It is hard to think of a recent martial arts studies title that has been more successful in capturing the general public’s attention than Wendy Rouse’s (2017) Her Own Hero:The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement (NYU Press). The book presents a fascinating tale recounting the various ways in which women’s political and social struggles intersected with the popularization of both Eastern and Western martial arts during America’s Progressive Era (1890s-1920s). Heavily empirical projects like this take years to research and write. But the timing of this book’s release, coinciding as it did with the eruption of the “Me Too” movement, could not have been more fortuitous. Still, it is the richness of the human stories that Rouse expertly weaves together which is the real strength of her work.
Such praise notwithstanding, not every book will please every reader. This is particularly true when tackling a topic as broad as “The origins of the women’s self-defense movement.” Any complex chain of events can be observed or theorized from many angles. Further, your starting frame of reference may well effect your conclusions.
This point seems to underlay Godfrey’s recent review of Rouse, published in the journal Martial Arts Studies. It is generally positive, and well worth reading if you have been thinking of picking up a copy of Her Own Hero. It should be noted that Godfrey has published and lectured extensively on many of the topics that Rouse touches on, so its fantastic to see a serious engagement between these two authors.
Still, I think that it will be clear to most readers of the review that there are some things about this book that irk Godfrey. At the most basic level, the text of this book focuses almost exclusively on a detailed social history the women’s self-defense movement in the United States. Indeed, the historical frames of reference that are extensively explored (from Teddy Roosevelt practicing jujitsu in the White House to the Yellow Peril in California) invoke critical moments in American social history. In many ways this book fits quite nicely within a disciplinary box marked “American History.”
But that is not what the book’s title promises its readers. The notion of a “women’s self-defense movement” feels more global in nature. Many critical martial arts pioneers (both male and female) were from the United Kingdom. Given the UK’s structural place within the pre-WWI global order, that is not entirely surprising. And it was in the UK that a group of more militant suffragettes forged an association between the martial arts (in their case jujitsu) and the progressive women’s movement, that still captures the public imagination today.
In Godfrey’s estimation all of this is dealt with rather shabbily by Rouse. At times she seems uninterested in some of these figures (labeling them all as “militant English suffragettes” when some were Scottish or Welsh). In other cases the omissions may be more substantive. Note, for instance, this critique:
“However, I would like to have seen a reference to Edward William Barton-Wright, who introduced Japanese martial arts to a mainstream audience in turn-of-the-century Britain. Barton-Wright drew together experts from around the world to his Bartitsu Club and influenced the development of martial arts overseas. Barton- Wright’s Bartitsu, an early mixed martial art, embraced a variety of fighting styles including French savate, boxing and jujitsu. Bartitsu most famously appears, as a typo, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty House  in which Sherlock Holmes tells a stunned Dr. Watson, who believes Holmes is dead, that he survived his tussle with his greatest enemy using his knowledge of ‘baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling’. What I find compelling is that, of all the weapons Holmes uses in the stories, it is his knowledge of Japanese martial arts which he takes to his most significant fight. How does Rouse view Barton-Wright’s promotion of jujitsu? How was his work received in the United States?…” (p. 85)
Godfrey, E., (2018). Book review – Her own hero: the origins of the women’s defense movement. Martial Arts Studies. (5), pp.84–87. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18573/mas.52.
This point struck me as particularly important. It is interesting as it goes beyond any specific criticism of Rouse. In thinking about this question I realized that I had never taken the time to sort out which sources on Bartitsu were actually available in America in the opening years of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the discussions of this art focuses on events and articles published in the UK. So what was known about Barton-Wright, and how important was he to the popularization of the Japanese martial arts, in a specifically American context?
While Bartitsu has never been the focus of my personal research or practice, it occurred to me that this was the sort of question that does not have to remain a mystery. In practice an afternoon’s worth of work with electronic databases of turn of the century newspaper and magazine articles (while not enough to paint the complete picture) would give us a pretty good sketch of the strength of Barton-Wright’s influence in the US versus his stature in the UK.
What We Know
The obvious place to start this discussion is with a quick recap of what we know. For readers whose interest’s run more towards the Chinese martial arts, Edward William Barton-Wright was a British engineer who had an opportunity to study jujitsu while working in Japan for a couple of years. He was very interested in the more practical applications of fighting (rather than competition). Upon his return to the UK he began to teach and advertise what he termed a “New Art of Self-Defence” which drew heavily (and eclectically) from a variety of disciplines. In addition to jujitsu his system focused on stick fighting (via Pierre Vigny), savate, western boxing and possibly more local forms of wrestling.
Barton-Wright’s career as a promoter of the martial arts was actually quite brief, but he managed to open a club, publish a number of articles and give numerous lectures and public demonstrations. He recruited at least three Japanese martial artists, one of whom would go on to help popularize judo in the UK after Barton-Wright had left the field. Indeed, a quick survey of newspapers and magazines in the UK suggests that in the opening years of the 20th century he was an important figure in the global spread of the Japanese martial arts. Readers who want to delve deeper into Barton-Wright’s career may want to check out both the Bartitsu Society as well as several of the pieces that have been published in the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences.
