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Old-time female combatants

From the history of women’s brawling

Women have always fought!

The Book of Genesis by Robert Crumb
Robert Crumb, American satirist and author of the comic "Book of Genesis”, found a women’s fight even in the Old Testament.
Crumb’s feelings and doubts are conveyed through his art in the sense that all Bible characters are so very earthy,
particularly hulky, muscled women which do not seem extremely attractive,
even the ones who are noted to be in the text, yet they are all believable as imperfect humans.
Picture from the World Net Weekly, 2011

Русская версия

Resolution for all the images are substantially reduced.
Some pictures may be enlaged by clicking ot them.

Brawl in a London's street, 18th century

Franz Brun, Netherlands (1588 - 1629). Seven women fight for a pair of pants.
Print on copper. "Illustrated History of Morality" by Edward Fuchs.
Reprinted from "Lust for Fight" by Werner Sonntag.

Paul Ballurian, Germany. Fight of prostitutes, 1900s.
Water color. "The Female Regency in the History of Humanity" (translation of the German title), Vol. 4.
Reprinted from "Lust for fight" by Werner Sonntag

Polynesian women at fistfighting on Tongatabu
Colored engraving from the 19th century, printed by Drouart, ma.
Collection Francoise and Serge Laget, Paris. Published in "Kampfes Lust" by Werner Sonntag

Thomas Rowlandson, (1756 - 1827). Street brawl (1807)
From the cycle "Miseries of London". Satirical Print Collection. Etched by Henri Alken. 19 x 14 cm.

Gentlemen watch women brawling in a fish market
Engraving from the book "The real life in London", 1821

Gaston de La Touche (1854-1913). Laundress fight
Illustration to the novel "L'Assommoir" by Emile Zola. Drypoint (23.7 x 22.5 см).
Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco

Domenico Maggiotto, Italy (1712-1794). A brawl begins as dark falls
Italian copper according to a painting by F. Majotto, about 1775. "The Woman Regency in the History of Humanity" (translation of the German title)
Reprinted from "Lust for Fight" by Werner Sonntag

Fight between female spectators on a boxing match. Published in "Kampfes Lust" by Werner Sonntag

Suffragettes. Cartoon, 1900s

Women fighting for the breeches by John Smith

Women fighting on a ship's ladder

Women fighting in Nazi Germany

Women fighting in a southern town

Women fighting in tavern in the a wild West
From the Western genre in 1950s

Eternal female animosity
Eternal female animosity. Old engraving

From time immemorial, two men settle a dispute not so much by discussions or negotiations as by fists. A spontaneous fight was always a commonplace and ordinary activity for men. Yet women usually relied on vocal chords in quarrels, even though they also thrash out difference with hand-to-hand argumentations. Anyhow, women fought time out of mind, although of course rarer than men. In fights and brawls women happened to imitate men but more frequently used their own manners.

Medieval women fight
Two women fighting, from 'Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles', 1462
University of Glasgow

As a matter of fact, feeling a need and desire for fighting, grappling or battling is peculiar not only to men. Combative women existed in all times and not only among legendary Amazons. In fact, wrestling was a mandatory training element for Spartan girls, so it’s easy to imagine that physical collisions between women might quite happen there for personal reasons too. Noble Roman women sometimes voluntarily came out to the gladiator arena to try hand at the battles. Ancient Norse and German women participated in battles, so for those tough creatures physical clashes should not be a wonder either. Combative Polyanitsas inhabited in Ancient Russia. James Cooke watched women’s fist fights in the 18th century in Polynesia. Tuareg women living in the North Africa where matriarchy remnant still remains, often wrestle each other. So, women have always fought and they readily fight nowadays.

Impromptu female fights might be found in various works of art and in literature pieces by realists who reflected real life in their pieces, even if they used some creative fantasy.

Reasons why women fight might be very different; for instance, owing to jealousy. On the 18th century engraving, several women fiercely fight for a man ("for a pair of pants"). In the 18th century Leonard Defrance depicted a furious indoor fight between noble women – perhaps, it is a fit of jealousy.

Certainly, physical collisions are not a proper activity for delicate ladies – it’s more suitable for lower class women - market women, laundresses, peasants.

The article Old British prize ring tells about widespread women’s fights in Britain in the 18 - 19th centuries. Low class women fought fiercely and brutally. Female boxing historians consider those fights as "boxing matches" because a prize was established for a winner and the fights ran before spectators. As a matter of fact, even these reports testified that such fights came for reasons of personal enmity rather than as athletic contests as in men’s pugilism. Apart from the fact they fought bare-knuckle, they also used "techniques" far beyond any boxing rules: scratching, hairpulling, kicking fallen opponents, etc.

Fighting women were often more vicious than the men - they would often strip each other naked, scratching and hitting until they were completely covered in blood. Since early the XVIII century (when female pugilism started having the notable history) until the Victorian era female fist-fighting was quite popular in the lower-class of Great Britain.

