The Huk Rebellion: Guerrilla Amazons

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Welcome to Amazon Month Week 5! Sorry for missing last week, things got crazy busy. But we’re back, and ready to wrap up Amazon Month! I’d like to give a shout-out to Rejected Princesses; without their coverage of Kumander Liwayway, I would never have known about such a perfect story for Amazon Month!

Though most of these stories have been somewhere from old to ancient, the Huk Amazons are quite recent!

First, a brief history of the Philippines.

Originally, the islands were settled by peoples coming from all over the Asian continent; who blended together with varying degrees of success. In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan reached the region as a representative of Spain; and Spanish colonization began several decades later. This was not an easy task; along with the difficulties which usually accompany colonization efforts, Spain also had to fight off other Asian nations who wanted the islands for themselves. However, Spain prevailed, becoming the unquestioned ruler of the Philippines (named after then-prince and eventual King Philip II) in the early 17th century.

Though the Spanish weren’t exactly gentle colonists, a side effect of their activities in the Philippines meant the islands gained a sense of national identity and cultural unity where none had existed before. Of course, this was largely because native Filipinos from various ethnic groups banded together to resist the Spanish. Rebellions flared up with some regularity; and though the Spanish were able to put down most of them, they eventually lost. In 1898, the Philippines declared themselves independent from Spain.

The Philippines in geographic context.

The Philippines in geographic context.

Spain took a unique approach to the problem. They had just lost the Spanish-American War, and as part of the peace treaty, handed the islands over to America. The United States proceeded to thoroughly ignore Philippine claims to independence, dismantled the nascent republic, and fought for three years to assert their ownership of the territory. Eventually, the First Republic of the Philippines folded, and America assumed rule.

However, the Americans were much more moderate than the Spanish. Filipino culture, especially cinema, flourished in the first part of the 20th century. In 1936, the Americans began to grant the Philippines some measure of independence, and planned to eventually bring self-rule to the nation. However, the advent of World War II, and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, severely disrupted these plans.

And thus began the Hukbalahap Rebellion, often shortened to Huk Rebellion.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Communism had spread to the Philippines, and many peasant farmers, tired of being oppressed by landlords and dreaming of owning land themselves, embraced the ideology. And most of the islands’ residents, especially those of fighting age, had grown up under American rule and were largely pro-American (or, at least, had friendlier feelings towards Americans than the Japanese, who were not kind to the islands during occupation).

So when the staunchly imperialist Japanese invaded and proceeded to commit several famous atrocities. the peasant farmers decided to rebel. They formed what was called in Tagalog Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, which means something roughly like ‘National Anti-Japanese Army,’ or ‘People’s Army Against the Japanese.’ A difficult phrase for most English-speakers to get their tongue around, so it’s often shortened to the Hukbalahap or Huk Rebellion.

The army officially formed in 1942, under the command of a four-person military committee – including Felepa Culala, also called Dayang-Dayang.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it's done.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it’s done.

Felepa led one of the first armed attacks against the Japanese. She formed her own resistance group before the official founding of the Hukbalahap, and when several of the men under her command were taken prisoner by collaborators, Felepa organized and led a successful mission to rescue them. When the Japanese army tried to retaliate, Felepa was there and ambushed them, driving the Japanese back to their outposts. Felepa led other missions, largely attacks on collaborators and policemen, where she captured weapons and ammunition for her cause. Inspired by Felepa’s example, many women left home to join her.

According to some estimates, approximately 10% of the Huk warriors were women (by way of comparison, approximately 14.5% of the US Armed Forces are women). And these women were fighters. They were not content to stay back and camp and work as nurses – these women hiked into the jungle, stole supplies from downed planes, disrupted supply lines and cut off lines of communication for the Japanese forces. Felepa even rescued some American soldiers from the infamous Bataan Death March!

The local media absolutely loved the Huk women, calling them amazonas. While these women weren’t actively conducting missions into the jungle, they were dedicated to making life better for the average Filipino or Filipina. Women (and men) in Huk camps were taught to read, and land controlled by the Huk army was distributed equally to member farmers.

