About 330 BC. Etruscan bronze statuettes show men wrestling with women. While the men were naked, the women wore thigh-length pleated tunics. Accordingly, the art was probably allegorical rather than erotic.
1st century AD. A Chinese annalist named Chao Yeh writes about a woman who was a great swordsman. She said the key to success was constant practice without the supervision of a master; after a while, she said, she just understood everything there was to know.
But as immediately after saying this she accepted the job as swordsmanship instructor for the Kingdom of Yueh, perhaps this description is lacking some verisimilitude. After all, if one did not need a teacher save one’s self to become a sword master, why would she herself become one?
About 55.The Roman Caesar Nero introduces his notorious Youth Games, which featured, in the words of the historian Tacitus, "performances by naked degenerates sorted by age and vice." The degeneracy to which Tacitus referred included sword fights between women. The obscenities he described included barelegged women and the giant phalli that mimes often wore.
About 200. A Christian philosopher named Clement of Alexandria writes that women should be athletes for God. That is, they should wrestle with the Devil and devote themselves to celibacy instead of bowing meekly to their destiny of mothers and wives. However, this was not a universally held view, and wealthy Roman men continued amusing themselves with gymnastic, gladiatorial, and swimming acts featuring scantily clad female competitors. What these females thought of both the acts and the men who patronized them is unknown. However, we can guess that the women disliked that and did that more from financial necessity than desire.
590.The Christian Synod of Druim Ceat orders British women to quit going into battle alongside their men. The ban must not have been especially effective, since the daughter of Alfred the Great is remembered as the conqueror of Wales and the people who taught sword dancing to the Ulster hero Sy Chulainn were female.
About 890. In 9th century an untitled poem appeared that eighteenth century scholars called "Beowulf". The story is set in the sixth century. It describes feats of Beowulf, a prince, who battled against Grendel and killed him. Several days later Grendel’s vengeful mother attacks Beowulf. Beowulf swings his sword at the woman, but the steel would not bite. Whenever swords failed, said Beowulf’s scribe, a man had to trust his wrestling. Knowing this, Beowulf drops the useless sword and throws the woman to the floor. But Grendel’s mother trips Beowulf and then thrusts her knife into the fallen hero’s shoulder. Beowulf’s ring-mail turns the knife, and he rolls away, jumps to his feet, and grabs another sword. This sword bites, and the woman’s head flies from its neck-rings… Such sanguinary females were evidently common in Anglo-Scandinavian England. For instance, the author of Beowulf describes a queen named Modthryth who knifed lustful courtiers. Meanwhile, in "Judith," a much shorter poem written about the same time as Beowulf, the poet praises a God-fearing woman who gets a lustful feudal lord drunk then beheads him with his own sword. In fact such stories were unusual in Middle Age because medieval heroines were usually martyrs rather than killers.
About 970. According to a twelfth century writer named Chang Pang-chi, Chinese palace dancers began binding their feet to make themselves more sexually attractive to men. The crippling practice was widespread throughout southern China by the fourteenth century, and throughout all of China by the seventeenth.
It's known that noble Chinese women practiced in martial arts (including fencing and fist fighting) but footbinding prevented well-bred females from effectively practicing boxing or swordsmanship until the twentieth century. (Some were noted archers, though, generally with crossbows.) Still, into the 1360s, Hung-fu, Hung-hsien, Thirteenth Sister, and other Chinese martial heroines (hsia) were sometimes portrayed by women on Chinese stages, and there was a seventeenth-century reference to a fourteenth-century woman named Yang who was said to be peerless in the fighting art of "pear-blossom spear." But in general this ended with the spread of footbinding, and from the fourteenth to twentieth centuries specially-trained men played female roles in the Chinese theater.
1102. Eighty-three year Genpei War between the Minamoto and Taira clans which resulted in a Minamoto victory, provided the impetus for developing the Japanese glaives known as naginata. The Japanese word means "long sword," and describes a curved steel blade clamped onto a seven or eight-foot oak shaft, and used by infantrymen to smash through mounted men’s armor or disembowel their horses. Aristocratic women sometimes trained with naginata as physical exercise, and during the 1930s naginata-do was made a state exercise for Imperial Japanese schoolgirls.
About 1106. Troubadours popularize pre-Christian legends about an Ulster hero called Sy Chulainn who had the female martial art instructor known as Scothach, or "Shadowy." The military training described included lessons in breath control, charioteering, chess, sword-dancing, tightrope walking, and wrestling.
