Women's boxing came into the 20th century very promising. Women’s and men’s boxing competitions were both display events at the Olympic Games in St. Louis (USA) in 1904. However, unlike men's boxing, women's boxing didn't remain in the Olympics and didn't gain too much popularity. During decades It remained an exotic activity and acting like men (with powerful punches and fighting fury) never even crossed minds of those few women who enthusiastically practiced boxing.
The development of women’s boxing was quite separate from that of other women’s sports. In a different social sphere, middle-class women were struggling to get into the "respectable" world of organized sports, but found themselves seriously constrained by dominant medical ideologies about the innate physical limitations of females and their unsuitability to take part in vigorous exercise. Whereas the development of mainstream sports for women was based upon notions of sexual difference, and male and female bodies in most sports are signifiers of those differences, the basic symbolism of women’s boxing seemed to contradict this trend. In its most pure form, it was a celebration of female muscularity, physical strength and aggression. Power was literally inscribed in the boxers’ bodies -- in their actual working muscles -- an expression of physical capital usually ascribed to men. While the battered body of the male boxer was a symbol of the defeat of heroic masculinity, the battered body of the female boxer was the very denial of the supposed essence of femininity and a symbol of brutalization and dehumanization, at the same time creating an image of exciting and animalistic sensuality. However serious the women were about their sport, because of its low-class, disreputable image, it remained "underground," or at best marginalized. Working women who used their bodies freely and powerfully were characterized as uncivilized and vampish, in distinct contrast to the listless, weak and sexually repressed image of the well-bred middle-class Victorian lady. For that reason, women’s boxing always attracted male voyeurs -- not only working men, but also local dignitaries and businessmen. Its explicit sexuality (through bare breasts and the ripping of clothes, the scope for male fantasies, and potential as a surrogate for male brutality against the "weaker" sex) increased the entertainment value of women’s boxing into the twentieth century.
Women's boxing seemed to be in a long "hibernation" - all the way until 1970s-1990s when women’s boxing gained a real respect and received a stimulus to fast propagation. Nevertheless, female boxing always existed and was never gone, even in that quiet period. Some references remain about women participated in the sport of boxing, including photographs and films. Some active feminists engaged in public friendly “boxing matches" in order to set an example of being equal to men everywhere and to win over other women to their side.
Strange though it may seem, in those years, another reason for women to practice boxing was emphasizing femininity in such a brutal manly activity against "non-feminine" decorations. Even now foxy/topless boxing shows serve for this purpose. In other words, unlike men's bouts on the ring where "truly men's" fighting qualities must be called, in women's matches femininity, grace and by contrast. In 1900-1970 women's boxing style was completely different from men's one, similarly it took place in other women's sports – they even didn't think of pumping strength or cultivating mannish movements. Fierce fights between female commoners had become a thing of the past. In the first part of the 20th century, women's boxing looked like a light dance with bee's stings (opposite from heavyweight Mohammed Ali who used to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"). In fact, women came to boxing with their own style, quite feminine and even gracious.
"It is a good thing for a girl to learn to box," says an article in the beauty column of February 27, 1905 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. "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."
As part of the suffragette movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, female office workers were encouraged to box for fitness and self-defense. The image of a strong brave female boxer was very attractive for those women who fought for rights and suffrage. But there were two contradict tendencies at that time: emancipation of women forced them to burst into all former manly things; at the same time, humanization of the Western society and the way of life caused considering boxing to be too brutal and especially harmful for the female reproductive functions. Perhaps, the second tendency temporarily took over after women had gotten rights and suffrage.
It took several decades to make female boxing similar to men's one counting on keen techniques, abruptness and precision knocking out punches. Right when women's boxing began getting mannish, it attracted negative attention and serious attempts were made in order to ban it.
Nevertheless, women's boxing never faded away during the first three quarters of the 20th century. After WWI women training in boxing was quite frequent. Boxing was popular among upper-class American women which considered it a good way to be in a good shape. Particularly, boxing was accepted as a part of the physical training of young ladies in Boston (USA).
Women's boxing along with women's wrestling was a part of popular vaudeville shows on British fairs (see "History of women's hand-to-hand combat. Beginning of 20th Century). One of the brightest middle-century female boxers, British Barbara Buttrick, began her boxing career in such fairs. Polly Burns, Belle Gordon, and Harriet Seaback were the most known participants in such popular vaudeville acts with wrestling and boxing.