In addition to Felepa, known amazonas are:

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano

Born into the property-owning class, Celia was moved by compassion when seeing how her family’s tenants lived. She joined the Filipino Communist Party shortly before the war; and successfully convinced her family to donate two of their farms for use as Huk training camps. When the former editor of the Huk newspaper was captured and tortured to death by collaborators, Celia bravely stepped up and ensured the newspaper continued to operate. In 1944, she was elected to the central governing committee of the national Communist Party, and dedicated many of her post-war efforts to improving the lives and status of women in her home country, including establishing trade schools.

Kumander Liwayway

A former beauty queen, Kumander was known to do her makeup and nails before a raid. When challenged over her supposed vanity, Kumander said she was fighting for the right to be herself. And fight she did; leading up to 100 Huk soldiers in guerrilla raids.

Kumander Liwayway

Kumander Liwayway

Filomena Tolentino

Growing up impoverished in Luzon, Filomena had to leave school after the third grade. Under Japanese occupation, she lived under the continual threat of rape by Japanese soldiers. Joining the Huk rebellion not only allowed Filomena to escape this threat, but also to complete her education. Though Filomena did not fight, she nevertheless risked her life by spreading anti-Japanese propaganda. This she did by going from village to village, and using performance to communicate revolutionary ideas to the people living there. Only Japanese ignorance of her native language kept her safe.

Marcosa de la Rosa

The daughter of the ‘Bandit King’, named because he would so often incite peasant farmers to rebel against their landlords, Marcosa grew up with political activism in her blood. As a Huk amazona, Marcosa worked in propaganda. She also became part of the intricate and highly effective courier network, carrying messages between Huk camps (and often traveling through occupied territory to do it).

By Vina A. Lanzona

By Vina A. Lanzona

However, the end of the war did not necessarily mean the end of the Huk rebellion. Though the Philippines gained independence on July 4, 1946, many members of the Huk army strongly disapproved of the new government. The Huks, remember, had a strong Communist foundation, and many rebels saw the new government as simply continuing many of the problems the Huks fought against.

And so the army transitioned, from a group of guerrillas resisting foreign occupation to a group of guerrillas instigating civil rebellion. As one might imagine, this did not endear them at all to the ruling class – but crackdowns only empowered the Huk army.

In the end, it was war weariness which brought an official end to the Huk rebellion. With the war over, few members of the guerrilla army had the heart to keep living and fighting in the jungle – especially because so many of them missed their families. Slowly, Huk fighters moved back to the cities. Some, such as Celia Mariano, were imprisoned (though she was eventually pardoned on the condition she relocate; Celia spent the rest of her life advocating for working-class causes from England).

However, this does not mean they gave up the fight entirely. Surviving Huk women often became political or academic leaders, and many notable Filipina feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s got their start as rebels (Dayang-Dayang, sadly, was executed by her own people in 1943 for an anti-Communist ideology and accusations she was using the Huk rebellion to enrich herself). Though they did not get the Communist government they wanted, the Huk amazonas did improve life for the Filipino peasant and working classes; especially for women.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Though life for women in the Philippines is certainly challenging (the Philippines ranks 77 out of 139 on the Global Gender Equality Index), Filipinas do enjoy relatively more independence than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. And while this is partly due to long-standing cultural traditions (placing the family as the center of Philippine culture and the woman as center of her family), some credit must be given to a robust feminist movement which found its voice fighting in the jungle, and has helped inspire subsequent waves of Filipino feminist thought.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about the Huk amazonas in pop culture. Not in English language pop culture, anyway – I can only hope that these women show up in the art and culture of the Philippines more often than they appear in American culture!

And with that, Amazon Month concludes! We’ll return to our regularly scheduled roster of amazing women next week – if you have a woman you’d like to see featured, use the Suggestion Box or leave a comment below! Also leave feedback if you like themed months like Amazon Month; I’m considering doing a Women of World War Two month sometime in the summer or fall.


