I don’t remember when Stacey and I first heard about Babes with Blades, the Chicago theatre company devoted to stage combat opportunities for women. I think it was sometime in 2005 when, visiting family in Chicago, I got in touch with Dawn “Sam” Alden, one of the founders of the Babes, to talk about ways Theatre Unbound and BwB might partner up. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned a historical story that BwB was very fond of - the “jujitsuffragettes”, women’s suffrage activists who trained in martial arts. If only a playwright could develop a script about them! As I remember, my response was something along the lines of, “Please, please, please, please, please let me.”
Dawn introduced me to Tony Wolf, who has thoroughly researched Edith Garrud, the woman who taught the suffragette bodyguard how to fight, and the form of jujitsu she used. (Sherlock Holmes fans, check this out for a remarkable link between Holmes and Mrs. Garrud.) Tony shared no end of material with me, and the more I learned, the more amazed I became. For instance: Canadian farm girl Gertrude Harding, on a 1912 visit to London, became fascinated by the suffragettes after seeing one of their poster parades. Much to her surprise, she learned that an elderly relative of hers had served time in prison after breaking windows as a demonstration for suffrage. Less than a year later, Gertrude was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant suffragette organization, and was being sent to survey a tourist attraction to see if it could be blown up without hurting anyone. (It couldn’t.) Gertrude eventually became the leader of the suffragette bodyguard.
The motto of the WSPU was “Deeds Not Words,” which was also the title of the first several drafts of this play. The script has gone through the Babes With Blades New Play Development Program and has also been workshopped at Theatre Unbound. A lot of it has changed, but the questions that this story raised for me at the beginning still persist. When is violence OK? What makes women choose to use it? Where do you draw the line?