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How Board Games Militarized Young Suffragettes

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Cover of Suffragetto box, ca. 1909.

Cover of Suffragetto box, ca. 1909.

Suffragetto, Suffragetto!

The name makes me think of opera, but I was surprised to learn how political a board game could be when researching Suffragetto. First published in 1909, the game was created by the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU), a militant women’s suffrage organization founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia.

For over 50 years, women in the United Kingdom (and other countries) had campaigned for the right to vote with little progress. Wanting to “wake up the nation” with “deeds not words,” the WSPU embarked on a coordinated plan of civic disruption. The trio was, quite frankly, fed up with pacifist techniques that had failed to secure women’s right to vote. They advocated for more drastic tactics, like occupation, destruction of property, arson, and hunger strikes.

But such tactics were not always inspiring to young girls. While some girls found the calling to emulate Amazons and train in self-defense and bartitsu (a form of jiu-jitsu made popular by Sherlock Holmes), others weren’t keen on learning more about WPSU just from seeing these demonstrations.

What Is Jiu-Jitsu?

So the WPSU decided to engage a more subtle tactic to recruit new suffragettes. Around 1908, they published Suffragetto, a children’s game to present history through an interactive lens and promote socialization. Interestingly, it’s one of the few games that attempted to disrupt traditional gender rules through gaming. As Georgia Tech explained:

“Suffragetto is a way to engage with feminist ideology, connect to community history and values, and mimic suffragette inventiveness, strategy, and activism. During play, ideas about bodies, gender, and social relationships become naturalized. Lastly, as the suffragettes engaged in pseudo-anarchist tactics, the game allows players to experiment with alternative identification and forms of resistance.”

Yet its significance was more than that—it subversively promoted gender equality in the world by leveling the playing field. As explained by Renee Sheldy,

“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.”

The WSPU was thrilled to publish the game, hoping it would generate revenue for its operations and free it from relying on donations. Unfortunately, Suffragetto was not the only board game published around 1908 to focus on gender and society. The WPSU also published Pank-a-Squith, a 2-to-6 player game that was similar to snakes and ladders, as well as the card games Suffragette (ca. 1907), Panko (1909), and Holloway (ca. 1908). The success of these games is not fully known.

Today, only one copy of Suffragetto is known to exist. It is held by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where it was on display in their 2018 exhibition, Playing with History, and the 2019 exhibition, Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared.

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Modern printed version of Suffragetto, developed by Renee Shelby.

Modern printed version of Suffragetto, developed by Renee Shelby.

How to Play

Suffragetto is a two-player game focused on the battle between suffragettes and police constables in Edwardian London. The rules are as follows:

Teams: Each player chooses a side: Suffragette or Constable/Police. Each side has 21 pieces to represent their team. Suffragettes are colored green, while the Constable/Police force is colored blue. Each team has five leaders and sixteen followers.

Suffragettes have a home base of Alfred Hall, while Constables/Police use the House of Commons as their base. One of the primary goals of the WPSU was to infiltrate and influence the House of Commons, especially during debates over women's rights. In so doing, they hoped to put immense pressure for the passage of women's suffrage.

Objective: The goal was for the suffragettes to occupy the House of Commons while defending their home base of Albert Hall against the constables. Meanwhile, the constables sought to occupy Albert Hall while defending the House of Commons. It was pretty much a capture-the-flag type of game. The game is won by whoever first succeeds in introducing six members into the building guarded by its opponents.

Strategy: Play was much like checkers of chess today, with each player alternatively moving or hopping one of their pieces. Players could move to a single, adjacent, unoccupied square—horizontally or diagonally—including hopping over their own pieces or an opponent. If a piece hopped over its opponent, that piece was "arrested" (suffragette) or "disabled" (police). It is very similar to playing checkers, and hops could be strung into multiple jumps. Players took turns trying to outmaneuver each other. Revealing the brutality suffered by suffragettes, capture in the game meant the hospital for constables or the prison for suffragettes. It mirrored real life, as suffragettes used jiu-jitsu to physically disable or injure police, who were intent on arresting the suffragettes.

If, at any point, the Hospital or Prison contained more than twelve markers, players could insist on a Prisoner Swap. This allowed the teams to free up to six markers each, of equal value (i.e., Leaders were exchanged for Leaders only, and vice versa). The exchanged pieces moved from their place of imprisonment (Prison or Hospital). However, the opposing player had the right to refuse the exchange.

Once a piece reached its opponent's area—i.e., a Suffragette reached the House of Commons—then that piece could move freely within the squares representing the building, but could not leave.

A copy of the rules was provided by Richard Ballam, who donated the set to Oxford's Bodleian Library. Today, this is the only known set of Suffragetto to still exist.

Try It Out!

Fortunately, the wonders of the Internet mean that we can play Suffragetto today. Thanks to faculty and students at Georgia Tech, you can

You can also purchase a reprint of the game through The Game Crafter.

© 2020 Tiffany Isselhardt

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