The Story of Suffra-Jitsu and the Enduring Power of the Grappling Arts

How does BJJ build confidence in women?

Jiu-jitsu is a martial art renowned for empowering its students regardless of size and strength. Our family here at GUMA is proud of its diversity, especially its female practitioners. When this piece of history came to our attention, with the unique role jiu-jitsu plays, we knew we had to share it. This is the story of “suffra-jitsu.”

The term is derived from the word ‘suffragette’, which refers to a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest. Women who fought for the right to vote in early 1900s Britain did not seek violence, but unfortunately, they were not able to avoid physical conflict. As you can imagine, there was not a Gracie brother in sight. Instead, there was a 4’11, 46-year-old civil rights activist named Edith Margaret Garrud.

Edith learned jiu-jitsu from her husband, William, who was a gymnastics, boxing, and wrestling instructor. She demonstrated the art in a dojo the couple ran in London, and after some encouraging from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSU), began to speak about the subject on their behalf. Meanwhile, she welcomed challenges from curious men.

Soon, the dojo became a de facto headquarters for the suffragette movement. Women would retreat and hide there whenever they drew unwelcome attention from authorities, while the media failed to catch on to the seriousness of the movement. That is when they coined the term “suffrajitsu.”

The ultimate result of Garrud’s training was the Bodyguard, also known as “The Amazons”, a phalanx of physically fit young women who would accompany Emmeline Pankhurst, the figurehead of the movement, whenever she made public appearances. In the process, suffragettes were able to defend themselves from police brutality, by turning their displays of force against them, as is the way of jiu-jitsu.

Garrud herself once spoke, in an interview, of an instance when, despite her diminutive frame, she was able to flip an officer over her shoulders, after the man attempted to physically prevent her from protesting. By 1925, she and William closed the dojo and retired. Three years later, the right to vote was extended to everyone in Britain, after the suffrage battle had already achieved victory for eight million women.

Elizabeth displayed the spirit of jiu-jitsu one last time, at the age of 99, by demonstrating a wrist hold on a journalist, in a 1965 interview. Today, 55 years later, the instructors and students at GUMA continue to respond to the crushing weight of COVID-19 the only way we know how: by converting that energy into positive results. Stay tuned for news of our inevitable comeback!

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