Next year is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States. As we near the centennial celebration, it is important to remember just how long and hard women fought to get the suffrage amendment approved. Suffragists petitioned presidents, lobbied Congress, and challenged state and local laws in court. When those efforts failed, they marched, rallied, and protested. Militant suffragists risked arrest and imprisonment picketing the White House. In jail, some went on hunger strike to call attention to their cause. A few of the most radical suffragists even took up the study of self-defense to empower themselves for the political battles that lay ahead.
The notion of man as woman’s natural protector was a powerful idea in the mind of most nineteenth-century individuals. Traditionally, women had been taught to look to men for protection. Their brothers, fathers, and husbands were supposed to think for them, vote for them, and guard them against outside dangers. In their absence, women were taught to turn to male police officers for protection.
Yet, women’s rights advocates increasingly pointed out that the very men who were supposed to protect women, were often the ones who perpetuated the most violence against them. Citing cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault, these early feminists began to insist that women needed the power to protect themselves. Most believed that they could exercise this power by winning the right to vote and then by passing laws to protect women and children from abuse.
But even in their fight for the vote, suffragists were often met with physical assaults from bystanders and police alike. In this violent context, self-defense training took on explicit political meaning. American suffragists adopted some of the radical tactics of their suffragette peers in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) of the United Kingdom.