1120. According to a seventeenth century Chinese encyclopedia, the Chinese invent playing cards for the purpose of teaching Buddhism to the Sung emperor’s concubines. Due to the interests of soldiers, the games quickly became associated with gambling, brawling (even among women), and whoring, and by 1420 an allegorical fresco created by Giacomo Jacquerio in Val d’Aosta, Italy showed eight soldiers and two women fighting over cards and drink.
1146. Eleanor of Aquitaine, the self-willed 24-year old wife of Louis VII of France (and future wife of Henry II of England), joins the Second Crusade dressed and riding astride like a man. While this was doubtless chic (Eleanor never actually entered battle with the Muslims), her disregard for propriety caused the Pope to forbid women from joining the Third Crusade of 1189. Like most laws, the ban was widely ignored by the working classes. Whores, washerwomen, and similar camp followers aside, there are documented descriptions of European females fighting on horseback in the fourteenth century, wielding axes in defense of city walls in the fifteenth century, fighting sword duels during the seventeenth century, loading artillery pieces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and flying fighter planes in the twentieth.
Tahitian priests introduce the "huna" religion into Hawaii. The martial art associated with this religion was known as lua, a word meaning "to pit [in battle]" or "two" (e.g., duality; the idea was to balance healing and hurting, good and evil.) The methods developed from both military hand-to-hand combat and the ritual killings that were part of the "huna" religion. Hand-to-hand combat practice was quite common in Hawaii, so working-class, both men and women, also boxed and wrestled. There were no set rules in these latter games, which were known collectively as mokomoko. Accordingly, players slapped palms upon agreeing to terms or to signify a draw.
1228. A woman challenges a man to a judicial duel at the lists in Bern, Switzerland, and wins. Such challenges were not uncommon in Germany and Switzerland during the thirteenth century, particularly during rape cases. To even the odds, such judicial duels were arranged by placing the man in a pit dug as deep as his navel while allowing the woman free movement around that pit. The usual weapons included leather belts, singlesticks, and fist-sized rocks wrapped in cloth. During these duels, if a participant’s weapon or hand touched the ground three times, he or she was declared defeated. Male losers were beheaded, while female losers lost their right hands.
1280. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo describes a Mongol princess named Ai-yaruk, or "Bright Moon," who refused to get married until she met a man that could throw her. It is likely that during his travels Polo really did see some Mongol women wrestling. Mongol wrestling is jacket wrestling and the ulterior motive is to gain reputation and/or property. Princess Ai-yaruk, for instance, reportedly won thousands of horses during her bouts with luckless suitors.
1292. According to a legend, Sienese monk Saint Bernard taught that fists were better than swords or sticks for deciding arguments. One of hand-to-hand combat forms was slapping games in which players were slapping. Contests involved slapping buttocks was often played between men and women. Mock equestrian battles were also fought in which a girl sat on a boy’s shoulders, and the pairs then undertook to knock over the other. Preparations began shortly after New Years, and celebrations were in full swing by Lent. (Essentially a time of institutionalized disorder, Carnival always placed enormous emphasis on food, sex, and violent stage plays and games.) Where Carnival was not held then the Feast of the Innocents and May Day served as substitutes.
About 1300. A secretary to the Bishop of Wurzburg produces a manuscript depicting unarmored German fighters. Known today as Manuscript I.33 (pronounced one, thirty-three), the text is in Latin while the technical terms are in German. Most of the work, however, involved a series of watercolor drawings showing students, monks, and even a woman training in a variety of sword-and-buckler techniques. The inclusion of a female in one picture also suggests training for judicial duels.
The Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta reports seeing female warriors throughout Southeast Asia. While many of these women were probably sword-dancers, others were royal bodyguards. (Southeast Asian princes often preferred female bodyguards to eunuchs.)
1389. Sixty aristocratic women lead 60 knights and 60 squires from the Tower of London to the lists at Smithfield. The thought of females actually fighting during a tournament was, in the words of a near-contemporary German author, "as impossible as a king, prince, or knight plowing the ground or shoveling manure." (Contemporary tales of female jousters appear most often in erotic fantasies and satires.) Women did sometimes compete in ball games and foot races. Many wealthy women also enjoyed hunting with crossbows and falcons.
1402. During a truce in the Hundred Years War, English and French soldiers compete in jousting, battle-ax fighting, and wrestling events. Commoners competed for prizes, while the knights competed, in the words of the Duke of Orleans, "for the love of the ladies and the fun of the thing." There were weight divisions in the wrestling events, and aristocrats competed straight up against commoners. Because gentlewomen were present, the contestants always wrestled fully clothed. Three undisputed falls were required for victory, and as a result of disputes sometimes championship contests lasted for hours. (Indeed, the record, set at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, is 11 hours, 40 minutes.) The judges at these events were known as "stycklers", a word that as "stickler" became a synonym for anyone who insisted on precise and exacting compliance with rules. The Corporation of London starts holding an important fair every September. Known officially as Our Lady Fair (the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin is on September 8) and unofficially as the Southwark Fair (after its venue), it was one of England’s most popular fairs until prostitution, drunkenness, and hooliganism caused its closure in 1763. According to an engraving done by William Hogarth in 1733, entertainment offered at the Southwark Fair included stage plays, freak shows, acrobatic acts, and prizefighting.
