The suffragettes: Self-defence as self-making

Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist. Some thirty years ago I recall that the Salvation Army was vigorously practising direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned; but they kept right on singing, praying, and marching, till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone. The Industrial Workers are now conducting the same fight, and have, in a number of cases, compelled the officials to let them alone by the same direct tactics.

Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.

Every person who ever in his life had a difference with anyone to settle, and went straight to the other persons involved to settle it, either by a peaceable plan or otherwise, was a direct actionist. Examples of such action are strikes and boycotts; many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.

These actions are generally not due to any one’s reasoning overmuch on the respective merits of directness or indirectness, but are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppresses by a situation. In other words, all people are, most of the time, believers in the principle of direct action, and practices of it. However, most people are also indirect or political actionists. And they are both these things at the same time, without making much of an analysis of either. There are only a limited number of persons who eschew political action under any and all circumstances; but there is nobody, nobody at all, who has ever been so “impossible” as to eschew direct action altogether.

Voltairine de Cleyre, Direct Action

… self-defence, paradoxically, has no subject – I mean to say that the subject that it defends does not preexist this movement of resistance to the violence of which it has become the target. Understood in this sense, self-defence has to do with what I propose to call “martial ethics of self”.

Elsa Dorlin

A shared reflection in the wake of the international feminist strike of March 8 (and for Christophe Dettinger)

Who has the right to defend themselves? Who by contrast is excluded from this privilege and with what consequences?

These questions are at the heart of Elsa Dorlin’s essay, Se Défendre: Une Philosophie de la violence [To defend oneself: A Philosophy of violence] (Éditions La Découverte, Paris, 2017). The aim of the work is not to trace the long history of the “right” to self-defence, but to narrate a genealogy of modern power in which self-defence constitutes beneath or above the law a politics of subjectification.

If the right to self-defence is the basis for the elaboration of social contract political theory, the source and norm for establishing the limits of legitimate political authority, its role in defining the modern subject points beyond such legal-normative concerns, towards practices of subjectification.

Dorlin’s essay tells a story in which self-defence appears as a repertoire of practices and strategies for confronting-escaping the apparatuses of State control, in its many and overlapping modern guises. While States endeavour to define who can and who cannot defend themselves – thereby excluding from any legal and/or institutional protection those who cannot (the indefensible) -, practices of self-defence have sought to create tactics and strategies of escape-response to State power; not however through demands for inclusive recognition (new “citizenship”), but through acts of excluding-destructive sabotage (rebellious subjects).

If modern States have been obliged to respond to the first through the attribution of rights, they have done so at the cost of exposure of subjects to surveillance and control.

Rebellious subjectivities have always been susceptible to legal and institutional domestication, or worse, become complicit with reactionary social relations. But it is among the rebellious that insurrection and revolution is born.

The story of the British suffragettes, as told by Dorlin, is paradigmatic in this sense; a story that continues to proffer lessons for those who wish to imagine and create a feminism beyond “women’s rights”.

(What follows is a translation of the final section of the second chapter of Se Défendre. We have not included the end notes from the original text.)

The jujitsu of the suffragettes: Close combat and anti-nationalism

In the constellation of the history of modern self-defence, the English suffragettes movement of the early 20th century is a reference. A part of this movement remains emblematic for its theoretical-political positioning concerning its refusal to “appeal to the law” and its anti-nationalism. To a certain degree, it makes it possible to identify a current in the modern feminist movement that makes the passage to violence a logical consequence of an analysis of the oppression of women and of their maintenance in a minority position as being the structural consequence of the work of the State. “To pass to violence” – that of direct action and of demands without compromise – is thus inextricably linked to the realisation that the demand for civil and civic equality cannot be peacefully addressed to the State because this last is the principal instigator of inequalities, that it is vain to ask it for justice for it is precisely the first entity that institutionalises social injustice, that it is therefore illusory to place oneself under its protection because it produces or sustains the same apparatuses that render vulnerable, that it is even foolish to give oneself over to it for our defence because it is precisely the State that arms those who hit us. What must be understood at present is how a fringe of suffragist feminism, of anarchist, internationalist communist and revolutionary inspiration, not only put into practice but also into movement this political realisation: how, in the heart of the English feminist movement, militants gave body to this analytic position.

