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Old-time female combatants

Early the XX century

Female wrestler
"Female Wrestler" by Edgar Shahine (1874-1947). Etching, aquatint and drypoint on ivory laid paper, 1902
"Charles Deering Collection". Reprint from the resource

Русская версия

Circus wrestling * Wrestling and boxing against volunteers * Wrestling and boxing championships * Burlesque theatre and vaudeville wrestling acts * Formation of professional wrestling * Formation of female boxing * Ritual wrestling in tribal societies


Cigarettes
Cigarettes
Cigarettes

Cigarettes of 1902 with pictures of women wrestling

Circus wrestlers

Circus wrestlers
Postcards “Women’s wrestling" (1904 and 1906)
From the collection of Werner Sonntag

Just after the turn of the centuries female wrestling and boxing became very popular on the both sides of the ocean. While boxing was more athletic activity occurring in gyms and clubs, wrestling was organized more as a spectacle. It was so common at that time, that even postcards and cigarette labels contained images with wrestling women. It was the golden age for circus. Yet all those pictures represent more wrestling posing than real wrestling actions. Circus wrestling was rapidly spreading all over cities and villages in America and Europe. Although the vast majority of wrestling competitions and shows were held among men, women also decisively stepped into the circus ring as well as into athletic clubs and gyms. Besides special circus booths and tents, spectacles were organized also in fairs and markets as well as in parks and gardens. The French female wrestlers were numerous, for instance, in a photograph taken at a fair at Neuilly, France in 1905, a crowd of men and women are gathered before an outdoor stage to stare at a group of wrestlers. From the stage, in the second row, almost unnoticed, a beefy female glares her challenges.

The famous strongwoman Katie “Sandwina" Brumbach (“Woman-Hercules") easily pinned men who were brave to accept her challenge in wrestling. Sandwina probably was the most famous strongwoman of the epoch; she had outstanding physical parameters (see the photo at right). She even managed to surpass the famous Eugene Sandow (enthusiast in bodybuilding and powerlifting) himself in strength test – he was her idol and her nickname “Sandwina" was the female derivative of “Sandow". During years, Kate participated in circus spectacles with her family, and the most exciting point was when her father offered 100 marks to any man in the audience who would capable to defeat his daughter Kate in wrestling. According to the legend, nobody earned the 100 marks. Her future husband (they were married for 52 years), Max Heybelmann, was one of those daredevils who accepted the challenge and according to his own words, the following had happened with him: “As I have entered the ring I started thinking that if I earned the 100 marks it would be the most extravagant way to earn money I have ever had. All the sudden, these thoughts were interrupted and the only thing I recall is my sudden rotation in the air with the flashing blue sky in my eyes, and then free falling down. Eventually, I found myself on the floor panting and semi-unconscious, while the girl bent down to me and said, "Have I inflicted any damage to you?" Then she grabbed me in her arms as a dummy and carried me to her tent." In the Part II you can see the Zille’s cartoon representing a prize wrestling just for 100 mark prize.

Circus women’s wrestling was very popular in Russia. The most famous of the female grapplers may have been redoubtable Masha Poddubnaya. Being a sister of the champion wrestler Ivan Poddubny, she was one of the several claimants to the title of women champion in 1900s. She was women’s a “world wrestling champion" six times before 1910. Circus bills advertised her as inviting "all comers into the circus ring to try their luck in wrestling against her after she had disposed of her fellow troupers". Women's wrestling was especially popular in Russian province.

Novel by Ehin
Cover page of the Ehin's novel

Several Estonian women wrestlers and strongwomen were famous in 1900s, among them - Maria Loorberg (scenic name Marina Lurs) (1881-1922) and Anette Busch (1882-1969). Their glorious competition tours began in 1907; they competed all over Tsarist Russia, reaching to Siberia and even to Japan and China. Marina Lurs was named the best woman athlete of the Russian Empire; Annette Bush was victorious in Japan and China. In fact, there is no sexual discrimination in the history of Estonian wrestling. At the turn of the century women athletes were as well known as men. These two female wrestlers were almost as much famous as Georg Lurich, the best-known Estonian wrestler, whose fame has withstood time and whose name is almost a common noun in Estonian. These two outstanding women became hero prototypes in the novel by Andres Ehin with the self-explanatory title, "She floored a hundred men" (right). The charming strongwoman Marina Lurs was considered as the strongest woman in Russia. Marina had been training since 1903 and four years later, she started participating in wrestling championships. In wrestling Marina Lurs more relied on her exceptional physical strength and skills in power tricks rather than on wrestling techniques. Marina Lurs didn't like fussing on the ground and usually won from the standing - she just "delicately" threw her opponents directly to the floor leaving them lying on their backs.

