More than 100 years before the UFC and Invicta FC made women’s MMA chic, the streets of London were filled with a tough troupe of women who knew how to crack bones and close airways.
At this moment, the circumstances that brought the woman to this point don’t matter. She could be old or young, rich or poor, married or otherwise. A man is closing in on her—she’s in trouble.
In darkness or in broad daylight, down an alleyway or on a busy street, he’s interested in money, her body, or her life. Whether he’s simply drunk, a malcontent, raging husband, or even a peace officer, he aims to make her a victim.
On comes the grab of a wrist, the squeeze of shoulders, or grab of her throat. With adrenaline singeing her synapses, she’s faced with a choice: freeze or fight back. She chooses the latter.
In 1910, a woman named Edith Margaret Garrud sketched a fictional scenario of an attempted assault in an article penned for British magazine Health & Strength, which was among the first to lend pages to the emerging practice of martial arts. She was 38 years old, married, and a member of London’s upper class. She also was quite familiar with physical confrontation. Seven years prior, she had opened a school in the city’s East End that taught women not only how to prevail physically over unruly men, but also to fight a police force bent on silencing them.
Before Garrud, and more than a century before the age of cardio-kickboxing and stun-gun Tupperware parties, the idea of women’s self-defense had been tied to the fashion of the day, where parasols and 12-inch hatpins were used to fend off attackers. The idea of women physically asserting themselves through “antagonistics,” as they were then called, was a novel idea.
In other words, we were a long way from Ronda Rousey. Garrud, and her protagonist, were the exception. She wrote:
A lady, who is quite on the petite side, is returning home along a lonely country road. It is growing dark, but the lady saunters carelessly, enjoying the fragrant, health-giving summer breezes, and dangling over her arm her satchel containing her money—several pounds in silver, a diamond ring, and various other little treasures that possess perhaps only a sentimental value.
Suddenly, from behind a hedge, a rascally hooligan rushes forward. He is powerful, he is unscrupulous, he is a thief. He has cast avaricious eyes upon that satchel, which he has reason to believe contains valuables. Anyhow, he means to try his luck. But not so fast, my friend; not so fast! It is not so easy as it seems.
Rather than scream or wilt away, the lady rebuffs him with a wrist lock. Attacking again, he tries to garrote her and is thrown head over heels. Enraged, he draws a knife and is arm-locked, tripped, and tied into a pretzel for approaching authorities.
Her weapon for turning the tables? “Jiujitsu,” which Garrud had learned several years prior from a man named Edward William Barton-Wright, who’d traveled to the Far East in 1895 and come back to trademark a particular blend of jiu-jitsu, English boxing, French savate, catch wrestling, and stick fighting. Dubbed “Bartitsu,” the creation was the first to popularize martial arts in Western culture.
Like Garrud, Barton-Wright saw the benefit of promoting the art through the media. And like the Gracies some 30 years later in Brazil, he also was keen on testing it through live competition. In addition to publishing several instructional articles in Pearson’s Magazine, he used the best platform at the time—variety shows throughout London, where he would issue challenges to audience members. Wrestlers often shared the bill at the shows and were all too happy to step up, only to be dispatched by his young Japanese Jiu-Jitsu instructors in submission wrestling matches.
Had Barton-Wright heeded the social mores of the time, Garrud might never have learned the hybrid martial art. His school, which opened in 1899, invited women to train alongside men. She followed her husband, a “physical culture” instructor, to classes and later took lessons from one of the school’s Japanese Jiu-Jitsu instructors. Eventually, she began to teach women’s and children’s classes.
“Today, we would take it for granted,” says Tony Wolf, who’s studied 20th century martial arts for almost a decade. “If a woman wanted to learn martial arts, they would go to a martial arts school. But that’s building on 100 years of increasing acceptance of women being involved in athletic activities. Back then, it was almost a political statement for a woman because it would have been seen as something exclusively for men.”
