InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Sept 2001
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Women’s Boxing and Related Activities: Introducing Images and Meanings

By Jennifer Hargreaves

Earlier versions of this article appeared in Body and Society, 3:4 (1997), pages 33-49 and Boxer: An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture, edited by David Chandler, John Gill, Tania Guha, and Gilane Tawadros (London: Institute of International Visual Arts), 1996, 121-131. Reprinted by arrangement with Jennifer Hargreaves. Copyright © Jennifer Hargreaves 1997. All rights reserved.


This paper is exploratory both in relation to the use of data [EN1] and at the level of analysis. The chief reason is because women’s boxing, in common with women’s participation in other traditionally male sports, has been largely hidden from history, and so my early investigations have resulted in an overview of the history of the sport from savate fighting, through competitive boxing, to boxerobics. In the process, I outline analytical possibilities, in the main by considering a range of possible meanings attaching to all the variants of women’s boxing, and I refer to the ideas of Bourdieu and Foucault in order to suggest that their theories might usefully be applied more systematically in ways that I do not have space for here.

The paper is specifically about women and references to male boxing are made only in order to indicate the symbolic significance of a specific form of sporting maleness that signifies difference from femaleness. The discourse of men’s boxing that I use overrides class and racial differences between male boxers and suggests a homogeneous masculinity which creates specifically gendered relations of power. One of the reasons that I looked at women’s boxing in the first place is because it appears to deconstruct the "normal" symbolic boundaries between male and female in sport -- the opposition between masculine and feminine, based on the body, argued by Pierre Bourdieu (1995: 93) to constitute "the fundamental principle of division of the social and symbolic world." But I was to find that even in combative situations, different meanings and discourses can be applied to women’s boxing, and in all its guises a diverse shaping of the female body occurs.

Most papers in Body and Society are highly theoretical and interrogate the body separately from its physical, bone, muscle, and blood materiality. The concern here is to indicate ways in which actual bodily experiences have direct relevance to meanings and identities and how meanings are, quite literally, embodied -- a process that integrates the physical, psychic and cultural dimensions of human experience. A much fuller treatment of women’s boxing is needed that explores the relation between the diverse and complex bodies of the boxers and structures of power including gender, class, race, commercialisation and politics.


Tamami "Sky" Hosoya, three-time New York Golden Gloves champion

A Symbol of Masculinity

Proponents of boxing characterise it as "the noble art of self defence," "the sweet science," a channel for courage, determination, and self-discipline, and the sport that, above all others, combines fitness with skill, and strength with artistry. In the following quotation, poet and ex-professional fighter, Vernon Scannell (1971: 48-9), compares the role of a great artist with that of a boxer:

But what it (boxing) can do -- and here it is like art -- is give a man a chance to behave in a way that is beyond and above his normal capacity. The great artist may be, outside the confines of his art, cruel, weak, arrogant, and foolish, but within them he can transcend his own condition and become noble, passionate and truthful beyond the range of ordinary men. Something similar happens to the great fighter, too. He may be stupid, vain, ignorant and brutish -- though he is not, in fact, these things nearly as often as popular belief imagines -- but in the exercise of his art he becomes the embodiment of transcendental courage, strength and chivalry. I have seen it happen and I have experienced the Aristotelean catharsis as powerfully in the boxing stadium as in the theatre. In contrast, opponents of boxing claim it to be a brutalising experience that is blatantly savage and destructive, resulting in acute and chronic injuries, mostly to the eyes and brain, and sometimes causing massive haemorrhaging and even death (BMA 1993). The following excerpt from Irvin S. Cobb’s graphic account in the New York Times of July, 3, 1921, of the world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, describes the sort of incident used to support the anti-boxing lobby: I see the Frenchman staggering, slipping, sliding forward to his fate. His face is toward me and I am aware at once his face has no vestige of conscious intent. Then the image of him is blotted out by the intervening bulk of the winner. Dempsey’s right arm swings upward with the flailing emphasis of an oak cudgel and the muffled fist at the end of it lands again on its favorite target - the Frenchman’s jaw.