Challenge in circus
Clown: "So, is there any daredevils who would venture to challenge these ladies?"

Among other Russian female circus wrestlers two ones should be mentioned - the warrior Madam Yudina from Far East Russia and the robust Siberian Larisa Belaya (“the Furnace"). A strongwoman from Siberia, Larisa Belaya, was a noticeable figure among provincial Russian circus female wrestlers in 1900s. Her performances were typical examples of combination of circus show and athletics. Not having meticulous wrestling skills she made an indelible impression to the audience and frightened potential volunteer opponents by strength, huge size and powerful build. Pinning techniques Her entrepreneurs used her outstanding physical parameters and feminine attractiveness in full measure when male opponents challenge to wrestle her. Volunteers were forced to place starting position for wrestling in full contact with Larisa's robust body that embarrassed them and made it impossible for them to concentrate on wrestling. Larisa Belaya met and competed with a few famous in Europe female circus powerlifters and wrestlers. In particular, she wrestled with Maria Loorberg and Katie “Sandwina".

As a matter of fact, in circuses many women wrestling actions were closely related to strength demonstrations – challenge to wrestling was understandable way to prove that the strongwoman is real.

Female wrestling became very popular in the United States in early the XX century - it can trace its roots to the great American burlesque theatre at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, curiously, in some states, among them New York and California, female wrestling was banned. As it mentioned in the Part II, since late the nineteenth century “women’s wrestling championships" were held in the States and championess were proclaimed. In early the twentieth century the famous female wrestling championess Josie Wahlford, who had been unbeatable in late the previous century, was defeated by a wrestler of the next generation, Laura Bennett.

Cora Livingston
Cora Livingston

Laura dominated female wrestling mats during 1900s, temporarily gave up the title for two years to Mary Harris (77 kg) who was the champion between 1907 and 1909. Mary laid claim to the women's title maintaining her supremacy for two years, and then had the ill luck to accept the return match with Laura Bennett who pinned Mary in a long and vehement battle. Laura, who stood 5 feet 9 (173cm) in height and weighed 190 pounds (86kg), was all muscle and all fight. At the end of Josie Wahlford’s career, when she was 36, she tried to return to the wrestling mat, twice challenging Laura Bennett but in the both matches Josie was defeated.

Laura Bennett then was second to the lighter wrestler, Cora Livingstone. Cora Livingstone (left) was born in Buffalo, New York in 1893. Livingstone, who exhibited considerable abilities as a teenager, was a natural athlete. She stood 5 feet 5 inches (165cm) and weighed 138 pounds (63kg). Wrestling troupe Livingstone began her wrestling career in earnest after marrying ring promoter Paul Bowser and settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professionally trained, Livingstone would meet up with Laura Bennett in St. Louis in 1912. Smaller and outweighed by 50 pounds, Livingstone tore into Bennett right from the start and pinned her in 12 minutes. Miss Bennett's morale was shot to pieces by that fall. The second part of the match was no contest. Cora literally threw Laura in three minutes. A half Nelson and crotch hold proved to be the Livingstone media for victory. Cora was recognized everywhere as the greatest female wrestler in the world. With the rise of Cora Livingstone women's wrestling went into a more lucrative, dignified successful phase. Her victorious wrestling career finished in 1925. Actually, Cora Livingston figures as one of the first “professional wrestlers". In the decade of 1930 also he there was good (“Professional") wrestlers, as Connie Landis, Kay O’Connor, Nell Donald, May Stein, Mae Weston, Lillian Bitters (who also wrestled against men), Mars Bennett (55 kilograms, and that was also trapeze artist) and, above all, Ada Ash (153 cm).

Wrestling cartoon
Cartoons of 1912

Wrestling cartoon
Cartoon of the beginning of the 20th century

Women's wrestling exhibitions could also been seen in France and Great Britain around the turn of the century where all-girl troupes like this one in 1910s (top right) in England performed for crowds in the country's major cities.

In 1920s and 1930s women’s wrestling was gradually moving from circus, vaudeville stages, gyms and athletic clubs to “professional wrestling" rings, totally staged show, popular in the States.

