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How one woman taught the suffragettes to fight back - with jiu-jitsu

Famed as one of the first female martial arts instructors in the West and teacher of the Suffragettes Self-Defense Club, Edith Garrud is one woman we ought to know

The suffragette promptly forms the scissors. A hand lock from a punch. The policeman is kept down from an armlock across the knee.

These are some of the instructions on a suffragette photocard from Edith Garrud’s demonstration on how to apply jiu-jitsu self-defence on a police officer, titled “IF YOU WANT TO EARN SOME TIME THROW A POLICEMAN!”

It’s been 50 years since Garrud’s death, but the relationship between the women’s rights activists and the UK establishment is gladly less hostile.

By the age of 99, Garrud had lived to see many of the monumental milestones in gender equality: the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 which allowed a minority of women to vote, the 1928 universal suffrage for all women of the age of 21, the introduction of the pill in 1960, and the striking of the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists that led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, just a year before she died.

But for someone as militant and radical as Garrud, such milestones were likely to have been viewed as just the beginnings of true equality.

Born Edith Williams in 1872, Garrud later moved to Islington after marrying her husband William, a physical culture instructor whose specialities included boxing and wrestling. It was here that Garrud would later meet Edward William Barton-Wright, an entrepreneur specialising in self-defence and physical therapy, who as the first jiu-jitsu teacher in Europe would introduce the Garrud’s to the world of martial arts.

Garrud’s progression into this world saw her ultimately become the owner and manager of the Sadakazu Uyenishi’s Japanese School of Self Defence in Soho, teaching self-defence for the “Suffragettes Self-Defence Club”, and choreographing the fight scenes in J.M. Barrie’s play What Every Woman Ought to Know - an au courant comment on how “every woman knows” she is the invisible force behind the successful men in her life.

Perhaps the most iconic addition to Garrud’s CV was the training of the 30-women-strong protection unit dubbed “The Bodyguard”, that would protect suffragette women from rearrest after they were released from prison for going on hunger strike. The press soon nicknamed them the “suffragitsu”, while they continued to meet in secret locations for training and sabotage planning.

No one has ever really been able to agree on whether the efforts of the Suffragettes helped to win the women’s vote. Their acts of extreme radicalism and civil disobedience was admittedly great publicity for “The Cause”; images of women heckling politicians, fighting police, chaining themselves to railings in protest, storming parliament, and carrying out a nationwide bombing campaign were continually splashed across the British press. The death of suffragette Emily Davidson, who ran in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 made headlines all around the world.

Like the Suffragists, others were more invested in the long game and doing things the “right” way, seeing acts of violence a stain on the movement that would disconnect the cause from the politicians, men - and women - that needed to be won over.

In the height of the window breaking campaign in 1912, the Morning Post wrote “nothing could indicate more plainly their lack of fitness to be entrusted with the exercise of political power”, but their anarchic tactics certainly brought the issue to light far beyond the confines of the British Isles.

Regardless of the disputed impact of the Suffragettes, Edith Garrud’s work undoubtedly positions her as a prominent trailblazer of the 20th century, but her name is often lost among the Pankhursts, the Davisons and the Fawcetts.

In a time of social unrest, Garrud equipped women with the power and means of physical defense that made them independent of male protection, and able to respond to violence, intimidation and groping by police and male bystanders.

Edith Garrud’s legacy has been immortalised by an Islington People’s Plaque above her former home on Thornhill Square.


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