Did the Suffragettes Know Martial Arts?

In Edwardian Britain, martial arts were put into practice by women fighting for civil rights. In the home, on the street, and against the state.

Feb 8, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology
the suffragettes know martial arts

 

The struggle for women’s suffrage is one of the most heroic stories of the modern era. Less known is that a small but influential group of British Suffragettes knew Jujutsu. Thanks to the efforts of a passionate martial artist and activist named Edith Garrud, the early development of self-defense and martial arts training in Britain was closely intertwined with the quest for “votes for women.” Exploring the story of civil and political rights for women through the prism of Japanese Jujutsu adds a fascinating dimension to the history of women’s suffrage.  

 

Martial Arts in Edwardian Britain

Bartitsu, the new art of self-defense, developed by Edward Barton-Wright in 1898, Source: Vocal Media
Bartitsu, the new art of self-defense, developed by Edward Barton-Wright in 1898, Source: Vocal Media

 

The idea of “self-defense” entered the canon of British common law in 1604, came into its own in the Victorian period, and gained momentum throughout the twentieth century. Concerns within government at the turn of the century regarding the “physical deterioration” of the population (exemplified by the Fitzroy Report of 1904), coupled with bubbling fears about public safety (in the wake of Jack the Ripper), resulted in state interventions in public health and a growing middle-class interest in martial arts training. 

 

A notable example of the latter was the development of Bartitsu by Edward Barton-Wright in 1898. After three years in Japan, Barton-Wright returned to London to open the Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture. Expert instruction in Boxing, French cane fighting, and Japanese jujutsu were integral components of Barton-Wright’s new martial art. While the club itself lasted just two years, it played a crucial role as a hub for the transmission of martial arts to the suffragette movement. 

 

Edith Garrud and the Golden Square Dojo

The badge of the Women’s Freedom League, 1907, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The badge of the Women’s Freedom League, 1907, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Edith Garrud (1872-1971) was Britain’s first female martial arts instructor. She was introduced to the art of Japanese Jujutsu alongside her husband William after witnessing a demonstration by Edward Barton-Wright in 1899. Jujutsu, the generic name given to the unarmed combat systems of the samurai, was adapted and modernized in Meji-era Japan. The Garruds, both seasoned physical trainers, were deeply impressed by Barton-Wright’s expertise.

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Accordingly, they signed up to Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Academy and began to practice under the guidance of Jujutsu instructors, Yukio Tani, and Sadakazu Uyenishi. When the Bartitsu Academy closed, the Garruds followed Uyenishi to his new school at Golden Square, Picadilly Circus, to continue their training. Taking ownership of Uyenishi’s dojo in 1906 – the same year that Edith joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) – marked a pivotal moment.  Driven forward by Edith’s desire to teach women to protect themselves, the Golden Square Dojo swiftly became the HQ of the WFL Athletics Branch. 

 

Jujutsu as a Husband Tamer

JuJutsu as a Husband-Tamer, in Health &Strength magazine, Source: Wikimedia Commons
JuJutsu as a Husband-Tamer, in Health &Strength magazine, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

As Garrud became involved in the WFL and later the Women’s Social and Political Union (the leading militant organization campaigning for women’s suffrage in Britain), she garnered significant attention from the British media. The potential use of Jujutsu against the state was played up by the press. In 1909, Garrud was profiled for Health & Strength magazine, where her jujutsu was dubbed “The New Terror of the Police.”

 

During this period, Garrud wrote several articles, all of which were deliberately ambiguous on the potential of Jujutsu to further the suffragist cause. Instead, Garrud chose to highlight Jujutsu as a tool for women’s protection against routine brutality at the hands of men. Garrud’s writings consistently refuted the notion of Jujutsu as a weapon in the struggle for votes for women. Yet at the same time, her writings consistently demonstrated a steadfast rebuke of the prevalence of domestic violence, while simultaneously highlighting the potential of Jujutsu as a “Husband-tamer.” 

 

Jujutsu and the Women’s War

Edith Garrud, the Suffragette that knew jiujitsu, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Edith Garrud, the Suffragette that knew jiujitsu, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Despite her initial reluctance to present Jujutsu as a weapon for social change in her writings, her intentions nonetheless became evident in her actions. Upon joining the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the focus of her instruction shifted towards advancing the “Women’s War.” 

 

At the WSPU “Women’s Exhibition” in 1909, Garrud delivered a well-received Jujutsu demonstration and soon found herself teaching exclusive twice-weekly Jujutsu classes for WSPU members. The Golden Square Dojo was used not only as a training space but also as a sanctuary to hide members who were wanted by the police. 

 

Notably, Garrud’s Jujutsu demonstrations often featured her grappling with an opponent dressed up as a police officer. In 1910, amid escalating clashes between the police, Garrud publicly challenged two London police officers. She defeated the first and succumbed to the second, sending a clear message: Jujutsu was a valuable weapon in the women’s war. 

 

Suffrajitsu in Action

WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst is manhandled by police outside Buckingham Palace while attempting to deliver a petition to King George V, Source: Wikimedia Commons
WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst is manhandled by police outside Buckingham Palace while attempting to deliver a petition to King George V, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Garrud’s Jujutsu found its true political expression through the thirty-member all-women protection unit of the WSPU, known as the Bodyguard. By 1912, Hunger strikes became a primary tactic for arrested suffragettes, prompting the government to implement the so-called “Cat and Mouse Act,” releasing near-death hunger strikers for recovery at home, only to re-arrest them when they were better.  

 

The Bodyguard’s mission was to protect Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU from re-arrest under the Act. Numerous high-profile clashes with the police ensued, such as the “Raid on Buckingham Palace” and the infamous “Battle of Glasgow” (both 1914). Journalists coined the term “Suffrajitsu” in response. 

 

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the militancy of the WSPU came to an end, amidst a split in leadership and shift to a nationalist pro-government position. Not, however, before martial arts had played a significant role in ushering the women’s movement into the political spotlight.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with an interest in physical cultures, far-right movements, and Indian politics. He has a doctorate in political sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.