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Page history last edited by Renee Shelby 6 years, 5 months ago


Board games date as early as 3500 BC.[i] Superficially board games constitute a form of play or recreation; however, they also reflect cultural values and have served as a means of socialization emphasizing such ideals as Christian morality (The Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army - 1844), diplomacy (Risk: The Game of Global Domination - 1959), materialism (The Game of Life - 1860), and capitalism (Monopoly - 1903).


Suffragetto is a board game created by the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) and manufactured by the Sargeant Bros. in 1909. It is a game for two players based on point-to-point movement. The game is a contest of two opposing parties—the Suffragettes and the police—each side aiming to get six game pieces in to the opposing side’s “home base” while defending their own political home. The police reside in the police station, the suffragettes in Albert Hall, an oft-used meeting place for the group. 


There is only one known surviving copy of Suffragetto, currently on display at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries board game collection. It is currently part of an exhibition entitled “Playing with History,” which features games that taught children about “kings and queens, the British world view, and war and conflict”[ii] in the early 1900s. These board games present their histories through a specific, interactive lens—socialization through play. Though Suffragetto is situated within this broader context of “historically” rooted games, Suffragetto is unique in its intent to disrupt dominant discourses of heteronormative behavior through domestic leisure and pressed cardboard.




Physical feminism, Activism, and the Body: Or, why is this a game?


In regards to computer graphics, Gaboury (2015:44) writes, "While today we may think of computer graphics as principally a visual medium, in fact, it is structured by a particular theory of the nature of objects, their relation to one another, and to the world around them; in short, an ontology."[ii.v] Gaboury graphics cannot be limited to their visual representation, and have status as both image and object. Although we think of them as a visual-interactive medium, in which users drive the momentum of the game, the logic of play is structured by or embedded in broader social relations. Thus, an interpretation of analog game follows the same logic Gaboury applies to graphics. The materiality of Suffragetto is not simply confined the interaction of wooden pawns and pressed cardboard, but is grounded in an ontological and epistemological history that shapes an understanding of the game.


Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was a feminist activist and the leader of the British suffragette movement. She is best known for forming the Women’s Franchise League in 1889—which gained married women the right to vote in local elections—and the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which she formed with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU fought for British suffrage writ large.

The WSPU tactics were not only unusual for women at the time, but were also unusual for men. It was understood that allowing political speeches to go on uninterrupted was courteous and genteel; heckling was notnormative regardless of gender.
[iv] [v] The outspoken approach of the WSPU attracted many middle class women to the movement. Lower class women were less attracted to the “Votes for Women” message, as the more important form of gender inequality they asserted was unequal pay.[vi] T
he WSPU became frustrated with the lack of progress produced from pacifist activist methods, and engaged in the strategic disruption of social events, government meetings, destroyed public property through window-breaking, and the arson of (unoccupied) government buildings, elected leaders’ homes, and high-end retail shops.[iii]


When arrested, WSPU members choose incarceration over fines, and infamously engaged in hunger strikes. The hunger strikes, and the Parliament’s desire to avoid force-feeding, prompted passage of the 1913 Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act colloquially known as the Cat and Mouse Act,[iv] which allowed release of suffragettes from prison when they became very weak, and their re-arrest when they regained strength.


The intensity of the WSPU tactics came to a head November 18, 1910, when British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith stonewalled the the Conciliation Bill that would extend voting rights to nearly one million British and Irish women. In response, 300 WSPU activists protested and attempted to surpass a police line. Many suffragettes and male suffrage supporters were physically assaulted and wounded by police; 119 were arrested. The event became known as the Black Friday Riot.[v]


Deeds, Not Words: Escalating the Role of Bodies in Public Spaces and Game


“I Incite this Meeting to Rebellion.” – Emmeline Pankhurst (October 17, 1912) 


The legibility of the suffragette movement is not simply the desire for political equality, but can also be read as corporeal activism--extending the boundaries of early 20th century feminist activism. From the beginning, the WSPU adopted the motto “deeds not words” [viii]. In response to the establishment of the Cat and Mouse Act and the Black Friday Riot, the WSPU formed an all female bodyguard trained in jiu jitsu and armed with clubs to protect suffragettes. The thirty-woman unit was known as the Bodyguard, the Amazons, and the Jiu-jitsu-suffragettes. Suffragette Edith Garrud, nicknamed the "Newest Suffragette Terror,"[ix] trained them, and the message of self-defense began to circulate both nationally and internationally. Although opposition to suffrage was rooted in the notion that women’s place should reside in private spaces—detached from public, civic affairs—suffragettes argued that this was a feminine right. However, they also took this further, asserting that physically enhancing and disciplining one’s body was positioned as an essential feminine knowledge. It was something “every woman should know”[x].


As bodies were important to the British Suffragette movement, bodies are also important in the play of Suffragetto. Rather than simply reflect a creative way to consume feminism in domestic spaces—which the game does—it also creates a setting in which players can perform corporeal equality within a constructed space grounded in real world gender inequality.


Suffragettes valued self-defense and physical feminism. The term physical feminism is used by Martha McCaughey (1997:177) to describe a form of combative bodily practices that disrupt “the embodied ethos of rape culture.”[xi] Similarly Elizabeth Grosz (1994) uses the term corporeal feminism as a movement that understands agency, consciousness, and reflection in relation to the body—not simply a collection of internal processes.[xii] These theorists critique some American feminisms, and especially earlier feminisms, for being inattentive to the role of the constructed and constitutive role of the body in creating and doing gender. However, this critique overlooks how British (feminist) suffragettes positioned the body and self-defense as important to the women’s movement.