While going up a river in Brazil, the Dominican monk Gaspar de Carvajal reports being attacked by a band of armed females. The story causes the river along which Carvajal was traveling to be called "the Amazon."
1602. . Afternoon wrestling matches are described as providing entertainment at Clerkenwell, where among other performers female fencers and gymnasts were seen.
1606. The Iberian navigator Quiros visits the Tuamotus Archipelago, and observes its Polynesian inhabitants wrestling. Both men and women wrestled, and there were sometimes mixed bouts. The audience defined the ring by standing around the participants. The wrestling was freestyle, and hair pulling was allowed.
1630-1680. Dueling provides a favorite theme for French playwrights.
According to these writers, both men and women dueled in French plays. People dueled more often for love than honor, and it was noted that trickery brought victory more often than bravery.
1697. After visiting London, a Frenchman named Mission reports that "anything that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman. A German visitor named Zacharias von Uffenbach who visited London in 1710 saw no change, and added that the spectators encouraged the brawls by throwing coins at the fighters. Women were often involved, sometimes as fighters, but more frequently as cooing spectators. (According to Sir Thomas Parkyns, the ladies liked a man who was handy with his fists.)
About 1690. Female wrestling acts become common in Japanese red-light districts. Although Confucianist officials charged that such acts were harmful to public morals, female wrestling remained popular in Tokyo until the 1890s and in remote areas such as southern Kyushu and the Ryukyus until the 1920s. Mildred Burke of Kansas City, Missouri successfully reintroduced female wrestling to Japan and Okinawa in 1954.
17 century. Wrestling matches between scantily clad women as well as men were a form of court entertainment in 17th-century Italy.
Italian sculptor Ferdinando Tacca created a life-size statue depicting such a wrestling match.
1707. The French opera star Julie de Maupin dies. Novelist Theophile Gautier made her famous by describing her propensity to challenge to duel anyone who would insult her talents. She learned her fencing from a former lover named Serane. Other redoubtable Frenchwoman included Madame de la Pre-Abbe and Mademoiselle de la Motte, who in 1665 pistols at one another from horseback at a range of about ten yards, then after missing twice, took to fighting with swords.
And in 1868, two women named Marie P. and Aimee R. dueled over which would get to marry a young man from Bordeaux. Marie was hit in the thigh with the first shot, leaving Aimee free to marry the young man.
Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell challenges Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market to meet her on stage, and box for a prize of three guineas. The rules of the engagement required each woman to strike each other in the face while holding a half-crown coin in each fist, and the first to drop a coin would be the loser. According to John Trenchard’s London Journal, the two women "maintained the Battle with great Valour for a long Time, to the no small Satisfaction of the Spectators." These rules perhaps suggest how bare-knuckle boxing began, as James Figg was a chief promoter of women’s fighting. For example, in August 1725 Figg and a woman called Long Meg of Westminster fought Ned Sutton and an unnamed woman; Figg and Meg took the prize of ?40. Nevertheless, says historian Elliott Gorn, the sporadic appearance of women at English prizefights only "underscored male domination of the culture of the ring."
1725. Figg also hosted a fencing match between an English woman and an Irish woman during 1725. The venue was probably the Marylebone Gardens, which featured fireworks, animal-baits, and contests "between the most eminent professors, both male and female, of the art of defence."
After his army takes heavy casualties during a slave raiding expedition against Ouidah, King Agaja of Dahomey creates a female palace guard and arms it with Danish trade muskets. By the nineteenth century this female bodyguard had 5,000 members. One thousand carried firearms. The rest served as porters, drummers, and litter-bearers. These Dahomeyan women trained for war through vigorous dancing and elephant hunting. They were prohibited from becoming pregnant on pain of death. They fought as well or better than male soldiers, and were perceived by European observers as being better soldiers than their incompetent male leadership deserved.
1759. Mary Lacy, a runaway serving girl who served twelve years in the Royal Navy, gets in a fight aboard HMS (Her Majesty's ship) Sandwich. "I went aft to the main hatchway and pulled off my jacket," wrote Lacy, "but they wanted me to pull off my shirt, which I would not suffer for fear of it being discovered that I was a woman, and it was with much difficulty that I could keep it on."