Amazons of the Huk Rebellion: Gender, Sex and Revolution in the Philippines

Celia Mariano Pomeroy Obituary

Felepa Culala

Flight of the Filipina Phoenix: The Rise of Pinay Feminism

Rejected Princesses

Tales of the Amazonas

The Making of the Philippines

Women on 20s: Four Short Stories

Currently in America, there’s a campaign to replace Andrew Jackson as the person featured on the $20 bill. After a first-round vote, the finalists have been narrowed down to four extraordinary women: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller. Rather than focus on a specific woman this week, I’d like to instead give you short vignettes on each of these four women, and draw attention to the Women on 20s campaign. The winner will get a much more in-depth biography!

Eleanor Roosevent

A blackand white photograph of a woman in her late 20s with  short dark hair. She looks directly at the camera, smiling slightly.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Often known for being the First Lady during her husband’s administration from 1933-1945, Eleanor had quite a distinguished career of her own, focusing on civil and human rights.

Born in 1884 in New York City, she suffered immense personal tragedy early on, losing her mother at age eight and her father just two years later. She lived with her grandmother for a time, then in London while attending finishing school. The headmistress of her school was an outspoken feminist who doubtless influenced young Eleanor’s views on women and equal rights. Upon her return to America, she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin – they quickly fell in love and were married in 1905 (then-President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away!).

The couple had six children between 1906 and 1916, though reportedly, Eleanor enjoyed neither sex nor motherhood very much. In 1918, she discovered her husband having an affair with his secretary. And though they chose to stay together, Eleanor made it clear she would no longer sleep with Franklin. From that moment, they became a political match, and Franklin began his career in politics soon after.

In 1921, tragedy struck again as Franklin fell ill with the polio which would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. He very nearly quit politics, but Eleanor persuaded him to not give up. She became one of her husband’s most ardent supporters, doing quite a lot of campaigning on his behalf.

However, Eleanor made time to pursue her own goals while also helping Franklin. In the 1920s, her chief cause was promoting women’s rights in the workplace. She allied with the Women’s Trade Union League, which successfully campaigned for a 48-hour workweek, a minimum wage and the abolition of child labor.

In 1933, Franklin became the 32nd President of the United States of America, and Eleanor the First Lady. The role of First Lady up till then had largely been a social one – hosting dinners, parties and similar events. Eleanor, however, refused to simply be a hostess for the duration of her husband’s administration. She redefined the role as a political one, and used her time in office to campaign for the rights of the poor, as well as civil rights for African-American voters (a task she was so successful at that she single-handedly shifted the African-American voting demographic from Republican to Democrat; a trend which persists to this day).

After the White House, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations, where she continued her work for human rights, assisting in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter universally adopted by all member nations (though several Soviet states abstained).

She died in 1962 at the age of 78.

Harriet Tubman

A black woman with short black hair faces the camera with a stern expression. She wears a dark buttoned dress with a white scarf.

Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery as Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross sometime in the early 1820s in Maryland, Harriet Tubman is most known for her work on the Underground Railroad. She witnessed early on the destruction slavery had on the family, as three of her siblings were sold away, and her mother risked her life to keep her brother.

Harriet was put to work at age 5 minding the infant of friends of her white owners, and would be whipped whenever the baby cried. Harriet would carry the scars of these beatings for the rest of her life. One beating was so bad she suffered a permanent head injury, causing her lifelong bouts of narcolepsy, epilepsy, seizures and hallucinations.

Around 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman. Somewhere around this time, she also changed her name for Araminta to Harriet (possibly to honor her mother, also named Harriet). However, the couple lived in fear of Harriet being sold away; or of their children being enslaved. In 1849, this threatened to become a reality when Harriet’s owner tried to sell her. Only his lack of success in finding a buyer and sudden death prevented the sale. However, her owner’s widow began selling many of the household slaves, and Harriet knew it was now or never.