Mildred Burke is ready for throwing Juanita Coffman
Mildred Burke is ready for throwing Juanita Coffman

Actually, professional wrestling was established with the birth of the numerous circuit promotions that sprung up during the great depression. Venues gradually moved from the carnival sideshows to auditoriums where promoters would stage shows on a regular basis. The concept of presenting a series of matches ("the card") was conceived and the ranking of wrestlers from champion to leading contenders (as determined by the promoters) was begun. One of the first famous professional wrestlers, Clara Marie Mortensen started wrestling in the early 30’s performing with the "Crafts Big Shows", a travelling carnival out of California. By 1934 she was recognized as ladies champion by those few promoters presenting women’s matches. With the transition of professional wrestling from its vaudeville roots to pro rings, the California native could be considered the first champion of the modern era. But the most popular female wrestler since 1930s was Mildred Burke (1915-1989). The world champion since 1937, Mildred Burke has never been defeated professionally. On the right picture a very typical professional wrestling scene is represented Juanita Coffman finds herself on the top of Mildred Burke during the women's world championship. Juanita Coffman, 145 pounder (66kg), has lost to Miss Burke 25 times.

In 1924 the 21 year-old Austrian beautiful strongwoman Martha Farra who weighed just 55 kg proclaimed herself as the strongest woman in the world - for instance, she managed to lift a platform of 3500 pound (1587 kilograms) to 75 centimeters over the floor. She also was training in freestyle wrestling and participated in wrestling matches.

Ivy Russel
Ivy Russel wrestling a man

Another small sized strongwoman, American Ada Ash (1906-2004) was able to lift a platform with a horse on it. Ada was incredibly strong and brave – she fought against a crocodile (see the left photo) suffering several serious bites in jaw, arms and legs. Being not afraid of crocodiles she was ready for physical combat against her equals and became a skilled wrestler and a wrestling trainer. Along with her husband Al Szasz (also a great wrestler) she wrote three books dedicated to judo and self-defense (lower left photo shows the couple). Trained by her husband, she successfully participated in female wrestling competitions. In one of her wrestling matches against another famous female wrestler Nell Stewart (who was much younger than Ada), Ada accidentally fell out of the ring to the floor in a bad position and damaged her spine and she was disabled during almost two years. Wrestling The last famous strongwoman of this period who became a great wrestler was the English, Ivy Russel (born in 1907). She was very powerfully built and surpassed in muscle parameters the famous heavyweight boxer of her epoch, Max Schmeling from Germany. Owing to her incredible physical strength Ivy became a great wrestler (at the photo at right she wrestles a man). In 1934 she started attending the “Victory Ladies Wrestling Club" to train in wrestling, and just in a year she managed to gain the champion title in the female wrestling championship defeating all her opponents. Ivy reportedly decisively punished any skeptical man who doubted that a woman could be a real wrestler. Ivy just grabbed him into her steel hugs and instantly forced him to take his words back (right photo).

The marvelous wrestling and boxing star of the thirties, Ruby Allen (66kg) was born in St. Louis, Missouri (left). Since there were no official wrestling federations in that epoch, wrestlers competed to anyone who was willing to accept a challenge. At first, Ruby practiced boxing and had bouts each Thursday in the "Liberty Theater" in St. Louis, defeating 25 opponents. On Mondays female wrestling matches were held in the same theater and Ruby fell in love with wrestling. She was coached by the old Italian wrestling champion, Oreste Vadalfi. Besides wrestling matches, Allen still successfully participated in boxing as well. During her combat career she participated in more than 200 matches and defeated almost all her opponents.

Ladies Club
Alfons Walde
"Wrestling match in a Ladies Club"

There was probably another form of women’s wrestling – wrestling in Ladies Clubs. Nude wrestling At the early 20th century painting by impressionist Alfons Walde called "The Wrestling Match" (left), a Ladies Club seems to be drawn - not a bar or brothel, since there are no men present. And the membership is comprised of well to do women: that's obvious from the attire, shoes and the fact that only well to do women could get into such a club. And the activity of the day here is a naked wrestling match between two women. You can see that the both, participants and audience, are extremely interested in the fight. In fact, wrestler’s body language (legs tightly held together, some of them angled away) has a sharp sexual quality to it. Some of the dames in the audience are a bit more than interested, it seems! There is at least one woman (who appears nude) sitting on the blue fighting surface and the women are divided into two color groups: red and blue. Are they really two "teams" or "clubs" or does this artist merely uses color to differentiate for us between the "fans" of each of these fighters? And is that nude woman merely an earnest observer, a referee, or a fighter in an upcoming match? Whatever it is the artist tells us something about the two wrestlers: they wear only their shoes. Why strip naked but keep your shoes on? To make it clear that these women are not two "street ladies" brought in to fight for the group's pleasure. Their shoes are the shoes of upper class women - these two are members of this club. In short, we're watching a Ladies Club in which the members wrestle each other naked (see "Women's fights in traditional and classical arts"). So, wrestling was also a form of entertainment; women engaged in impromptu friendly wrestling matches (sometimes going out of control though). It was told that rich American families invited girl wrestlers for private wrestling at their homes. After a while, housewives being bored at home, realized that they may entertain themselves by wrestling each other; this type of wrestling was then called "apartment wrestling".