The book "The real life in London" published by Jones & Co. in 1821, presents vivid scenes from everyday life of Londoners. An impromptu female brawl is described in the book for two gentlemen observing London public life: …their progress was presently impeded by a sudden scream, which appeared to come from a female, and drew together almost all the people on the spot, it seemed as if it had been a preconcerted signal for a general muster, and it was quickly ascertained that fisty-cuffs were the order of the day, by the vociferations of the spectators, and the loud acclamations of "Go it, Poll - pitch it into her - mill her snitcher - veil done, Sail - all pluck - game to the back-bone - peppermint her upper-story, and grapple her knowledge-box – D-----n my eyes, but that vas a good one, it has altered her weather-cock and shifted her wind - There's your dairies - stand out of the way - Upon my sole you have overturned all my flounders - D-----n you and your dabbs too." Tom and Bob took up a favourable position for observation at the corner of a fish-stall, where they could quietly witness the combatants, and take a general survey of the proceedings. "Now," said Tom, "here is a lark for you, a female fight." "Fine salmon, or cod, Gentlemen," said an elderly woman - "I wish I could tempt you to be customers." "And what have they quarrelled about?" inquired Dashall. "Jealousy, Sir, nothing else; that there man in the night-cap, with the red ruff round his neck, is Sail's fancy man, and he sometimes lets her have a cargo of fish for services done and performed, you understand - and so Sail she comes down this morning, and she finds Poll having a phililoo with him, that's all; but I wish they would go and have it out somewhere else, for it spoils all business."

The similar women’s brawl is depicted on the engraving of 1807 by Thomas Rowlandson from the cycle "Miseries of London".

Famous Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes, the first known female "boxer" (according to the version of boxing historians), actually just engaged in a fist fight with her rival, even though a prize was determined for a winner. We can easily imagine how often market women fought with each other – without announced prizes or newspaper advertisements - the competition was always high, customs were savage and fighting seemed to be an ordinary deal – long before Wilkinson’s fights and long before the newspaper reports which have become the property of the female boxing historians.

Here are a few reports about women’s fights from the above mentioned source.

In August 1792, two women fought at Chelmsford for three quarters of an hour with their husbands as seconds: "Being stripped, without caps, and their hair closely tied up, they set to, and for 45 minutes supported a most desperate conflict; when, although one of them was so dreadfully beat as to excite apprehension for her life, her husband possessed brutality enough still to prompt her to fight; but, through the interference of the spectators, they were separated".

William Hickey, fond of eighteen-century low life, wrote memoirs that include a vivid account of a ferocious fight at Wetherby’s in Drury Lane: "The whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their backs. For several minutes, not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mishap they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury."

The "Sporting Magazine" as of December 1811 had also carried a report about two women, Molly Flower and Nanny Gent who fought to settle a family dispute. The report writer was very impressed. After a 20-minute scrap, Nanny jibbed and gave in from a dexterous hit down.

Two laundresses from Emil Zola’s novel "L'Assommoir" fought for a man. The fight is describes so detail that it’s difficult to put it in doubt: "Gervaise was attacked about her legs. Her shoes were filled with water, and she was drenched above her knees. Presently the two women were deluged from head to foot; their garments stuck to them, and they dripped like umbrellas which had been out in a heavy shower. ... The whole lavatory were immensely amused, and the women applauded as if at a theater. The floor was covered an inch deep with water, through which the termagants splashed. Suddenly Virginie discovered a bucket of scalding water standing a little apart; she caught it and threw it upon Gervaise. There was an exclamation of horror from the lookers-on. Gervaise escaped with only one foot slightly burned, but exasperated by the pain, she threw a tub with all her strength at the legs of her opponent. Virginie fell to the ground… Virginie made a spring at the throat of her adversary and actually tried to strangle her. Gervaise shook her off and snatched at the long braid hanging from the girl’s head and pulled it as if she hoped to wrench it off, and the head with it. The battle began again, this time silent and wordless and literally tooth and nail. Their extended hands with fingers stiffly crooked, caught wildly at all in their way, scratching and tearing. The red ribbon and the chenille net worn by the brunette were torn off; the waist of her dress was ripped from throat to belt and showed the white skin on the shoulder. Gervaise had lost a sleeve, and her chemise was torn to her waist. Strips of clothing lay in every direction. It was Gervaise who was first wounded. Three long scratches from her mouth to her throat bled profusely, and she fought with her eyes shut lest she should be blinded. As yet Virginia showed no wound. Suddenly Gervaise seized one of her earrings–pear-shaped, of yellow glass–she tore it out and brought blood… They knelt in front of each other in utter silence for at least a minute, with hair streaming, eyes glaring and distended nostrils. They each drew a long breath. Gervaise struck the first blow with her beater full on the shoulders of her adversary and then threw herself over on the side to escape Virginie’s weapon, which touched her on the hip. Thus started, they struck each other as laundresses strike their linen, in measured cadence. With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison. Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark…"

In this ugly scene, the nature of a spontaneous women’s brawl for reasons of hostility or rivalry is precisely caught. This is not a settled duel, there are no traditional male "limits" or "techniques" – women fight cruelly attempting to disfigure and disgrace the rival.