After one unsuccessful attempt to escape with two of her brothers, Harriet escaped on her own. Aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad, Harriet eventually made it to safety and freedom in the Northern states.

However, Harriet could not forget those she left behind, and soon made plans to return in order to liberate more loved ones from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant slave-hunters could capture escaped slaves even in Northern states, and so Harriet extended her route to Canada.

All told, she rescued approximately seventy slaves. She was never caught, nor were any of her charges. She also provided a great deal of support to other escaping slaves, giving them advice and guidance. She ran her last trip in December, 1860.

During the Civil War, Harriet tirelessly supported the Union Army, working as a spy, scout and even once personally leading a military attack on a group of Maryland plantations. The raid was a success – the Union forces seized several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies, and over 750 slaves were liberated. She was also a voice in Lincoln’s ear, convincing him to allow black men to enlist, counsel he eventually took. Despite all her work, Tubman was never fairly paid by the government for what she had done.

After the war, Harriet worked various odd jobs, and in 1869, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. However, they were often in financial difficulty, and survived due to community donations (including sale of a biography about her). She dedicated much of her time after the war to the cause of women’s suffrage, including suffrage for black women.

She died in 1913.

Rosa Parks

A young black woman in a black and white photograph. She wears glasses, and has a black and white striped shirt underneath a dark vest.

Rosa Parks

Though America lost Harriet Tubman in 1913, we gained Rosa Parks on February 4 of that same year. She grew up on a farm in Alabama with her mother, her maternal grandparents and several siblings. She attended several schools, but was forced to cut her education short when both her mother and grandmother fell ill and required Rosa to care for them.

She grew up in a Jim Crow climate, where she regularly witnessed white children being bused to much nicer schools than hers; her school was twice attacked by arsonists, and the KKK would march through her neighborhood. And though white bullies would sometimes attack Rosa, she would never back down, and would often (dangerously) fight back.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932, who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. She finished high school in 1933, becoming part of the 7% of African-Americans at the time who successfully did so. However, she could not find suitable work, and often worked unstable employment as a domestic servant. In 1943, she, too became active in the NAACP. At one meeting of the Montgomery chapter, she became elected secretary by virtue of being the only woman in the room. However, she proved to be quite good, serving in this role until 1957.

In 1944, a young black woman was gang-raped by white men, and Rosa spearheaded a successful campaigns to get justice for Recy Taylor, the survivor.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, one of the issues which Rosa’s local NAACP chapter paid attention to was the segregation of the bus system, and decided to protest the unfair rules.

Some narratives have Rosa too tired to move at the end of a long work day. And while Rosa was tired, she was more tired of injustice. Her refusal to move was a deliberately calculated move to force the bus driver to enforce these unfair rules on her (thereby bringing attention to the injustice). This he did, having Rosa arrested and taken to jail.

She was bailed out the next morning, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott had begun. Rosa was eventually convicted of violating the municipal segregation laws, and charged $14 in fines. This, she refused to pay, and appealed her case. A young reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a relative unknown, rose to prominence leading the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott eventually ended when the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that these laws were unconstitutional.

Though Rosa had by now become a symbol for the Civil Rights movement, that very notoriety made her (and her husband) unemployable. She eventually moved north to Detroit, where she found a system of segregation that, while not official and legal, was no less insidious. However, she provided crucial assistance to John Conyers, then running for Congress. Upon Conyers’ election, Rosa was hired as his secretary, a job she would hold until 1988.

Rosa’s new cause was housing fairness, as she saw how housing inequality and ‘urban renewal’ programs disparately affected blacks and other people of color. She worked for this cause, and many others, until her health eventually declined to the point where that became impossible.

She passed away in 2005.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Perhaps the least well-known woman on this list, I personally can think of no better person to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

She was born in 1945 in Talequah, on Cherokee Nation land in Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother Dutch-Irish who nevertheless adopted Cherokee customs and lived in Talequah with her family.