At the end of the 19th century in England, techniques of personal defence experience a renewal linked to the elaboration and the diffusion of hybrid martial bodily practices, that ally European and Japanese combat techniques, practices that are pragmatic and effective in a society where the right to bear arms is framed by restrictive regulations. During the 1890’s, Edward William Barton-Wright, a British engineer, lives for three years in Japan, a period during which he is initiated to judo and jujitsu, in the school of Jigoro Kano. Passionate about the arts of self-defence, he elaborates his own technique that he names “bartitsu”. In 1899, on return to Europe, he opens a club in London and invites several instructors, from Japan, the masters Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani (jujitsu) and the Swiss Pierre Vigny (the art of self-defence with a cane). In mixing various techniques, Barton-Wright sought to make bartitsu a “real” art of self-defence because it was total: allying feet, hands, batons, offensive and defensive techniques at a distance, close quarter and hand to hand combat.

Yet from its beginning, the Bartitsu Club is open to women. Among the students of Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani are William Garrud and Edith Margaret Somserset-Garrud. In 1980, the couple take over Sadakazu Uyenishi’s dojo in London (The London School of Japanese Self-Defence) and give courses in self-defence – including to women and children – based on jujitsu. What must be remembered from this pioneering experience is the fact that self-defence is utilised as a useful technique in the face of multidimensional violence, as a teaching that aims to transmit, especially to women, techniques of defence for situations where they find themselves alone with their aggressors (in public space or in the domestic sphere). Very quickly, though, these techniques will be directly adapted to political struggle by their practitioners who are, at the same time, engaged in the movement for woman’s suffrage and which will be principally used to defend themselves against police brutality.

The Garruds organise numerous public demonstrations and appear in short films showing this “unisex” art of self-defence, promoting its effectiveness and its accessibility. Very rapidly, feminist associations solicit instructors for training themselves. In 1909, Emmeline Goulden-Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) invites William Garrud for a demonstration on the occasion of an assembly, but in the end it is Edith Garrud who comes. Impressed by the effectiveness of the techniques, and the by the fact that a woman can so demonstrate such an aptitude for combat, the WSPU quickly sets up workshops and training. Edith Garrud becomes a major figure in the WSPU and she opens, at the end of 1909, the Suffragettes Self-Defence Club, in the neighbourhood of Kensington in London, in a space where painting, sculpture and singing lessons are given and where self-defence workshops take place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Self-defence becomes effectively a “total art”, because of its panoply of effective and practical martial techniques, but above all because of its aptitude to create new practices of self which are so many political, corporal, intimate transformations. In freeing their bodies from clothes that impede gestures, in deploying movements, in diverting, in changing the use of familiar objects (umbrella, needle, broach, coat, heels), in reanimating muscles, in exercising a body that inhabits, occupies the street, moves, balances itself, feminist self-defence creates another relation to the world, another way of being. Thus, in learning how to defend themselves, the militants create, modify, their own bodily schema – which accordingly becomes in action the crucible of a process of political consciousness-raising.

Garrud develops for the WSPU a secret security service led by Gertrude Harding (called the Bodyguard Society or Amazons), composed of some thirty trained activists, to protect militants on the occasion of meetings, actions or to ward off their arrests. The strategies developed mix techniques of close hand to hand combat (parries, arm locks, use of the force of inertia of the adversary, etc.) against police, militants or even onlookers hostile to the cause of women, and techniques of ruse which exploit the sexist prejudice that women cannot defend themselves. These techniques play on the effect of surprise, social stupefaction and on the disorientation of an adversary who because of his very prejudices is not “on guard” (to cut the suspenders of the police so that they be constrained to hold up their trousers, to blind the police by opening up an army of umbrellas, to attack the horses of a mounted police charge, etc.). Feminist direct action draws attention to a veritable tactic of feminist self-defence (political objective, physical training, plans of action and withdrawal, dissimulation of weapons under clothes, practices of transvestism and disguise, support networks, weapons caches, safe houses, etc.), which is also witness to a very elaborate strategy of urban guerrilla that not only “used” the tactics of direct action, but further literally incorporated them as medium of feminist political consciousness-raising. In practising direct action, militants not only threw bombs, but became “human bombs”. In other words, the self-defence of WSPU militants was not so much a chosen resource in a repertoire of actions to defend their cause – that is, the right to vote -, but rather that which allowed them to struggle collectively for themselves and by themselves, preventing all nationalist instrumentalisation of their cause. Self-defence is thus not a means to an end – to acquire a status and a political recognition -, but instead, it politicises the body, without mediation, without delegation, without representation.