In fact, fighting was quite a norm in life of prostitutes – this harsh profession has been always related to violence and sharing out clients. It’s equally true for Germany and for Japan. By the way, Roman Emperors, particularly Domitian, loved watching fighting between their mistresses.

With the ultimate victory of women’s emancipation, women’s fighting has become ordinary and habitual, especially in recent years. In some places (like American schools) girls fight perhaps more often than boys. In fact, African-American women are especially easy in coming to blows – women’s fights in American black communities happen almost everyday.

Wide spreading of women’s fights in recent decades is also related to erotic aspects – men happened to be fond of watching women’s fighting and some of them even turn on of such a spectacle.

Existing of a tremendous number of groups training women in martial arts, boxing and wrestling contribute to overpassing the stereotype of non-combative "female behavior" and makes women fighting commonplace. Just few people now would say: "women do not fight". They do fight!

Discussing the present however, is beyond a historic review.

Lev Svordov

December 2007

Oldest female fight
The oldest depiction of fighting women
Bronze figure of two women fighting. Their weapons remind rolling pins
Probably a votive offering from a fertility cult, perhaps that of 'Mother Goddess' Cybele.
Excavated in Çeşme (Turkey), 6th Century BC (circa)
Source: TwoWay

Fighting in the public bath
Fighting in the public bath from the Triptych "Interior of a Public Bath" by Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese, 1833–1904), Edo period (1615–1868), Japan
From The Metropolitan Museum

Fighting Bacchantes
Fighting Bacchantes by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falguière (1831-1900).
From a public domain e-book by 'Ketrin1407' in her collection on the resource Flickr

Matrimonial Fisticuffs
Matrimonial Fisticuffs, with a Portrait of the Pugilist John Broughton, in the background
By Hubert Gravelot (1699 - 1773)
Resource Wikimedia Commons

Police gazette
American National Police Gazette in the 19 century

Police gazette
Youn ladies brawl in a restaurant over a young gentleman
"Police Gazette" report.

Police gazette
"Police Gazette" report about a cruel girl fight.

Police gazette
Caption in the "Police Gazette" in 1896 says:
"College girls having battle royal. In a scramble for the colors,
young women students of Delaware have their clothing almost torn from their back".

A wife catches a mistress with her husband and beats her.
New York. "Police Gazette" report

"Police Gazette" report

Resolution for all the images are substantially reduced.
Some pictures may be enlaged by clicking ot them.

"Sand bag duel" in Paris

Londoners have heaviest fists
"Londoners have the heaviest fists."
Print by Thomas Rowlandson, circa 1800

Gustave Doret (?). Women fight

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japan (1839-1892). Amateur Prostitutes Fighting over a Client, 1875
Herbert R. Cole Collection

Leonard Defrance, Belgium, 1735-1805. Women fighting
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Koloman Sokol. Women's fight.
From Slovak National Gallery

Jose Clemente Orozco, Mexico (1883-1949).
Women Fighting, circa 1915-1916
Private collection, New York

19 centure cartgoon: French country girl fight

Fist fight. From "La vie Parisienne"
(The life of Parisian women)
Collection Francoise Laget from
"Le Grand Livre du Sport Feminin".
Published in "Kampfes Lust" by Werner Sonntag

Dmitry Bilyk.
"Fights on different occasions"
From the Female Single Combat Club Collection

Eli Levin (Jo Basiste)
"Women Fighting in a bar"
From private collections

Eldrigde McCarthy Gallery

Ladies fight
Women fight in the 19 century
Composition by Lillie Lefort

Scuffle. Unknown artist

Потасовка в клубе Голубой чулок
Scuffle in the Blue Stocking Club.
By Thomas Rowlandson (1815).
British Museum, London.
Blue Stockings Society

Women quarrelling at Via del Tritone
Women quarrelling at Via del Tritone, one of the busiest streets in Rome
By Bartolomeo Pinelli(1771–1835), Scenes of Ordinary Life in XIXth Century Rome
Rome in the footsteps of an XVIIIth century traveller

Lutte de femmes
Fighting women ("Lutte de femmes").
Sketch by Charles-Auguste Sellier from the original print by Bartolomeo Pinelli
From Research Centre of cane and stick.

Потасовка в клубе Голубой чулок
War of broads. German satirical leaflet, 17th Century
Gender Battle Stock

Battle for the pants
Battle for the pants. Dutch satirical leaflet, 17th Century
Gender Battle Stock

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