Her father was extremely poor, relying on a small patch of land to survive. However, this land was seized by the US Government (along with the land of 45 other Cherokee families) to expand Fort Gruber. In 1956, the family left Oklahoma and settled in San Francisco.

She married at age 17, to an Ecuadorian college student named Hector Hugo Alaya de Bardi, and had two children with him. She attended Skyline College, then San Francisco State University, finally graduating with a degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma.

In 1969, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a year-long protest meant to call attention the seizure of Native lands. The protest had a solid legal footing – several treaties guaranteed that unoccupied federal land belonged to the Native tribes, and Alcatraz had not operated as a federal prison for six years. Unfortunately, Wilma and her companions did not succeed, as they were eventually forcibly removed by government agents.

However, Wilma did not let this failure dull her activist spirit. She became dedicated to the idea of helping her people.

In 1977, she divorced Hugo and moved back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and inherited the role of principal chief when her counterpart took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was elected principal chief in her own right in 1987, and served until 1995 (she is often credited with being the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation… though it’s doubtless that some of her female ancestors may have also served in similar leadership roles, as Cherokee culture has a long tradition of female leadership).

During her tenure, Wilma was dedicated to improving life for residents of the Cherokee Nation. She worked closely with other community leaders, as well as the United States government, on a variety of programs meant to foster community involvement. She completely redefined tribal relationships with the US government, founded schools, improved tribal health care and increased tribal enrollment to nearly three times what it had been. Her work was not without controversy, but she can be fairly said to have made all her choices with an eye towards making life better for her people.

She married again in 1986, to a full-blooded Cherokee named Charlie Lee Soap; where they lived on Wilma’s ancestral land (the acreage taken several decades before by the government).

In 2010 (after already suffering bouts of myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, lymphoma and breast cancer), Wilma was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her – pancreatic cancer. She died in April of that year, leaving behind not only the legacy of a leader who broke gender barriers, but as a symbol of Native resilience in the face of attempted genocide. In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson worked very hard to pass the Indian Relocation Act, by which the settled tribes of the American South, among them the Cherokee, were to be forcibly relocated east of the Mississipi. This eventually led to the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 people died during a 21-day forced march from Tennessee to Oklahoma. And yet the Cherokee, as a people, survived. As such, I think it more than fitting for Jackson to lose his place on our money and for Wilma Mankiller to replace him.

However, all four of these ladies are extraordinary, and I encourage you to visit Women on 20s and vote for your personal favorite!

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: Programming Pioneer

Our Mother, who art in Pentagon,
Grace Hopper be thy name.
Thy audit come, World Wide will be done
In COBOL as it is in Standard.
Spare us this day our waily Fed,
And give us our passes
As we forgive those which fail against us,
And lead us not into validation
But deliver us from JTSA. Amen!

An older woman in Naval dress blues and a white captain's cap. She stands with her arms crossed, an American flag behind her.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

The last few weeks have been a little bloody, so let’s turn away from the battlefield and instead focus on a woman who had a wildly successful career in the Navy, and whose work you have directly benefited from. This week, courtesy of the Suggestion Box, we’ll focus on Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who contributed more than most people can understand to the field of computer science.

Born Grace Brewster Murray to a fairly well-off family in 1906 in New York City, the Murray family staunchly supported the education of women. Grace attended Vassar as an undergraduate, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale at age 28 (the 11th woman to do so). After graduating, she  married Vincent Hopper (a professor of comparative literature) and began teach math at her alma mater, Vassar.

Grace took a unique approach to teaching math, having her students write out solutions to equations in essay format. When her students complained that they were math majors and not English majors for a reason, Grace insisted that one had to understand the concept before one could write coherently about it. She surely didn’t intend such at the time, but her idea has become one of the basic tenets of computer science and good programming.