If other mobilisations or feminist figures also practised self-defence at the time, the exemplary character of the WSPU has to do with the fact that Edith Garrud produced something that has the status of a manifesto of modern feminist self-defence. In a text published on the 4th of March 1910, The World We Live in: Self-Defence!, she summarises the pragmatic philosophy of feminist self-defence. Though she begins with the acknowledgement that there exists a natural inequality in terms of physical strength between men and women, she understands the techniques of self-defence developed in jujitsu as a powerfully effective art for the weak against the strong. If Asian martial arts are traditionally defined as techniques which consist of using and turning the strength of the assailant against him, their promotion among women gains a political dimension to the extent that it has to do, by means of these techniques, with establishing an equality. For Edith Garrud, the defensive techniques inspired by jujitsu rest on three fundamental principles: the sense of equilibrium, of movement and forces, the art of ruse and surprise, the economy of strikes. It also teaches dodging feints and the use of the force of inertia of the assailant so as to unbalance him, parry blows and quickly throw him to the ground; the effect of surprise consists in using this same force of inertia to deflect him, to approach the enemy body without risk so as to assure positions, holds and effective blows. The mix of self-defence always resides in this principle of defence-attack. As for the blows themselves, the watchword is economy: whatever the strength, the corpulence, the technique of the assailant, the vulnerable points of the body are always the same (face, joints, organs). Edith Garrud promotes self-defence as an incorporated or embodied technique with the vocation that it become a “second nature” – it is not that by means of which equality will be conquered, it is a continuous process of incorporation, of realisation, of equality.

From this perspective, her teaching breaks radically with other treatises or manuals addressed to women. The most well known was that by Hancock Irving who presents almost no combat technique and reduces “feminine” jujitsu to a physical practice close to that of Swedish gymnastics (doctor Lagrange, who writes the French preface, is its great promoter in France), whose merit is that it does not put into question the dominant gender norms. Lagrange celebrates the anatomy of Japanese women: while always respecting the canons of “feminine grace”, they are physically the equals of the men “of their race”. A classical argument in the polemics regarding feminine sport, physical exercise is acceptable for women as long as it does not lead to the non-differentiation of sexed bodies. Idem for the work of Charles Pherdac published in 1912: the defence techniques are counter-balanced by a recollection of the rules of decency announced in the preface by the Countess of Abzac: “Reassure yourselves gentlemen! In learning to defend themselves, a women does not refuse to give herself.” The Self-defence that is taught in this instance by masculine masters (military or sports figures) is principally limited to rudimentary techniques, succinctly described or inorporated with difficulty. Nevertheless, these publications have the merit of making thinkable the idea that it is not physical strength that decides the issue of a hand-to-hand aggression, but the ignorance that women are kept in, even while they are its principal victims. Women can thus learn to defend themselves and if the debate is open on the aptitude of the “weaker sex” to be initiated to self-defence, the bulk of the articles written at this time – including the critical and sarcastic ones – testify to a real enthusiasm for this martial art that, in fact, foils the relations of power. Certain publications laud more openly the social utility of feminine self-defence, not only for its sanitary qualities, but also for its truly defensive qualities. In contrast to feminist self-defence, these treatises and manuals of feminine self-defence illustrate however another politics of the body to the extent that martial effectiveness is always neutralised by a contradictory injunction: women should certainly be able to accede to physical culture, to benefit from the prophylactic resources that permit them to maintain themselves in good health, even learn a few techniques of protection, but on the condition that they remain “women”, which is nonetheless to say, in the end, to remain defenceless bodies.

