“Drunk History” (US) Tells the Story of the Suffragette Bodyguards

The Comedy Channel’s hit series Drunk History, in which interesting past events are related by inebriated comedians, has followed in the footsteps of the UK version of the show by featuring the jujitsuffragettes of the Edwardian English women’s rights movement.  “Civil Rights” was the title and theme of Drunk History’s episode 5, season 5 show, which screened in the US on Feb. 20, 2018.

The suffrajitsu segment is narrated by Kirby Howell-Baptiste and stars Tatiana Maslany as Emmeline Pankhurst, who is introduced leading the ill-fated “raid on Parliament” on November 10, 1910. This raid was the fourteenth attempt by the Women’s Social and Political Union to present a petition to Parliament and developed into a near riot in which many protestors complained of police brutality; the event later became known as “Black Friday”.

The Drunk History episode exerts some dramatic licence in stating that Mrs. Pankhurst’s sister was killed during the protest.  In reality, she died about a month later (possibly as the result of an accident while she was being force-fed in prison).

Actress Maria Blasucci plays martial arts instructor Edith Garrud and several scenes are set in her opulent dojo, where she is shown training the new suffragette Bodyguard team in the womanly art of jiujitsu. Gert Harding, played by Kat Dennings, is portrayed as Mrs. Garrud’s star pupil; in reality, Harding did study martial arts with Garrud and also led the Bodyguard team.

The show also offers fairly accurate representations of two key WSPU rallies in which the Bodyguard clashed with the police. The Campden Hill (Camden) rally, which was also portrayed in the Drunk History UK episode on the same theme as well as the 2015 feature film Suffragette, shows how the Bodyguard tricked the police into arresting a body double while the real Mrs. Pankhurst made her escape.

The second re-enactment is of the famous “Battle of Glasgow”, when the Bodyguard openly confronted and fought with the police on the stage of St. Andrew’s Hall, in front of some 4500 shocked witnesses. Although the show implies that this event turned the tide of the radical suffrage movement and led directly to the enfranchisement of women, the real history is (of course) vastly more complicated.

In reality, the First World War broke out shortly after the Glasgow brawl, at which point Mrs. Pankhurst suspended all militant suffrage activities and supported the government throughout the crisis, especially by organising and encouraging women to “do men’s work” while their husbands, sons and brothers were fighting overseas. It’s generally conceded that the suspension of WSPU militancy, in combination with the work done by women during wartime, tipped the balance in favour of “votes for women” as the conflict drew to a close.

The “Civil Rights” episode of Drunk History also includes interesting segments on the Birmingham Children’s March and the disability rights activists who organized America’s longest sit-in of a federal building. It is currently available to view for free via the Comedy Channel website (some conditions apply) or to purchase via Youtube or via Amazon.  Note that the dialogue does include some swearing and mildly raunchy slang and so may not be safe for work.

If you enjoy Drunk History’s take on the suffragette Bodyguard story, keep an eye out for the upcoming full-length documentary No Man Shall Protect Us, which will cover the same subject in much greater depth, albeit with much less drunken hilarity.

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