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.
The British suffragettes of the WSPU, fed up with the violence they encountered, determined to organize a suffragette bodyguard. In 1909, noted jiu-jitsu instructor Edith Garrud began teaching a special course she called “ju-jutsu for suffragette self-defence.” 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 advising all women in the movement to 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.”
Although American suffragists experienced much less physical violence than the British suffragettes, their experiences with harassment and assault challenged them to reconsider their views about women’s right to use force when necessary. There was a clear exchange of ideas and tactics as suffrage leaders crisscrossed the Atlantic. Zelie Emerson, a young woman from Michigan, was inspired to join the cause after hearing Sylvia Pankhurst speak about the WSPU in Chicago. Emerson traveled with Pankhurst back to England where she experienced multiple violent confrontations with the 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 in the United States did not organize a suffragist bodyguard or a People’s Army but several suffrage organizations did sponsor private boxing and jiu-jitsu classes for their members. 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 more self-defense courses modeled after the British example would emerge in the United States.
Women’s self-defense courses did become much more common in the United States in subsequent years as women recognized the political implications of their physical empowerment. In 1917, writer Louise Le Noir Thomas associated women’s self-defense training with the “feminist rebellion,” or the vast political, economic and social changes that had been occurring in women’s lives as a result of the suffrage fight. Thomas was a member of the Equal Suffrage League in her hometown of St. Louis. She insisted that women were refusing “to be called the ‘weaker sex’” and by learning self-defense a woman boldly declared that it was “not unwomanly to protect herself.”
Suffragists like Thomas believed that a woman who studied self-defense represented the ideal modern New Woman who was both politically and physically empowered. The author of a 1922 article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted the power of the newly enfranchised New Woman and offered a warning to potential burglars: “Life is not what it used to be even for burglars since women forgot how to scream. In the old days, a marauder who encountered a stray female could be fairly certain that she would either cower beneath the sheets or yell for assistance. He acted accordingly. But now—what with higher education, bobbed hair, jiu-jitsu, knickerbockers and the like—she has ceased to function according to the best traditions of her sex. She neither cowers nor yells. And she may do almost anything.”
Suffragists knew that winning the vote was an essential first step to their quest for liberation, but they also increasingly recognized that women’s political oppression was directly linked to their physical subjugation. Suffragists who studied boxing and jiu-jitsu understood that self-defense training was an important symbol of their total empowerment.
It is vital to understand the historical context of women's self-defense as a movement, both in the past, and in the present. Today's empowerment self-defense focuses on empowering women to strengthen not only their bodies, but also their voices. ⠀
In modern feminist self-defense classes, women learn that they have a power, a power that has been denied them for centuries.
* Has your empowerment self-defense training helped you reclaim your power? If so, please tell us how.
Wendy Rouse is an associate professor of history at San Jose State University. Her scholarly research focuses on the history of women and children in the Progressive Era. The inspiration for her book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women's Self-Defense Movement, came from her own life-long love of history, martial arts and self-defense. Rouse studied Shotokan karate as a teenager, earning the rank of Shodan. In college she began studying Uechi-Ryu karate, eventually earning the rank of Yondan and teaching self-defense classes for young women.