The fight was a wrestling match. ("During the combat, he threw me such violent cross-buttocks ... [as] were almost enough to dash my brains out.") By "a most lucky circumstance" Lacy won the bout, and afterwards she "reigned master over all the rest" of the ship’s boys.
1768. In the Clerkenwell district of London (perhaps at the London Spa), two female prizefighters mill for a prize of a dress valued at half-a-crown, while another two women fight against two men for a prize of a guinea apiece. And at Wetherby’s on Little Russell Street, the 19-year old rake William Hickey saw "two she-devils . . . engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from them." These "she-devils" were singers and prostitutes, and their pre-fight preparation consisted mostly of drinking more gin than usual.
1774. During Wang Lun’s rebellion in Shantung Province, a tall, white-haired female rebel is seen astride a horse, wielding one sword with ease and two with care. The woman, whose name is unknown, was a sorceress who claimed to be in touch with the White Lotus deity known as the Eternal Mother. An actress named Wu San-niang ("Third Daughter Wu") was also involved in Wang Lun’s rebellion. Described as a better boxer, tightrope walker, and acrobat than her late husband, Wu’s skill is remarked mainly because female boxers were unusual in a society whose standards of beauty required women to bind their feet.
According to tradition, a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui creates a southern Shaolin boxing style known as wing chun ("Beautiful Springtime"). The tradition has never been proven, and twentieth century stylistic leaders such as Yip Chun believe that a Cantonese actor named Ng Cheung created the style during the 1730s. If Yip is correct, then the female attribution could mean that Ng Cheung specialized in playing female roles. Still, it is possible that some southern Chinese women practiced boxing in a group setting. During the late eighteenth century, Cantonese merchants began hiring Hakka women to work in their silkworm factories. (While ethnically Chinese, the Hakka had separate dialect and customs. Unlike most Chinese, these customs did not include binding the feet of girls. Therefore their women were physically capable of working outside the home.) To protect themselves from kidnappers (marriage by rape remained a feature of Chinese life into the 1980s), these factory women gradually organized themselves into lay sisterhoods. So it is possible that Ng Cheung was an early labor organizer whose name became associated with a boxing style.
1805. British explorers report female pugilism in the Friendly Islands. In 1805, another British traveler named John Turnbull saw Polynesian female pugilists "hanging on each other’s necks like bulldogs, tearing their hair, bumping the stomach of the other, both with their hands and feet; in a word, neglecting no means of victory." While such tactics didn’t surprise Turnbull much, the aftermath did. Following a fall, the fighters stood, and "after adjusting their hair, would tenderly embrace, and be as good friends as ever."
About 1820. According to Richard Kim, the wife of the Okinawan karate master Matsumura Sokon becomes known as one of the finest karate practitioners in the Ryukyus. As Mrs. Matsumura could reportedly lift a 60-kilo bag of rice with one hand, the reputation may have been deserved. On the other hand, it could as easily be a modern myth. Okinawans usually associate female wrestling with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of aristocrats. Furthermore, left to their own devices, most Okinawan women take up dancing rather than karate or sumo. Finally, Nagamine Shoshin did not publish the stories upon which Kim based his accounts until June 1952, or more than a half century after Matsumura’s death. So perhaps some exaggeration crept in over time.
1822. In London, Martha Flaherty fights Peg Carey for a prize of 18 pounds. The fight, which started at 5:30 a.m., was won by Flaherty, whose training included drinking most of a pint of gin before the match. Female prizefighting was a function of the low prevailing wage rate for unskilled female labor. (Assuming she worked as a fur sewer or seamstress, Flaherty’s prize exceeded a year’s wages.)
Attire included tight-fitting jackets, short petticoats, and Holland drawers. Wrestling, kicking, punching, and kneeing were allowed. Women with greater economic freedom usually preferred playing gentler games.
In New York City, an Englishman named Harry Hill opens a concert saloon at 25 East Houston Street. Although prizefights were illegal in New York, Harry Hill’s nightly entertainments included boxing and wrestling acts. His pugilists were usually male -- both William Muldoon and John L. Sullivan started at Harry Hill’s – but could be female. In 1876, for instance, Nell Saunders boxed (and beat) Rose Harland for the prize of a silver butter dish. A drawing published in the National Police Gazette on November 22, 1879, shows Harry Hill’s female boxers wearing T-shirts, knickers, and buttoned shoes, and showing a scandalous amount of arm and thigh. Harry Hill’s had two entrances. The main entrance was for men, who paid 25с admission. The side door was for women, who paid nothing. Hill’s drinks were over-priced and the air was a cloud of tobacco smoke. Other than that, Hill ran a respectable house, and his boxers circulated among the crowd to keep it that way. Reform politicians finally caused Harry Hill’s to close in 1886.
