I've taken a lot of self-defense classes over the years. I've taken gun classes, knife classes, pepper spray classes, and more physical self-defense classes than you could shake a stick at. Some were absolutely incredible! Some were...less so. And that's probably the nature of any topic you decided to really make a study of; there's good, bad, and anywhere in between. But it can make it really challenging if you're new to self-defense and you're looking for a good, effective class.
I'll probably catch some flak for saying this, but the field of self-defense can actually be quite cliquey and even borderline snobbish. There are a lot of instructors out there who believe they have the one and only style that is worthwhile, and everyone else out there is drastically inferior. There are martial arts instructors who literally sneer at the entire field of self-defense, insisting that the only way a woman can learn to defend herself is to invest in years of training - in their school, of course.
The reality is, there is no one nationwide entity that licenses and oversees self-defense instructors. There are many smaller organizations that certify instructors in their own specific style, but even that only has the meaning that the organization themselves ascribe to it. There is no standard self-defense class; you may see anywhere from two-hours seminars up to a full-semester class.
The first thing I would encourage you to consider when looking for self-defense classes is what their overall philosophy is. The basis of a women's self-defense class should always be feminist in nature. They should understand the dynamics of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking - AND they should understand that a victim is never at fault for being abused. Many women never give a thought to self-defense until they or someone they know has been victimized. This means that any given self-defense class is likely to have a high number of survivors present, and a self-defense class should always be geared toward giving that woman her power back, not telling her what she did "wrong" or what she "should have" done. The only person responsible for an attack is the person who chose to assault another human being. Any instructor that does not understand that inherently is NOT a good instructor. Period.
A good self-defense class should be way more than just physical training. Obviously that's a vital component (and a fun one!), but our ultimate self-defense goal is to help you not be targeted in the first place. That means a good class will teach you about predators and the predator mindset, situational awareness, basic assertiveness skills, general safety strategies, verbal confrontation skills, and physical presence.
How about the gender of the instructors? I've taken classes from males who were terrific instructors. I've also, unfortunately, taken a lot of classes from male instructors who like to show off all kinds of fancy moves that work great when your opponent is of equal size, stature, and strength....but that didn't work for me as a woman at all. As women, any attacker we're facing is likely to be bigger and stronger that we are. Overall the quality of a class has less to do with gender and more to do with the knowledge base, attitude, and philosophy of the instructor. You need to consider, first of all, what are you personally comfortable with? A female instructor in an all-female class can provide an atmosphere where participants are comfortable practicing and they're comfortable talking about their experiences. But it can certainly be helpful to have a male instructor to practice against. There's not necessarily a right or wrong answer for this aspect; the right answer is the one that YOU are most comfortable with.
Most of us were taught "stranger danger" growing up, and it has stuck with us as adults. And there are strangers out there that can be incredibly dangerous. However, as women we are far more likely to be targeted for violence by acquaintances. When you think about all the safety tips you're given (park in a well-lit area, look in the backseat of your car before you get in, etc.) they're all geared toward strangers. No one tells us how to watch out for the people that are already in our lives. A good self-defense instructor knows this, and will be able to educate you on the real red flags to watch out for, and provide real safety options to protect against those threats.
When we become adrenalized, as we would in an attack scenario, our fine motor skills tend to go out the window. That means unless you practice the technique a lot, many of the locking techniques and techniques requiring those fine motor skills will simply not be there when you need them. Good self-defense classes will teach you large body movements that are easy to perform and easy to remember. But we're still going to encourage you to practice, practice, practice!
A lot of us are not in the greatest of shape. Many of us have disabilities. Some of us are just incredibly short or obese or any other number of things that may affect how we perform a technique. A technique that works perfectly every time for one student may be one that another student is completely unable to perform. The best instructors can work with individuals on helping them either modify a technique or come up with a completely different one that WILL work for them.
There are no guarantees when it comes to self-defense. Anyone who offers you "guaranteed success" is feeding you a line of crap. Overall, women's self-defense is very effective. Women who fight back against an attacker are able to get away successfully four times out of five. The odds are in your favor - but there is no guarantee. But remember what I said earlier - a good class is going to be teaching you how to minimize your risk of even being targeted!
When you take a self-defense class, I want it to be something that educates you about the real, actual threats that you face. I want it to inspire you. I want you to walk away from it feeling empowered, feeling confident, feeling aware without being scared. So get out there and be that bad-ass gal that I know you can be!