Still, for many observers perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bartitsu was how quickly the entire thing managed to be forgotten. There are probably multiple reasons for this. Barton may have been “out advertised” by Japanese martial artists who were entering the musical hall wrestling scene. While the Russo-Japanese war gave the martial arts a tremendous boost in 1904-1905, I suspect that the way they reframed the discussion in nationalist (rather than “scientific”) terms, probably didn’t help his project. Outside of a single (widely read) reference in a Sherlock Holmes story, what could early 20th century Americans have known about this brilliant, but brief, flowering of martial arts enthusiasm?
The answer to that question depends in large part on how many people subscribed to Pearson’s Magazine between the years 1899 and 1901. This illustrated monthly, which seems to have been aimed at a mostly middle-class or lower middle class audience, is best remembered today for its literary aspirations. George Bernard Shaw, among others, seems to have gotten his start in its pages. However, swashbuckling tales and essays on solidly imperialists subjects (such as the ever popular Boer War) were common. As such it is not a surprise to learn that at the turn of the century the magazine ran a series of articles which, in the words of its editors, focused on “men’s athletics”. A notice in the December 1899 issue notes that in addition to Barton-Wright’s recently concluded series on “The New Art of Self-Defence,” and another author’s examination of “How to Drive,” future articles would focus on lifeguarding techniques and “How to Save from Drowning.” Clearly the publication’s editor took a rather broad view of athletics and physical culture. Still, its important to note that this early discussion of the martial arts was aimed at an audience defined by its middle class aspirations for culture and adventurous recreation.
By the time that Bartitsu had arrived on the scene, Pearson’s was publishing monthly editions in both the UK and the USA. While most articles in the sister magazines were identical, occasional differences can be spotted indicating some effort to localize content. In March and April of 1899, American Readers were able to read about Barton-Wright’s new self-defense system. This initial material focused mostly on unarmed combat. Two years later, in January and February of 1901 readers were introduced to the movement’s new ideas on “Self-Defense With the Walking Stick.”
Each of these articles was illustrated with a number of small photographs and included both introductory material and brief discussions of various practical techniques. They are well understood as the four articles constitute the totality of the received historical canon on how Bartitsu was practiced at the time. The UK and US versions of the articles are similar. But for our purposes there is one critical difference. In the American version readers could find a notice that Barton-Wright would soon undertake a journey to bring his system to this side of the Atlantic.
Neither of those things were to happen. Barton-Wright never took that lecture trip. Nor is it clear that the American public ever learned anything more of Bartitsu.
In contrast, if one lived in London at the turn of the century it was unnecessary to collect back issues of Pearson’s to learn about Bartitsu. The movement had a physical club/school that one could visit. There were various public lectures and a fair number of discussions in the press if you could not make it to the school to watch a class.
In America the situation was fundamentally different. Outside of the limited circulation of Pearson’s Magazine, my afternoon of electronic database searches at a major university wasn’t able to turn up much public discussion of Bartitsu at all. While an initial Proquest search of UK journals returned several hits on periodical articles (other than those in Pearson’s), the US version of the same database revealed nothing. And while newspapers in the UK and Ireland ran many articles on Bartitsu, those in US carried only two or three.
Even those would not have been very helpful to an American audience attempting to learn much about the movement. Perhaps the most substantive piece I was able to turn up was published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune on April 2, 1899. But rather than a substantive report on Bartitsu, this was a clear attempt to plagiarize the first of the Pearson’s articles. The effort came complete with hand drawn copies of the original photographs and no mention of their actual source. Other than that, Barton-Wright’s public pronouncement of a new mode of self-defense does not seem to have generated any public notice at the time. There is no mention of either his name or system in the NY Times or even the Police Gazette. Of course the NY Times nicely represented American aspirations to middle class respectably, while the Police Gazette ran frequent stories on wrestling and boxing. It also published pieces on jujitsu.
At the same time there are numerous other discussions of the Japanese (and less frequently Chinese) martial arts happening in the American press. Teddy Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for jujitsu was well known, but Barton-Wright’s ideas or system does not seem to be part of these conversations.
In my brief survey, his name next appears on February 21 of 1901 in The Globe Toronto. On page 10 there is a very short note in which we find Barton-Wright vouching for the skill of Vigney and his fighting ability. A very brief mention of the eclectic nature of Bartitsu is made the notices opening sentences, but nothing more. The author of the piece doesn’t seem to assume much familiarity on the part of his readers.
Finally, on January 21 of 1902 the Baltimore Sun printed what might be the most important discussion of Bartitsu in the American popular press that I have yet located. This piece actually turned to the previously discussed article in the Chicago Tribune (rather than Pearson’s original articles), for its basic discussions of jujitsu. But it also relied heavily on the orientalize descriptions of Judo provided by Lafcadio Hearn. After that the topic changed to an account of a recent Bartitsu demonstration (featuring an unnamed Japanese instructor) at Barton-Wright’s club in London.