1884. The British scientist Sir Francis Galton tests 500 men and 270 women to see how fast they could punch. He found that the men averaged 18 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 29 feet per second, while the women averaged 13 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 20 feet per second. In other words, while some women could hit harder than the average man, most women could hit only 55% as hard. A 20-year old American woman named Etta Hattan adopts the stage name of Jaguarina, and bills herself as the "Ideal Amazon of the Age." Whether Hattan was all of that is of course debatable, but she was certainly Amazon enough to defeat many men at mounted broadsword fencing during her 15-year professional career.
According to Ron Taylor, a Welsh sideshow promoter of the 1960s, "My grandmother used to challenge all comers. She wore protectors on her chest, but she never needed them. Nobody she ever went up against could even come close to hitting her." This said, not all the female pugilists were female. For instance, a carnival shill named Charles Edwards told A. J. Liebling about a turn-of-the-century Texas circus that had a woman stand in front of the tent promising $50 to any man who could stay three rounds with her. Once inside the dimly lit tent, the mark then found himself boxing a cross-dressing male look-alike.
1889. Female boxing becomes popular throughout the United States. Champions included Nellie Stewart of Norfolk, Virginia, Ann Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio, and Hattie Leslie of New York. The audiences were male, and the fighters sometimes stripped to their drawers like men. Savate fights in which kicking was allowed were also popular. Girls as young as 12 years headed the bills. Cuts were stitched on the spot, and the women often fought with broken noses, jaws, and teeth. There were occasionally matches between female boxers and female savate fighters. In 1902, for instance, a Mlle. Augagnier beat Miss Pinkney of England during such a bout. Pinkney was ahead during the first ninety minutes, but then Augagnier managed to kick Pinkney hard in the face, an advantage that she immediately used to send a powerful kick into Pinkney’s abdomen for the victory. There were even a few mixed-gender bouts. For instance, when a drunken John L. Sullivan stomped into San Francisco’s Midway Plaisanceon vaudeville saloon and cried, "I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house!" bartender Bessie Hall walked around the counter and laid him out. (A gentleman didn’t swear in Bessie Hall’s bar.) Hall was not the only fighting woman in the American West, and film star Gary Cooper told a similar story about Mary Fields, an African American laundress living in Cascade, Montana, circa 1900. While downing a shot in the saloon, said Cooper, Fields saw a defaulting customer walking past. She went out, grabbed the man by the collar, spun him around, and knocked him down with her fist. She then returned to the saloon, saying, "His bill is paid."
1890. Parisian street gangsters are reported shaving their heads and dressing in metal-studded leather jackets. The press responded by called such people "apaches." Around 1890, the apache name also began to describe a sadomasochistic dance genre in which tattooed, scarred women fought knife or saber duels while stripped to their underclothes, or smiled while men slapped them around.
1891. Richard Kyle Fox and the "National Police Gazette" sponsor a women’s championship wrestling match in New York City. To prevent hair pulling, the women cut their hair short, and to keep everything "decent," the women wore tights. (Not all matches were so prim, and in 1932, Frederick Van Wyck recollected some matches of his youth that were between "two ladies, with nothing but trunks on.") Fox’s wrestlers included Alice Williams and Sadie Morgan. The venue was Owney Geoghegan’s Bastille of the Bowery.
1900s. Female wrestling becomes popular in Europe. Masha Poddubnaya, wife of the great Russian wrestler Ivan Poddubny, claimed the women’s title. Said journalist Max Viterbo of a female wrestling match in the Rue Montmartre in 1903, "The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out." As for the wrestlers, "They flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes -- hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet."
1905. "It is a good thing for a girl to learn to box," says an article in the beauty column of February 27 issue of the New York Evening World. Why? Because "poise, grace and buoyancy of movement result from this exercise." Techniques that schoolgirls were told to practice with their maids included hooks to the face and solar plexus punches. According to the New York World, young ladies attending the Madison Academy in New York City also boxed and wrestled. The wrestlers included Pauline Fausek and Evelyn Reilly, who talked glibly of half-Nelsons and hammerlocks, while Annie Lynch, the boxer, was said to "hit a harder blow than the average young man. Every blow comes straight from the shoulder, not with awkwardness and lack of speed one would expect, but with the weight of the body behind it." Working-class women also boxed and wrestled, though more for the money than the sport, and in New Orleans, two female boxers died from injuries received while fighting a South American woman called Bellona.