The thud of its landing can be heard above the hysterical shrieking of the host. The Frenchman seems to shrink in for a good six inches. It is as though that crushing impact had telescoped him. He folds up into a pitiable meagre compass and goes down heavily and again lies on the floor, upon his right side, his face half covered by his arms as though even in the stupor following that deadly collision between his face and Dempsey’s fist, he would protect his vulnerable parts. From where I sit writing this I can see one of his eyes and his mouth. The eye is blinking weakly, the mouth is gaping, and the lips work as though he chewed a most bitter mouthful. His legs kick out like the legs of a cramped swimmer. Once he lifts himself half-way to his haunches. But the effort is his last. He has flattened down again and still the referee has only progressed in his fateful sum of addition as far as ‘six.’

In both these accounts, however, one can recognise a conventional sporting ideology -- that boxing is an essentially masculine activity, associated with the male physique and psychology and with no organic connection with femaleness. Blood, bruises, cuts and concussion, which accompany boxing’s intrinsic aggression, violence and danger, are popularly considered to be legitimate and even "natural" for men (Messner 1992: 67), but absolutely at odds with the essence of femininity. Boxing, as Wacquant (1993: 90) argues, is deeply engendered, embodying and exemplifying "a definite form of masculinity: plebeian, heterosexual and heroic."

In lower working-class communities and in the United States, particularly in immigrant and African American families, fighting prowess provokes powerful images of machismo and virility. Dominance in combat is at the same time feared and admired. In boxing subcultures maiming or even killing an opponent are rationalised, and contempt for punishment and pain is a sign of being a "real" man and a good boxer. Because the boxer’s body is both a weapon and a target, it is constantly under surveillance and highly disciplined in order to become strong and tuned for the fight. If Foucault’s analysis (1979: 26) is applied to the male boxer, his is a subjected body, heavily invested with power and, furthermore, in a manner which produces a distinctly gendered form of embodiment (Sawicki 1991). The investment of power in the male boxer’s body can also be understood as a form of cultural capital, or, more specifically, as Pierre Bourdieu (1984; 1986) conceptualises, a symbol of physical capital highly valued for males in working-class communities.

It seems surprising, therefore, that recently there has been an increase in the numbers of women who box, and, in particular, of those with middle-class and professional backgrounds. Their participation is stamping a new character on a sport that has traditionally symbolised the "essence" of working-class maleness. At first glance women’s boxing appears to be a radical intervention which blurs traditional male and female images, identities and class alliances.

Fighting Women

Few people are aware that women’s boxing -- or more correctly, prize fighting -- can be traced back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The early bare-knuckle contests were crude and bloody, fights to the finish in a harsh world in which the bodies of working women were imbued with strength and aggression, similar to the physical capital of working men. In London from the 1720s onwards, bouts were staged between women from labouring trades who were questing for money and status. Some of them became well known and their feats are recorded. For example, we read about "The famous boxing woman of Billingsgate," "The fighting ass-driver from Stoke Newington," "A female boxing blacksmith," "The vendor of sprats," "The market woman," "The City Championess," "The Hiberian Heroine" and "Bruising Peg." The contests were vicious free-for-alls, either topless or in tight-fitting jackets, short petticoats and Holland drawers. They involved punching, feet- and knee-kicking to all parts of the body, mauling, scratching and throwing, and usually resulted in serious injuries. Large crowds and large bets were commonplace, and members of the nobility often donated lucrative purses. (Daly [unknown date and source]; Park 1994: 31; Guttmann 1991: 74-77). A bout between two women in 1794 was described as follows:

