Swords of Cygnus, a sisterhood of female medieval fighters and the first women's only club of its kind, are at the frontline of gender equality in contact sport. The club, created in 2017 by founding members Jo Booth, Sofie Maceanruig and Steph Kiddle, has grown significantly in the last few years.
"The importance and difference with our club is that our governing body is made up of women. Women are making the decisions. Women are seen in leadership positions. It’s women who are coaching," says Booth, who is also the national field captain for the UK club.
This attention to providing space for women is demonstrated through their recruitment and training process. A process that has been tailored to put wellbeing at its heart. The entire concept of safety in a sport that is centred around battles may be hard to grasp.
"The entire process is consent-based. We have these open sessions where we will cater to absolutely everyone and you only do what you want to do. You do as much as you enjoy," says Booth. The club has also spent years creating a slower development program in which the needs of their fellow women are centred.
"It’s taken years for us to realise how to encourage women, how to make them stay, how to make them feel safe. This is always something that a lot of people ask because it sounds bizarre," she says. "You are doing a full-contact fighting sport – why would you want to feel safe? But safe means a lot of things, particularly to women and we have created an environment where they feel comfortable," she adds.
One of the first aims of the club was to create female-only trainings. These trainings weren’t enough to make women feel safe on their own, because as Booth highlights, she was still running trainings like she had been shown to - like the men do. Nevertheless, they were a vital part of encouraging women to commit themselves to the sport.
"When I first started fighting, we were fighting against the men and that’s something that we have almost eliminated completely from the UK because it just isn’t a good way to start in the sport. A lot of women went into clubs – fought against men and ended up leaving. Some have since come back which is because there is now a female-only space," Booth says.
The way that Swords of Cygnus now carry out their training is gradual. "On your day one, you are not going to be put into a suit of armour and thrown from the nest. It’s slower and more controlled," she says. This means that when women do put the armour on for the first time, they are ready for it psychologically.
As a result of this evident care and dedication, the women involved are as committed to one another as they are to the sport.
However, it’s not for everyone. Booth says that: "It’s so opposite to how women feel they should be. Once you put a full suit of armour on and you have to aggress against someone else in a fight, that’s the love it or hate it moment and people either stay or go."
For Booth, her armour is synonymous with confidence, having built up her courage both on and off the pitch through the anonymity and power she feels when wearing it.
"Initially I feel like I enjoyed it because I could hide behind the armour. I could be absolutely anyone. I’ve been through the same as many other women in terms of feeling negative about my body and in the armour, you can’t even tell if I’m a woman or if I’m not, I can just be a fighter," she says. "Now it’s different, I’m not hiding behind it, I feel like it is an important part of my identity. I feel very confident when I wear it - when I’m putting it on for a big competition it’s almost like a ritual."
Booth is a key to the fight for women’s involvement in the sport, establishing the UK team as among the best in the world. Countries routinely approach her and ask about how to recruit, train, and develop a team.
"I’ve not done it alone, I’ve followed on from others before me, but I’ve worked so hard for so long and we really have forced through a lot of changes and opened the sport up to women."
This is from the Kindred. Identity issue, out now. Purchase the copy through the link here.