Between 1906 and 1914, an eyebrow-raising 1,300 British suffragettes became political prisoners during their fight for the vote—that’s about one arrest every two days for eight years.1 Many of those women were probably associated with the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose street activism often led to violent conflicts with police. As glimpsed in the 2015 film, Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, the WSPU leaves an extraordinary legacy that continues to shock, inspire, and provoke. For all of the archival accounts and contemporary representations of the movement, histories on the WSPU tend to overlook a remarkable yet wholly ordinary object they created—a board game. Suffragetto (ca. 1907–8) is a contest of strategy, invasion, and violence between suffragettes and police—with each side aiming to advance six game pieces into the opposing side’s home base while defending its own political home from infiltration (fig. 1). In a fascinating blend of historical realism and gender idealism, Suffragetto allows players to not only reenact the types of violent clashes the WSPU actually engaged in but also to play and shift the real-life power dynamics that existed between suffragettes and the government.
Original Suffragetto game box. Source: “Playing with History Display Celebrates Bodleian’s New Collection of Board Games and Pastimes,” Bodleian Libraries website, January 7, 2016, https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/johnson/news-archive/news/jan-07
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), with daughters Christabel and Sylvia, formed the WSPU because they were frustrated with the slow-moving pacifist methods of the mainstream movement. For over fifty years, UK women had campaigned for the right to vote, with little progress. Wanting to “wake up the nation” with “deeds not words,” the WSPU disrupted civic events and government meetings; chained themselves to buildings; engaged in window-breaking campaigns; and committed arson in (unoccupied) government buildings, elected leaders’ homes, and high-end retail shops.2 The suffragettes’ use of civil disobedience was unusual, regardless of gender, as allowing political speeches to continue without interruption was considered courteous and genteel. The activists’ aggressive tactics, however, were definitively radical for women, and their confrontational method led to frequent arrest. When given the option, these women consistently chose incarceration over fines, and—viewing themselves as political prisoners—they protested further with hunger and thirst strikes that escalated political tensions.3 As Emmeline Pankhurst famously declared, “We’ll put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”4 Their take-it-to-the-streets approach successfully transformed the UK suffrage movement into a highly public and turbulent struggle covered frequently by British newspapers.
The WSPU’s creation of games about civil disobedience and political violence is, in itself, a fascinating reflection of the scope of their activism. Suffragetto is one of several games marketed at bazaars organized by the WSPU and the Women's Freedom League—another group that advocated for suffrage and gender equality.5 As noted suffrage ephemera collector Elizabeth Crawford chronicles in the comprehensive Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928, the overtly political toys include the card games Suffragette (ca. 1907); Panko (ca. 1909), short for Pankhurst; and Holloway (ca. 1908), named after the London women’s prison where many suffragettes were incarcerated. There was also a suffragette puzzle (ca. 1908) and two other board games, Pank-a-Squith (ca. 1909) and Suffragettes In and Out of Prison (n.d.).6 The Flashograph Company even created an optical toy called Elusive Christabel (ca. 1912) that satirizes the inability of police to capture the fugitive Christabel Pankhurst, who escaped to France in 1912 (figs. 2 and 3). These games served the dual purpose of entertainment and fund-raising for the WSPU cause, showcasing a wide range of creativity in promoting suffrage propaganda.7
Elusive Christabel. Courtesy private collection of Elizabeth Crawford, 2015.
Flipside of Elusive Christabel. Courtesy private collection of Elizabeth Crawford, 2015.
While each of these games is exceedingly rare, only one known copy of Suffragetto exists, a 1917 second edition manufactured by the Sargeant Bros. Ltd. This copy is held in Oxford's Bodleian Library as part of its collection on history and games.8 It was donated to the library by prolific game collector Richard Ballam as part of the Ballam Collection of Games and Pastimes—a collection of nearly 1,500 games dating from 1800 to 2000. Unfortunately, because virtually no details on the game can be found in the historical record, it remains unclear why only one known copy exists: they may have been lost in World War I bombings or forgotten in attics. Perhaps just a few copies were manufactured. Yet Suffragetto was clearly one of many early 1900s British children’s games about “kings and queens, the British worldview, and war and conflict.”9 These educational games present their respective histories through a specific, interactive lens and encourage socialization through leisure and play. Suffragetto, however, is distinct from other Edwardian-era games because of its antagonistic stance toward the government and its challenge of sexism and gender inequality.
The game’s premise is straightforward: the police are tasked with breaking up a suffragette meeting held in Albert Hall, while simultaneously preventing suffragettes from entering the House of Commons. The first group to succeed in introducing six members of its party into the building guarded by their opponents wins the game. The 18-by-18-inch board is arranged into four sections (fig. 4).
Original copy of Suffragetto game board on display at the Bodleian Library.
In the center is the arena (in pink), where opposing pawns are organized. Suffragettes are positioned around Albert Hall—an oft-used meeting space of the WSPU—and police are placed around the House of Commons. Flanking the arena are two neutral zones (in yellow) where players can freely move and cannot be captured. On the top side of the board is the hospital, where injured police are taken for medical care, and on the bottom side is the prison, where injured suffragettes are incarcerated. This discrepancy is designed not to enhance the invented world of the game but to mirror the real-life inequalities suffragettes faced, in which their arrest was prioritized over physical well-being.
