experience: I used to get a lot of email forwards from well-meaning family members with horror stories about terrible things that happen to women who are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Women are trained from an early age to be looking over their shoulder, holding their keys between their knuckles, and to always be prepared for some creep to jump out of nowhere. Beyond the extreme sadness I feel for women who have been made into victims, there’s a frustration and fury on behalf of my gender. I want to be able to jog, take out the trash, and live a normal life without constantly ‘looking out.’

When my instructors at Austin Kung Fu Academy introduced the Women Empowered program that is rooted in Jiu Jitsu, I was really excited because I felt like these were things people could learn regardless of interest in a long-term martial arts commitment.

I was also excited about this program in particular because it is a program. I’ve been enrolled in martial arts classes since I was a teenager and had never heard anything beyond a one-time class for pure self-defense. I think this program works because it’s a series of techniques that are approachable, but also that it teaches a mindset that you are worth defending, and you can defend yourself, no matter what your size or strength.

What, if anything, has changed now that you’ve learned self defense?

The way this program is structured instills some quick answers to refer to if you’re in a bad situation. If this, then that. If that doesn’t work, reassess and try another technique for solving the puzzle. From simply getting my wrist back from someone trying to lead me around to getting away from an aggressive sexual assault, I have an answer. Practicing these self-defense techniques has got me to the point where I don’t really have to think in order to remove myself from a bad situation. Your body knows what to do, which in a moment of surprise and/or fear, is exactly what you need.

What change do you see in women who have taken the class?

Seeing the realization dawn on someone’s face that they can easily defend themselves is so gratifying to me. I love teaching the class for this very reason. Seeing this across all ages and body types is so wonderful. And the feeling of community that develops around this is just so great; people feel supported and get so excited about coming back to class each week.

What made you want to teach a class at SpareFoot?

I did the workshop this year as a gateway to spread the word about the techniques with the hope of attracting people to the program so they can experience the full benefit. We do the class at the AKFA studio, but I understand that not everyone can make that kind of commitment. So I decided to bring it to my coworkers with the hope of giving them an easy path to physical empowerment.

What advice would you give women (or men) reading this article who want to learn how to defend themselves?

My advice to anyone who’s interested in self-defense, whether it’s this program tailored to women or a program for any adult that wants to learn to subdue aggressive attackers, is start. Go to a class and try it. Bring a friend to motivate you to keep going and make it a less intimidating environment.

The other piece of advice is to practice. You need to practice in a place you feel calm and comfortable so that when you need it and are less clear-headed, you’ll have the ability to execute a technique. For that reason, a series of classes is always going to serve you better than a one-time workshop.

If you’re interested in the program Liz teaches, you can learn more at:


Women of SpareFoot’s mission is to develop, support, and empower women at SpareFoot and have SpareFoot be known externally as a champion of women who work.

Beth Kelly

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Women of SpareFoot’s mission is to develop, support, and empower women at SpareFoot and have SpareFoot be known externally as a champion of women who work.