There were other female boxers from early the century included the Johnson sisters (also known as "Matchetts") who would exhibit in red velvet dresses, decorated with amber colored cuffs and gold braid, complete with boxing boots and gloves. The name "Matchetts" was a result of the showman telling the audience that he could match any fight in his booth.
The American female strongwoman Marie Ford engaged in boxing and wrestling matches against male and female volunteers when traveled all over North America. She challenged men and women to box with her but there were two conditions for the former – not to be a professional boxer and not to be much heavier than Marie. Recently, information about a female boxing champion of the beginning of XX century received publicity. An engraved champion's boxing belt was exhibited on a market in England, which was awarded to a female boxer. They told that the woman usually started exhibition boxing with her husband where he invited the audience to experience boxing with a lady. It was time when British women even didn’t have the suffrage.
The great American inventor Thomas Edison recorded a couple of films representing boxing matches including ones between women (as the famous "Gordon sisters boxing"). In fact, the Gordon-sister boxing act and the earlier Belle Gordon film provide further evidence of the popularity and notoriety of such an act on the theaters and fairgrounds. This use of lady boxers in early silent features was not unique to Thomas Edison. Mitchell and Kenyon, a firm of cinematographers from Blackburn in England also produced a film called "Lady Boxers" in early 1900s, in which two lady boxers who are appearing at the local fair rescue a man from being attacked by a gang of thieves.
Sometimes police interrupted boxing matches if women participated in them. That's what a newspaper report as of February 29, 1916 says: "Helen Hildreth, the Lady pugilist, was having the best of it in a mixed fight with Johnny Atkinson, when police and boxing commissioner Fred Wenck jumped into the ring and ordered the fight stopped."
Contemporary accounts from 1900s reveal that women fighters were becoming a fixture on boxing shows. It also appears that many of them were connected or associated with recognized male fighters. A report from "The Showman" in 1901 from Wishaw fair refers to a pugilistic exhibition involving Professor Ball and Rosie Danvers, "the Champion Lady Boxer of the World" from London. Professor Alf Ball in his earlier life was a bare-knuckle and glove fighter who, after retiring from the sport, concentrated on presenting shows on the fairground. (By the way, the title "professor" was common used by boxing performers.) Upon arriving, the venue the reporter from "The Showman" is greeted with the familiar spiel: "If you are lovers of genuine sport, fail not see this show. Professor Ball will box three rounds with Rosie Danvers, the champion lady boxer of the world. Come and see this grand assault at arms. One penny admits you..." The reporter tells, "When the place is full, Professor Ball enters the arena, quickly followed by Miss Danvers, each taking a foil, the pair salute and then fall to, they feint, guard, and stub at each other in no gentle manner; the blades clash and the place rings with the sound; the duel gets fast and furious, indeed it is a much better and more exciting display of swordsmanship than is seen at many better theatres... Then comes to boxing match. Quickly donning the gloves, the two retire to their respective corners until time is called and then the fun starts. The pair goes at amidst the encouraging cries of the appreciative audience: 'hit him over the cart and stun him Rosie' yells one young hopeful spectator. Rosie needs no second bidding; she slogs at the professor and the professor slogs back until time is counted by the referee. The showman encouraged the audience to place money by saying "the more they get the harder they punch". The money on offer appears to suitably inspire Rosie who went on to knock her opponent down twice in the final round and was awarded the contest."
A well-known showman who promoted women fighters on his shows was William Moore who exhibits his son and two daughters on the front of his boxing booth. The family traveled extensively through England and Scotland. One of her daughter was advertised as the Champion Lady boxer. In 1912 he had a long struggle for returning the license which had been temporarily revoked for allowing his daughters to box. Solidly built, in stylized costumes, the Moore sisters impressed a country audience. Many of female boxers who performed during that time appear to have a link to the sport through male family members who were involved in the fight games - in case of the Moore girls; it was through their father and brother. This is also true for the grandmother of Ronnie Taylor who told the story of her: "The women were used to draw the crowd but they were genuine fighters... My grandmother and grandfather used to fight each other in the ring and my grandmother told my dad that used to take her on. She also used to take on other men. She would wear chest protectors but my grandfather said that she was so fast that nobody could ever hit her." Another instance of women fighting on the boxing booths can be found in Matt Moran's memoirs “Shamrock Gardens”, in which he recalls Jack Lace and his two smart daughters who would give ring exhibitions: "In between fights at Newcastle, Jack asked me if I would kindly give an exhibition with one of the girls and I duly obliged. If there was a challenge from outside, the girls knew how to handle themselves - they trained for the job."