Great intensity between them was maintained for about two hours, whereupon the elder fell into great difficulty through the closure of her left eye from the extent of swelling above and below it which rendered her blind through having the sight of the other considerably obscured by a flux of blood which had then continued greatly for over forty minutes... not more than a place even as large as a penny-piece remained upon their bodies which was free of the most evident signs of the harshness of the struggle. Their bosoms were much enlarged but yet they each continued to rain blows upon this most feeling of tissue without regard to the pitiful cries issuing forth at each success which was evidently to the delight of the spectators since many a shout was raised causing each female to mightily increase her effort. (Daly, ibid.) A century later, women’s prize fighting was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Because there were relatively few women competitors, exhibition matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured; at least one may even have been killed. On-the-spot stitching of large cuts was sometimes carried out so that a bout could continue, and women fought on with broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth and swollen eyes (Sunday Dispatch, 1946). Because of the betting economy and the lure of a fat purse, women’s fights continued to be staged as brutal spectacles. Although from the 1880s regulations were being applied to the sport 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, 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. From the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the status of local champion was being replaced by national and even international titles. In 1884, Nellie Stewart of Norfolk, Virginia, claimed to have won the first "Female Championship of the World" (Eskin 1974: 30). The following year the title was claimed by Miss Ann Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio, following an advertisement in the Police Gazette, challenging any woman in the world to fight her for $1,000 (ibid.). The first properly advertised Championship probably took place two years later in 1886. According to the published information, neither of the contestants had ever been beaten in a fight, and together they had accumulated 76 knockouts. On this occasion, Hattie Leslie was battered around the ring, knocked down for a count of eight, had her nose broken and blood drawn and one eye practically closed, but then, miraculously, turned things around and became the first officially recorded "Female World Champion."

Feminine Capital

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 organised 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 (Hargreaves 1994). 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. Nevertheless, gender and sexuality received heightened expression. 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 brutalisation and dehumanisation, 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 marginalised. Working women who used their bodies freely and powerfully were characterised as uncivilised 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.

Opposition and Advances

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-defence (Ayer, 1904: 11; Lorraine, 1910, 7). Working women also participated in vaudeville acts; examples include Polly Burns, Belle Gordon, and Harriet Seaback.

Following World War I, physicians and social workers complained that boxing (and football, water-polo, and various other sports; see Hargreaves, 1994) were too strenuous for girls. Nevertheless there were female boxers and promoters in Western Europe, North America, South America, the Antipodes 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! 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?’ (Norris, 1926:6): The new emphasis on slenderness also attracted women to the gym. According to an article published in 1928: The gym of ’Philadelphia 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 per cent. men, are now almost exclusively women.

… ’In a class of 22 fat women, ’ said the impresario of the Flesh Reducing Institute, ’we succeed in getting off a total of over fifty pounds in one day. In a period of a month each woman in the class lost an average of 26-1/2 pounds. One woman, who weighed 291-1/2 pounds when she entered the class, registered 259-1/2 pounds at the close of her first month’s treatment, a loss of 32-1/2 pounds.’ (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 8, 1928, 4)

There were also assorted public matches and competitions, including some between women from the armed forces during World War II. But, in common with other sports that had previously been characterised 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. (Fleischer, 1933, 20; Laird, 1936, 142-143). 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. And, of course, women, like men, can wear protective apparatus to protect vulnerable parts (Dyer 1982).

The ethics of arguments to ban boxing are 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. The repression of women’s bodies in boxing symbolised powerfully the repression of women in society: in contrast, the possession by men of physical capital in boxing was transformed and exploited as cultural capital. Ironically, part of this process was the exploitation of male boxers themselves.

In spite of this opposition, the 1940s, 50s and 60s continued to see increasing numbers of female boxers in North America, Europe, Mexico, Japan, and Australia (at least until 1948, when it was made illegal). One of the most famous of these women was Barbara Buttrick, "a little toughie" originally from Yorkshire, England, who was the undefeated Women’s World Fly and Bantamweight Boxing Champion from 1950-1960 (Eskin 1974). "Battlin Barbara," as she became known, learned her trade in the fairground boxing booths of England and France where, it was claimed, "she not only pulverised every woman she met, but swapped punches with over 1,000 men in exhibition bouts" (Philip 1993: 39). Buttrick has been eulogised in boxing circles for her understanding of the very essence of the noble art. She was not an uncontrolled slugger or a vamp, but a civilised and disciplined "artiste of the physical." Admired for her "speed, finesse and knowledge of boxing" and the way she moved "with the rhythm of a ballet dancer" (Dallas Morning News 1955), she became known as the "female Jimmy Wilde" (Philip 1993: 39). In 1960 Buttrick became the first woman boxer to be elected to the International Boxing and Wrestling Hall of Fame and in 1995 she became the first President of the newly founded Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF).