A black and white photo of a young woman, wearing a black dress and with a white flower pinned to her lapel

Young Grace Hopper

However, Grace wasn’t quite content with where life had taken her. Teaching didn’t exactly thrill her, and her marriage wasn’t doing well, either. By all accounts Mr. Hopper was a fine man, just not someone suited for Grace. In 1940, she took a partial leave of absence so she could devote more time to studying math. But whatever plans Grace had for her life after that were disrupted by an event which changed the trajectories of many American lives: the Japanese army attacked Pearl Harbor.

Grace, responding to the government’s call for enlistment, promptly quit her job, divorced her husband and enlisted in the Naval Reserves – the only department willing to take a 36 year-old woman. They were well rewarded when Grace graduated from the Naval Academy at the top of her class in 1944. She expected to be assigned to cryptography and code-breaking, but, as it turned out, the Allies already had someone working on that. (Side note: I really feel like the world missed out on something special because, as far as I can tell, Grace Hopper and Alan Turing were never in a room together).

Instead, Grace was sent to Harvard, where she began working with Howard Aiken on the Mark I, one of the world’s first true computers. Using Charles Babbage’s work from the previous century on his Difference Engine, Grace and Howard worked together to develop the world’s first programming manual. Grace came to identify with Babbage’s own assistant, Lady Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer.

A black and white photo. A woman, wearing a 1950s style dress, holds some papers while looking at a bank of large computers.

Grace at Work

While working on the Mark I and the programming manual, Grace realized an inherent obstacle in working with computers. Machines can only understand 0 and 1 (or, more specifically ‘on’ and ‘off’). Programming the Mark I required writing in machine code, which was almost pure, highly conceptual math. A fine thing if one happens to be a math genius in a room with other math geniuses, but Grace recognized this restriction would ensure computers stayed rare and inaccessible to most people.

And so she proceeded to make a few critical advances in computer science. The first was a natural outgrowth of her work as a mathematics professor in the 30s – the development of programming languages based more on English than on pure math. This ensured one did not have to be a math genius to work with computers, only be very good at it. Grace developed first the FLOW-MATIC language, which was then refined into COBOL, a language still in use today.

A black and white photo. A woman stands next to a chalkboard, instructing a group of men in military uniforms.

Grace instructs on computer science

Her other great advance was creating a way for the programmer and machine to communicate. Computers couldn’t understand FLOW-MATIC or COBOL directly, but writing in machine code was difficult and time-consuming. And so Grace wrote a new type of program: the compiler, which takes programmer’s code and translates it into machine code. Every computer program you’ve ever used was first written by a programmer and then run through a compiler. Every program, from your favorite video game to the browser you’re using to read this.

Her advances didn’t stop there – Grace was one of the first people who proposed creating networks of computers which could all access the same information, and also developed testing standards to help ensure uniformity across programming languages.

A moth has been taped to a piece of graph paper. Notes describe it as a bug which fell into the machine.

The first bug.

She also found the first computer bug, which was, quite literally, a bug! A moth flew into the hardware of the Mark I, where it caused several programming errors. And in that poor moth’s honor, unforeseen programming errors have been called bugs.

She attempted to retire three times – in 1966, 1971 and 1986. For the first two times, she eventually found a reason to come back to work; but the Navy insisted she retire for good in 1986. She promptly went back to work as a consultant, speaking about her work to various groups of people. She was proud of her naval career, and wore her full dress uniform whenever possible.

She died of natural causes at age 85, in 1992, and was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

By all accounts, Grace was a fun, slightly mischievous woman. She lived by the adage ‘It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,’ and knew how to handle herself and get what she wanted from a group of men. She demanded respect, but was just as respectful to others – though she didn’t let that stop her from playing the occasional prank on her coworkers!

Grace’s heroism is different from the heroism this blog has heretofore focused on. While the women I’ve covered previously have picked up weapons and gone to war when things got sticky, Grace led no armies, only departments. Every morning, she got up and went to work, and did it day after day after day. She worked slowly and steadily to overcome obstacles and problems, blazing a trail for others to follow. And though she was neither pirate nor rebel nor queen, she nevertheless sets her own example for the modern woman to follow.

