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“If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!”: Suffragettes and Self-Defence in Edwardian Britain

Alice Bonzom
p. 31-54


En 1918, le parlement du Royaume-Uni votait une loi qui permit aux femmes de plus de 30 ans satisfaisant à certains critères de propriété (et à tous les hommes de plus de 21 ans) de prendre part aux élections générales. Pour célébrer le centième anniversaire du droit de vote de ces femmes, cet article revient sur le combat moral mais aussi physique d'un groupe de suffragettes contre les forces de police et les autorités carcérales. Tandis que les Edouardiennes découvraient une nouvelle forme de liberté à travers la pratique d'exercices physiques, un petit groupe de militantes s'initia aux arts martiaux pour mieux se défendre face à la police. Cette stratégie d’auto-défense révèle à quel point le corps des femmes pouvait être perçu comme problématique. Des démonstrations et des leçons de jujitsu furent organisées en public tandis qu’une organisation plus restreinte appelée le “Bodyguard” veillait en secret à protéger Emmeline Pankhurst. En prison, le recours à des grèves de la faim permettait aux femmes de contrer la politique d'emprisonnement menée par le gouvernement et de reprendre possession de leur corps. Néanmoins, les autorités contre-attaquèrent et le corps des militantes devint le lieu d'un conflit non seulement politique, mais aussi moral, culturel et médical. Cet article propose d'analyser la tension entre les stratégies de victimisation et les tactiques plus actives et combattives des suffragettes.

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  • 1 The question has been tackled from a biographical angle by historians like June Purvis (Purvis 2002 (...)
  • 2 As explained by Julia Bush, “the discourse of social maternalism suffused a wide variety of late Vi (...)

1The fight for women’s suffrage in Edwardian Britain has been explored by a wide variety of scholars from different angles, but there has been less discussion about how women literally fought back and fought off the representatives of the law.1 The late Victorian period had witnessed the birth of a new approach to physical exercise and training in which women took an interest, despite concerns in certain quarters about the suitability of some sports for their supposedly delicate, fragile and graceful constitutions (Hargreaves 63-87). A nation-wide panic about the deterioration of the nation, compounded by the growing popularity of eugenics, then led to heated debates about motherhood and the future of the British stock (Kevles 70-84). Some doctors and scientific experts argued that women’s bodies needed to conserve energy and avoid exercise, while others believed that vigorous, healthy mothers would make for healthier babies (Harrison 15-72).2 The mens sana in corpore sano approach converged with the suffrage movement and led to the promotion of self-defence.

  • 3 The Cat and Mouse Act was officially known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Ac (...)
  • 4 Prominent Bodyguard members included Katherine “Kitty” Willoughby Marshall, whose memoirs entitled (...)

2Jujitsu, a Japanese martial art, was taken up by a select group of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) members. Known as the Bodyguard, they were tasked with protecting Emmeline Pankhurst from being taken back to prison after the passage of the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act.3 Trained by Elizabeth Garrud and headed by Gertrude Harding, the Bodyguard comprised around thirty women selected for their trustworthiness, “physical shape” and readiness to fight (Wilson 1998, 131).4 Other activists could attend demonstrations and lessons which were described by the press in derisive or flattering terms. As women’s roles were being debated, suffragettes using violent tactics and fighting off policemen served to challenge the still powerful image of the “helpless” woman.

3But as supporters of the vote were gathering momentum, the authorities were striving to organise a counteroffensive. Some pro-suffrage activists were incarcerated and denied political prisoner status, while those who decided to hunger-strike were force-fed. The practice was publicised by the suffragettes and denounced as torture, leading the movement to use arguments grounded in defencelessness as well as self-defence. But can one be both “the aggressor and the innocent victim” (Billington-Greig 132)? Teresa Billington-Greig, who co-founded the break-away Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1907, believed the two to be incompatible. In her view, peaceful non-co-operation represented the only way forward, not the belligerent actions favoured by her former colleagues in the WSPU.

4The interplay between the denunciation of attacks committed against helpless women and the promotion of a more active, daring and self-defensive role reveals complex and even dichotomous rhetorical and physical strategies. The activists’ tactical use of their own bodies revolved around a dual approach which sought to foster agency and address victimisation: while the suffragettes were victims of the state’s repression, they also used a political strategy which entailed “playing” the victim. How did they try and strike a balance between defence and attack, subversively using their bodies as the locus of a moral, cultural and political conflict that went beyond their own cause?

5Using Home Office and prison archives as well as contemporary press accounts about and by the WSPU members, this essay analyses the self-defence stance of the “jujitsuffragettes” when faced with policemen, the strategies devised by government and prison officials, and the activists’ counter-attacks, in order to show the tensions inherent in the tactics of suffragettes and explore changing attitudes towards women’s bodies.

The origins and birth of “suffrajitsu”

Radical suffragists interacting with the police: “embarrassing” contacts

6“I shall sleep in prison to-night!” (Pankhurst 1931, Chapter II): these words, uttered “gaily” by Christabel Pankhurst in Manchester in 1905, underscore the two dialectical pulls of suffrage activism. When Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were arrested for disrupting a political meeting organised by Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall, they were given the choice of a fine or a jail sentence: both women refused to pay and did sleep in prison. They had set out to confront the authorities and be both “aggressors”, heckling the future Home Secretary, and self-sacrificing “victims”, jailed as mere common prisoners for justified political protest.

7A year later, the WSPU launched a series of protests which brought them into closer contact with the police, most notably when, in October 1906, as Parliament was to re-open, Mrs Pethick Lawrence and nine other women were arrested and taken into custody during a demonstration at the House of Commons. These arrests marked a watershed in the relations between law-enforcers and pro-suffrage activists. Indeed, before 1905-6, the police had largely observed the campaign from the side-lines—an attitude that was not surprising as conventional relations between the police and the kind of middle-class women who made up the majority of WSPU members rarely involved confrontation or even close physical contact.

