I know what you mean +Susan Sons
. Having worked in the merchant marine for 16 years before finally hanging up my sea boots it was people ashore who seemed more fascinated by a "woman at sea" than those I actually worked with. The later were more concerned if I could do the job (and that applied to anyone, not just woman). Like you I could be nice and soft, but the moment anyone stepped out of line then people would discover that just because I was polite didn't mean I lacked the ability to hold discipline.
People of both genders often talk about the confidence their martial art has given them in all aspects of their life. There is certainly a mental development as well as the physical side. And if mentally confident, then people think twice before inflicting violence.
I do wonder if places which offer, "women only classes," help or hinder the inclusion of woman in martial arts? Now there is a thought. I was approached by a muslim lady once who asked if we did female only classes. She wasn't worried about training with men, she just wanted to be able to take her head scarf off because she knew she'd get hot!