Outdoor boxing in 1908 Boxers Boxing was gradually developed among women and in 1904 women’s boxing was introduced at the third Olympic Games in St. Louis as a displayed event. Then it was a long break in female athletic boxing all the way until 1970s-1990s when women’s boxing gained a real respect. Nevertheless, female boxing always existed and was never gone. There are a few references to women participated in the sport of boxing, including some photographs. At the right photograph two female boxers are sparring in front of other athletes. 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, at the 1908 photograph at right two women prepare to an outdoor boxing bout. After WWI women training in boxing was quite frequent (see left); in 1920s boxing was accepted as a part of the physical training of young ladies in Boston. 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.

Johnson sisters, 1900s
Johnson sisters - "Matchetts", 1900s

As it's mentioned in the Part II, women participated in very popular vaudeville acts with wrestling and boxing; examples include Polly Burns, Belle Gordon, and Harriet Seaback. The great American inventor Thomas Edison recorded a couple of films representing boxing matches including ones between women, many of them were made in the twentieth century (as the "Gordon sisters boxing" at right). 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.

Gordon sisters 1901
Shot from the Edison’s film “Boxing match between sisters Gordon", 1901

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. 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 (left). The name "Matchetts" was a result of the showman telling the audience that he could match any fight in his booth. 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.

Professor Ball vs. Miss Danvers
Cartoon from "Showman" depicting Professor Ball and Miss Danvers

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.

Champion belt for female boxer
Champion belt of a female boxer of the beginning of the XX century with the personal engravement

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 (left). 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.

Sister Moore show
Sister Moore show

Another 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."

Annie Hickman
Annie Hayes
(nee Hickman)

Man trains wife
Man trains his wife, 1900s

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 Davies
Winnie Davies (above)

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. But the career of this great female boxer went by the second part of the twentieth century which is beyond of the topic of this article...

Boxing instructions Lady boxer training Although from the 1880s regulations were being applied to boxing and in some contests punching or boxing with the hands only was allowed, "savate" 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. 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.)

Knockout 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. As boxer Annie Newton, a war-widow who boxed to support her daughter, told a London reporter: "And really!

Sparring in front of team, 1920
Sparring in front of team, 1920

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. In fact, the female reproductive organs are firmly positioned and thoroughly protected inside the body cavity and are probably less susceptible to injury than those of men.

Police interrupting mixed match
Newspaper report, 1916:
Police interrupts a mixed match

And, of course, 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.

Theatrical boxing 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." (right)

"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. "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. Tragedies happened sometimes - in New Orleans, two female boxers died from injuries received while fighting a South American woman called Bellona.

In 1906 Irving Hancock’s “Physical Training for Women by Japanese Methods" is translated into French which initiated the push for women to train in the oriental martial arts, such as Judo and Jiu-Jitsu.

Movie with giant female wrestlers
Movie with wrestling of giantesses

Scenes with wrestling and boxing women seemed to be bizarre and spicy for people at that time. That’s why pictures with posing and acting female wrestlers and boxers were so popular. Besides cigarette labels and postcards, female wrestlers and boxers appeared in professional photographs, on the theatric stage and in the early cinematograph; the tendency transformed later into numerous wrestling and fighting scenes in movies, videotapes, book covers, etc.

Gypsies
Fight of Gypsies
"From Russia with love"

Something is magnetic in the sight of combating women - just look again at the photographs presented above and see for yourself

A couple of words about the European Gypsies. In the Gypsy’s isolated societies simple disputes were often solved by fighting and the strict rule was that if men were in dispute, women would not become involved, and vice versa. For instance, if women were fighting men would sit peacefully together. Fights between women were rare though, but not unheard, and could be vicious. The worst ever story of women’s fighting passed down through generations took place around 1919 between Gypsies Eliza Boswell and her sister, Matilda Booth in Derbyshire, England. A quarrel between them caused a fierce bare fist fight initiated by Matilda, even though Eliza was heavily pregnant and although everyone was sure Eliza would have kicked Matilda’s ass if she hadn’t been pregnant, she took terrible beating from her sister and died in two days after the fight. The fierce and suborn fight between two female Gypsies is drawn in a masterful fashion in the famous movie “From Russia with love”.

As a matter of fact, numerous women who fight, wrestle or box at the present time, continue the old female combative traditions which were common among many nations and tribes all over the world and during centuries.



Alexei Bauman with assistance of Alexander Khromov


April 2003

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