Fight Like a Girl

How a group of 20th-century suffragettes fought the man.

Had the police known there was barbed wire hidden in the floral arrangements, things might have gone a little differently. As it stood, in March of 1914, officers in Glasgow, Scotland, were expecting to make easy work of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the loudest voices in Britain's suffrage movement.

Pankhurst, who had traveled from London to rally support for her cause, declared that women deserved the right to vote, to ask for a divorce, and to inherit land. Since her demonstrations often incited anger and unrest, public officials dispatched cops to drag protesters away. But Pankhurst wasn't about to kowtow to authorities. Anticipating a fight, she arrived in Glasgow with an army of roughly 25  women collectively known as the Bodyguard. These “Amazons,” as the press breathlessly reported, were trained in the art of jiujitsu, club-fighting, and sabotage. The police had pummeled them  before -and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.

Pankhurst made the police look foolish by evading arrest at the entrance: She simply bought a ticket and walked in. But as she held court, the officers agressively advanced until, suddenly, a woman pulled out a pistol and fired. The bullets were blanks, but the officers were stunned -they hadn't prepared for a firefight. Using that brief moment of confusion to their advantage, the Bodyguard began tossing poicemen like rag dolls, using martial arts to throw them into the razor-sharp bouquets decorating the hall. The woman also pulled Indian clubs from their dresses to protect themselves from the hail of police batons. Pankhurst was arrested, but the event made an impression: The bloody scuffle was dubbed the “Battle of Glasgow,” and the public began to sympathize with the suffragettes. 

As the cops licked their wounds, the question arose: Where did a group of British feminists learn the Japanese martial art in the first place? It was all thanks to Edith Garrud, a jujitsu instructor who stood just 4 feet 11 inches tall.

When she was a teenager, Garrud had trouble fitting in at school and took to athletics to busy herself. She fell in love with exercise, and in 1893 she married fellow fitness enthusiast William Garrud. In 1899, the couple saw a demonstration by Edward Barton-Wright, a compact man who had developed his own martial art called Bartitsu. A blend of grappling and striking that offered solutions to vitually any attack, the style was so well publicized that Arthur Conan Doyle name-checked it in a 1903 Sherlock Holmes story.

Barton-Wright introduced the Garruds to Sadakazu Uyenishi, a Japanese martial arts instructor who would teach them jiu-jitsu. The couple mastered the technique so well that when Uyenishi left in 1908, they took over his London dojo. Edith ran the women’s and children’s classes, demonstrating how even a small individual could overpower larger opponents by redirecting their force with jujitsu.

While martial arts weren’t new to Britain, the juxtaposition of a demure woman with such formidable skills caught people’s attention. In 1907, Garrud appeared in Britain’s first martial arts movie, a silent film titled Jiu Jitsu Downs the Footpads. And when her husband became ill and couldn’t make a self-defense demonstration for a Women’s Social and Political Union meeting in 1909, Edith ran it without him. By that point, Garrud was such a celebrity that the suffragettes -Pankhurst among them- “inundated [her] with signatures.” The women were so impressed, they asked her to teach twice-weekly training sessions.

The request couldn’t have come at a better time. Garrud loved to teach, and she was sympathetic to the suffragttes’ cause. She was especially struck by the sight of injured protesters. In a photo essay for Health & Strength magazine in July 1910, Garrud exalted jujitsu as “the most effective means, in moments of emergency, for repelling the attack of a ruffian. One need not be physically strong or armed with a parasol to get the better of an attacker.” She claimed that her pupils put “burly cowards nearly twice their size to their feet and made them howl for mercy.” She spread awareness by choreographing a play called Ju-Jutsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play with a Moral. (In it, a married woman uses martial arts to force her drunkard husband to sober up.)

By December of 1909, Garrud was running the Suffragettes Self-Defence Club. The press couldn’t get enough of this tiny but domineering woman arming feminists with combat techniques. Cartoons depicted the “Jujitsuffragettes” with their sleeves rolled up, officers piled in heaps around them. Reporters and police approached Garrud and asked for demonstrations- and would wind up on their backs, bewildered. After Garrud tossed one Daily Mirror reporter, he picked himself up and wrote: “I rose convinced of the efficiency of Jujutsu, and, aching in every limb, crawled painfully away, pitying the constable whose ill-fortune it should be to lay hands on Mrs. Garrud.”

Garrud enjoyed the publicity. The buzz around her martial arts classes helped women tackle cads on the street as well as stereotypes, dashing the idea that a woman’s body was too delicate to provide its own defense, or that a woman needed constant male protection. It also helped her pupils grow confident. As one student explained, “I believe we will teach male rowdies who try to bother us a lesson. I have already ejected one or two disturbers of our meetings with a speed and dispatch that has surprised their lumbering masculine minds.”