  • 5 Three Conciliation Bills were debated by Parliament between 1910 and 1912. They were meant to enfra (...)

8Notions of public order and respectability, albeit slippery, still mattered to the Edwardians, and the moment pro-suffrage women became “the hecklers” rather than “the heckled” (Crawford 488), their challenge to public order and Edwardian respectability could no longer be ignored. Police officers were forced to deal with their presence on the political stage as a confrontational, defiant, or even deviant, physical force. The tipping point was the November 1910 demonstration, known as “Black Friday”. After women’s hopes regarding the future of the first Conciliation Bill were crushed, violence broke out: protesters were verbally and physically intimidated and some women reported indecent treatment.5 The event achieved legendary status, and, as Catherine Bearman points out, the outcome was that “the WSPU directed, exploited and politicized a generalized feeling of outrage for its own advantage” (Bearman 717).

9Mainstream press reports on violence during demonstrations ranged from support to outright condemnation, with allegiances going beyond the traditional divide between Conservatives and Liberals. The Times deplored the violence of “the raiders”, reporting that “several of the police had their helmets knocked off in carrying out their duty, one was disabled by a kick on the ankle, one was cut on the face by a belt, and one had his hand cut” (“Suffrage Raiders” 10).

10As a 1913 Punch cartoon entitled “The Spread of Tango”6 suggests, the (man)handling of women’s bodies defied etiquette, raised anxieties and pointed to an upheaval which, like the contemporaneous spread of tango, was so jarring that it became a source of satire. The cartoon, published in a popular newspaper, shows the embrace of two protagonists, a “Militant Suffragette” and a policeman. Their “dance” stood against a background of violent confrontations and arrests as women kept walking through the revolving doors of prison. As a satirical magazine, Punch used a discursive strategy which poked fun at the situation in a way which was not entirely inimical to the suffragettes’ cause, providing the WSPU with effective publicity.

11The Home Office was well aware of the “embarrassing” nature of such bodily contact: Scotland Yard issued in March 1911 a draft memorandum “for the guidance of Superintendents in dealing with the suffragettes”, which states that any woman attempting “to extract an opinion from a Minister on the subject of the suffrage” in the streets is assumed to be “molesting the minister” (MEPO). Should the need arise, it is then advised for the arresting officer to take “a position between the minister and the woman”, but this “somewhat embarrassing procedure” is to be avoided if possible and “unless it is decided to arrest police should refrain from laying hands on the woman” (MEPO).

Women and physical exercise: from defencelessness to self-defence

12The mortifying nature of unseemly bodily contact needs to be seen in the context of the gradual emancipation of women via physical activities. The Black Friday allegations made by The Times were intended to shock a readership which was still unaccustomed to seeing women doing physical exercise, be it aggressive or playful. Women could and did practice some sports in the Edwardian era, but such activity was “carefully monitored, regulated and circumscribed” (Mangan 139). Of course, from the 1860s onwards, female sport had its advocates. Emily Davies believed in the “physical importance of health to the nation” and bemoaned women’s poor health, asserting that most ladies suffered from “headaches, languor, hysteria, or some ailment showing a want of stamina” (Davies 396). But even half a century later, physical exercise could still be seen as unwomanly and unsexing, even as “New Women” popularised various activities such as cycling or tennis. Arabella Kenealy, one of the few female doctors of the period, stated:

  • 7 In 1914, only 2% of the registered medical practitioners were women. See Jennian F. Geddes, “The Do (...)

The spectacle of young women, with set jaws, eyes strained tensely on a ball, a fierce battle-look gripping their features, their hands clutching some or other implement, their arms engaged in striking and beating, their legs disposed in coarse ungainly attitudes, is an object-lesson in all that is ugly in action and unwomanly in mode. (Kenealy 139)7

  • 8 For more information on the impact of the Boer War, see Philippe Chassaigne, Ville et violence: ten (...)
  • 9 Judo was derived from jujitsu; it focused on body and mind and revolved around grappling techniques (...)
  • 10 Sinophobia increased after the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Several Chinese rebels who rose against (...)

13Yet, as fears of physical degeneration increased at the turn of the century, fed by revelations regarding the poor health of recruits during the Boer War, a search for a method of physical self-improvement began.8 The late nineteenth-century threat of the underworld—the name given to the inhabitants of supposedly crime-ridden neighbourhoods—prompted the need for “life affirming, minimally aggressive” (Godfrey 91) methods of self-defence. Edward William Barton-Wright, an engineer who had learnt jujitsu in Japan, seized the opportunity to pioneer martial arts and self-defence lessons. Jujitsu, which consists in using throws, holds, kicks or even joint locks to use the opponent’s strength to defeat him, became increasingly popular (Jennings 71-72). This “art of softness, yielding” was adopted along with judo in the wake of Japan’s modernisation and westernisation (Looser 4).9 Admiration for Japanese sports, culture and arts contrasted with Sinophobia, partly explaining why Chinese martial arts were not sought after.10 The jujitsu craze, however, was such that in 1907, an article even referenced the case of a man who had “ju-jitsued his wife” to the point that she was granted a separation order. He had “practised Ju-Jitsu upon her … maltreating her so severely that her screams brought neighbours to the rescue” (“Ju-Jitsued his Wife” 774b).

Suffrajitsu and the Bodyguard

14Women were not merely “ju-jistued”, they also practised this “noble art”, as Christabel Pankhurst labelled it. Relying not on strength but on speed and knowledge, this sport lent itself perfectly to the suffragettes’ philosophy:

15The spirituality which is expressing itself in women’s physical militancy gives to that militancy a supernatural quality, which, as it were, raises the hair and freezes the blood of those grosser beings who pretend to think victory is always to the strong in muscle, to the heavy in weight, to the large in bulk. (Pankhurst 1913, 255)

  • 11 The policeman would have been quite tall: the height requirements for recruits when the Metropolita (...)