Buttrick and other female boxers were unlicensed fighters, and as recently as the 1970s, boxing was only recognised as a professional sport for women in a few US states. Then, in 1974, there was in the United States a publicity drive for women’s boxing that coincided with the International Women’s Year and the strengthening of radical feminism. Although the Men’s International Boxing Association has recognised the amateur female sport, and the WIBF was inaugurated in order to promote and co-ordinate women’s boxing on an international scale, it remains commonplace for women to struggle for recognition and resources at both amateur and professional levels and to compete for unofficial titles amid hostile controversy. In some countries female boxing at all levels is outlawed. But in spite of the obstacles, 1994 marked another watershed when the powerful promoter, Don King, signed up his first female boxer, Christie Martin, and promoted a Women’s Championship event. The following year, the first-ever fully sanctioned Women’s World Championships in professional boxing history took place. Since then, women’s boxing has developed at a remarkable rate and in a remarkable way, and by 2001, even Egyptian women had boxing clubs.

Non-combat Boxing

Although gym owners taught boxing for fitness before World War I, during the 1980s there was a huge escalation of interest in, and demand for, female boxing and associated activities such as "boxerobics" ("boxercise" and "boxtraining"). At one level this can be understood as an aspect of the consumerism of exercise, feeding off the modern obsession with body maintenance and its surface representation or the "look" of the body (Featherstone 1982). The power of consumer culture derives from its ability to harness for profit people’s desires about their bodies - a form of "control through stimulation." Body maintenance requires hard work and discipline, but the perceived end product of a well-toned body induces women to participate in one or another of the many available exercise programmes.

An advertisement for "Pony’s Exerbox" range of sportswear recommends Boxerobics as a preferred form of exercise, which, it claims, "really sorts out the women from the girls." The advertisement promises that, "After the first few rounds of training you’ll start to lose weight and gain strength. You’ll develop long, lean muscles, not bulk. Your body will feel firm and look hard." We see an image of a strong, muscular young woman, sitting in a changing room in a manly pose with her legs apart. She is wearing Exerbox gear -- boxer’s shorts, vest and trainers. Her hands are strapped, her boxing gloves beside her on the bench. As the advert points out, she looks more like Mike Tyson than a Cindy doll. Certainly, this representation supports Susan Bordo’s (1990) contention that in recent years the athletic and muscular image of femininity, although quite solid and bulky-looking, has become highly desirable. This, she argues, is because tautness and containment have become more valued than thinness, and that any form of excess, sagginess or wrinkling -- even on the skinny body -- is considered to spoil its line and firm appearance. Whereas in the past muscularity has been associated with masculinity, the new androgynous look acquired through workouts has become a symbol of both control and desirability. In the same way that muscularity has always symbolised the empowerment of men, representations of the athletic female body can also be understood as symbols of empowerment and the reconstruction of traditional images of femininity. Women are empowering themselves by appropriating male symbols of physical capital and shifting gender relations of power.

The burgeoning popularity of boxerobics has made it something akin to a cult activity. It attracts women who explicitly reject the "ultra-feminine" image of aerobics and who want more exciting and demanding forms of exercise. Evolving from "Executive boxing," originally devised by actor Mickey Rourke (once an amateur boxer) to relieve stress, and coinciding with the new female muscular and aggressive image popularised through Linda Hamilton’s performance in Terminator II, it spread to gyms in Hollywood and New York, and then became an international phenomenon. Screen actresses like Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer have become devotees, and after it was introduced into England, the former "Page 3 Girl," Samantha Fox, made a boxercise video. Modelled on a boxer’s workout, exhausting routines of skipping, shadow boxing, and pummelling punch-bags are performed to funky tunes.

Unlike "real" boxing, this mode of exercise severs the female agent from the worrying relationships between combat, aggression, pain and injury. It is boxing without an opponent -- a non-contact form of exercise during which, the Exerbox advert assures us, "The only pain you inflict is on yourself." The implied message of the advert coheres with the politically induced and popularised idea that women should take responsibility for their own bodies. The philosophy is introspective, reflecting widespread insecurities about the body and self that are mediated and reproduced through dominant modes of consumption such as advertising (Tomlinson 1990). The resultant female body is ascetic and disciplined, and the product of a self-imposed physical regimen.