Technically, she hasn’t shown up in pop culture frequently, but only because she’s a very recent lady and appears in our culture in other ways. She’s a figure of admiration, especially for women in programming and computer science, and many groups, awards and scholarships for women in computers are named after her. Five Thirty-Eight has just released a short documentary about her.


Harvard Biography

Yale Biography

Edith Margaret Garrud: The Fighting Suffragette

Let’s get this blog started with a bang!

How about feminist ninjas?

A black and white photo of a woman in Edwardian clothing holding a British police officer in a joint lock

Edith Garrud

When deciding the lady with which I wanted to start this blog, I had several choices to make. Should I choose a fighter or a leader? A woman who led troops, or an activist who promoted women’s rights?

Fortunately, a woman exists who did both!

Okay, so she wasn’t technically a ninja. But she did practice ju-jitsu, a Japanese style of combat developed for smaller, unarmed opponents to defeat larger, armed enemies. And she did teach ju-jitsu to others. Not just taught – she trained up to 30 women to serve as a bodyguard squad for feminist leader and professional troublemaker Emmeline Pankhurst.

And by ‘bodyguard squad’, I mean ‘let’s fight off the cops trying to arrest us.’

A black and white photograph of a white woman with dark hair. She wears a high collard Victorian gown, and has her hair pinned up. She looks slightly to the left.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Let’s set the scene: 1908, London. The past few generations have not been kind to women. Though England had recently been ruled by a woman (Queen Victoria, reigned 1837-1901), the advent of industrialism found women’s social and political power severely curtailed. A few women thought these attitudes were just so much bullshit, and figured the best way to fight back was by giving women the vote; among them Emmeline Pankhurst.

Emmeline was rather like the Malcolm X of the British suffragette movement. Impatient with Parliament, she decided to take action. And by ‘action’, I mean throwing rocks through windows, setting fires and generally causing mayhem in the name of women’s suffrage. The long-term effectiveness of her methods have been criticized, but she did keep her movement in the papers. As you might imagine, Pankhurst found herself dragged off to jail on more than one occasion.

An Edwardian Propaganda Poster. The background is bright green. A large cat holds an unconscious suffragette in it's jaws. Large text reads 'The Cat and Mouse Act'. Smaller text reads 'Passed by the Liberal Government. The Liberal Cat. Electors Vote Against Him! Keep the Liberal Out!'

What ensued, starting in 1913, quite literally became a game of Cat and Mouse: Emmeline gets arrested. Emmeline stages a hunger strike while imprisoned, becomes ill. Emmeline gets released. Emmeline gets better. Cops come looking for Emmeline to throw her back in jail.

Enter one Edith Margaret Garrud. Even without her connection to the suffragettes, Edith would still have gone down in history as the first European woman to teach martial arts in the West. She and her husband learned ju-jitsu from Mr. Edward William Barton-Wright (known as the founder of Bartitsu, which hardcore Sherlock Holmes fans might recognize). Edith also appeared in film and theatrical productions, using her skills as a fight choreographer to stage some very cool combats. An impressive career for a Victorian lady, indeed. Especially for one who never grew past 4’11”.

But wait, there’s more!

Edith joined up with Emmeline and the other suffragettes in 1908. And in 1913, with the passage of the “Cat and Mouse Act,” Edith began training more women in the art of ju-jitsu; so that when those cops came to re-arrest Emmeline, the Bodyguard (as they were called) could successfully fight them off. Of course, this didn’t thrill the cops, which meant Edith had to teach her students in secret.

Yes, that’s right. She not only taught ju-jitsu, she founded a secret society of martial-arts suffragettes. Aside from ju-jitsu, the Bodyguard also employed various diversionary and deceptive tactics to foil the police trying to tail them. You know. Like ninjas.

A Victorian cartoon. A woman stands against a fence, with several unconscious police officers draped over it. More police officers balk at arresting her. The woman has a belligerent demeanor.The press called it ‘suffrajitsu.’