One extreme example of this practice is the notorious 1910 Black Friday Riot. After Parliament stonewalled a suffrage bill, three hundred WSPU activists, self-dubbed the Women’s Parliament, marched through London streets from Caxton Hall to Parliament.10 The suffragettes engaged in a massive window-smashing campaign that resulted in a bloody six-hour battle with police. Constables physically and sexually assaulted more than two hundred women, pinching and twisting their breasts, lifting their skirts, and attacking them for hours.11 The activists were punched, kicked, hit with batons, and pummeled in the face. In total, 119 WSPU activists were arrested, including four men.12 Suffragetto lets players enact these kinds of street brawls while elevating the WSPU’s politics of physical feminism—a type of feminism that connects women’s agency and political autonomy to physical activity and the body.13
The WSPU embraced physical feminism in light of ongoing physical and sexual abuse by police, promoting women’s self-defense and even forming an all-female bodyguard unit trained in jiu-jitsu and armed with clubs to protect suffragette leaders.14 The thirty-woman unit—known as the Bodyguard, the Amazons, and the Jiu-jitsu suffragettes—facilitated WSPU activism.15 The Amazons were trained by Edith Garrud, one of the first female martial-arts instructors in the Western world, who was dubbed the “Newest Suffragette Terror” by the influential Punch magazine.16 As early as 1909, Garrud advertised a jiu-jitsu Suffragettes Self-Defense Club in the Votes for Women newspaper,17 and WSPU internationally promoted self-defense as something integral to the women’s movement. In an article written for the New York Times, Sylvia Pankhurst dared American women to become militant and declared, “The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men. . . .It’s no use pretending, we have got to fight.”18 In Suffragetto, this is precisely what players do.
The game is played like a more sophisticated and strategic form of checkers. Each player has twenty-one pieces—five large and sixteen small—representing the leaders and legions of the suffragettes and police. Each player alternatively moves or hops one of her or his own pieces. Moving is used to neutrally explore the board, whereas hopping is used to arrest or disable an opponent. Although both the police and suffragettes technically move in the same way, the instructions specify their moves using different language; that is, while police arrest suffragettes, suffragettes disable police through jiu-jitsu. Disable is a technical term used in martial arts when an opponent is neutralized. So while the game instructions do not specify that suffragettes use jiu-jitsu, it is encoded in the rules.
Suffragetto also prescribes a mechanical hierarchy between the leaders (large pieces) and legions (small pieces) of the suffragettes and police, reflecting a realistic militant leadership structure. Whereas the more skilled leaders may disable or arrest an opponent in any direction, the common suffragette or policeman can only disable or arrest in an oblique direction. A player completes an arrest or disabling maneuver by hopping over one or more pieces into an unoccupied square. And players can hop over any piece, including their own, provided they are not landing in the restricted hospital or prison area or an occupied square.
When neutrally exploring the board, a player may move any piece forward, backward, left, or right, into any adjoining, unoccupied square except for the hospital or prison. However, when a suffragette or policeman forces a move into the House of Commons or Albert Hall, they must not leave those buildings. In other words, the game is fundamentally about militant occupation, so the player never retreats once the opponent’s space is conquered. If at least six of a player’s pieces are captured, the player may negotiate a release of suffragettes and policemen with the opponent.
Suffragetto’s rules offer several insights into the WSPU’s views on both the law and gender equality. First, the game instructions describe police as making the initial attack—as it is the motivation of police to break up an otherwise passive meeting. In this sense, players are to understand the police, not the suffragettes, as aggressors; thus, in mimicking the real-life suffragette perspective, any retaliatory activist aggression is warranted. However, in light of the WSPU’s view of the law as being sexist and fundamentally unjust, another interpretation is that any suffragette aggression within the game is morally just—whether or not police are first to initiate violence.19 Consistently, WSPU leaders publicized their views on the legitimacy of physical activism. In one specific instance, Emmeline Pankhurst defended her public calls to “incite rebellion”:20
“What does all this mean? Why is it that men’s blood-shedding militancy is applauded and women’s symbolic militancy punished with a prison cell and the forcible feeding horror? It means simply this, that men’s double standard of sex morals, whereby the victims of their lust are counted as outcasts, while the men themselves escape all social censure, really applies to morals in all departments of life. Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it. They have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs.”21
Pankhurst’s declaration contextualizes the ideological significance of Suffragetto’s mechanics of violence, which represents the utility of militancy in transforming the social order. In short, the board game embodies the WSPU’s radical legal consciousness on the law and equality.