This association between women boxers and a family booth is also shown in the case of Annie Hickman who fought on the front of her father's Boxing Academy in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Annie Hayes (nee Hickman) was born in England into the famous Hickman boxing family in 1913. Her brother was an area boxing champion and Annie traveled with her family's boxing booth and she was taught how to box. Annie recalled her first time on the boxing show: "I must have been about fourteen when I started to work on the front of the show, but I looked older because I was quite big. I hit the punch bag twice, and missed it three times but nobody seemed to care ... I was at Worcester once and the show was full of Gypsies, and one of them said, "I'll fight her." My Dad said no, but I protested that he used to tell people that I was a champion lady boxer, so I thought he ought to let me fight. So I got into the ring with this Gypsy and side-stepped him once or twice, I'd watched my Dad and my brother, so I knew what to do. He was bewildered, so I side-stepped him and then topped him - and he went right out the ring."
Some of these performances may have been in the form of parading and exhibition boxing before the shows, but Annie claimed that she did fights against male opponents. A contemporary of Annie Hickman was Winnie Lemm performed on the boxing shows as Winnie Davis, the Lady Boxing Champion. Winnie appeared in many exhibition bouts in the 1920s and 1930s and fought both men and women. An account of Annie's father's show can be found in the "World's Fair" in the 1930s: "Women boxers have made an appearance in Wales. At Morristown Fair on Good Friday there was a bout between two women at Jack Lemm's booth. One of the women also tried conclusions with a man, but although the females shaped promisingly they scarcely came up to championship class." An advertisement in the local press in 1929 reveals Winnie's bouts in Wales: "Miss Winnie Davies, the Flyweight Champion Lady boxer will box with a well-known Aberdeen boxer."
Winnie reminisced about her time on the shows and her experience fighting both men and women in the ring: "On another occasion I was fighting a flyweight champion. I punched him and he got really mad. He went out to try and knock me out yet I managed to last the three rounds without harm." Winnie participated in exhibition bouts with Len Harvey, the British Middleweight Champion.
Women were also involved in other aspects of the fight game. Although Alf Stewart never had women boxers on his show his six daughters were involved in other aspects of the booth including time-keeping, parading and building up the show. However, his mother's family the Gess's, used to exhibit lady boxers and Polly Wilson recalls hearing stories of her grandmother's sister fighting on the show. Other well-known British boxing booth proprietors who have exhibited women fighters include Ron Taylor, Tommy Wood, Sam McKeowen and Professor Boscoe.
However, despite the long history of women boxing, it was very difficult for serious women fighters to gain the respect and prize money that their male contemporaries were given. This is reflected in the career of Barbara Buttrick. In fact, women's boxing became really popular show after one of Buttrick's superlightweight bouts was broadcasted on TV in 1954. She is considered a pioneer of women's professional boxing. She became the first ever female world boxing champion when she took the world bantamweight and flyweight titles in America on October 8th 1957.
In the first part of the 20th century, prize fistfighting was popular in UK, USA, France and some other countries. Female fighters were not uncommon in such fights - the most of them belonged to lower classes. Female fights for prize looked more like fierce brawls rather than athletic competitions. The bouts sometimes were quite brutal and even tragedies happened sometimes - in New Orleans, two female boxers died from injuries received while fighting a South American woman called Bellona.
In 1920s American "Countess" Jeanne La Marr (former ballet dancer) became famous in the field of prizefighting – she successfully fought against both men and women. Being very short (5'2") she had a powerful build (her weight was 170lbs) and was considered as a "world boxing champion" (even though probably she did not alone possess this title). After the boxing commissions of several states banned female boxers, La Marr retired to the mountains in California. In 1940s La Marr participated in boxing matches in Summer camps and successfully withstood male boxers.
