The Suffragettes that knew jiu-jitsu

On International Women’s Day at Archway Library historian Roz Currie is taking the crowd on an inspirational romp through the history of the suffrage movement in Islington.

But these aren’t just any suffragettes, these are the Jewish Suffragettes. Currie, a former curator at the Jewish Museum in London and a proud feminist is an expert on the women’s movement in the early part of the 20th Century.  

Currie is also passionate about telling the story of the Jewish community that thrived in the local area. She curated an exhibition called Blackguards in Bonnets in 2015, and has been touring it around libraries and cultural centres since then.

The crowd of mostly older women, and a couple of men too, gathered in the bustling library on a Monday evening appear fascinated to learn about the women who paved the way.

“Suffragettes from Islington were feisty,” says Currie. “They learnt jiu-jitsu and carried Indian clubs in their handbags so that they could defend themselves from the police, if they had to.”

Murmurs of approval rumble around the room. On the screen behind her, Currie, puts up a picture of Edith Garrud, the world’s first professional female martial arts instructor and a prominent suffragette. Garrud trained the Bodyguard a unit of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), made up of 30 women whose sole job was to protect their colleagues from arrest.

“They were called the suffrajitsus,” Currie continues, showing off one of the Indian clubs that the women carried. It looks like it could do some serious damage.

“And when the police tried to arrest their leaders – the Pankhursts, or anyone high profile – they would fight them.”

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Garrud spent five years leading the Bodyguard, protecting her sisters from the horrors that awaited them in prisons like H.M. Holloway. Women on hunger strike were regularly force-fed, their mouths held open by steel gags that invariably made them vomit. It was the Bodyguard’s remit to protect fugitive members of the union from this kind of treatment – with Garrud at the helm.

Currie turns again to the image of the martial artist – barely five foot tall – scaring off crowds of male police officers.

“I think she could have given the men a run for their money,” she says, and the crowd bursts into laughter.

Turning serious for a moment, Currie says: “you have to remember the reasons why women were denied the vote and the reason Jewish men were sometimes overlapped.”

“The tabloid newspapers made a big deal out of the fact that Jewish men – according to them – didn’t go out to join the army and fight. They said the same things about women – they can’t fight for their country, so why should they be able to vote?”

Fighting anti-semitism was just one aspect of the Jewish Suffragettes struggle. They also had to deal with sexist oppression from within their own religious community. In 1913, they disrupted a Yom Kippur service at the New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, shouting at prominent anti-suffragists in the congregation.

They also engaged in hunger strikes, as well as more serene forms of protest like organising tea parties to raise funds for the movement.

Henrietta Lowy, one of the founders of the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, and her sisters, were awarded Hunger Strike medals from Emmeline Pankhurst, marking their bravery and dedication with a ribbon in the green and purple that the WSPU was famous for, and inscribing each medal with the words: “For valour.”

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Dora Montefiore, a poet born in Australia who became another prominent suffragette, went on rent strike and barricaded herself in her house. While all of her belongings were eventually taken from her by bailiffs, she bought every item back at auction.

Garrud struck the imagination of many people at the time of the movement and in the decades that followed. She was immortalised in newspaper cartoons in the 1910s and by Helena Bonham-Carter in the 2015 film Suffragette. A poem published in the weekly journal The Sketch in 1910 summed up her courage – the courage of all Islington suffragettes, and suffragettes all over the country.

“For women are learning jiu-jitsu

And throwing policemen about

And when a man meets with the Woman Athletes

He’ll have to be Good – or get out.”