But the discourse of female boxing training is complex and contradictory. The body trained through boxing practices is strong and athletic, illustrating the way in which power and lifestyle intersect; it symbolises independence and suggests a body produced "for oneself" rather than as "the object of male desire" (Cole and Hribar 1995: 361). In the open embrace of rigorous physicality, muscularity and firmness, there is a broadening of femininity and a radicalising of the link between the public female body and hegemonic heterosexuality. But at the same time, there is a rejection of "contrived" muscle bulk, produced by other exercise regimes, such as weight lifting, which are said to mask the breasts and masculinise the "real" body. Training in boxing, claim its disciples, is the "best all-round work-out," because it burns more fat than does other exercise routines, and produces a muscular but also a long, lithe and "attractive" body shape. Their rejection of Kate Moss’s waif-like, submissive, and passive portrayal of femininity embodies the belief that sexiness is not in contradiction with power. The new super-paid super-models are tall, muscular and sporty, and "Uberwoman" (from Nietsche’s Übermensche - "a ‘higher body’ from Man". See Lash 1984: 271-2) is the modern term used to describe this radical athletic-aesthetic (see Hargreaves 1994: Chap. 7).

The contradictions of boxing images are apparent in a recent advertisement for Haliborange. A slice of a young woman’s head showing her eyes is visible above a huge boxing glove that is forefront in the picture and takes up most of the space. The eyes bore purposefully into the viewer, signifying that Haliborange, in common with female boxing, is a form of self-defence. Here we have a strong woman taking up a male sport, connoting the power and "extra PUNCH" of Haliborange. But an alternative reading of the advertisement is possible. The eyes of the woman, highlighted because they are the only visible part of the face and because they "speak" to the reader with intensity, could be saying, "I am sexy. Come and get me." In this case, the message is that behind the boxer is the "real" woman. Rather than a subject of pleasure, the body is an object of desire. In sport, as in advertisements, the body is fundamentally semiotic, a place where meaning is both created and enacted, a place for the inscription of multiple signs (Brooks 1993: 38).

"Real" Boxing

The link between women and boxing embodies another contradiction. A small but growing group of women deride boxerobics as "cosmetic," or, disparagingly, as "aerobics with gloves on." They prefer sparring and organised fights, because in different ways, they say, the demands of combat provide for them a more basic physical and psychic pleasure. One fighter explains her feelings as follows: "Boxing requires intelligence, and a combination of skill and the aesthetic that is deeply satisfying... It’s like you get to know your body inside out." This description coheres with Wacquant’s (1995: 73) account of the effects of bodywork undergone by male boxers. He claims that "it practically reorganizes the entire corporeal field of the fighter, bringing to prominence certain organs and abilities and making others recede, transforming not only the physique of the boxer but also his ‘body-sense,’ the consciousness he has of his organism and, through this changed body, of the world about him."

People (female as well as male) go into competitive boxing for different reasons -- to get rid of aggression, to learn techniques of self-defence, to get physically strong, or because they relish the sportive challenge -- but they also share the belief that it is intellectually challenging, and enhances self-confidence, strength of character, and courage. They claim that facing danger and overcoming fear gives them an unbelievable buzz -- they enjoy the physicality of fighting, the excitement, the roughness and the risk. For them, it is a uniquely sensuous bodily experience, which, when mixed with the mental challenge is addictive: "The most terrifying thing I can ever remember doing is preparing for a fight," one boxer explains, "and just before the fight, getting into the ring, I feel so ill, I feel terrible... But regardless of the result, win or lose, when you come out of the ring, you feel on top of the world for months and months." The over-riding sensation is one of empowerment, perceived to be inscribed both in the individual physical body and in the inner self:

It takes intense concentration and precision, a combination of physical and psychic energy. When I leave [the gym after boxing] I am clear, self-confident and peaceful. (Wendy G. Finch in Mende Conny 1993: 53) After conducting a study of exercise routines, Cole and Hribar (1995) discuss a shift in emphasis in 1990s feminism from attention to the external body or surface self, to the inner or deep self. They see this as a new "commodity feminism," which, through the "sale" of female fitness, has become reconciled with capitalism. Featherstone (1982: 171) also discusses the relationship between the inner and the outer body. "Within consumer culture," he argues, "the inner and the outer body have become conjoined: the prime purpose of the maintenance of the inner body becomes the enhancement of the appearance of the outer body."