Although from the 1880s regulations were being applied to boxing and in some contests punching or boxing with the hands only was allowed, "Savat" fights (strikes with the feet as well as the hands) continued to be popular and sometimes girls as young as 12 years old headed the bill. Here is an extract from an article about the history of women’s boxing in the "Police Gazette" (1924). It describes a fight between a woman of 25 and a girl of 17: "One snapshot showed the woman shooting a kick at the girl’s head; the girl was warding it off with her left arm and sending in her right fist to the woman’s stomach... This fight ended in a victory for the woman. Another such fight was won by Mlle Fari, who, soon after an hour of bloody and bruising battle, broke the other girl’s jaw by a savage kick... About 1902 Mlle. Augagnier beat Miss Pinkney of England in a savage fight. It was boxing and savate against straight boxing. Pinkney was better with her fists and looked like a winner after about one and a half hours of bloody fighting, but Mlle. A. cleverly managed to kick Pinkney in the face. This blow made a terrible scar and stunned the English girl and then the French girl shot a smashing kick to Pinkney’s stomach and knocked her out. The French girl was carried by her admirers in triumph from the ring."
However, the most of acts with women boxing in early the XX century were not brutal at all; the above mentioned bout was just a rare exception. Besides countless harmless boxing shows and punch bag trainings, some untrained women enjoyed friendly sparring with their female and male friends and partners (like they did in friendly wrestling). Such an activity allowed girls and women not only to have a lot of fun, but also to express their sexual appeal to the male audience which appreciate such a delightful show (long before such shows became commercial.)
In 1920s, Professor Andrew Newton (1888 and 1890 British amateur boxing lightweight champion) formed a Women Boxing Club in London. The Club prospered owing to the great enthusiasm shown by the London sports girl. Miss Annie Newton, Professor’s niece, was the most known boxer in the club. Annie Newton often fought exhibition bouts on the same bill as many of the professional fighters managed by Andrew Newton. In 1924 a match was made between Annie Newton and a Miss Madge Baker for the ladies world championship. The story was all over the press of the time and caused quite a stir as it was utterly unique. The fight was stopped by the Home Office about a week before it was due to take place. After World War I, Annie was a war-widow and boxed to support her daughter.
The French film studios Gaumont produced the film "London's women boxers” about the Newton’s Club and its female boxers. Professor Newton took charge of the ring craft during the film.
Following World War I, physicians and social workers complained that boxing (and football, water-polo, and various other sports) were too strenuous for girls. Nevertheless there were female boxers and promoters in Western Europe, North America, South America, and the Indian sub-continent. For working women, the motivation was often money. One of them, Annie Newton, told a London reporter: "And really! All this talk about boxing for women being 'degrading' and 'risky’ and ‘too hard work’ strikes me as very comic. Is it any more degrading, or half as hard work, as scrubbing floors?" The new emphasis on slenderness also attracted women to the gym. According to an article published in 1928 the gym of Jack' O'Brien, located in the heart of Broadway's white light section, is now more sonorously entitled “The Flesh Reducing Institute”, and Mr. O'Brien's clients, who, a few years ago were almost 100% men, are now almost exclusively women. But, in common with other sports that had previously been characterized as suited only to men, women’s boxing faced harsh and widespread opposition. It was argued that the training made women muscular and therefore ugly, and that hard hitting could cause cancer or harm the ovaries, womb, and breasts and thus affect women’s abilities to bear and suckle children.
Proponents of women's boxing insisted that the female reproductive organs were firmly positioned and thoroughly protected inside the body cavity and are probably less susceptible to injury than those of men. They also clamed that women, like men, can wear protective apparatus to protect vulnerable parts. "The ethics of arguments to ban boxing seems to be as appropriate to men as they are to women, but the differential treatment of the sexes in boxing provides an example of the way in which biological arguments have been applied systematically to women's bodies in order to control cultural practices."