16Jujitsu epitomised the belief that “the woman who controlled her body was likely to control her destiny” (McCrone 115). Embracing this philosophy, Edith Garrud, a WSPU member (formerly affiliated with the WFL), trained suffragettes in the art of jujitsu, organising demonstrations from 1909 onwards before opening a dojo, a martial arts training hall, in Argyll Street, London, where suffragettes wanted by the police could be hidden from view (Callan 539). The Bodyguard, tasked with protecting Emmeline Pankhurst from being taken into custody under the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act, was actively trained by Garrud. Harding had to “carefully” select the members since “volunteers from all walks of life came forward to offer their services” (Wilson 131). The criteria involved availability, reliability and fitness, but great strength, height and weight were not prerequisites. Garrud herself was only 4ft 10in (147 cm). She was pictured in a newspaper cutting from July 1910 “throwing” a much taller and heavier “bobby” in six steps, each corresponding to a photograph (Figure 1).11 She is wearing a gigantic hat which only falls off after several moves, but is quickly put back on.

17The public nature of the suffragettes’ demonstrations defied tacit rules of proper and becoming exercise. In 1912, members of the WFL, who decried violence but advocated emancipation, organised a fair featuring “cookery demonstrations and ju-jitsu performances” (“The International Suffrage Fair” 2a). According to historian Emelyne Godfrey, this shift from secluded privacy to the public stage allowed women to “make a show of defending themselves” (Godfrey 100). Associating “cookery demonstrations” to these public sports performances had the added benefit of linking a respectable activity for women to jujitsu, thereby suggesting it was not incompatible with traditional notions of womanhood. Sports historian J. A. Mangan uses the concept of “insularity” (Mangan 139) to describe appropriate physical activity at the time: most female sports were to be practised in private, away from the public gaze. “Insularity” may also have been equated with “Britishness”, thereby potentially making this publicised show anti-patriotic. “Suffrajitsu” was not insular and acted as a social statement, defying the principle of female privacy. Nonetheless, its noble nature and roots made it more acceptable than other overt physical activities. As Godfrey argues, Garrud’s “publicity stunt” was “an endeavour to influence male readers to conceptualize femininity in more dynamic terms” (Godfrey 103). The idea was to practise while remaining ladylike—hence the hat, a symbol of respectability. Garrud’s 1911 play entitled “What Every Woman Ought to Know” features a wife who “tames her drunken husband into subjection” using jujitsu (“Ju-Jitsu as a Husband-Tamer” 339). For historian Wendy Rouse, the play underlines the fact that physical training could “empower women to defend themselves against domestic violence” (Rouse 173). The ending, which shows husband and wife reconcile and embrace, also pinpoints that female self-defence should not be seen as antithetical to domestic happiness and respectable standards of femininity.

18Jujitsu became so popular that a famous actress, Marie Studholme, promoted it, asserting that it was “a health tonic” which promoted “a feeling of independence”. She did however warn readers of the “wrinkles” jujitsuka may “pick up quicker than men” (Studholme 1a-b). The sense of female autonomy conveyed by “jujitsuffragettes” is clearly asserted by another Punch cartoon entitled “The Suffragette that Knew Jujitsu”12: small compared to her opponents, and yet ladylike, the pictured suffragette has been throwing a few bobbies and dares their frightened and cowering colleagues to come and get her. A 1910 satirical poem published by The Sketch, an upmarket weekly newspaper, refers to this practice as “giving a masterful touch of the curb” (“The Bold Suffragette” 8) while at the same time mocking the “jujitsuffragettes”, who are ironically said to be cowardly and defenceless against … mice:

No longer will man in his rudeness
Sweet feminine meetings disturb,
But in the future he'll get
From the bold Suffragette
A masterful touch of the curb.
For women are learning ju-jitsu,
And throwing policemen about …
These Athletes will tackle a sergeant
Who stands six-foot three in his socks;
But turn pale when a mouse
Is abroad in the house …
Then vain are the wiles of ju-jitsu,
Its tactics they cannot employ;
And all they dare
Do, is stand on a chair
And 'phone a Messenger Boy (“The Bold Suffragette” 8)

19Despite light-hearted mockery and the use of a common misogynistic trope (that of the petrified woman standing on a chair, powerless against the mouse), suffragettes kept embracing self-defence; the playful tone of papers such as Punch or The Sketch actually brought them useful publicity. Sylvia Pankhurst explicitly recommended the learning of jujitsu in 1913, adding that women and men should not “come to meetings without sticks in future” (“Suffragist Militancy” 8). These instructions contrasted with a call given in October 1908 by the leaders of the WSPU, who had invited the public to come and help women “rush the House of Commons” and had urged supporters to “come unarmed, without sticks or stones” (F. W. Pethick-Lawrence quoted in Marcus 51-52).

Behind bars: the authorities fight back

The prison authority v. suffragettes: humiliating the mind

  • 13 The first “Women’s Parliament”, organised in Caxton Hall the day after the opening of Parliament, w (...)

20Between 1905 and 1914, around 1,000 women were incarcerated by the police as a result of their pro-suffrage activities (Purvis 103). In 1907, Mary Ann Rawle, a working-class member of the Labour Party from Lancashire, was arrested wearing a shawl and clogs during the second “Women’s Parliament”.13 She set pen to paper and described her reception in HMP Holloway in the following terms:

I was asked my name address how old I was where I was born what colour of eyes I had and what colour my hair was I went on the weighing machine and then on the measuring machine then I was told to go and have a bath wash my hands and face. (Rawle)

21The onslaught of questions that Mary Ann Rawles relates would have been part of a “welcoming” procedure which was intended to be humiliating, as were the whole of the reception facilities. The doors of the bathtubs were so low that prison wardresses could peer at the women (Purvis 107), depriving them of intimacy.