Public spaces were seen as dangerous for women, and women’s place was in the home. Women who violated this norm were deviant. Police had not only greater physicality, but were endowed with political backing that allowed for the physical abuse and battery of activists. The suffragette’s emphasis on self-defense was an attempt to combat and alleviate differential corporeal and political power experienced in public spaces, and enhance the movement’s durability in activist conflict.


Within the game both police and suffragette players move in the same way. In doing so, the game collapses or flattens gender and corporeal differences present in real life—but alleviated through self-defense techniques suffragettes would have been knowledgeable in. In this sense, Suffragetto offers a hybrid mimesis of ideal gender dynamics, set within the actual socio-politico-historical realities of the time. This is most readily seen in when players are injured. When police pawns are injured they are taken to the hospital, while suffragette pawns are taken to jail. This reflected actual practices of the time. Thus, Suffragetto does not take place in an idealistic fantasyland, but reflects tensions present during the time it was created.


Further, the game can be understood as a test of competing occupation of public spaces. To win, the side must successfully dominate their opponent’s space. While occupation and territory can be thought of as something generated in the political imagination of nation or citizenship. There is also a spatial element. Suffragetto creates a space to enact the tension between political imagination and corporeal reality.


Socialization and Meanings of Play in Suffragetto


Foremost, Suffragetto is a way to consume feminist ideology, and a creative use of game connected to community history and values. As the suffragette movement garnered resonance with primarily middle-class women it is likely this game was intended for play in middle class homes. However, the game could also be used to circulate suffrage messages across socio-economic lines and connect to groups less interested in the "votes for women" message. In play, ideas about bodies, gender, and social relationships get naturalized through game. As the game is produced by the WSPU, the game retains a level of authenticity that might not occur if another manufacturer commercially produced it. Further, the self-production of the game by the WSPU allows players to experience a level of community pride, connect to suffragette personas, and mimic suffragette inventiveness and activism. Further, as the suffragettes engaged in pseudo-anarchist tactics, the game allows players to experiment with alternative identification and forms of resistance.


Even if disconnected from the political realm of suffrage, during the early 20th century, (middle-class white) women increased their presence in public spaces. This transition correlated with anxiety about the safety of women, and an increase in women's self-defense knowledge circulated through British culture. This is evident in the promotion of self-defense training, instructional pamphlets, and short films detailing maneuvers (see below). As women increased their physical presence in spaces formerly characterized as male, there was a movement to increase the physicality of women. Suffragetto allows users to "play" at these changing norms, and engage intellect (strategy) to traverse conservative gender norms.  


While the American suffrage movement is oft remembered as a pacifist movement, British suffrage had a stronger militant line. In tracing the history of the jiu jitsu suffragettes it is clear that Americans were aware of these tactics. Coverage of the British suffrage movement and the Pankhursts was robust in the United States. In one lengthy article, titled Shall American Women Become Militant (May 4 1913), Sylvia Pankhurst discusses the merits of of the militant approach when pacifist tactics are not successful. However, even divorced from voting activism, British suffragettes encouraged American women to become more physical. Sylvia Pankhurst was quoted in the New York Times (August 20, 1913) saying,"We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men." [xiii] Similarly in an an article published in "Votes for Women," a suffrage magazine, Edith Garrud asserted "physical force seems the only thing in which women have not demonstrated their equality to men, and whilst we are waiting for the evolution which is slowly taking place and bringing about that equality, we might just as well take time by the forelock and use science, otherwise, ju-jitsu." [xiv]

It is interesting that Garrud equates the skill of jiu jitsu with science, rather than art. Especially as jiu jitsu is characterized it as a sub-field of martial arts. In the context of gender equality, Garrud's equation of jiu jitsu with science functions to legitimate the tactics of self-defense, and elevate the importance of corporeality. As science cannot be contested, neither can self-defense if it is a "science." Suffragetto connects the ideal of self-defense into game media. Here the legitimization of the body is furthered through strategy and skill. Winning the game cannot be contested because it has been won through legitimated means--skill. This is even stated on the game's box, "an original and interesting game of skill between suffragettes and policeman." Although the suffragettes understood the right to vote as a fundamental right and not something that needed to be earned, they employed militant tactics of bodily skill to transform the social and political landscape. This same process is enacted in play of Suffragetto.

Examples of Early Ju Jitsu Training Videos for Women












[i] Piccione, P. A. (1980). In search of the meaning of Senet. Archaeological Institute of America.

[ii] http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/news/2016/playing-with-history

[ii.v] Gaboury, J. 2015. Hidden Surface Problems: On the Digital Image as Material Object. Journal of Visual Culture, 14(1):40-60. 

[iii] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst's international library Company.

[iv] C N Trueman "Women’s Social And Political Union"
historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 17 Mar 2015. 3 Mar 2016.

[v] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst's international library Company.

[vi] I.b.i.d.

[vii] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-the-right-to-vote/the-right-to-vote/winson-green-forcefeeding/cat-and-mouse-act/cat-and-mouse-act-2/

[viii] Pankhurst, E. (1914). My own story. Hearst's international library Company.

[ix] I.b.i.d.

[x] "Handy things to know for those who would be versed in the feminine art of self defense." April 30, 1911. The Milwaukee Sentinel. 

[xi] McCaughey, M. (1997). Real knockouts: The physical feminism of women's self-defense. NYU Press.

[xii] Grosz, E. A. (1995). Space, time, and perversion: Essays on the politics of bodies.

[xiii] August 20, 1913 - By Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Telegraph to The New York Times - Print Headline: "JIU-JITSU FOR MILITANTS.; Sylvia Pankhurst Also Wants Them Drilled and to Carry Sticks."

[xiv] Garrud, E. March 4, 1910. "The World We Live In: Self-Defence." Votes for Women Magazine. Published by WSPU.



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