You might wonder what the women’s struggle for the vote had to do with jiu jitsu. Yes, it’s makes some sense that suffragettes needed to learn self defense when battling policemen wielding truncheons, but a 15th century Japanese martial art seems an unexpected choice.
The reason? Edith Garrud, a young woman from Somerset who went on to train the suffragettes in combat.
At 21 she moved to London and married wrestling instructor William Garrud. At a wrestling show in Leicester Square the pair met Edward William Barton-Wright, who had learned jiu jitsu in Japan. After she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908, Edith began teaching classes for women in the suffrage movement. The 1913 Cat and Mouse Act, which meant huger strikers were released and re-arrested when they regained their strength, made the need for women to defend themselves even more urgent.
Edith trained the WSPU’s Bodyguard unit which focused on saving its leaders from re-arrest.
Today, we arrive at KO Muaythai, a gym under an archway in East London, to try out the Suffrajitsu Experience.
Trainer Nikki Sahota puts us through a rigorous warm up of stretches and lunges that make us wish we hadn’t skipped our last yoga session.
She’s smiley and encouraging, but something about the way Nikki carries herself makes it clear you’d be a fool to mess with her.
The moves we learn today are as relevant now as they would have been back then.
We begin with the wrist sweep, which teaches us to free our hands from authoritative grips by rolling our arms outwards.
Next is the arm lock, where you spin your attacker’s hand behind them and lock in their elbow to throw them to the ground.
We then attempted the chokehold, which was particularly useful for suffragettes when restraining officers from behind when their friends were being attacked.
The days might be gone when hand-to-hand combat was necessary for women to gain their basic rights, but consider making this sport your weekly dose of empowerment.
Suffragette is in UK cinemas now.
Words: Radhika Seth