When Emmeline showed up at rallies, the police then arrived with the intent of subduing and arresting her. At which point, the Bodyguard surrounded Emmeline and engaged the cops long enough for Pankhurst to make her escape. Though ju-jitsu emphasizes unarmed combat, these women would sometimes come armed with meels – weighted wooden bowling pins, ideal for hiding under long Edwardian skirts. And in lieu of corsetry, the Bodyguard instead wore several inches of cardboard around their midsection to avoid getting their ribs cracked.

And rib-cracking was a very real risk. It turns out the gentlemanly ideal of ‘not hitting a woman’ flies right out the window when said woman threatens a gentleman’s other ideal of ‘the men get to be in charge.’ No Bodyguard died or faced serious injury (that I could uncover), but these women often went home with exactly the sort of injuries you’d expect from such brawls. And they did it repeatedly. In one famous case, after fighting through the Bodyguard (and some cleverly hidden barbed-wire booby traps), the cut-up police knocked out and arrested Emmeline Pankhurst… only to discover they’d captured her body double. The real Emmeline Pankhurst had escaped.

Edith, for her part, largely stayed away from these fights. As the leader and trainer of the Bodyguard, her position was too valuable to risk her arrest. However, her students applied the tactics and techniques they’d been taught with an iron-willed determination. Even though Edith wasn’t on the front lines for every scrap, she still deserves quite a lot of credit for her bravery and dedication to promoting the rights of women. And the idea of a fighting force of women was so novel to the Victorians that the press couldn’t get enough of them. As a result, Edith helped keep the suffragettes and their movement in the newspaper – Priority #1 when you’re an activist.

A black and white photo. A woman in Edwardina clothes lies (possibly unconscious) in the middle of the street. Several men and police offers are bent over her.To that last end, Edith also wrote. In her article Damsel v. Desperado, published in 1910, Edith promotes ju-jitsu as a way for women (and men, she adds almost as an afterthought) to protect themselves from criminals. When many recommended women find men to keep them safe, Edith said women could, and should, protect themselves.

In addition to her activism, writing and choreography, Edith participated in a strange little sketch called “Ju-Jitsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play with a Moral!” The extent of her involvement is unknown, but one writer describes watching a rehearsal in her studio – undoubtedly, Edith lent her choreographic talents at the very least. In this sketch, a lower middle-class woman must cope with a husband who gets drunk and beats her. She responds with ju-jitsu, and the husband and wife eventually reconcile after the husband finds himself knocked on his arse (and forswears alcohol. Remember, early 20th century women’s activism was tied up in the temperance movement). It’s a morality play of sorts, and while the tactics described would likely not work in a real-world setting, the idea remains that women ought to be prepared to literally fight back against those who would oppress or abuse them.

Emmeline and Edith suspended their activities with the onset of World War I, when both women decided to support their government during the war. As it happened, women slowly gained greater suffrage both during and shortly after the war, gaining full suffrage in 1928.

A black and white photo. A woman with short brown hair rests her face on her hands.

Edith Garrud

Edith retired from public life at age 53, in 1925. However, she lived to be ninety-nine years old, living long enough to see men land on the moon and the birth of Second Wave feminism.

Edith Margaret Garrud has been commemorated with a plaque in Islington, where she lived for many years.

A webcomic featuring Edith has been published, under the entirely-appropriate title Suffrajitsu! She also has a children’s book about her, Edith Garrud: The Suffragette Who Knew Jujutsu. You can also watch a short YouTube documentary about her. She also appeared as a character in a 2012 play about British suffragettes, The Good Fight. Edith also appeared in a 1984 docu-drama which no one seems able to locate. However, a movie called Suffragette is due to be released in 2015. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, and Helena Bonham Carter is credited as… Edith New? But another actress, Charlotte Day, gets credit as ‘Jujitsu Lady’; and Corinne Curtis as ‘Jiu Jitsu Suffragette’, so here’s hoping Edith has at least a cameo!


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