These early women’s rights protesters had a bad-ass secret up their sleeves

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As well as fighting for women’s rights in many awesome ways, these women’s rights campaigners had a few bad-ass tricks up their sleeves (skirts).

As the suffragettes’ campaign for women’s rights in the UK got more intense, they were subject to violence and intimidation.

In response, the suffragettes taught themselves jiu-jitsu.


One member, Edith Garrud, was 4ft 11in tall, but taught martial arts to the Women’s Social and Political Union, more commonly known as the suffragettes.

The women resorted to civil disobedience in response to a lack of progress.

Many complained of being knocked to the ground when they went out on marches, as well as being manhandled by police.

When they were in prison on hunger strike, they were force-fed using tubes.

Things turned nasty on ‘Black Friday’, on 18 November 1910. Several hundred women faced up to police outside Parliament, and were heavily outnumbered.

Both police and male vigilantes in the crowd brutally assaulted the women, and two died.

While some of the suffragettes used methods like putting cardboard on their ribs, Garrud had already begun teaching the women to fight back.

Jiu-jitsu uses the force of the attacker against them, using pressure points, and playing on their momentum to counter-attack.

Historians emphasise that learning jiu-jitsu was mainly about defence against vigilantes and hecklers.

An emphasis was put on the women defending themselves against a force so much larger than them, both in number and average size – the government and the police.

After the press noticed, the term “suffrajitsu” was coined.


“The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men,” said Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline, speech in 1913.

When the suffragettes’ relationship with police became more and more intense, it was decided that Emmeline Pankhurst was a vital leader, and should be protected at all cost against recapture.

Garrud formed ‘The Bodyguard’, a group of 30 women instructed to undertake “dangerous duties”.

Nicknamed ‘Amazons’, the women would arm themselves with clubs, often hidden in their dresses.

During the ‘Battle of Glasgow’ in 1914, Mrs Pankhurst was forced to sneak into a speaking engagement, posing as a spectator.

After she took to the stage, despite being flanked by The Bodyguard, the stage was stormed by police.

The brawl went on for several minutes, and, although Mrs Pankhurst was captured, the difficulty of her capture showed how effective The Bodyguard had become.

The group also got good at using decoys, to ensure Mrs Pankhurst evaded capture.

Garrud later became one of the first female jiu-jitsu instructors in the UK. During her lessons, she would wear a red gown, and invite a guest dressed as a policeman to attack her.

The suffragetes’ fight for equal voting rights didn’t subside until the beginning of World War I, when they concentrated on helping the war effort.

The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, at the end of the war, but women did not get equal voting rights to men until 1928.