Dismissing Danger

Linked to the inner/outer body alliance of competitive boxing is a uniquely disturbing dimension. Boxing is an intrinsically vicious and potentially lethal sport and to disregard this characteristic is implicitly to support or idealise it. Ann Parisio, director of Raging Belles, puts it bluntly: "Boxing is much more brutal than wrestling. They [boxers] are pumping the grey matter into jelly, but a lot of people make a lot of money out of it; that’s why it’s respectable" (Cited in Downes 1989: 15). The recent promotion of women’s boxing is, without doubt, because of its profit-making potential, but at present there is little money to be made by the women fighters who provide the entertainment. The profit motive neither explains the growing penchant for participation, nor the apparent lack of concern among female boxers about the likelihood of injury. The death of Bradley Stone in 1994 reopened the debate about the safety of boxing, but, ironically, coincided with an accelerating interest in the sport among women.

The main purpose of boxing is to disable or render an opponent unconscious, an action that in turn results from injury to the brain caused by a punch (or series of punches) to the head. One extreme consequence of this is death, but a much more common occupational hazard in the men’s professional game is the "punch drunk syndrome," a debilitating neurological disease which has features in common with Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease (Kemp et al. 1995). Serious eye injuries and arthritis are other injuries frequently sustained by fighters. Supporters of boxing for women are quick to point out that it is only 30th on the list of dangerous sports, and that because women’s upper bodies are less strong than men’s and various regulations about wearing protective apparatus, the risk of serious injury is minimal.

Unfortunately, the results of recent examinations of male amateur boxers (ibid.) have seriously worrying implications for women boxers. For example, the exams show that there is an accumulative build up of brain damage over time that goes undetected without elaborate testing. Further research has been carried out at the Royal London Hospital following the death in the ring of a 23-year-old man who had been boxing since the age of 11 but had previously shown no signs of brain dysfunction. He suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and was found to have "long-standing brain damage, and some of the structural abnormalities common in the brains of elderly Alzheimer’s patients" (Hunt 1996: 2). This report confirms that "Young boxers can develop permanent brain damage early in their careers without any signs or symptoms of injury" (ibid.), and at a time in their lives when the power of their punches is less than that of adult female boxers. Although no research has been carried out on female boxers, there is no reason to suppose that their brains are less prone to injury than those of men. In 1996, Katherine Dallam from Kansas City, Missouri, collapsed in the dressing room after her first professional fight. She had to undergo neuro-surgery to repair a burst blood vessel causing bleeding between the cranium and the brain. She suffers now from short-term memory loss and is unable to feed or dress herself. There was a similar case in Australia in 2001.

Like men, women boxers refuse to engage in a rational debate about the long-term effects of brain injury and become vehement and irrational in defence of their own sport when faced with the evidence. An interesting feature of this phenomenon is that in the West boxing is attracting increasing numbers of educated women from affluent social backgrounds. An example is Deirdre Gogarty, who during the 1990s was a contender for a world title. She comes from a middle-class Irish family -- her father is a mouth surgeon, her mother is a dentist, she has a sister who is a doctor and a brother who directs an orchestra. Rene Denfeld, author of The New Victorians, is another aspiring world champion and Delia Gonsalez is a biochemist. Both of the latter are from the US. There are accountants, attorneys, nurses and doctors, teachers and businesswomen, as well as women from working-class backgrounds, all of whom box competitively and choose to ignore the dangers.

In Love with the Sport

Justifications are varied, and resistance to a serious appraisal of the problem is commonplace, even though all competitors are required to sign the following declaration: "I understand and appreciate that participation in sport carries a risk to me of serious injury including permanent paralysis or death. I voluntarily and knowingly accept and assume this risk." When one boxer was asked if she ever thought she might get punch-drunk, she laughed, and said, "I’m daft already!" Another boxer claimed that the risk of being hurt is minimal, and then went on to say that being the centre of attention in the ring is hugely appealing. Other boxers simply disregard the chronic (long-term) effects of boxing and argue that if they are well trained, they can avoid being hit.