22Rawle belonged to the second division. The 1898 Prisons Act had created three divisions to classify prisoners: second-division prisoners were supposedly distinguished from the third by their comparative absence of “great moral depravity” and were kept separate to avoid moral contagion (Hobhouse & Brockway 215). The first division, to which suffragettes insisted they were entitled, was designed for political prisoners who had to be incarcerated but “were seen as heroic albeit misguided” (Forsythe 98). If at first magistrates sentenced some women to the first division, they gradually harshened their stance, going as far as sentencing a non-radical WFL member, Emma Sproson, to the third division for an unpaid dog licence (Crawford 99).

23The first division was equated with dignity and valour, and that is precisely what the Home Office would not give the suffragettes. In a letter dated 4 August 1909, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith confided that the Holloway suffragettes had become a thorny issue:

These women have taken to refusing to put on their clothes, assaulting the wardresses who try to make them obey, and in some cases declining to take any food, with the result that after four or five days of practical starvation the Doctors are obliged to order their discharge. The Cabinet are of the opinion that the Home Secretary has no alternatives but to continue to treat them as ordinary prisoners. If they were made “first-class” misdemeanants, the prisons would soon be full of them: and they could to all intents and purposes carry on their operations in comfort from behind the prison walls. (CAB 41/32/29, 1909)

24The letter was penned just over a month after Marion Wallace-Dunlop had started a hunger-strike to demand first division status. She was released after four days, which led other suffragettes to adopt the same technique. Asquith had spotted the problem, and the situation went from bad to worse as the strategy was clearly “underscored by an explicit threat of martyrdom” (Miller 39). The new Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, decided to try and compromise by establishing Rule 243A in March 1910. The goal was to acknowledge that suffragettes were no ordinary criminals by virtually giving them the same rights as first-division prisoners without recognising their political status. Indeed, they were not officially placed in the division reserved to political prisoners and remained categorised as ordinary prisoners. The differences between the first division and Rule 243A were described by the Prison Commission as “slight” (PCOM 8/228). For instance, prisoners to whom Rule 243A applied were exempted from wearing prison uniforms. These “privileges” visibly differentiated the suffrage activists from regular female offenders, leading to a stronger sense of community for those imprisoned for the cause, but also a certain curiosity and interest for women easily identified as “ordinary”.

25The tactics used by the Home Office also consisted in excluding pro-suffrage prisoners from schemes meant to benefit all prisoners, such as the system of Lady Visiting, whereby a lady was allowed to come and visit a female offender to guide her and, supposedly, help re-feminise her. In a letter dated 9 July 1909, the Secretary of the Prison Commission, B. H. Thompson, remarked that “none of them require assistance on discharge and they would use the visits for political discussion or for making frivolous complaints of treatment” (PCOM 7/174). He recommended excluding them from the list of women to be visited.

Prison doctors v. suffragettes: pathologising the body

26From then on, penal officials, and even more so prison doctors, played a major role in the prison treatment of suffragettes. They issued daily reports on the state of the women who were force-fed to assess the health of hunger-strikers. Tubes were used to feed women who refused to take any food, mainly via the nose or the mouth, although Votes for Women also reported on the “inhuman treatment” on a prisoner upon whom rectal feeding was imposed (“Another Prison Infamy” 681b-c). Steel gags were used to force women to open their mouths.

27In stark contrast with the suffragettes’ denunciation, the medical officer in Bristol described the force-feeding sessions in dispassionate and practical terms. About prisoner Theresa Garnet, he wrote:

Slept well. Bowels not moved. Some sickness after last meal, but not much food brought up. Refusing all food, even water, and refuses all opening medicine. … Fed by the mouth with tube, 1 ½ pints Peptonised Milk, and 9 grains Grey Powder, without much difficulty. I used a small pair of Dressing Forceps covered with Rubber tubing with less inconvenience to patient (HO 144/552/185732/29).

28The victim is erased by the omission of both her name and personal pronouns; the only human subject remaining is the “I” of the doctor. This medical discourse dehumanises Theresa Garnett, whose entire individuality is erased. She is turned into a mere physical body amounting to a list of symptoms. She becomes a guinea pig rather than a real “patient” since the doctor simply resorts to this word at the very end of his report to assert his medical status and the scientific nature of his observations.

  • 14 See Ian Miller’s second chapter on the ethical dilemma of Suffragette Force-Feeding where he analys (...)

29Three days later, as she was about to be discharged, the MO matter-of-factly described her general condition as “most excellent” (HO 144/552/185732/27). In 1910, the Governor of Holloway forwarded a very impassive application by the Department of Medical Offices for the purchase of chairs for forcible-feeding. The Home Office granted the request and asked for straps to be set up on site.14

30Yet, the ethical issues raised by the practice did not escape some prison doctors. One complained that “the strain and responsibility was too great for him” (quoted by Forsythe 105). Outside the prison walls, other medical experts publicly rebuked the authorities for allowing a dangerous practise eloquently described by Dr Charles Mansell-Moulin as a way to “gratify a Government that is vindictive because it has made a mistake and has not the moral courage to acknowledge it”. In particular, he objected to the treatment of political prisoners as “common criminals in a way that men never are” (Mansell-Moulin 1098). The bodies of the suffragettes were turned into the locus of a conflict between political protesters, the authorities and medical experts. Objectified and dehumanised by the medical officers who used force-feeding, the women’s bodies were the fighting ground of a political clash. The tensions opposing the two sides were played out within the coerced bodies of militants whose refusal to yield was their ultimate weapon.