But Garrud’s students weren’t just fending off street harassers- they were fighting the law. Pankhurst’s protesters were unabashed radicals, setting mailboxes on fire, throwing “flour bombs” at the prime minister, and smashing windows of shopkeepers who refused to support their cause. Their theatrics even drew the attention of a visiting Mahatma Gandhi in 1909, who soberly told the suffragettes that while their cause was just, their tactics were unacceptable.

The women felt there was no other way to be heard. The more they raised their voices, the more police raised their clubs. On November 18, 1910, a confrontation with law enforcement ended with several women battered, dozens sexually assaulted, and two dead. One hundred women were arrested. Those who protested in jail with a hunger strike were force-fed with rubber hoses. “After that, women didn’t go to these demonstrations unprepared,” says suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford in BBC News Magazine.

Garrud remained an inspiration even as her students were locked behind bars. From the outside, she often climbed atop prison walls, waving flags and singing to cheer them on. The group didn’t want to risk getting her arrested, so Garrud rarely joined the fray. That, however, didn’t stop her from acting as an accomplice. Once, after a handful of women smashed more than 400 shop windows, she hid them in her dojo, where they changed into grappling uniforms. She stashed their street clothes and weapons under a trap door.

“They were all in their jujitsu coats working on the mats, when bang, bang, bang on the door. Six police- men!” Garrud later recounted to author Antonia Raeburn. “I looked very thunderstruck and wanted to know what was the matter. ‘Well, can’t we come in?’ said one of the policemen. I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but I’ve got six ladies here having a jujitsu lesson. I don’t expect gentlemen to come in here.’ ... He didn’t see anything, only the girls busy working, and out he went again.”

As the fight for suffrage dragged on and it became clear Pankhurst wasn’t about to back down, the activists became increasingly bold. “We mean to have a revolt,” Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia said at a rally. “I and my friends are out to have a few riots.”

Having graduated from fending off boors to combating increasingly violent police, Garrud faced a new task. The suffragettes knew police wanted to capture the movement’s leaders at any cost. It was up to Garrud to train the Bodyguard to shield people like Pankhurst from arrest. Police, aware of Garrud’s skills, tried spying on her lessons from her dojo’s skylights.

Whatever they learned wasn’t enough to stop the protesters. In February 1914, just a month before the rumble in Glasgow, the Bodyguard delivered. Pankhurst was giving a rousing speech from the balcony of a Camden Square home with police waiting below, eager to rearrest her. When she declared she was coming down and dared authorities to stop her, they swarmed the Bodyguard. After a protracted struggle, the police appeared to nab Pankhurst. But when they caught their breath, they looked more closely: They had caught her body double. Thanks to the diversion, Pankhurst was spirited away in the opposite direction.

At another melee, a Bodyguard member used jujitsu to knock a policeman unconscious in front of Buckingham Palace. By the time Pankhurst prepared to rally in Glasgow, the police were ready for a small-scale war. While the women were often outnumbered and frequently injured, one thing was impressively clear to both the law and spectators: The suffragettes refused to have their voices silenced.

The only thing that could stop them was a declaration of global war. And when World War I broke out, Pankhurst decided women’s rights would be futile if Germany occupied Great Britain; she shifted her focus to keeping her country free. But the work was done. Years of standoffs had ignited enough unrest to spark change. By the end of World War I, women over 30 had finally won their right to vote. By 1928, any woman over the age of 21 could cast a ballot.

Garrud sold her dojo in 1925, but by that point, opposition to suffrage had fallen hard across the globe. Following Britain was the Netherlands in 1919, the United States in 1920, Sweden in 1921, the Irish Free State in 1922, and dozens more over the following decades.

Those victories were the work of tens of thousands of women, but Garrud holds a special distinction among them: She was arguably the first to use self-defense as a means of political empowerment. Jujitsu wasn’t just a practical way to protect yourself at rallies, it was a tool that bestowed women with an unshakable new sense of confidence and independence. As Wendy Rouse and Beth Slutsky wrote in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, “Garrud taught the women techniques that allowed them to take control of situations that they felt were out of their control.”

After making her mark in Britain, Garrud led a quieter life. She kept busy teaching men, women, and even police officers the intricacies of jujitsu. Forever fit and disciplined, in 1971 she died shy of her 100th birthday. As her granddaughter Jenny observed: “We knew she threw policemen over her head. But other than that, she was just Nana.”

The article above by Jake Rossen appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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