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Fighting Like Amazons: Suffrage and Self-Defense

March 6, 2019


 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