Right to fight? A female history of violence

Actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter Lucy Charles takes us through a brief history of women’s involvement in violence – whether as protest, war effort or martial art.

EWDHaving exercised my right to vote in yesterday’s elections, my thoughts wondered to fellow Royal Holloway alumna Emily Wilding Davison, and the violent means undertaken by the Suffragettes in order for us to be able to mark the ballot paper. (Emily Wilding Davison died as a result of injuries she received at the Epsom Derby in 1913, trying to draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement.)

Emily and I share the same university, the same belief in equal rights with men, but I would not have laid down my life for the cause, so how far would I have gone? Would I have smashed windows, chained myself to railings, fought with weapons against those who stood in my way? Throughout history women have had to fight, and overstep the boundaries of convention to be heard and to secure change. Boudicca in England, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, Joan of Arc in France, Nzinga Mbande in Angola, Nakano Takeko in Japan – these are just a few examples of those who took up arms and led forces in combat for their cause.

Lucy Spitfire 2

Still from ‘Brodworth at War’. Women were not able to fly planes in active combat, only between domestic airbases. Their work as plotters were key in winning the Battle of Britain.

Women who fight continue to perplex those who promote the accepted view that women are the ‘fairer,’ ‘gentler’ sex.

There are countless deities dedicated to war from around the world, many of them goddesses, as well as examples of violent women in popular culture: Medea guilty of infanticide, Lady Macbeth inciting regicide, the White Witch guilty of terrorising Narnians and Buffy, on the flip side, on her nightly missions slaying the daemons of the west coast. The question of whether women can fight alongside men in the military is still a taboo for many, the recurring argument being that sex will get in the way and detract the attention from the task in hand. Sex and violence seem inextricably linked. Rape is a recognised ‘weapon of war,’ and is even mentioned in the Bible.




Empress Menen said in 1935, “women in this world are connected and have the same desires in maintaining world peace and love… In spite of the differences of colour, race, creed and religion between women in this world, they all hate war because the fruit of war is nothing but disaster.”

Empress Menen

Her words echo the plot of Aristophanes poignant comedy Lysistrata (written way back in 411 BCE ), an amusing, risqué plot that sees women reclaiming the power of sex. The play highlights the constant blight of the Peloponnesian wars. So fed up of losing their beloved menfolk, Lysistrata leads the women in a sex strike in order to achieve peace. The women further enrage the Athenean men by seizing control of the Acropolis and barring them, thus keeping them away from state treasure used to fund the fruitless wars.

In a similar vein, enraged by extortionate taxes used to fund years of war with France, Johanna Ferrour, an English commoner, was instrumental in what became known as the Peasants Revolt in 1381. She was ‘chief instigator’ of a mob of commoners who surged to London and, for the first time in its history, took the Tower of London. Convinced that the young King Richard II was being manipulated by the Lord Treasurer and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Johanna ordered their beheadings.

Women had to contribute in siege warfare, so as not to be seen as ‘useless mouths’, taking up valuable resources without contributing to the war effort. Operating siege engines from within the castle was imperative, as was the case in the death of Simon de Montfort, killed by women operating a mangonel at a siege in southern France. There is also evidence of active female participation in the Fechtbuch I33, Europe’s oldest known fight manual, circa 1300. Walpurgis is shown in combat with sword and buckler, one of the earliest visuals of women actively engaged in martial art form in the West.

I33 getty images.jpg
Still from a fight display with Matt Wood, at the Antiquarian Book Fair, for the modern reproduction of the medieval manuscript.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Suffragettes resorted to more proactive, violent means. They were encouraged to learn Jiu-Jitsu by Emmeline Pankhurst. Peter Blewett, Chief Instructor of The Budokwai, Europe’s oldest Martial Arts Club established in 1918, states that, “Judo translates as the ‘gentle way,’ whereby you yield to your opponents’ force, effectively using it against them. Jiu-Jitsu works with the same principle, Edith Garrud who taught Jiu-Jitsu to fellow Suffragettes was a slight woman and fought off police officers who had a minimum height restriction of 5’10. It was paramount that the Suffragettes were able to protect themselves. They were so effective at it, the term ‘Suffragitsu’ was coined.”


Budokwai poster (2).JPG
Poster from 1919 by S. Begg. The bottom right reads, “Judo, gentle art of self dance. Lady throws man.”

The old adage says that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword,’ and I have the luxury to hold this view because throughout history, there have been women who have engaged in the physical language the ruling establishment understood: violence.

Lucy Charles




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