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Women have always struggled throughout history to fight for equal rights as men. Through the 1800’s to 1900’s, during a period where social and economic situations brought forth great frustration, women in Britain longed to have a say in the way their country was run. Amidst this boiling political turmoil rose the art of suffrajitsu – a martial art movement of the suffragette.

The Start of the Suffragette and Suffrajitsu

Suffrajitsu Suffragette

By the mid 1800’s, a few countries began to shift their conservative stances and change their ways, allowing women to become involved with the voting process. New Zealand was the first self-governing country to allow all women the right to vote in 1893. Several years before that, in 1869, the United States had granted white women over the age of 21 to vote in western territories of Wyoming. However, in all this change, Britain – even by 1903 – lacked such progressive action.

Frustrated by this, political activist Emmeline Pankhurst stood to her feet and began to lead what is now called the suffragette movement – an almost militant-like campaign to ensure British women would indeed receive the right to vote in public elections. While the term ‘suffragette’ was initially conceived to be used as a denigrating way to describe the activists a part of the movement for women’s suffrage, the women embraced it and used it as further fuel to ignite their desires (since they saw the ‘get’ in the word suffragette to mean that they would get what they fought for).

In 1903, Emmeline founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – a women-only suffrage advocacy organization – and began to take to the streets, opposing political parties.

Militant Movement of Suffragette

Suffrajitsu Suffragette

At first, Pankhurst and the WSPU aimed to merely catch the attention of these political parties by causing a bit of disruption. This was exemplified in October 1908 when the WSPU persuaded roughly 60,000 people to gather and ‘rush’ the House of Commons. However, as the police held their ground and the Government continued to lack any real action in changing the system, Pankhurst began to believe more radical actions needed to be taken. She believed that for the movement to be effective and hit hard, more militant ‘deeds’ needed to be taken. Words were not enough.

Hence, influenced by the Russian methods of protest, the WSPU began more violent and outrageous methods such as hunger strikes. Additionally, physical confrontations became more prevalent, with several activists attacking properties, setting fire to contents inside the post box, chaining themselves to railways, and sometimes detonating bombs. 

Suffrajitsu & The Bodyguards

Suffrajitsu Suffragette

As the actions grew increasingly more aggressive, and civilians on both sides more bitter, many women began to comment on the growing violence from men and cops police alike. One prominent instance was on a Black Friday protest in 1910, where roughly 300 suffragettes confronted police outside the Parliament. It was here, many of the protesters were violently assaulted, with a few women found dead in the aftermath.

This event triggered many women to realize they would no longer be safe by simply going out ill-prepared. One woman named Edith Garrud who had experience such violence began to help the WSPU by becoming the official jiu-jitsu instructor for the organization. While initially serving as the demonstration body, Garrud ended up teaching the women herself and contributing to WSPU’s newspaper – Votes for Women.

At that time, it was completely unexpected for women to physically fight back, which helped empower many more women who were unfamiliar with the cause. Dealing with angry hecklers and aggressive authorities was the vital focus in learning jiu-jitsu for the suffragettes. As this became increasingly more known amongst the public, a satirical article was later published illustrating Garrud fending for herself with the caption: “The Suffragette that Knew Jiu-Jitsu.” It was then the term suffrajitsu came to.

Suffrajitsu Suffragette

Besides the basic jiu-jitsu techniques that allowed a practitioner to fend themselves from a larger, potentially more powerful attacker, Garrud also taught the suffragettes how to cleverly trick opponents. This ability to outwit the opponent was one of the more appealing attributes of jiu-jitsu that had attracted her to it.

As the movement grew and protests became more violent, so did the desire to capture Emmeline Pankhurst. Authorities believed she played such a major role in inspiring the WPSU that they made sure to make every attempt in capturing her. For this reason, Garrud formed a group within the WSPU known as ‘the Bodyguards’ – thirty women that were willing to take on more dangerous duties and focused on protecting Pankhurst. These individuals equipped themselves with clubs beneath their dresses and were some of the more notably stronger fighters.

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