Defensive dueling

From the 11 April 1913 Winnipeg Free Press:

Fought Duel with Knives

Fort William, Ont., April 10.—Mrs. M. Benjamine, aged 18, a Persian, and Sam Jacobs, 29, fought a duel with knives in the woman’s home today. Both are in the hospital, the woman with a gash in the abdomen and the man with 18 wounds in the chest and stomach. The woman may recover but the man has little chance. Mrs. Benjamine stated Jacobs attacked her.

A subsequent story reveals that both recovered and Jacobs, a boarder in the Benjamin house, was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. Benjamin’s husband “declares she risked her life to save her honor,” confirming a not particularly surprising sexual angle to the story.

The use of the word “duel” is interesting to me. There are many ways in which it simply feels incorrect: it carries connotations of ritualized, mutually-acceptable violence, not self-defense, and a somewhat equal footing between antagonists (e.g. comparable weaponry). I wonder if the fact that Benjamin was Persian affected the writing of that initial story, that a woman who is sufficiently Other can be involved in so masculine an activity as dueling. But then there’s the honor issue. That was at the heart of dueling…and a disproportionate (often exclusive) amount of a woman’s honor has traditionally been seen as residing between her legs. So in that respect, maybe the word “duel” is appropriate.

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