On November 18, 1910 over 300 activists from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) faced off with the British Police Force during the Black Friday Riot, one of the bloodiest encounters in suffrage history. British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had just stonewalled the Conciliation Bill, which would have extended voting rights to nearly one million British and Irish women. The WSPU, a militant suffrage organization, protested and attempted to surge pass police barricades. Many suffragettes and male suffrage supporters were physically assaulted, wounded, and some killed by police; 119 were arrested [v]. In the game Suffragetto, players enact one of many confrontations between the WSPU and police, drawing on suffrage ideology about civil rights, bodies, and public space.
“I Incite this Meeting to Rebellion.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst (October 17, 1912)
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, formed the WSPU because they were frustrated with slow moving pacifist methods. The WSPU disrupted public events and government meetings, destroyed public property through window-breaking, and committed arson in (unoccupied) government buildings, elected leaders’ homes, and high-end retail shops [i]. The WSPU tactics were unusual for both men and women. It was understood that allowing political speeches to go on uninterrupted was courteous and genteel; heckling was not normative regardless of gender [ii] [iii]. More militant approaches were certainly radical.
The confrontational approach of the WSPU often led to members’ arrest; WSPU members always choose incarceration over fines, and protested with hunger strikes. To avoid unpopular force-feeding, Parliament passed the 1913 Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, colloquially known as the Cat and Mouse Act [iv], allowing release of suffragettes from prison when they became very weak, and their re-arrest when they regained strength. The Cat and Mouse Act primarily targeted the WSPU Party Leaders. Interactions with police escalated.
We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men. . . .It is no use pretending. We have got to fight.
– Sylvia Pankhurst, New York Times, August 12th, 1913.
From the beginning, the WSPU adopted the motto “deeds not words” [v]. However, in response to violent police, the WSPU formed a female bodyguard trained in jiu jitsu and armed with clubs to protect suffragettes. The thirty-woman unit, known as the Bodyguard, the Amazons, and the Jiu jitsu-suffragettes, facilitated WSPU activism. Trained by suffragette Edith Garrud, aka the “Newest Suffragette Terror”[vi], the message of self-defense circulated nationally and internationally. The WSPU took a radical stance on notions of femininity and athleticism. They argued that physically enhancing and disciplining one’s body was an essential feminine knowledge. It was something “every woman should know”[vii]. Police had greater physicality, but were endowed with political backing that allowed for the physical abuse and battery of activists. The suffragette’s emphasis on self-defense was an attempt to combat and alleviate differential corporeal and political power experienced in public spaces, and enhance the movement’s durability in activist conflict.
As bodies were important to the British Suffragette movement, bodies are also important in the play of Suffragetto creating a setting where players can perform the corporeal equality enacted by the WSPU through jiu jitsu. In the original game rules, suffragettes “disable” their opponents, a term used in martial arts for when an opponent is neutralized.
Within the game both police and suffragette players move in the same way. In doing so, the game collapses or flattens gender and corporeal differences present in real life—but alleviated through self-defense techniques suffragettes would have been knowledgeable in. However, Suffragetto is set in the actual socio-politico-historical realities of the time. This is most readily seen when players are injured; when police pawns are injured they are taken to the hospital, while suffragette pawns are taken to jail. This reflected actual practices of the time. Suffragetto is not an idealistic fantasyland, but reflects tensions of the time.
One legacy of the WSPU (outside of women’s suffrage), is an increase in women’s self-defense knowledge in both Britain and the U.S. An increase in women’s self-defense training, instructional pamphlets, and short films detailing maneuvers (see below) emerged. As women increased their physical presence in spaces formerly characterized as male, there was a movement to increase the physicality of women. Suffragetto allows users to “play” at these changing norms, and engage intellect (strategy) to traverse conservative gender norms.
[i] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst’s international library Company.
[ii] C N Trueman “Women’s Social And Political Union”
historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 17 Mar 2015. 3 Mar 2016.
[iii] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst’s international library Company.
[v] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-the-right-to-vote/the-right-to-vote/winson-green-forcefeeding/cat-and-mouse-act/cat-and-mouse-act-2/[vi] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst’s international library Company.
[viii] “Handy things to know for those who would be versed in the feminine art of self defense.” April 30, 1911. The Milwaukee Sentinel.
[ix] August 20, 1913 – By Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Telegraph to The New York Times – Print Headline: “JIU-JITSU FOR MILITANTS.; Sylvia Pankhurst Also Wants Them Drilled and to Carry Sticks.”
[x] Garrud, E. March 4, 1910. “The World We Live In: Self-Defence.” Votes for Women Magazine. Published by WSPU.