31Furthermore, as women’s bodies were pathologised, medical, judicial and moral approaches converged, mutually reinforcing one another and turning female activists into dangerous lunatics threatening the nation. In 1909, an article entitled “Science jottings” described the “ultra-militants” as possessed of “a dominant idea, the idée fixe of the French, which, reason or not, would compel the nation to accord votes to women, because of the neurotic fever which besets them” (Wilson 1909, 154c).

32The article belittled the sufferings of imprisonment, since “martyrdom of old was a much more serious thing than even a temporary residence in Holloway”. The anti-suffrage counter-strike was meant to undermine the credibility of suffragettes and alarm public opinion by portraying women as medically irrational. Such an extreme stance could however lead to moderate suffragists and radical suffragettes making common cause: when Sir Almroth Wright, a medical scientist, published a letter in the Times equating pro-suffrage activists to “sexually embittered women”, he managed to alienate anti-suffrage women (Wright 7f).

  • 15 For more on Gordon, see Deborah Cheney, “Dr Mary Louisa Gordon (1861-1914): A Feminist Approach in (...)

33But the medical community was not always against women’s votes, even in prison. Dr Mary Gordon, the country’s first Lady Inspector of Prisons, supported the WSPU financially. Her involvement came to light during a police raid of the union’s offices, and caused quite a stir.15 Her condemnation of prison force-feeding (on women and men), “a treatment called medical”, was scathing: she argued that it was not therapeutic but instead very much of a “disciplinary” nature (Gordon x).

The suffragettes counter-attack

Communication strategies: victims and martyrs

34Fears of women dying while in custody, thereby becoming martyrs and heroes for the cause, prompted the new Home Secretary Reginald McKenna to pass the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act, leading to further strategies of self-defence for the hunted mice. These involved using the authorities’ tactics against themselves by denouncing inhuman and humiliating treatment. For historian William Forsythe, “the Criminal Justice System became a stage for high drama with suffragettes as martyrs in the hands of a cold, intransigent, self-perpetuating male dominated state” (Forsythe 106). The concept of martyrdom was not at first understood, but as the authorities used more and more coercive means, the movement relied on the publicity and money it brought via donations and fundraising to help the victims. The campaign to denounce force-feeding allowed women to challenge the authority of male police officers, male prison doctors and male government officials. The suffragettes, who were victims of violence, turned victimisation into a political tactic by publicising it. The key instrument in this struggle was the depiction of the activists’ tortured bodies.

35The 28 February 1910 front page of Votes for Women (Figure 2 “The Government’s Methods of Barbarism” 1) is one of many examples of the images created to denounce the torture undergone by suffrage prisoners. It shows a woman, spread-eagled, who appears defenceless against two male doctors and four nurses holding her down. The white of her clothing stands out against the grey of the nurses and the black of the doctors: the light versus darkness metaphor serves to present suffragettes as “soldiers of light” (Hartman 41) against the forces of darkness. In her analysis of the reinvention of conversion narratives by suffragettes, Kabi Hartman suggests that “the ‘New Women’ suffragettes were often depicted as converts, pilgrims, warriors, martyrs and saviours” (Hartman 46).

36Medals were awarded by the WSPU to the hunger-strikers, furthering a sense of pride and valour. Those who did not participate in the hunger-strike might see themselves as “cowards”, as Katie Gliddon’s prison diaries suggest (Gliddon 7KGG/1/2). The activist newspaper The Suffragette praised the “extraordinary heroism” and “superhuman strength” of those who refused food (“A review of the week” 631a). The mainstream press ran articles on martyrdom too, but with a much tamer tone. In 1909, the Illustrated London News ran a series of illustrated articles on the “suffragettes’ ‘martyrdom’”, showing the cells with their plank beds and the exercise yard with its lines for inmates to walk in orderly fashion. The use of quotation marks around the word martyrdom clearly shows that the paper aimed at distancing itself from the suffragettes’ denunciation campaign to avoid alienating its conservative leaning readership (“The Scene of the suffragettes' ‘Martyrdom’ in Holloway Prison” 32, 34).

37Holloway Prison was described as “the storm centre of the earth” (Gliddon 7KGG/1/3), where the vulnerable but brave suffragettes were fighting a “just war”. Researcher Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp analyses this rhetoric of “justum bellum” as a means of justifying a “strategy of forcing the crisis”. Violence was legitimate because it was “undertaken only under extreme provocation” (Jorgensen-Earp 10-11).

Acting: outfoxing the authorities

38The suffragettes’ self-defence techniques did not always emerge as responses to prison violence: pro-active tactics to “force the crisis” were also put in place. The Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 meant that the police forces were to spot and recapture the famous “mice” once their licence had expired. This put quite a strain on the police: even though not all “mice” were to be rearrested, tabs were to be kept on all the women who had been released (Crawford 494). And yet, law enforcement did not always catch their prey. The Bodyguard actively protected the leaders of the movement, trying to outsmart the “bobbies”. Women’s bodies were no longer defenceless as the Bodyguard actively worked on self-assertion and self-reliance to fend off police attacks, sometimes using actual or improvised weapons. Little Indian clubs were issued to all members of the Bodyguard (Wilson 1998, 131). During a police altercation in Glasgow in March 1914, flower-pots, pails of water and chairs were used “as missiles”, as members of the Bodyguard endeavoured (unsuccessfully) to protect Mrs Pankhurst from being arrested (“Wild Suffragette Scenes in Glasgow” 4e).

