Women Warriors Series: The Ju-jitsu Suffragettes

The Suffragette that Knew Jiu-Jitsu. The Arrest. By Arthur Wallis Mills, originally published in 1910 in Punch and The Wanganui Chronicle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ju-jitsu Suffragettes

Just over a hundred years ago, a number of women who belonged to The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) spearheaded the campaign for women’s suffrage in England from 1897 to 1928. It was a simple request for the right to vote, and for representation in the political system. Due to the complete and utter refusal of the government at the time, women who were part of the WSPU turned to drastic measures:

The term “suffragette” is particularly associated with activists in the British WSPU, led by the Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who were influenced by Russian methods of protest such as hunger strikes. Other tactics employed by members of the WSPU included; chaining themselves to railings to provoke an arrest, pouring harsh chemicals into mailboxes, breaking windows at prestige buildings and night-time arson at unoccupied buildings. Many suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway Prison in London, and were force-fed after going on hunger strike.

three Suffragettes preparing to chain themselves to railings in 1909.
Three Suffragettes preparing to chain themselves to railings in 1909 (Museum of London)

The strikingly dickish government at the time (including a younger, always-an-asshole, hardcore racist Churchill), and the Queen, thought that the vote was as necessary to women as dysentery to troop morale.  Laws such as the Cat and Mouse Act (1913) were passed, so that suffragettes who went on hunger strike were released from prison, then rearrested as soon as they had regained their health. There were even public beatings of women by the police:

A Suffragette struggling with a policeman on Black Friday 18 November 1910.  (Museum of London Prints)
A Suffragette struggling with a policeman on Black Friday 18 November 1910. (Museum of London Prints)

On 18 November 1910, for instance, a date which became known as Black Friday, Emmeline Pankhurst led 300 women to the House of Commons in a peaceful protest. There, they were met by police, and reported being beaten and sexually assaulted. One woman, quoted in Marlow’s anthology, said: “Constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowd passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example … My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as he wished.” She later had to seek medical attention for the bruising on her chest.


The arrests and beatings continued, and so the Pankhurst sisters and other suffragettes were in need of bodyguards, who were trained by Edith Margaret Garrud, the first recorded female martial arts instructor in the West.

From Badassoftheweek.com
From Badassoftheweek.com

She set up a number of secret locations for the bodyguard unit to train in the art of ju-jitsu (with the help of her husband) and the use of Indian clubs. The clubs could be hidden within the folds of a dress, and made for excellent tools of self-defence. These women would go on to protect the Pankhurst sisters as well as high-risk members of the WSPU from attacks by the police, often sending them on their way or at least creating enough distraction for the Pankhurst family to escape and protest another day.

One memorable example:

Like one time Pankhurst was giving a talk at a town hall, and 50 cops came running in with clubs to break it up – they were faced off by 25 women with Indian clubs, swinging like maniacs, bashing in heads left and right.  When the cops tried to climb up on the stage after Pankhurst, they quickly learned that the garlands of flowers draped around the stage weren’t decorative, but actually concealed barbed wire fencing that ripped them up and funneled them all into a choke point where the Guard could stand their ground. – From Badass of the Week

There was obviously disagreement within the British suffrage movement at the time about the violent tactics used by the WSPU.  Other groups, such as The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, always employed ‘constitutional’ methods, and continued to lobby during the war years, and compromises were worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government. This includes some clever branding:

The suffragettes were a creative whirlwind, constantly devising new ways to catch the attention of politicians and the public. On one occasion, two women posted themselves as human letters to Downing Street; on another, suffragettes boarded a boat, and sailed towards the terrace of parliament, where 800 people had gathered for tea. Once in clear view, they unveiled two banners, the first with details of their upcoming demonstration, the second stating: “Cabinet ministers especially invited.”

Flora Drummond and a group of suffragettes on a steam launch opposite the terrace of the House of Commons.
Flora Drummond and a group of suffragettes on a steam launch opposite the terrace of the House of Commons. (Musuem of London)
Human Letters to Downing Street, 1910 (Museum of London)
Human Letters to Downing Street, 1910 (Museum of London)








The Bodyguard worked until 1914, when the WSPU halted all militant action at the onset of the first World War. Finally, in 1918 the vote was secured for women over 30 with minimum property requirements, granting more than 8 million women the vote immediately. In 1929 was extended to all women over 21, ensuring universal suffrage in England. That’s less than a century ago, in a country that claimed (and continues to claim) to be one of the most enlightened and civilised in the world.

It is a somewhat unknown bit of feminist and female martial arts history that I do love to share. Some of the stories are frightening – these women would wear thick cardboard under their dresses so that their ribs wouldn’t get broken from police truncheons.  Considering continued police violence all over the world, it is sad that women must still defend themselves in such a way. There isn’t really enough space here to delve into the complexity of the British suffragette movement and all its interesting folks and tactics, but nonetheless I hope this serves as a fascinating look at the Bodyguard and the women who refused to be ignored.

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