But for Garrud, and for many upper- and middle-class women in London, it was a necessary step toward empowerment.
In late 1913, after she had spent several years mastering jiu-jitsu, she would make an even bigger statement. When legislators passed a draconian law popularly called The Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed police officers to capture suffragette leaders, she taught her skills to a band of women tasked to guard them from harm. Called “Jiu-jitsu Suffragettes,” they waged a campaign of civil disobedience on the streets of London and fought in bloody riots against baton-wielding police officers. Politicians who fought against suffrage on several occasions found their houses stoned or burned to the ground (although great care was taken to avoid loss of life). Often after their exploits, the bodyguards found safe harbor at Garrud’s school.
Famously, Punch Magazine printed a cartoon that showed police officers cowering as a woman stands at the ready, having tossed a few of them over a fence during a protest. The caption reads: “The Suffragette Who Knew Jiu-Jitsu.”
“The suffragettes and bodyguards were fighting a battle on two levels,” Wolf says. “They were fighting street fights against the police when they had to, and there was a war of propaganda going on at the time. The image of these jiu-jitsu trained bodyguard of women was very colorful and romantic, and that was useful to the movement, because it got them back on the front pages.”
The bodyguards didn’t always win their fights, of course. The police were merciless with their weapons.
Garrud, who wasn’t allowed to protests, lest she hurt a hapless constable, became a colorful figurehead of the movement. London’s The Daily Mirror ran a photo of her hip-tossing a cop that had questioned jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness (the guy might have been old school—according to several reports, police already had incorporated the Japanese grappling art into training).
“Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves men are not worthy of that exalted title, and it is her duty to learn how to defend herself,” she wrote in Strength & Health. “Because jiu-jitsu has over and over again been proved to be the most effective means, in moments of emergency, for repelling the attack of a ruffian.”
Bartitsu would quickly fade from the public’s consciousness when Barton-Wright closed his school in 1902, having overestimated the number of elites who wanted to study the martial art. Jiu-jitsu and judo, however, continued to grow in popularity and made their way stateside. In 1904, Yamashita Yoshitsugu introduced the latter to U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, whose varied interests included the antagonistics of wrestling and boxing. His interest spurred other diplomats and their wives to study grappling, and more schools opened to meet the demand for the exotic art.
“In the United States, people were very keen on testing it, and there was a sense of nationalism,” says Wolf. “People wanted to see how well jiu-jitsu would fare against an American wrestler.”
World War I diminished the growing martial arts movement (although soldiers learned jiu-jitsu as part of hand-to-hand combat training). Eclectic Asian-European fighting styles, however, survived under various different names in both England and the U.S. Garrud left her school in 1925, seven years after women were first allowed to vote, and moved out of the public eye. By then, several detailed jiu-jitsu books had been published, including The Fine Art of Jiu-Jitsu, written by another high-society woman, Emily Watts, who had trained with the women’s martial arts icon.
The clothes of the attacker (and the quality of the pictorials) would change over time, but women would continue to face the same scenarios Garrud wrote about. The techniques they used to defend themselves grew more sophisticated, as did the technology at their disposal. A self-defense industry sprouted as martial arts again came into vogue in the 1970s, and women’s competitions became more and more popular. They were, and are, an integral part of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s rise.
Today, hatpins are scarcely needed to subdue the unruly man—the elbows and knees of Muay Thai and Krav Maga dovetail nicely with joint-locks and chokeholds.
Thanks to the “steampunk” movement and the recent movie remake of Sherlock Holmes, Bartitsu has undergone a revival as martial-arts historians have unearthed Barton-Wright’s original articles. As it turns out, Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, worked at Pearson’s when Barton-Wright published his first articles. Garrud, who died in 1971, might smile at Rousey’s ferocious armbar and women’s emergence in the UFC—not because they managed to break into an realm preserved for men, but because when they did, just about everyone wondered why they hadn’t arrived sooner.