History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Jujitsu suffragettes: how women fought for the vote with an ancient martial art

As the campaign for women's suffrage grew more extreme, so did the violence directed against it. Here, Emelyne Godfrey reveals how suffragettes fought back by mastering an ancient Japanese martial art

Suffragettes photographed in a dispute with the police
Published: October 19, 2021 at 7:15 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

At the dawn of the 20th century, Edith Garrud was observing a political demonstration at the House of Commons when a police officer told her to move along. She demurely pretended to drop her handkerchief. “Excuse me, it’s you who are making an obstruction,” was her retort, and she threw the surprised man over her shoulder. She then slipped innocently through the crowd while the stunned officer attempted to regain his composure.


“The last heroine left,” was how Edith (1872–1971) described herself in an interview with Godfrey Winn for Woman magazine in 1965. The interviewer was indeed impressed by Edith’s unusual adventures during the heated campaign for women’s suffrage prior to the First World War, a campaign of such historical importance that suffragettes were represented at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. What is less well known is the connection between the suffragettes and the martial arts contests that featured as part of the Olympic Games.

In 1906, the Daily Mail coined the term ‘suffragettes’ to describe the female campaigners (male militants were known as ‘suffragents’) who were impatient with the peaceful methods of polite persuasion advocated by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. One of these campaigners, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her eldest daughter, Christabel, in Manchester in 1903.

Listen: June Purvis considers the roles of Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst in the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Pankhurst’s military-style organisation employed headline-grabbing tactics such as holding demonstrations, undertaking deputations and boldly interrupting political speeches. Edith was involved with both the WSPU and headed the athletes’ branch of the more democratically structured Women’s Freedom League (WFL), which was formed in 1907.

Suffragettes risked their reputations and put themselves in physical danger. Elizabeth Robins’s hit stage play, Votes for Women!, and the successful accompanying novel, The Convert of 1907, vividly evoked the disturbing scenes of their confrontations. As Robins highlighted, a speaker at rallies had to learn not only to be persuasive but also self-assured when faced with insults from hostile crowds.

Even in society drawing rooms, when the topic of suffragettes and women’s rights entered polite conversation, chivalry often made a sharp exit. A BBC History Magazine article by June Purvis on anti-suffragette Postcards showed how militant campaigners were portrayed as unhinged, disorganised female monstrosities. As a result, the response to women behaving ‘badly’ could be vitriolic and, worse still, violent.

Physical aggression

In the 19th century, violent self-defence – involving, for example, the use of knives and firearms – had come to be regarded as foreign and uncivilised. The suffragettes therefore tried, for the most part, to combat any physical aggression directed towards them with minimal aggression – and most even refrained from using their hatpins.

Hatpins may not strike us as being a particularly menacing weapon today, but back in the Edwardian era – when women’s hats were huge and the pins themselves could be up to 16 inches long – they were potentially lethal.

Newspapers and publishers were certainly alive to their dangers, filling their pages with stories of hatpin suicides, accidents and murders. In the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (1904), the evil Sir Eustace Brackenstall stabs his wife with her own hatpin.

Meanwhile, so anxious were the authorities that suffragettes might turn their hatpins into deadly weapons that they banned them in prison chapels. This inspired Katherine Willoughby Marshall – who was arrested for throwing a potato at Winston Churchill’s fanlight – to affix her headgear with a toothbrush to great comic effect.

Not all suffragettes refused to fight fire with fire. In fact, a number carried dog-whips to keep rowdies at bay. The most famous woman to wield this weapon was the Scottish suffragette Flora Drummond, who was known as ‘The General’, as she wore military-style uniforms, and as ‘The Precocious Piglet’, for cornering Winston Churchill.

Teresa Billington-Greig, a founder of the WFL, treasured her dog-whip and wrote a piece entitled The Woman with the Whip (1907), where she linked women’s political inequality with sexual harassment on the streets. Maud Arncliffe Sennett, who ran a party accessories shop in London, was arrested in 1911 for smashing the windows of the Daily Mail office. She added the receipts for her 960mm-long leather dog-whip and hammer to her scrapbook, and the whip is now kept in the Museum of London.

When the university graduate Helen Ogston interrupted Lloyd George’s speech at the Albert Hall in 1908, she wielded her whip against the stewards. She returned bruised and burnt by a cigar, but the warrior received much warm praise. “Let me touch the hand that used the dog-whip!” cried one lady at a suffragette meeting. Not everyone was so impressed though: crowds regularly sang uncomplimentary songs about whip-wielding women, while the press drew parallels between these campaigners and drunkards.

What was needed was a form of self-defence in battle that was both socially acceptable and employed minimal violence. Katherine Willoughby Marshall’s solution was to wear cardboard armour; other suffragettes hired prizefighters to protect them from attack. But soon women were learning to protect themselves in hand-to-hand combat.

Edith Garrud’s husband, William, was a jujitsu teacher. This Japanese martial art was based on the idea of applying pressure to joints, using opponents’ strength and weight against them. Jujitsu was considered ideal for people of smaller statures and Edith assisted William at his school with classes for women and children.