During the 1970s women began to take legal action in order to secure participation rights equal with men's. Between 1977 and 2000 there were lawsuits against a number of boxing’s governing bodies globally. These suits, all instigated by women, demanded a right or privilege from their national or regional governing body. Requests ranged from extending the number of rounds in female matches to establishing female events at the annual Golden Gloves tournament hosted by the United States. Through these struggles, female athletes fought for the right to legitimate and regulated bouts. In April, 1992, Gail Grandchamp won an eight year Superior Court decision in Massachusetts, which made it illegal to deny someone the chance to box based on gender. Canada followed in 1993 by settling its proceedings out of court. In October, 1993, the United States Boxing Commission was forced to recognize, implement and support female boxing and its regulations after losing a landmark court case. In 1995, the Golden Gloves tournament included women for the first time, and the first-ever fully sanctioned World Championship in professional women’s boxing was held and, in 1996, the Amateur Boxing Association of England lost in court and was also forced to license female boxers.
Since about 1975 women literally burst into the boxing rings overcoming stubborn resistance of the society and authorities. By 1990s women's boxing became so popular and spread that it surprised few.
In fact, women's boxing became world wide popular in 1996 after TV broadcasting the famous match between Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty. The women fought on the undercard of the heavyweight men's bout between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno. The women's match turned out to be much more interesting than the primary one – it had everything which makes boxing fascinating – keen techniques, fury, passion, knockdowns and even blood. The Martin-Gogarty battle was seen in an estimated 30 million homes and in over 100 countries! This match is considered as a birth day of the contemporary professional women's boxing.
Women's boxing attracted special attention in 1999-2000 when the daughters of three great boxers of the past came to the professional ring: in December 1999 - Laila Ali, 21, in February 2000 - Jackie Frazier-Lyde, 37 and in June 2000 - Freeda Foreman, 23. The bout between Ali and Frazier occurred in the 21st century - on June 8, 2001 Ali won on an eight round decision.
This material was formed using the following main sources
(besides other materials of the Female Single Combat Club):
"Women’s Sports: A History" by Allen Guttman (Columbia University press, 1991)
"Fair Fight: an illustrated review of boxing on British fairgrounds" by Dr Vanessa Toulmin (World’s Fair Ltd, London, 1999)
1930s. A man knocks down a woman.
Videoclip by "Getti Images"
from Flickr rquigley525's photostream
1930s. A woman knocks out a man.
Videoclip by "Getti Images"
from Flickr rquigley525's photostream
Annie Hayes (nee Hickman)
1990s. Contemporary women's boxing
Christy Martin against Lisa Holewyne
Regina Halmish against Cathy Brown
The material is made by Anna Sidanova in June 2008
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Sisters Bennett in 1900s
Women boxing at the World Fair in St. Louis which was combined with the Third Modern Olympic Games
1908. Boxing ladies.
1900s. A man trains his wife in boxing
1900s. Winnie Davix boxes agains a man. Sketch
1920. Girls' training
Countess La Marr. 1927
1922: A crowd of onlookers, including English boxer Bombardier Billy Wells (between the two contestants), watching two women boxing at a garden fete in Hampstead, north London. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
1923: Two women passengers boxing aboard Cunard liner 'Berengaria' watched by fellow passengers and an officer.
(Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Circa 1925. A young lady in a leotard directs her energies at a punchbag.
(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1926. American boxer Joe Rivers sparring with Louise Adler, the women's lightweight champion of the world, during a training session before she defends her title.
(Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1935. Boxing instruction
1937. Girls try out a little boxing on the promenade at the seaside resort of Hastings in the south of England.
(Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Circa 1949: Competitors at a women's international boxing match in Stockholm (left to right) Miss Italy, Miss Switzerland, Miss Sweden, Miss America, Miss England, Miss Yugoslavia and Miss Germany.
(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Circa 1949: Miss Italy is knocked onto the ropes by Miss Sweden during a women's international boxing match in Stockholm.
(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Circa 1949. The Italian women's boxing champion celebrates after knocking out the London champion during a women's international boxing match in Stockholm.
(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Circa 1955: Two women boxing.
(Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images) by Three Lions
Circa 1955: A full-length portrait of a blonde woman smiling while posing in a dark bikini, neck scarf, and boxing gloves.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
by Hulton Archive
1990s. Contempoprary women's boxing
In 1970s, attempts were made to find more "humane" forms of boxing appropriate for women. One of such attempts - boxing without punches to the head - only to the torso.
It turned out even worse for women because of their vulnerable breasts
Norma Sheppard vs Tina Pullman in a "body boxing" match
Videoclip from the Flickr rquigley525's photostream