In the United States as in Europe, a real interest in jujitsu flourished at the beginning of the 1920’s, notably with the publication of The Secret Book of Jujitsu. A Complete Course in Self-defense, by captain A.C. Smith, the first American citizen to hold a black belt in Japan (1916), instructor of unarmed combat techniques at the Infantry School of Camp Benning (Columbus, Georgia). In 1942, William E. Fairbairn publishes two manuals of feminine self-defence, one of which, Hands off, will be a great success. The author is also a military instructor. He served as officer in the English army and led the anti-riot units in Shanghai, before joining the British secret service during the Second World War. It is thus principally in the repressive colonial forces that he elaborates his system of self-defence. Techniques of self-defence learned from masters of jujitsu – a paradigmatic example of a knowledge belonging to the colonised and captured by the colonisers – were subsequently used against the colonised themselves in the framework of colonial repression. These procedures then circulated in the civil societies of the metropoles, both as an “exotic” knowledge – originating with the subaltern, and thus relatively denigrated, which made it possible to imagine its teaching to white women – and as a new knowledge, with unsuspected virtues, but also “improved”, “revealed” by its colonial reinterpretation and its acclimatisation to western masculinity.

William Fairbairn is considered one of the most important theoreticians of close combat of the 20th century. In his manuals, descriptions can be found of very effective techniques, adapted to certain situations to which women are particularly exposed: attempts at sexual groping, theft, strangling, in a waiting room, on the occasion of a first rendezvous, in a hallway or a confined space, etc. The demand for efficacy is meaningless if it is not accompanied by a reflection regarding the realism of the situation and thus the effectiveness of the defensive techniques – the very principle of self-defence. Nevertheless, this reflection is necessarily limited: from which perspective is the real defined?

William Fairbairn draws his martial knowledge from his experience in commando operations, notably in the context of maintaining colonial order, on the basis of which he elaborated his system of self-defence. Popularised initially under the the name of Defendo (or Defendu), his knowledge is based on techniques of hand to hand combat which are a mix of many martial arts. He is also a specialist in offensive/defensive techniques with a knife and the “inventor” of the commando knife. But one of the principles of his system was to avoid at all costs being thrown to the ground and having to defend oneself from that position. To this extent, the system seems poorly adapted to the realities of sexual aggression and can be qualified as “unrealistic” with regard to most of the violence against which women, along with other social groups made minorities by their non-conformity to dominant sexual norms, have to defend themselves against. In other words, this system of defence fails to correspond to the reality of the violence lived by these minorities.

While the First World War would bring to a stop a great many feminist mobilisations in Europe, thereby interrupting the development of feminist self-defence, feminine self-defence will experience a new development during the Second World War. Women, who become at the time the object of an intense propaganda encouraging them to massively join factories to support the war effort, are called upon as strong, courageous women, capable of doing the work of their men. This call however does not correspond to the dominant norm of a “defenseless femininity”. Public campaigns are launched aimed at teaching women to fight and to strike blow for blow against indelicate men who were not mobilised for the front and who might be tempted to profit from the vulnerability of these girls, mothers and wives left to themselves. In the nationalist context, the defence of self and feminine pride become not only legitimate but constitute defining values of the power and unity of the nation. The widely distributed and often subverted (as of the 1980’s) image named “Rosie the Riveter” and the slogan that accompanies it, “We Can Do It!”, testifies to this change. Created in 1942 by J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee, the original image “We Can Do It!” represents a worker (for which the model was Geraldine Hoff, a young, 17 year old woman hired by a metal working factory), with make-up, a determined look, in working blue clothes and a red bandanna, proudly showing her bicep. In fact, this poster had only a very local distribution at the time and was part of a series of posters encouraging women workers to join metal working factories and to be more productive. “Rosie the Riveter” is a work by Norman Rockwell, published in May of 1943 in the Saturday Evening Post, representing an American woman worker in working blues, russet, muscled, sitting for her lunch break, eating a sandwich, her rivet gun resting on her knees and her foot atop a copy of Mein Kampf. Rockwell had his model pose (Mary Doyle, a 19 year old worker from a telephone company) in such a way that she reproduced the posture of the prophet Isaiah as painted by Michelangelo in 1509 in the Sistine Chapel. This patriotic iconography which puts into play American women in a very “troubling” kind of femininity accompanies a wave of published recommendations on the necessity of learning to defend oneself and self-defence manuals aimed at girls and women. Thus behind the promotion of feminine self-defence, it is necessary above all to identify the nationalist and capitalist stakes in valorising ad hoc young and muscular, labourious femininity. This norm of working class femininity, promoted for a time, will be quickly replaced by the bourgeois ideal of “house wife”, who by definition is white.

The Lundi Matin collective, on the occasion of the publication of Elsa Dorlin’s essay, conducted a video interview with the author that we share below (in french) …

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