The deep feelings of pleasure and empowerment experienced are linked to a denial of danger. It is in particular because "women are taught not to be physical," one of the boxers explained, "that it feels good to be in a context where it is acceptable to be physical and to discover a side of ourselves we never knew we had. Getting rid of aggression in a physical way is really liberating and attractive."

Women fighters are excited as well about overcoming personal fear, both fear of being hit and fear of hitting someone else. Perversely, they actually enjoy the sense of vulnerability, it "sends up the adrenaline and releases power."

Few of the fighters find problems with their own sense of femaleness. They just want to push their own limits, and in contradiction to popular conceptions of femininity, they claim that they possess an "innate fighting talent."

Their attitudes to their sport are therefore linked at a deep level to the physiological, psychological and emotional sensations experienced during training and fighting. The relation between the physical and the intellectual and between the inner and the outer self is, for them, part of a process of embodiment and self-identity.

Another element of the love of boxing is precisely that it is seen to have a "feminine side," to be like ballet in that it requires skill, speed, lightness, grace and co-ordination. This is reflected in the following description of a successful competition fighter:

People just naturally expect an Amazon when they find out Angel Rodriguez is a boxer. Massive muscles. A few broken teeth. A bashed nose. Maybe a cauliflower ear or so... That’s why the petite, slender body and unlined face are such a surprise. At 5 feet 4 and 107pounds, it is the body of a ballet dancer, not the top flyweight boxer that Angel Rodriguez actually is...With her quiet self-assurance, fine-tuned body and angelic features, she’s most certainly the best advertisement there could be for the sport" (Krieg, no date). And, in general, promoters and boxers alike want to present an essentially feminine, "clean, tidy sporting image." They oppose women who take a radical feminist position, who argue that boxing makes them more sensuous, or who wear khaki shorts and shirts and "look like blokes." Deirdre Gogarty expresses the fear that most boxers have. "I’m always afraid people think I’m butch," she says. "That’s my main fear. I used to hang a punch bag in the cupboard and bang away at it when no-one was around, so nobody would know I was doing it because I was afraid people would think I was weird and unfeminine" (Channel 4 1994).

The potential radicalisation of the female body in sport is contradicted by the ever-present expression of compulsory heterosexuality and the attempt to justify female boxing on the grounds that it has an authentic feminine element. Ian Wooldridge (1994: 61) rejects the idea that boxing can be feminised:

Boxing is about vehement aggression as much as ringcraft and self-defence... Do not for a moment fall for the delusion that if two women were released into the same ring with a gold medal at stake we would witness some choreographed balletic performance with mild sporting undertones. It would be bloody. As bloody awful, in fact, as those few disgraceful occasions when women have been lawfully sanctioned to fight one another on a professional bill. Certainly, at the end of a 1994 contest between Gogarty and Stacey Prestige of the United States, although the American was the victor on points, she fought the last rounds with a bruised and battered face, and a bleeding, broken nose. Although there is no justification for moral arguments for boxing to be gendered, the deep desire that some women have to enter a sport which highlights aggression and abuse can be viewed as a confusingly reactionary trend rather than a radical reconstruction of the feminine.

Research carried out at the University of Michigan and at the US Center for Media and Public Affairs suggests that there have been an increasing number of aggressive female role models on television. Examples include The Avengers, Thelma and Louise, Charlie’s Angels, and Wonderwoman (Whitehorn 1996:6). It is argued that women seem to be more aggressive than they used to be and that when aggressive acts carried out by media heroines are portrayed positively, girls learn to view this type of behaviour as acceptable. Boxing could be seen as one element of this trend.

Coinciding with the rising numbers of women in boxing are rising numbers of women taking part in other traditional male contact and combat sports. There is no similar movement of men into "feminine appropriate" sports.

