The Martial Art That (Sort of) Won British Women the Right to Vote
This Edwardian-era fighting craze, mixed with gentlemanly ingenuity, helped women win the vote.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they were fighting … with walking sticks.
Some British women literally fought for the right to vote. Edith Garrud, at all of 4-foot-11, was demonstrating outside the House of Commons when a policeman told her she was obstructing traffic. She faked a handkerchief drop — a classic move — then flipped the policeman over her shoulder and onto the ground. Into the crowd she went, the queen of jiu jitsu. Or, more specifically, Bartitsu.
But let’s back up to the late 1890s, when Bangalore-born Englishman Edward William Barton-Wright returned to his home country from Japan. He had studied martial arts in two cities there and knew an opportunity when he saw one: He created his own self-defense system, one that melded jiu jitsu with boxing, stick fighting and wrestling. It was a martial art, of course, but it was an Edwardian gentleman’s art too, with a walking stick serving not only as a prime mode of defense but also as a stylish accessory.
Blows can be made so formidable that, with an ordinary Malacca cane, it is possible to sever a man’s jugular vein through the collar of his overcoat.
Edward Barton-Wright, ‘Self-Defense With a Walking Stick’
“Bartitsu was what we would think of today as a cross-training system,” says Tony Wolf, author of Suffrajitsu, a graphic novel about the suffragettes’ use of martial arts. Bartitsu was designed to give its students jiu jitsu skills “as a sort of ‘secret weapon,’ ” Wolf explains. When Barton-Wright introduced his system, Japanese combat was taught in only one place in the Western world: his school on Shaftesbury Avenue.
In his 1902 essay “Self-Defense With a Walking Stick,” Barton-Wright sang the praises of the accoutrement’s effectiveness as a weapon: “Blows can be made so formidable that, with an ordinary Malacca cane, it is possible to sever a man’s jugular vein through the collar of his overcoat,” he wrote, before detailing potential moves in various situations. He also cautioned that certain blows should be made with care when being shown to a friend. Athletes, politicians, military men and other prominent members of London society flocked to train under Barton-Wright, digging his combination of familiar fighting skills and seemingly exotic hand fighting.
Even Sherlock Holmes got in on the craze — though Bartitsu enthusiasts will point out that Arthur Conan Doyle misspells it as “Baritsu” and has Holmes use the method in 1894, several years before Barton-Wright invented it. Bartitsu — or an approximation thereof — shows up occasionally in adaptations of the Holmes stories, often not mentioned by name but reflected in the fight choreography’s hat-and-umbrella antics mixed with boxing and various martial arts. Sure, it may seem silly when, in character as fiction’s favorite sleuth, Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. begins throwing kicks and dodging blows, but Conan Doyle started Holmes off by including his martial arts background in the literary canon.
Beyond the fictional detective and real-life luminaries, though, were multitudes of fitness professionals, men and women who learned and transmitted Barton-Wright’s martial art. One of these was Edith Garrud, whom with her husband, William, trained under Barton-Wright. The couple took over the running of jiu jitsu master Sadakazu Uyenishi’s London dojo when he returned to Japan in 1908; by 1910, Edith was teaching self-defense to suffragettes in Kensington and posing for photo shoots. She trained the suffragettes’ bodyguard unit, an all-female team familiar with hand-to-hand combat whose members were charged with protecting prominent women campaigners from arrest and who often came to blows with the police. But, says Wolf, “it’s important to carefully distinguish between that romantic badass image and the reality of their history.” He notes that Garrud, Emmeline Pankhurst and the other suffragettes would have been regarded as violent insurgents at the time. Today, Garrud is more of a historical footnote — and a reminder that self-defense systems can be extremely effective in the real world.
Though Barton-Wright’s club lasted only a few years — it had closed down by 1903 — his promotion of jiu jitsu had a lasting impact on British society, which was crazy for martial arts until the advent of World War I. And Bartitsu is still with us, thanks to a cadre of fighter scholars who’ve resurrected Barton-Wright’s texts alongside a “neo-Bartitsu” drawn from the work and training preserved by the master’s students. Wolf is one of those, and he’s not alone — he estimates that there are 50 clubs currently active in Europe and the Americas, training would-be Bartitsu masters inspired by Holmes, Garrud, Barton-Wright and good old-fashioned curiosity. “Our challenge today is to continue [Barton-Wright’s] experiment,” Wolf says. “If we can avoid dissolving into steampunk-hipster irony, then I think we have a fighting chance at doing that.”