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Many lawmakers are experienced at sparring over political issues on the House floor. Rep. Karen Bass is experienced at a much more literal kind of combat. With brown belts in tae kwon do and hapkido, the California Democrat came to Congress ready to fight, if necessary.
Bass cited “life” as what motivated her to study martial arts, “especially life as a woman.”
Growing up, she turned to martial arts to find confidence and a sense of security in a time “before terms like sexual harassment were a part of our vocabulary,” she said. “I started training because I needed it for self-defense.”
Bass explained that martial arts gave her the confidence to tackle leadership roles, first in community activism and then in elected office, at a time when women less frequently occupied those roles.
“The role of women was definitely very challenging,” she said, “so having the self-confidence from being able to protect myself was very helpful.”
But Bass didn’t begin her studies of martial arts unprepared.
“Having three brothers, you tend to kind of know how to defend yourself anyway,” she said.
In addition to her brothers, Bass said her time spent studying ballet prepared her for martial arts.
“I took ballet classes to build up strength and then went into martial arts,” she explained.
Initially, Bass said, she decided to study the Korean martial art of tae kwon do, a decision she attributes to the art’s focus on legs rather than on upper-body strength.
“It really wasn’t very fashionable for a woman to be developed musclewise in her upper body,” she said. “I didn’t want to look like a bodybuilder.”
She then added hapkido to her repertoire. “Hapkido combined some work with your hands along with your legs,” she explained.
In addition to learning self-defense while studying martial arts and sparring with classmates, Bass learned how to manage conflict.
“You try to resolve a conflict,” she said, “and if you can’t, then you fight.”
Bass said one of the main lessons she took away from her martial-arts background was the importance of respect during matches, a ritual that bears a striking resemblance to the “my good friend” nature of Congressional debate.
“You smile and bow before you fight, you fight like heck, and when it’s done, you smile and bow again,” she said of the sparring tradition. “You learn how to be respectful but fight at the same time.”
For Bass, who no longer regularly studies martial arts, the lessons remain easily applicable to the political realm.
“For me, the lesson learned from that is that I can have political differences, but I do not have to personalize,” she said. “I can be opposed to you, and I don’t have to yell and scream.”