The Seedy Side

As middle-class women move into boxerobics, boxing training and competitive fighting, working class women continue to play traditional boxing roles having organic links to "Bruising Peg" and her associates. Although serious boxing is gradually replacing explicitly sexualised women’s events, it is still the case that many aspiring women fighters wind up on the seedy "tough girls" circuit (popularised in the American South and Midwest) which provides sadistic spectacles for crowds of jeering men and women. They are peepshow fighters, kick-boxers and wrestlers, often topless, shrieking, kicking, biting, and yanking each other round the ring by the hair while splattering themselves with hidden blood capsules that burst on impact (Hennessy 1990:18). Pseudo-serious topless boxing and foxy boxing (which originated in singles bars in California and involves bikini-clad women wearing huge foam gloves and prancing about for male voyeurs) are regular events associated with working-class venues, pubs, bars, night clubs, boxing gyms, smoke and booze, low life and sleaze. Descriptions of these contests, usually accompanied by photographs, are found in boxing-style magazines. They provide a titillating mixture of the languages of boxing and sexuality: "Round 1. The girls were unaware of each other’s skills, so they feinted around for the first few seconds. Then Zanabe landed a nice punch to Geraldine’s breasts and that got Geraldine going. She concentrated on her younger black opponent’s beautifully developed tits, hitting them again and again" (Laird 1993: 12).

Topless boxing is one tiny element of a huge structure of gender relations of power. Sexualised images of female boxers are part of the general bombardment of sexualised images of the female body, and in this context, the message that female sexuality is more important than boxing ability is clear. This is further consolidated by other female roles in the broader boxing context. For example, traditionally, women have been accoutrements to, or have provided sideshows for, men in the game -- as spectators, hostesses, show openers, or by holding up counter-boards between rounds. These women are "displayed" as stereotyped, (hetero)sexualized commodities in swimsuits, high-heeled shoes, Lycra tights, and black silk stockings. In boxing films, women are portrayed as the Hollywood gangster’s broad or the greedy woman who uses the fighter just for his money. Some, like Raging Bull, are virtually devoid of women altogether. The severing of women from the "real" sport also happens in advertising and in sports photography. Women wearing boxing gloves has become a popular sporting image in advertisements that use sexual imagery to promote the sales of products -- whether or not they have anything to do with sport. Through the convention of commercial sexuality, women’s real involvement in sport is again trivialised. Boxing is used simply as a channel for the commodification of the female body in order to encourage clients to spend money on hair products, deodorants, sports shoes, or vitamins.

Boxing photography has also become part of the mass market in pornography. Boxing gloves are potent symbols of masculinity and when topless Page 3 girls wear them a provocative sexual message is produced that "real" sports are for men and that women are there simply to provide excitement and arousal. It is as if women’s bodies are part of the equipment – ‘apparatuses for male "sporting" pleasure, or playthings for men"’ (Hargreaves 1994: 167). Because boxing is commonly believed to be a distinctly masculine sport, to mix it with images that exaggerate the insignia of female sexuality produces a provocative illusion (ibid).


Novelist Joyce Carol Oates explicitly rejects the idea that female boxing could be a subversive activity when she declares, "The female boxer... cannot be taken seriously. She is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous" (Oates, 1994, 73). But the increase in the numbers of female boxers from different social backgrounds is a lived example of the way in which women construct a sense of self in relation to their personal bodies, and they, in turn, reject Oates’ polemic. The body is the most important signifier of meanings and in the case of women and boxing and associated activities, these are constantly contested and are changing according to the broader contexts of boxing discourse and gender relations of power. Although strength and muscularity in boxing have symbolically been a source of physical capital for men, the diversities and complexities of representations of the female body in boxing make it difficult to assess the extent to which the sport is a subversive activity for women or an essentially assimilative process with a radical facade. Female boxing in all its different forms links the physical body with the social body and the inner with the outer self in ways which are riddled with complexities and contradictory cultural values.


EN1. This paper is based in large part on information gathered from various people who sent or loaned me material -- for example, articles from old magazines, letters, newspaper cuttings, and videos. Some of the material was undated and the sources were not identified, and for that reason, this paper is not comprehensively referenced. It also contains information and ideas obtained from interviews with women boxers and others involved as coaches or promoters of women’s boxing. I am most grateful to everyone who so generously contributed time, money and ideas.


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About the Author

Jennifer Hargreaves is Professor of the Sociology of Sport and a Co-Director of the Centre for Sport Development Research, Roehampton Institute, London. Her books include Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports (London: Routledge, 1994).

InYo Sept 2001