These Womens Rights Activists Trained As Blackbelts To Beat Up Cops

Suffragettes around the world endured a lot; they had to fight hard for the right to vote. Did you know that suffragettes fighting for that right in Britain literally learned to fight to do it, though? Beginning in the 1900s, members of the Women's Freedom League (WFL) and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England learned martial arts to defend themselves from cops, naysayers, and anyone else that stood in their way. Edith Garrud, one of the few female martial arts experts at the time, instructed and protected these women, and she trained "The Bodyguards," or the wing of the Union tasked with keeping fugitive suffragettes safe.

Fierce, determined, and armed with combat tactics the likes of which most men didn't think women could ever carry out, these formidable members of the women's movement fighting with their own brand of protection used "suffrajitsu" to defend themselves and their equality. From hunger strikes to martial arts in the streets, these women were a force to be reckoned with.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

  • The Women's Social And Political Union Was Founded By Emmeline Pankhurst In 1903

    The Women's Social And Political Union Was Founded By Emmeline Pankhurst In 1903
    Photo: BBC Radio 4 / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    It's impossible to identify the beginning of a movement to give women the right to vote because the "beginning" of what is called the first wave of feminism is notoriously tricky to pin down, but after the revolutions of the 18th century and the spread of modern democracy, calls for political equality became much louder and more widespread. In England, women had been granted the right to vote in local elections in the 1880s but remained devoid of national voting rights.

    Political activist Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union in Manchester with the intent of heightening women's involvement in the suffrage movement. Pankhurst, née Gouldon, married Richard Pankhurst, a liberal lawyer who supported women's suffrage, in 1879. They had five children, and both were active in politics during the late 19th century. Pankhurst and her husband organized the Women's Franchise League (WFL) before Pankhurst founded the women-only WSPU in 1903.

  • WSPU Was One Of Several Groups Working For Women's Right To Vote

    There were 17 official women's suffrage organizations in late-19th-century England that came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies or NUWSS in either 1887 or 1897 (probably the latter). Led by Millicent Fawcett beginning in 1890, the NUWSS was a non-violent group that tried to bring about change through constitutional methods. Fawcett and her followers thought that protest and militarized actions were counter-productive, but during the first decade of the 20th century, many began to believe that the conservative route of the NUWSS wasn't working.

    Pankhurst's WSPU – and its slogan "Deeds Not Words" – represented a more active approach.

  • Emmeline Pankhurst And The Other Suffragettes Needed Protection

    Emmeline Pankhurst And The Other Suffragettes Needed Protection
    Photo: RV1864 / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    With their mantra and methods of protest, the WSPU quickly found themselves in violent, dangerous, and heated situations. Pankhurst and other "suffragettes" as they became known, staged demonstrations, vandalized things, and went on hunger strikes in their efforts to gain support and get attention for the cause. As a result, many were arrested and found themselves in and out of prison – not to mention brutalized in the process. 

  • Edith Garrud Ran A Jiu Jitsu School With Her Husband

    Garrud had a lot to offer the suffragettes given her background in martial arts and overall athleticism. Edith Williams, born in 1872, met a physical culture instructor – he taught wrestling and boxing – named William Garrud in 1892. She began training with him, and the two married in 1893.

    They moved to London and attended jiu jitsu demonstrations put on by E.W. Baron-Wright. Baron-Wright's version of jiu jitsu, which he called Bartitsu, fascinated them. Baron-Wright's martial art offered the possibility of a relatively small individual being able to protect, defend, and overpower a larger opponent through techniques that threw off equilibrium with a hardy helping of the art of surprise. Edith, only 4' 11" tall, was particularly intrigued.

    The Garruds signed up for Baron-Wright's classes and eventually became jiu jitsu instructors themselves. They opened a gymnasium, and Edith began working with suffragettes, giving them the skills to defend themselves.  

  • Edith Garrud Was Involved With Both The WFL And The WSPU

    Edith Garrud first demonstrated self-defense movements and holds for the Women's Freedom League during the earliest years of the 20th century. Garrud organized the athletic club of the WFL and became involved in the Women's Social and Political Union in 1908 when she started offering classes to suffragettes. Garrud articulated her thoughts about the treatment of suffragettes, which was increasingly violent and difficult for her to watch, in an article published in Health and Strength magazine:

    "A woman who knows ju-jutsu, even though she may not be physically strong, even though she may not have even an umbrella or parasol, is not helpless. I will show you in a series of pictures how easily she may get the better of an assailant. I know many women personally who have tried the tricks I shall explain to you and come out on top. They have brought great burly cowards nearly twice their size to their feet and made them howl for mercy."

  • Garrud Wrote A Play About Women Defending Themselves

    What Every Woman Ought To Know, or Ju-Jutsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play with a Moral, was a one-act play by Edith Garrud that emphasized jiu jitsu as a skill that women needed. In the play, a woman defends herself against the violent advances of her husband over and over again, using jiu jitsu. In contrast to the large, muscular male figure, the woman is small and seemingly helpless, but she takes down the man at every turn. The husband and wife reconcile in the end, but the message that Garrud wanted to get across – the one about taming her husband – puts the man in his place when all is said and done.