39A game of “Where is Mrs Pankhurst” unfolded in February 1914, when the WSPU leader challenged the police to arrest her during a public meeting. The tale told by The Suffragette emphasised the number of policemen involved (“crowds of huge policemen”) to heighten the ingenuity of the women. Indeed, while the police cried out “We’ve got her all right!”, suffragettes rejoiced at having “outwitted” them: the wrong woman had been arrested (“Victory for Mrs Pankhurst” 396)! Decoys were used to outwit the police: again, suffragettes used their bodies to their own advantage, sacrificing pawns to save the queen. Later that month, Mrs Pankhurst managed to escape the police after a meeting, jumping into a taxi while the bodyguard, “more than a match” for the police, kept officers at bay. One technique consisted in pushing police hats over their wearers’ faces, temporarily blinding them (“Mrs Pankhurst Free” 444d).

40Even within the prison walls, activists strived to defy the rules and rebel, in particular to be able to write accounts of their experiences. They regularly petitioned the Home Office to be granted pen and paper, usually unsuccessfully so. Katie Gliddon, who wrote a diary on her copy of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Holloway, had to smuggle in the book and pencils (hidden in the collar of her coat) (Schwan 153). Stripping and searching the prisoners was a procedure deemed humiliating, and appeals were made for wardresses to forego the procedure. The Home Office replied that arrangements for privacy were made but that searching was “clearly necessary in the interest of safety as attempts are made by women to bring dangerous articles into the prison” (HO 45/10389/170808). Books, notebooks and pencils were the most commonly smuggled items, which calls into question this assertion. In lieu of proper paper, Mrs Sadd Brown used toilet paper to send a letter to her children: ingenuous techniques were used to keep contacts with the outside world, especially in the case of mothers. The monotony and loneliness of life in prison, reinforced by the silent rule, weighed heavily on suffrage advocates (Sadd Brown).

Disrupting and uniting

41To relieve the tedium of prison routine, and keep morale up, suffragettes disrupted established prison rules: they smashed windows, shouted, played games (including football), read out loud, told stories, sang songs (Purvis 111). The poem “Here we go round the suffrage bill” (7VJH/1/1/03), to be sung to the tune of “Here we go round the mulberry bush”, encapsulates the desire to be disruptive while fostering a sense of community and cheerfulness. In 1913, Phyllis Keller, an imprisoned suffragette, improvised a dance during exercise, apparently leaving the wardresses speechless (Gliddon 7KGG/1/5). Ordinary female prisoners did sing to challenge prison authorities, but that level of organised solidarity was unknown to them.

42As June Purvis explains, despite ultimately different experiences, “faith in the movement helped the forging of a community spirit and supportive networks amongst the women prisoners” (Purvis 111). Solidarity could come from those outside the prison walls, for instance via a Prisoners’ Fund. In January 1913, at half-past eight, free women gathered under the windows of the imprisoned suffragettes, outside Holloway, and sang to cheer them up. Mrs Billinghurst explained that this practice gave her strength when she “was feeling a wee bit ‘down-hearted’”, and she requested “lots of Marseillaise” (“Members nightly rally” 4b-c). Free suffragettes also attempted to send in books to help alleviate the boredom of the women prisoners. Although some in the Home Office insisted that prison libraries were “generously stocked” and that sending more books was “an abuse” and should be considered only on “medical grounds”, some requests could occasionally be granted (HO 45/10389/170808). Standard prison books were rather stern and included the Bible, The Narrow Way, a manual of devotion, and A Healthy Home and How to Keep it, a health guide which ironically promoted hygiene measures that could not be taken in prison.

43The sense of community between the “soldiers of light” could, in exceptional circumstances, extend to ordinary prisoners as “prison functions as a space that enables insight across social boundaries” (Schwan 156). Lady Constance Lytton, famous for being imprisoned as Jane Warton, a poor seamstress, shed light on differential treatment based on class and called attention to the plight of ordinary prisoners in her 1914 book Prisons and Prisoners. But The Suffragette also contrasted activists’ experiences with that of regular prisoners:

For us suffragettes, what does it matter? Wherever we are our surroundings touch us not at all; but it was the other women; the ordinary prisoners; it was the way these women are spoken to. It was the look in the eyes of the prisoner who came to wait in my cell—that frightened, hunted look! (Dacre Fox 227c)

44Imprisoned suffragettes sought to disrupt the penal machine from the inside and the outside, denouncing both the outrages to which their bodies were subjected, and the pain inflicted upon common prisoners. Self-defence extended, up to a point, to the defence of others. Decrying the treatment of ordinary women in prison widened the scope of the activists’ fight: their commitment went beyond the suffrage cause and extended to women’s fundamental rights across social classes.


45Katie Gliddon wrote in her prison diary that “the historian of the future will look upon the March 1912 sentences as curiosities of English legal administration” (Gliddon 7KGG/1/3). Historians of the present are certainly still pondering the ramifications of the movement in general. One significant aspect of the campaign was women’s use of their own victimised bodies to fight back, fend off policemen and keep going, despite force-feeding and other forms of intimidation and oppression. Trends in physical culture, such as a new craze for jujitsu, helped shape the strategies of the suffragettes. The suffragettes’ bodies were used as reluctant weapons in a “just war”: activists became aggressors as a response to the government’s political and physical violence.

46Yet, the pro-suffrage movement was heterogeneous and some organisations, like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies or the WFL, disapproved of both violent deeds and victimisation tactics. For Teresa Billington-Greig, this strategy was a “double shuffle … by which the responsibility for militant demonstrations is placed on the shoulders of the Government while all the glory accruing is claimed by the demonstrators” (Billington-Greig 133). She criticised this technique and depicted it as disingenuous. The dichotomy between victims and attackers, cats and mice, was encapsulated by the suffragettes’ dichotomous “soldiers of light” ideal. The WSPU activists endeavoured to find the right balance between eliciting sympathy and conveying strength and resolve. Self-defence could become a means of attack for the suffragette army. The physicality of the fight was however rooted in a larger cultural and moral debate about appropriate feminine behaviour and appearance, in women’s private and public lives.

