Author Tony Wolf describes the interplay of fiction and strange-but-true history in his graphic novel trilogy, Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons. Inspired by a true story. No - really.
I was sitting in a sound booth deep within National Public Radio’s Navy Pier studio in Chicago, being interviewed by a journalist from the BBC’s World Service. Our subject was the “hidden history” of the suffragette Amazons; the most radical of Edwardian England’s women’s rights activists, who served as a secret society of martial arts-trained bodyguards and commando agents for Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragette leaders.
After several minutes of conversation, the interviewer asked:
“Did - did they actually engage in physical combat?”
And I replied:
“Oh yes. Yes, frequently. That was, sort of, what they were for.”
Then came a pregnant pause as the interviewer attempted to reconcile his notion of Edwardian English ladies with street fighting riot grrrls. After the pause, most people tend to ask either “Why do I not know about this!?” or “When’s the movie coming out!?”, but he stuck gamely to his script.
(As it happens, there actually is a movie coming out – Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter and Meryl Streep, is due to be released in September of 2015.)
When I start to describe my graphic novel trilogy Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons as a work of “alternative history”, people often assume that the core idea – an undercover team of suffragette ninjas – is the product of artistic license. No, no … that bit really happened!
Although the American suffrage movement was largely led by pacifists, England’s radical suffragettes engaged in acts of protest by mass vandalism and even bombing and arson attacks on unoccupied buildings. They went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no-one was physically hurt in their protest actions, but they were also committed to the ideals of self-defense. Since their leaders were effectively outlaws and fugitives, the Amazons employed all manner of defensive tactics, including disguise and decoy strategies as well as brawling with police constables when necessary.
Kitty Marshall, the author of a sadly still-unpublished 1947 memoir called Suffragette Escapes and Adventures, is the only member of the real-life Amazon team about whom we have any real detail (they were a secret society, after all). We know about their exploits, but not much about the women themselves.
The Suffrajitsu trilogy, however, takes place in the Foreworld – the alternative history established by writers Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo and their collaborators, who have produced an impressive shared-world of novels, short stories and graphic novels. For that reason, I was free to exercise some artistic license and to populate the Foreworld version of the team with my favorite Edwardian-era femmes fatale.
Florence “Flossie” Le Mar, for example, was a New Zealand-born athlete and entertainer whose specialty act was called The Hooligan and the Lady. A passionate advocate for women’s self-defense, Flossie toured vaudeville theatres with her husband Joe (who played the role of the Hooligan on stage), demonstrating and lecturing on the virtues of martial arts training for girls and women.
Flossie also produced a book – The Life and Adventures of Miss Florence Le Mar, the World’s Famous Jujitsu Girl – which is one of the rarest and, frankly, strangest self-defense manuals ever written. It includes polemic essays, illustrated lessons and a series of very tall tales describing her adventures as a globe-trotting dispenser of jujitsu justice, bringing down opium-smugglers in Sydney, crooked gamblers in New York City and an English “lunatic” who believed that he was a bear.
Not too great a stretch of the imagination, then, to make Flossie Le Mar one of the Amazons of the Foreworld.