A second insight that emerges in analyzing the game’s rules is that while both police and suffragette players functionally move in the same way, different terminology is assigned to these moves—arresting and disabling. By making this semantic difference a part of the game, Suffragetto collapses the gendered, political, and corporeal differences present in Edwardian Britain and alleviates these differences through the actual self-defense techniques used by WSPU suffragettes. In this sense, Suffragetto offers a hybrid of ideal gender dynamics and the sociopolitical realities of the time. The realism of the game is most obvious when players are injured. When police pawns are disabled, they are taken to the hospital, while suffragette pawns are imprisoned. In misrepresenting the real-life power dynamics between police and suffragettes, Suffragetto builds a world centered on gender equality, in which women’s physical activism is the primary means for revolution.
From the beginning, the WSPU adopted the motto Deeds Not Words, and suffragettes considered corporeality as the key to social change. However, violent conflict with police escalated the way the WSPU regarded the role of the body—from the body as a public spectacle in political activism, to the body as an activist weapon. This view is evident in WSPU’s frequent assertion that knowing how to physically enhance and discipline one’s body was an essential feminine knowledge that “every woman should know.”22 As bodies and physical feminism were essential to the WSPU movement, these elements are also crucial in the play of Suffragetto, whereby self-defense becomes an empowering way to win the game and symbolically assert gender equity.
We should consider Suffragetto as an exemplar of how to connect community history with progressive values and activism. Since the WSPU produced the game, it likely retained a level of authenticity that might not have occurred had it been created by a commercial manufacturer. As a result, the game perhaps allowed players to experience a higher level of community pride, connect to suffragette personas, and mimic their inventiveness and activism. Given that play is an essential form of socialization,23 playing Suffragetto enables new ideas about bodies, gender, and social relationships to become naturalized. Regarding the game’s impact, as the suffrage movement had garnered much resonance with middle-class women, it is possible that Suffragetto was intended for play in middle-class homes. However, other kinds of women—working class, trade-union activists, people of color, rural, and socialist—also supported and fought for suffrage. As a board game is a mobile object, Suffragetto could help circulate radical suffrage ideology within and across social circles. It’s possible that the game was also a way to connect with groups less interested in the votes-for-women message through low-stakes entertainment. As the WSPU engaged in pseudoanarchist tactics, Suffragetto allowed players a low-stakes setting in which to experiment with alternative politics and new forms of resistance.
In 1914, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith asked Emmeline Pankhurst if the WSPU would cease its militant tactics in order to support the country’s forthcoming war efforts, and the WSPU complied. The contributions of women during wartime helped convince the government to grant limited voting rights—with the 1918 Representation of the People Act—for women over thirty who met a property requirement. Later that year, women were granted the right to be elected to Parliament. Ten years later, Parliament extended full voting rights to women, just two weeks after Emmeline Pankhurst passed away. One hundred years later, Suffragetto continues to demonstrate an interactive way to engage with militant feminism, social movements, and the jiu-jitsu suffragettes.
This research was assisted by a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
1. ^ “Details of More Than 1,000 Suffragette Arrests Made Available Online,” Guardian(London), October 11, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/12/details-suffragette-arrests-available-online-emmeline-pankhurst.
2. ^ Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1914).
3. ^ Described in detail in Pankhurst, My Own Story, chap. 5. See also Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1931).
4. ^ Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” (speech, Hartford, CT, November 13, 1913).
5. ^ Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s SuffrageMovement: A Reference Guide, 1866–1928(London: Routledge, 2001), 235.
6. ^ Crawford, Women’s Suffrage Movement, 235.
7. ^ “Suffrage: Fundraising,” Treasures, Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared, January 7, 2016, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/suffrage-fundraising/.
8. ^ “Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries Board Game Collection on Display,” BBC News, January 13, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-35291243.
9. ^ “Playing with History Display Celebrates Bodleian’s New Collection of Board Games and Pastimes,” News, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, January 7, 2016, https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/johnson/news-archive/news/jan-07.
10. ^ Described in Pankhurst, Suffragette Movement;see also, Andrew Rosen, Rise up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union (London: Routledge, 2013), 139.
11. ^ Rosen, Rise up, Women!,139.
12. ^ Rosen, 139.
13. ^ For more on physical feminism, see Martha McCaughey, Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense(New York: New York University Press, 1997), which describes the use of combative bodily practices that disrupt rape culture; and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), which describes feminism as having a relationship to the body, and not simply being a political approach to representation.
14. ^ “Jiu-Jitsu for Militants,” New York Times, August 20, 1913.
15. ^ Timeshift, series 12, episode 9, “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: The Rise of Martial Arts in Britain,” directedby Andy Hall, aired February 24, 2013, on BBC Four.
16. ^ “The Newest Suffragette Terror,” Punch, July 6, 1910.
17. ^ Edith Garrud, “The World We Live In: Self-Defence,” Votes for Women, March 4, 1910.
18. ^ Sylvia Pankhurst, “Shall American Women Become Militant?,” New York Times, May 4, 1913.
19. ^ Pankhurst, My Own Story, 297.
20. ^ Pankhurst, 266.
21. ^ Pankhurst, 268.
22. ^ Pankhurst, “Shall American Women Become Militant?.”
23. ^ In Mind, Self, and Society,George Herbert Mead describes socialization and the development of the self as occurring through three stages of imitation, play, and game. See George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).