  • 16 See Tony Wolf, Suffrajitsu: The Collected Edition (Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons), Jet City (...)

47If the political and cultural success of this self-defence campaign in ultimately obtaining the vote and promoting a more active vision of women is hard to assess, its memory is certainly still vivid in popular culture. Inspired by Garrud’s Bodyguard, comics have been written about “suffrajitsu”.16 Yet, the focus in popular culture is often more on violent tactics such as arson and property damage, and less on violent bodies, even though the subversive nature of physical self-defence cannot be overstressed: it was part and parcel of a larger debate on women as active rather than passive, as healthy rather than weak and as streetwise ladies rather than damsels in distress.

Figure 1: “If you want to earn some time, throw a policeman!”, The Sketch, 6 July 1910, p. 425.

Figure 1: “If you want to earn some time, throw a policeman!”, The Sketch, 6 July 1910, p. 425.

Figure 2: “The Government’s Methods of Barbarism”, Votes for Women, Friday 28 February 1910, p. 1.

Figure 2: “The Government’s Methods of Barbarism”, Votes for Women, Friday 28 February 1910, p. 1.
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Primary sources

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Anon., “Another Prison Infamy”, Votes for Women, 7 August 1914.

Anon., “If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!”, The Sketch, 6 July 1910.

Anon., “Ju-Jitsued His Wife”, Pearson’s Weekly, 16 May 1907.

Anon., “Ju-jutsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play With a Moral”, Health & Strength, 8, 8 April 1911.

Anon., “Members Nightly Rally”, The Suffragette, 17 January 1913.

Anon., “Mrs Pankhurst Free”, The Suffragette, 27 February 1914.

Anon., “Suffrage Raiders”, The Times, 19 November 1910.

Anon., “Suffragist Militancy: Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’s Advice”, The Times, 20 August 1913.

Anon., “The Bold Suffragette”, The Sketch, 13 July 1910.

Anon., “The Government’s Methods of Barbarism”, Votes for Women, 28 February 1910.

Anon., “The International Suffrage Fair”, Daily Herald, 13 November 1912.

Anon., “The Scene of the Suffragettes' 'Martyrdom' in Holloway Prison”, The Illustrated London News, 7 August 1909.

Anon., “The Spread of Tango – Arrest of a Militant Suffragette”, Punch, November 1913.

Anon., “Victory for Mrs Pankhurst”, The Suffragette, 13 February 1914.

Anon., “Wild Suffragette Scenes in Glasgow”, Aberdeen Evening Express, 10 March 1914.

Billington-Greig, Teresa, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Emancipation in a Hurry, London: Frank Palmer, 1911.

CAB (Records of the Cabinet Office), Cabinet Letter from Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, CAB 41/32/29, The National Archives, Kew, 4 August 1909.

Dacre Fox, Nora, “A Prisoner’s Speech”, The Suffragette, 10 July 1914.

Davies, Emily, “On Secondary Instruction, as relating to girls”, in Hastings, George W. ed., The Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science: York Meeting, 1864, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Robert & Green, 1865.

Gliddon, Katie, Draft Account of Arrest and Imprisonment in Holloway 2, Red Exercise Book, (7KGG/1/5), The Women’s Library, LSE, London, c. 1913.

Gliddon, Katie, Notes for Autobiographical Account (7KGG/1/3), The Women’s Library, LSE, London, c. 1912-13.

Gliddon, Katie, Prison Diary 2 (7KGG/1/2), The Women’s Library, LSE, London, 1912.

Gordon, Mary, Penal Discipline, London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1922.

Hobhouse, Stephen, Fenner Brockway eds., English Prisons to-day, Being the Report of the Prison System Enquiry Committee, London: Longmans, Green, 1922.

Holme, Vera, Suffrage Poem (7VJH/1/1/03), The Women’s Library, LSE, London, 1910.

Home Office (HO), CRIMINAL: suffragettes Treatment in prison following convictions in connection with the “rush” on the House of Commons, HO 45/10389/170808, The National Archives, Kew, 1908.

Home Office (HO), Suffragettes - Treatment in Bristol Prison, HO 144/552/185732/29, The National Archives, Kew, 10 December 1909.

Home Office (HO), Suffragettes - Treatment in Bristol Prison, HO 144/552/185732/27, The National Archives, Kew, 1909, 13 December 1909.

Kenealy, Arabella, Feminism and Sex-Extinction, London: T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd., 1920.

Lytton, Constance, Prisons and Prisoners: some Personal Experiences, London: Heineman, 1914.

Metropolitan Police Papers (MEPO), Suffragette Demonstrations: Police Procedure, MEPO 2/1438/669990/5, The National Archives, Kew, 1911.

Pankhurst, Christabel, “In Fear of Women”, The Suffragette, 19 December 1913.

Pankhurst, Sylvia, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals, Wharton Digital Press [Kindle edition], 2013 [1st ed. 1931].

Pethick-Lawrence, F. W., The Trial of Suffragette Leaders, London: Woman’s Press, 1908.

Rawle, Mary Ann, A Voice from Prison (7MAR/04/01), The Women’s Library, LSE, London, 1907.

Sadd Brown, Myra, “Mrs Sadd Brown to her three children” (9/20/107), Autograph Letter Collection: Militant suffragettes, The Women’s Library, LSE, London, c. 22 March 1912.

Studholme, Marie, “Why Woman Should Learn Ju-Jitsu”, Pearson’s Weekly, 868, 7 March 1907.

The Prison Commission (PCOM), Chairs for Women Prisoners, PCOM 7/206, The National Archives, London, Kew, 1907-1914.

