As the United States celebrates the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote, let’s remember the bad-ass women who fought for this right–literally fought, like with jui-jitsu and stuff. And so we thank Dr. Wendy L. Rouse, author of the groundbreaking historical book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, for this guest blog post.
Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu and Suffragist Self-Defense
The year 2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States, which declared that a citizen could not be denied the right to vote based on sex. As the anniversary approaches and historians begin to reexamine the traditional narrative of women’s suffrage history, new details emerge revealing just how contentious the campaign for the vote really was.
You already know that suffragists petitioned, lobbied, rallied, marched, and picketed. You also already know that militant suffragists endured arrest, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding. But did you know that radical suffragists took up boxing and jiu-jitsu to physically prepare for the political battle for the vote?
Suffragists were fighting for much more than the vote. They hoped the vote would empower women to break away from the confinement of the domestic sphere, eliminate gender-based discrimination in education and employment, and protect them against violence. But women were told that they did not need the vote because their brothers, fathers, and husbands would protect them. Suffragists, however, challenged this myth of the natural protector, citing cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault to arguing to the contrary that men were frequently the perpetrators of violence against women and children.
Women’s experiences advocating for the vote, both in the United States and across the Atlantic in Great Britain, only further seemed to prove their point. The British suffragists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) experienced brutal incidents of violence in their encounters with anti-suffrage men and the police. They organized deputations and marches demanding their right to be heard. Nicknamed “suffragettes” by a mocking press, WSPU members adopted the name as a badge of pride. The suffragettes faced unruly mobs of men who heckled and assaulted them on the streets. Rather than coming to their aid, police officers assaulted and arrested the women. Bloodied and bruised in violent clashes with anti-suffrage mobs and the police, suffragists were affirmed in their conclusion that they could not rely on men to protect them.
In this violent context, self-defense training took on explicit political meaning. In 1909, jiu-jitsu expert Edith Garrud began teaching a course that she called “ju-jutsu for suffragette self-defence.” Garrud also specially trained a group of suffragette women to serve as the “bodyguard” for WSPU leaders. But after discovering that detectives were spying on them, the bodyguard was eventually forced to train in secret, hiding from the police, and changing their meeting locations to avoid discovery. By 1913, the WSPU leaders were recommending that all suffragists train in self-defense. Sylvia Pankhurst, addressing a suffragist meeting insisted: “We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu.”
“Ju-Jutsu for Suffragette Self-Defence.” Women’s Franchise 2, no. 53 (July 1, 1909): 667.
“If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!” Sketch. July 6, 1910, 425.
British suffragettes and their radical tactics inspired American suffragists. Several American women traveled to the United Kingdom to join the WSPU and participate in the protests. Zelie Emerson, a young woman from Michigan, was inspired to join the cause after hearing Sylvia Pankhurst speak about the WSPU in Chicago. Emerson experienced multiple violent confrontations with the London police. On two separate occasions, the police fractured her skull with their batons. Emerson protested her arrest and imprisonment at Holloway through hunger, thirst, and sleep strikes. Upon her release from jail, Emerson helped organize Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End People’s Army which drilled in “the use of clubs, fists, and jiu-jitsu” explicitly to protect suffragettes against the brutality of anti-suffragists and the police.
“Suffragists Take up Jiu-Jitsu.” San Francisco Examiner. May 2, 1909, 44.
Suffragists in the United States never organized a bodyguard or a People’s Army. Instead, the militant tactics of the WSPU sparked intense debate among American suffragists. Most mainstream American suffrage organizations insisted that such militancy was unnecessary in the American political landscape and refused to publicly endorse such tactics. Individual suffragists, however, recognized the value of women’s self-defense training in this context. Sofia Loebinger, a leader of a suffragist group in New York, expressed admiration for the actions of the English suffragettes who practiced jiu-jitsu insisting that: “Strong situations need strong women.” She admitted that although it might not assist American women directly in achieving the right to vote: “boxing would be a good thing for women if only to teach them to concentrate their minds on one thing at a time. The ballot, for instance.” Recognizing the transformative potential of physical training in strengthening women for their political fight, Loebinger hoped that American suffragists would design self-defense courses modeled after the British example.
Although suffragists in the United States experienced much less physical violence than the British suffragettes, their personal experiences with harassment and assault challenged them to reconsider their views about women’s right to use force when necessary. American suffragists who took to the streets to demand their rights endured verbal, physical, and sexual assault from anti-suffrage men and the police. The 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. ended in chaos as spectators pushed their way into the streets, blocking the path of the floats and marchers. Anti-suffrage men hurled insults at the shouting that the women should have “stayed at home where they belonged.” Women and children endured sexual harassment from observers who made lewd comments to them as they marched by. Marchers reported being pushed grabbed, pinched, tripped, and shoved by male spectators. Over one hundred suffragists were sent to the hospital to seek medical treatment for their injuries. A Congressional investigating committee appointed to investigate the incident, chastised the police for failing to stop the violence and egging on the assailants.
Greeley-Smith, Nixola. “Suffragettes Will Cultivate Muscles and Fight Like Amazons for Her Ballot.” Evening World (New York, NY). April 11, 1911, 3.
Shortly thereafter, local suffrage organizations and women’s clubs began organizing private boxing and jiu-jitsu classes for their members. These classes were mostly held in secret to avoid attracting negative attention. In March 1913, two weeks after the violent Washington D.C. suffrage parade, a group of suffragists in St. Louis determined to study boxing to better protect themselves in their fight for women’s rights. They hired a prize-fighter to instruct them and began quietly training at a local gymnasium owned and operated by a German immigrant woman named Louise Bodecker. A local reporter broke the story describing boxing as the latest fad among suffragists. The boxing instructor confirmed the existence of the class but refused to provide any more detail. The fighting suffragists likewise declined to be interviewed and chose to keep their identities anonymous.
Suffragists in Badger, Washington, were similarly motivated by recent incidents of violence against suffragists to take up lessons in boxing. A boxing academy “for suffragettes only” opened sometime in the summer of 1913. A visitor to the boxing club noted the ferocity of the women’s abilities, commenting, “The suffragettes take as kindly and naturally to the art of self-defense as a duck does to water.” The use of the term “suffragettes” in referring to these American women suggests that the author clearly associated these suffragists and their actions with the radical suffragettes of Britain.
“Boxing Lessons Now Fad of Suffragists,” Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas), March 20, 1913, 3.
Women’s self-defense courses became increasingly more common in the United States as women recognized the political implications of their physical empowerment. In 1917, suffragist Louise Le Noir Thomas reflecting on the trend of women’s self-defense classes attributed it to the larger “feminist rebellion” that was occurring in women’s lives as a result of the suffrage fight. She insisted that women would no longer “be called the ‘weaker sex.’” By training in self-defense a woman was boldly declaring that it was “not unwomanly to protect herself.”
Thomas, Louise Le Noir. “How a Woman Can Protect Herself,” Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT). Magazine Section. April 14, 1917, 1.
Suffragists like Thomas believed that a woman who studied self-defense represented the ideal modern New Woman: both politically and physically empowered. Suffragists understood that winning the vote was an essential first step to their quest for liberation. They also increasingly recognized that women’s political oppression was directly linked to their physical subjugation. Radical suffragists who advocated boxing and jiu-jitsu insisted that a woman has the right and ability to defend herself and self-defense therefore became an important symbol of a woman’s total liberation.
Wendy Rouse is an Associate Professor of History at San Jose State University. Her research examines the history of women and children in the Progressive Era. Her most recent book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, explores links the history of women’s self-defense with the campaign for the vote in the early twentieth century.