Following a presentation to the WSPU, Edith became a celebrity – so much so that Health & Strength, the oldest known English physical culture magazine still in print today, featured her in an amusing piece entitled ‘Ju-jutsuffragettes: A New Terror for the London Police’: “The Policemen of London are feeling rather uneasy just at present. The various arts of self-defence (boxing, wrestling, ju-jutsu, etc), have for years past formed an indispensable part of their training, but they have become extra specially keen upon perfecting themselves in those methods… The Suffragettes have taken up the study of ju-jutsu… We shall cease to read of their frantic but helpless struggles in the arms of giant constables… We shall see the prime minister as he emerges from No 10 Downing Street, seized suddenly and compelled to kneel for mercy, simply because some fair damsel has put a deadly-arm lock upon him. Mr Winston Churchill, strolling peaceably across Parliament Square, will unexpectedly find himself turning a somersault in the air.” (Health and Strength, April 1909)

Critics of women’s sport wondered whether lady athletes were ‘proper’. Would, for example, cycling render women barren, would lady cricketers develop a stoop, could swimming turn hair white, did boxing lead to an over-ruddy complexion? To counter unfavourable depictions of campaigners as being unfeminine, suffragettes who practised martial arts cultivated a dainty appearance. In photos from the upmarket Sketch magazine, Edith wears a fashionably huge hat, which stays in place until she is on the ground. So, despite the potentially racy, close, physical nature of the sport, Edith shows that a jujitsu girl could be lithe, ladylike and respectable. Jujitsu allowed suffragettes to level the playing field without offending expectations of femininity.

Edith’s school, located just off Oxford Circus, became a refuge for suffragettes engaged in smashing windows in the West End in 1912. They would hide their hammers under the floorboards and pretend to be engaged in a jujitsu class when police officers came knocking on Edith’s door. That the jujitsu class was used as a mask for rebellious behaviour reveals the extent to which the British public had accepted jujitsu as a sport for women.

The British craze for Japan in the early 1900s

When Japan opened its doors to the west in the 19th century, it became a close ally of Britain. Suddenly, Britons became fascinated in all things Japanese. For example, Standen, a Sussex country house run by the National Trust, is a charming example of the influence of Japanese culture on English interior design of that era. 

Following a stay in Japan, the engineer Edward William Barton-Wright (1860–1951) popularised Japanese jujitsu through his new martial art ‘bartitsu’, which famously appeared, misspelled as ‘baritsu’, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1903 story The Adventure of the Empty House. In this tale, Sherlock Holmes uses his knowledge of the art to cast the evil Professor Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. 

Jujitsu became a worldwide craze and was taken up by people from all walks of life, including politicians, police officers and actresses. Admiration for Japan surged during its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, and the Japan-British Exhibition, held at White City in 1910, was a public relations success. Japanese martial arts appeared in the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides manuals (next to tips on how to tie up burglars!) and, during the First World War, pamphlets appeared on the use of jujitsu against the German soldier. 

Judo, which was developed out of jujitsu by Jigoro Kano in the 1880s, permeated jujitsu instruction in Edwardian Britain. In 1918, the London Judo Budokwai, the oldest martial arts club in Europe, was formed. Men’s judo has become a regular fixture at the Olympic Games since 1972 while women’s judo became a medal sport in 1992. 

Cat and mouse

Edith’s involvement in the campaign intensified in 1913 with the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913 (dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’) under which hunger-striking suffragettes would be released from jail then rearrested once they had recovered. Headed by Gertrude Harding, a bodyguard of 30 women was formed to protect Emmeline Pankhurst from the clutches of this law. They were trained in jujitsu and carried Indian clubs, which were normally used in exercise classes.

Katherine Willoughby Marshall, a member of Emmeline’s bodyguard team, later recalled:

“Our orders were that as the clock struck nine we were to jump out and attack the seven policemen and detectives, who had been placed in front of the house where Mrs Pankhurst was a prisoner. Behind our taxi was also another lot of bodyguards, and as the clock struck nine, out rushed the bodyguards who had remained at the house. The blue car was directly in front of the front door, and all of us fell on some policeman or detective. I chose a big man with a large mackintosh cape. I knocked his helmet over his eyes and brandished my club about his head. Out came Mrs Pankhurst and into the blue car, which was driven away by a smart woman driver, hell for leather…The bodyguard [and] I got into the waiting taxi and away it went with orders to drive as quickly as possible to Piccadilly Circus. The taxi driver was very interested and wanted to know what it was all about, so I told him that we had helped Mrs Pankhurst to escape. He said he had never seen anything like it and was very intrigued to have been in the rescue.” (Katherine Willoughby Marshall, Suffragette Escapes and Adventures, 1947)

Arguably the best-known image today of a jujitsu suffragette is a Punch cartoon, which features an assertive militant, skilled in martial arts and armed with a dog-whip. The cartoon was prominent earlier this year at the unveiling of a green People’s Plaque dedicated to Edith at her former Islington home. It was later pasted into her scrapbook, which has now disappeared without trace. One wonders what other secrets this elusive piece of suffragette history holds.

Emelyne Godfrey’s books include Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society: Duelling with Danger (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)


This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


Sponsored content