Suffrajitsu… the first time I came across the word, I thought Google was pulling my leg. Digging deeper I found it was indeed real; and with further sleuthing I discovered it had an amazing connection to a remarkable Canadian woman. (Naturally, suffrajitsu made its way into a scene in Nothing Less! )
Throughout the research process that went into writing the play, I unearthed many examples of women involved in the suffrage movement (in Canada, the UK and the US) using boundless creativity and ingenuity to further the cause. Marches, rallies, speeches, tracts and petitions were all a given; but when times got tough, suffragists were quick to think outside the box.
Songs of suffrage were composed and performed; cookbooks filled with suffrage-inspired recipes were penned and sold; “mock parliaments” (where women debated why men shouldn’t be given the vote) were staged and performed in theatres across Canada.
Suffragettes in the UK, led by Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, engaged in a more militant approach – their bold actions often putting them in harm’s way. As tensions rose and anti-suffrage sentiment surged, the women of the UK movement (the WSPU) looked to ways in which to defend themselves. Londoner, Edith Garrud (at 4′ 11″) had the solution. Married to a physical culture instructor, she’d quickly taken to the martial art of jiu-jitsu and touted it as an ideal form of self defence for women. She and her husband William gave numerous public demonstrations and because of their popularity, Edith opened a dojo where she offered suffragist-only classes. (She also choreographed fight scenes for the feminist play: What Every Woman Ought to Know.)
Jiu-jitsu became so popular, that women would hold suffrajitsu parties in their homes to encourage more women to learn the martial art.
In 1913 a group of thirty women trained by Edith Garrud in jiu-jitsu formed a secret body guard to protect Emmeline Pankhurst.
Among them was Gertrude Harding, a twenty-four year old farm girl from Welford, New Brunswick. Smart, agile and formidable, she was chosen to be the leader of Pankhurst’s “Amazons.” Gert’s great-niece Gretchen Kelbough describes her as “a tomboy,” and says that, “Her memoirs talk of trying to duck out of doing indoor housework so she could go out and bring the cows in or go fishing and hunting.” Drawn to the UK movement while visiting her sister in London, she soon became part of Pankhurst’s inner circle.
After her time in the bodyguard, she became editor of the underground paper, The Suffragette.
She returned to New Brunswick in 1920 and lived for a time in a cottage on Hammond River. She then moved to New Jersey to work as a Welfare Supervisor, continuing to fight for the rights of women and children for the rest of her life. When she became sick with cancer at the age of 87, she returned to New Brunswick to spend her remaining days with family. She died a year later at the age of 88.
The indomitable Gert Harding is mentioned in Nothing Less!, and it’s my hope that more people will come to know her story because of it.
As a fun tribute to Gert and her sisters in the Pankhurst body guard, artist Alex Kehoe has created this wonderful illustration to be printed on a limited run of t-shirts available only via the Ross Creek Centre for the arts. It also sports the famous line spoken by Canadian suffragist, Nellie McClung, “Let them howl!” (To order one, see link at end of post.)
People, places and things mentioned in this post:
More on the history of suffrajitsu via The Martial Chronicles.
More about Gert Harding, including an interview with Gert’s great-niece, Gretchen via cbc radio’s Information Morning, St. John.
Order a suffrajitsu t-shirt from the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.
Nothing Less! runs from July 8 – August 19 : Book your Tickets today!