In researching for the Q&A we’ll be moderating at our advance screening of Suffragette with the film’s director and writer, we stumbled on a fascinating piece of history about the British Suffragettes of the early 20th century. As a means of self-defense, a number of these champions of equality taught themselves the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu, and there’s a new action/adventure graphic novel trilogy – Suffrajitsu – based on this very fact.
Written for mid-teen to adult readers by Tony Wolf with art by João Vieira, the Suffrajitsu trilogy is set primarily in London during the year 1914, and relates the adventures of Miss Persephone Wright and her team of Amazons, an elite secret society of bodyguards trained in the martial art of Bartitsu and sworn to protect the leaders of the radical women’s rights movement.
Many of the events portrayed in Book 1 are inspired by historical reality and many of the characters are fictional versions of historically real people like Edith Garrud, a woman who ran a martial arts school in London with her husband William and was one of the first professional jiu-jitsu instructors in the Western world. As such, she would become a major asset for the Suffragettes as their movement became more militant, and the violence against them escalated.
“Edith Garrud was a tiny woman. Measuring 4ft 11in (150cm) in height she appeared no match for the officers of the Metropolitan Police – required to be at least 5ft 10in (178cm) tall at the time. But she had a secret weapon.
In the run-up to World War One, Garrud became a jiu-jitsu instructor to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), better known as the suffragettes, taking part in an increasingly violent campaign for votes for women.
Sick of the lack of progress, they resorted to civil disobedience, marches and illegal activities including assault and arson.
The struggle in the years before the war became increasingly bitter. Women were arrested and, when they went on hunger strike, were force-fed using rubber tubes. While out on marches, many complained of being manhandled and knocked to the ground. Things took a darker turn after ‘Black Friday’ on 18 November 1910.
A group of around 300 suffragettes met a wall of policemen outside Parliament. Heavily outnumbered, the women were assaulted by both police and male vigilantes in the crowd. Many sustained serious injuries and two women died as a result. More than 100 suffragettes were arrested.”
That marked a turning point for the Suffragettes and their introduction to jiu-jitsu. Edith started to teach some of them to fight back by training them in the Japanese martial art, which focuses on skill, versus brute force, and outwitting your opponent. Suffragette leaders Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep plays her in the Suffragette film) and her daughter Sylvia were all for this. In fact, on August 12th, 1913, Sylvia was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “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. Women should practice it as well as men.”
Eventually, Edith formed a specialized group of jiu-jitsu skilled Suffragettes called The Bodyguard. These 25-30 women, all athletic and dedicated to the cause, provided security at Suffragette rallies throughout the UK with the sole purpose of protecting their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, from being jailed or worse. They employed various decoy tactics, and carried wooden clubs hidden in the bustles of their dresses to fend off police. In turn, they were nicknamed “Amazons” by the press, the very same name used by Tony Wolf for Miss Persephone Wright’s security force in his Suffrajitsu trilogy.
PS – Just in case your brains search for connections like ours do, Wonder Woman – the “Amazon” Warrior Princess – made her debut in 1941 in an issue of All-Star Comics.