Cindy Coughenhour teaches self-defense to protect women
Cindy Coughenour (center) teaches a group of young women self-defense techniques at Wichita State University’s Heskett Center. Coughenour’s Fearless and Female course is built around defense moves that don’t require strength or size. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

This story briefly references sexual assault and violence against women.

If a guy looking for an easy target saw a petite, older woman like Cindy Coughenour walking down a deserted street in Wichita, he might think he’s found his next victim. He would be wrong. 

She would already be aware of him walking toward her and she would be planning her escape. With her purse across her body and her hands free, she would make eye contact, signaling, “I see you.”  

Should he move menacingly toward her, she would throw out her open hands and shout “NO, GET BACK!” and yell and scream as loud as possible to draw attention. Her goal would be to get away. But failing that, she would not hesitate to “fight like a girl,” using methods that also work for older women and do not take strength so much as savvy.

These are the methods she teaches in her high-energy Fearless and Female classes, where students learn woman-friendly personal safety and practical self-defense techniques.

How one life lost led to protecting women by the thousands

Coughenour founded Fearless and Female in 2001, 24 years after her childhood friend Julie Ladd was murdered in the basement of her Wichita State University residence hall on May 15, 1977. Ladd was 19.

The Wichita Eagle reported on the 40th anniversary of the murder that Leonard L. Bell encountered Ladd in the basement about 1:30 a.m. as she was doing her laundry. According to the Eagle story, Ladd interrupted him trying to steal money from the coin-operated machines. He stabbed and sexually assaulted her. The murder went unsolved for seven years, but Bell eventually received a life sentence and died in prison in 2017.

Coughenour remembers Ladd as a friend, not a victim. She and Ladd lived next door to each other and attended elementary, junior high and high school together before both enrolled at Wichita State. “Julie and I knew how to dance, swim and drive a car, but we didn’t know how to protect our bodies in a dangerous situation.

“I now travel the country teaching women and young girls the lifesaving skills that Julie and I never had the opportunity to learn,” Coughenour said.

She developed self-defense tactics to protect women

She started taking self-defense classes in the 1990s and became certified and trained in several  forms of self-defense. Most of her teachers were men. “They taught us to fight like a man,” Coughenour said, “to overpower our attacker, take them down. I wanted to teach women how to fight just long enough to find a window of opportunity to run away to safety.”

Now in her 22nd year of showing women, girls and teens how to protect themselves, she estimates she has taught thousands to protect themselves.

Coughenour said she sees an increase in calls for classes each time the news reports a jogger or a hiker being abducted off a trail. And her phone rings off the hook, she says, in July and August when mothers start getting ready to send their daughters off to college.

“We don’t have to like it but it’s a fact that simply by being women, we look like a really good target of crime,” she said.

“I tell them to listen to their intuition: it’s rarely wrong. If something feels wrong or creeps you out, be prepared to run away. We have to be aware of our surroundings at all times.”

Young women should also know they do not have to be polite to someone who makes them feel uncomfortable. “Just get away from them,” she said.

For women who can’t get away, Coughenour tells them whether the attacker is in front or behind, reach up and find his ears, putting thumbs in just the right place to gouge his eyes. Then draw his head down to your knees for a hard kick, which rocks him back for a kick to the groin.

Some women have been taught to put their keys between their fingers when walking to use as a weapon if needed. Instead, Coughenour recommends a “stabby kitty,” made of rigid plastic that fits on your first two fingers with sharp “cat ears” as weapons that won’t slip out of your hands like keys. She cautions her students that these are considered weapons and will be confiscated anyplace you go through security.

Other ways to avoid being a victim of crime include keeping the lights on outside your house and putting a big “Beware of Dog” sign on your fence, whether you have a dog or not. Some women who live alone have put a set of big work boots on the front porch or a large rawhide bone in the yard.

Cindy Coughenour demonstrates how to grab at an attacker’s ears and gouge their eyes, as her students look on in amusement. She encourages students to have fun in class and not feel fearful. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Finding the fun in self-defense

Whether a woman has already had a frightening incident or not, most are usually nervous about taking her class. “When they get here, they find they can blend in and have fun joining in,” Coughenour said.

Cecilia Rogers, a real estate agent in Wichita, said the class made her more confident interacting with strangers on her job. “The techniques were simple enough that I could remember how to do them. It was fun. I especially enjoyed shouting, ‘No! Get back!’”

Coughenour uses humor to help her students remember the moves and teaches children who may be grabbed from behind to go “Chihuahua crazy!” if someone tries to pick them up: wiggle, scream, kick, swing your arms.

Wichita mom Chastity Pawloski and her daughter Madilynn first took Cindy’s class when Madilynn was a Daisy Scout. Madalyn is now 15 and they have taken the class three times.

 “Each time we feel more empowered and strong,” Pawloski said. “I feel safer in public knowing I have the skills to protect myself and my friends,” Madilynn said.

Coughenour’s impact sometimes shows up in unusual places. She was recently shopping at Sam’s Club and saw four little girls down the aisle, giggling and looking at her. When they all assumed the “Get Back!” position, she realized they were Girl Scouts she had taught in a 3 a.m. class at an annual sleepover in a shopping mall.

Coughenour has a life beyond self-defense. She has three grown sons and six grandchildren and another passion for hiking. She and friend Jeri Brungardt founded Women Hiking KS and Beyond in 2019. It is an all-female hiking group for ages 12 to 80+ that meets monthly. Coughenour said besides the exercise and getting out to interesting sites around Kansas and surrounding states, she said the benefits include bonds formed that extend beyond the hikes. “Now it’s like a big sisterhood.”

Coughenour will turn 65 on St. Patrick’s Day. She had told herself that this would be the last year for her Fearless and Female classes, but the need is so great, she is already booked into next year.

 “As long as I feel good and I’m having fun, I’ll keep doing it,” she said.

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Cecilia Green is a freelancer covering issues relevant to seniors. She was an award-winning PR director for professional associations in Chicago for 25 years before she and her husband moved back to Wichita...