The Prison Commission (PCOM), Instructions to Governors, PCOM 8/228, The National Archives, Kew, 1912.

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Wilson, Andrew, “Science Jottings – Our Neurotic Age”, The Illustrated London News, 30 January 1909.

Wright, Sir Almroth, “Suffrage Fallacies”, The Times, 28 March 1912.

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Bearman, Catherine, “The legend of Black Friday”, Historical Research, 83 (222), November 2010, 693-718.

Bush, Julia, Woman against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Callan, Mike, Conor Heffernan & Amanda Spenn, “Women’s Jūjutsu and Judo in The Early Twentieth Century: The Cases of Phoebe Roberts, Edith Garrud, and Sarah Mayer”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 35 (6), 2018, 530-553.

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1 The question has been tackled from a biographical angle by historians like June Purvis (Purvis 2002) or Martin Pugh (Pugh 2008); recently, there has been a focus on the women who fought against the vote, most notably in the work of Julia Bush (Bush 2007). Specialists in English literature like Carolyn Christensen Nelson have also analysed plays, poems and essays written by suffragettes (Nelson 2004). Elizabeth Crawford, a historical researcher and book dealer, has studied suffrage in relation to art (Crawford 2018).

2 As explained by Julia Bush, “the discourse of social maternalism suffused a wide variety of late Victorian and Edwardian reform campaigns” (Bush 23). The crucial role of motherhood was foregrounded both by anti-suffrage activists and pro-suffrage advocates, whose premise was similar but whose conclusions differed.

3 The Cat and Mouse Act was officially known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, 3 & 4 Geo. V., c. 4. Passed under Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government in April 1913, it allowed militant hunger-strikers in prison to be released when their health was at risk; they were to be taken back to the prison cells once they had recuperated. The state, or the “cat”, had to chase the released suffragette, i.e. the “mouse”, to re-imprison her.

4 Prominent Bodyguard members included Katherine “Kitty” Willoughby Marshall, whose memoirs entitled “Suffragette Escapes and Adventures” is kept at the Museum of London.

5 Three Conciliation Bills were debated by Parliament between 1910 and 1912. They were meant to enfranchise well-off, property-owning women. They sparked controversy: they were opposed both by anti-suffragists and a subsection of pro-suffrage activists who saw them as too restrictive in scope.

6 Check here to see the cartoon “The Spread of Tango – Arrest of a militant suffragette”, Punch, November 1913.

7 In 1914, only 2% of the registered medical practitioners were women. See Jennian F. Geddes, “The Doctor’s Dilemma: Medical Women and The British Suffrage Movement”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 18, N° 2, p. 204.

8 For more information on the impact of the Boer War, see Philippe Chassaigne, Ville et violence: tensions et conflits dans la Grande-Bretagne victorienne (1840-1914), Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris Sorbonne, 2005, p. 66.

9 Judo was derived from jujitsu; it focused on body and mind and revolved around grappling techniques meant to unbalance opponents.

10 Sinophobia increased after the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Several Chinese rebels who rose against imperial Britain practised Chinese martial arts.

11 The policeman would have been quite tall: the height requirements for recruits when the Metropolitan Police was created was a minimum of 5ft 9in, and before the turn of the 20th century this was raised to 5ft 11in (180cm). The policeman featured in the newspaper cutting (from The Sketch) weighed no less than 13st (82kg). For more on the physical requirements for policemen, see Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, London: Routledge, 1996 [2nd ed], p.191.

12 Check here to see the cartoon “The Suffragette that Knew Jiu-jitsu – The Assault”, Punch, 6 June 1910.

13 The first “Women’s Parliament”, organised in Caxton Hall the day after the opening of Parliament, was meant to act a “rallying ground for those who were to march up to the House of Commons to get themselves arrested”, according to Sylvia Pankhurst’s account (Pankhurst 1931, Chapter VIII).

14 See Ian Miller’s second chapter on the ethical dilemma of Suffragette Force-Feeding where he analyses the correspondance between the Home Office (Prison Commission) and pathologist Frederick W.Mott on the safety of force-feeding (Miller 2016, ).

15 For more on Gordon, see Deborah Cheney, “Dr Mary Louisa Gordon (1861-1914): A Feminist Approach in Prison”, Feminist Legal Studies, Vol. 18, 2010, 115-136.

16 See Tony Wolf, Suffrajitsu: The Collected Edition (Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons), Jet City [E-book], 22 April 2015.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: “If you want to earn some time, throw a policeman!”, The Sketch, 6 July 1910, p. 425.
File image/jpeg, 476k
Title Figure 2: “The Government’s Methods of Barbarism”, Votes for Women, Friday 28 February 1910, p. 1.
File image/png, 357k
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Bibliographical reference

Alice Bonzom, ““If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!”: Suffragettes and Self-Defence in Edwardian BritainCaliban, 62 | 2019, 31-54.

Electronic reference

Alice Bonzom, ““If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!”: Suffragettes and Self-Defence in Edwardian BritainCaliban [Online], 62 | 2019, Online since 10 July 2021, connection on 03 October 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alice Bonzom

Alice Bonzom is a teaching fellow in the department of Anglophone Studies of the University of Lyon 2. She has recently defended her PhD thesis entitled “Criminelles ou rebelles, déviantes ou démentes: femmes victoriennes et édouardiennes dans l'univers carcéral londonien, 1877-1918”, under the supervision of Professor Neil Davie. Her most recent publications include: “Female offenders at the confluence of medical and penal discourses: Towards a gender-specific criminology (1860s-1920s)”, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 87 (2018) and “‘Exchanging gin for gardening’: The Treatment of Female Inebriates in Duxhurst Farm Colony, 1895-1914”, Études Anglaises 3 (2019).

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