The overall attitude of the piece towards Bartitsu is somewhat hard to read. While the potentially eclectic nature of the exercise was mentioned (including all sorts of weapons and walking sticks), the article focused on the Japanese art of jujitsu. This included a perfunctory nod to the idea of it being an “art of yielding.” Yet the point that the author kept coming back to was the utterly mysterious and unknowable nature of the exercise. Readers were sagely informed that its mastery requires long training, and there are many “tricks” to be mastered. Still, there is nothing particularly underhanded or devious about this form of self-defense. Rather, it just seems to defy the Western ability to imagine or describe it. This 1902 piece was the last contemporaneous reference to Bartitsu, or Barton-Wright, that I could locate in the literature.
Before going on to draw any explicit conclusions, a few words of caution are in order. I make no claims of being a student of Bartitsu. Nor do I claim that this literature review was in any way exhaustive. The Proquest databases that I was using, while the “industry standard” within University Libraries, are far from complete. For instance the newspaper database had good coverage of the major national papers (NY Times, Washington Post, etc…) but only about 15 regional papers. Much the same could be said of their collections of weekly and monthly serials. As such, it would be better to think of what I have just presented as a randomly selected sample of what was (or was not) being produced in the American press rather than a definitive list of all sources. And I am sure that the same cautions apply to Proquest’s databases of UK newspapers and magazines. In short, I do not consider this conversation to be either definitive or complete. Rather, this was all done in the spirit of an afternoon-long research experiment.
Still, I think that we can draw a few conclusions from this that shed light on Godfrey’s previous question. While Barton-Wright’s “canon” was published on both sides of the Atlantic (thanks to Pearson’s Magazine) his impact on popular culture was much greater in the UK than in the US. Indeed, one is reminded of the notice of the American tour that he never managed to make. In retrospect it seems an apt metaphor of the subsequent invisibility of his fighting system on this side of the Atlantic.
This is not to say that Americans were unaware of, or uninterested in, the Japanese martial arts. If you define your search terms more broadly its easy to find all sorts of late 19th and early 20th century articles on jujitsu, judo and even kendo. Of course boxing, wrestling and single stick were also popular in America. Rouse spends hundreds of pages pouring over and discussing these accounts, particularly as they relate to the women’s self-defense movement. While Barton-Wright may have had an important (if brief) role in initiating this conversation in the UK, he seems to have been more or less absent from the debates that occurred in America.
That does not make early 20th century Bartitsu in any way uninteresting. From a theoretical standpoint students of Martial Arts Studies know that the process of “forgetting” is just as interesting as “remembering.” Both are critical forces that have shaped the emergence of the modern martial arts. Yet perhaps this case speaks to another set of important questions as well.
Regular readers will be aware that over the last few weeks I have been wrestling with two competing forces within the social history of the martial arts. On the one hand its easy to see them as “globalized” practices carried out by a trans-national community. That is, after all, how they present themselves. Our speech seems to suggest that there is something irreducibly “Japanese” about the “Japanese martial arts.” And that shouldn’t change whether I am in Tokyo, London or New York. Not only that, but in many cases shared organizational networks, pilgrimage voyages and orientalist aspirations are also anchored in the “home” country.
On the other hand, a close examination of any specific martial arts community suggests that these communities are forced to adapt to localized conditions (sometimes in dramatic ways) if they wish to survive. Thus maybe we should imagine the spread of the martial arts as a wave of competing “localizations” rather than a homogenizing sort of globalization. In terms of my own research, Foshan and Hong Kong were not that far apart, geographically speaking, in 1949. Yet these two different cities, separated only by a handful of miles (and a much less permeable ideological barrier) had a profound effect on the sorts of martial arts communities that would thrive within their borders.
I wonder if there is an undercurrent of this debate running throughout our current case. While not claiming that the US was totally isolated from trends in the UK, Rouse might be thought of as explaining the development of the women’s self-defense movement (and probably the adoption of the Asian martial arts as a whole) as running on a parallel track to what was occurring in the UK. Perhaps she might say that even if Bartitsu was known by some early American readers, local forces had a larger part to play in how the public reacted to the introduction of these fighting systems.
Godfrey, on the other hand, seems to be asking us to reconsider what might be seen as an overly parochial turn in our discussion of these fighting systems. Is there a logical reason that our discussions default to a national focus? It is not just that the martial arts often function as transnational communities of greater or lesser coherence. Their development tends to be driven by similar systemic forces in all their various environments. A concern with Asian immigration and “muscular Christianity” were, after all, not exclusive American preoccupations.
More importantly, the images, media and discourses that these communities generate easily slip the bonds of national markets and become free-floating tools for future appropriation. While regional groups will use them to address their own problems, the combination of shared global pressures and discourses suggests that this flexibility is probably bounded in some important ways.
A quick review of period news sources suggests that Rouse probably lost little descriptive power in not focusing more of her discussion on Barton-Wright. He had relatively little impact on how the public discussion of jujitsu was framed in the American media market (and none in the critical period after the Russo-Japanese War). Still, the engagement between Godfrey and Rouse is a fruitful one as it asks us to consider the balance between the competing trends of globalization and localization within the spread of the Asian martial arts.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Bartitsu and Suffragette Jujitsu of the Early 20th Century.