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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2003

Women’s Martial Arts: A Chronological History, 479 BCE-1896 CE.

By Joseph R. Svinth.

479 BCE: A Greek woman named Hydne becomes a Hellenic hero by helping her father Skyllis pull up the anchors of some Iranian ships during a storm, thus causing the ships to founder and their crews to drown. While most modern authorities suggest that Hydne and her father were probably sponge-fishers, it is possible that they were upper-class athletes whose training for Dionysian swimming meets had been interrupted by war. Why? First, Hydne and Skyllis’ subsequent fame (Greek sponge-fishers rarely became Athenian heroes), and second, the paucity of detail and mass of conjecture surrounding the original sources.

About 460 BCE: The Greek historian Herodotus describes the practices and culture of some female warriors he called the Amazons. Who the Amazons were is not known, and in practice there were female warriors and priestesses throughout the Mediterranean world. Also, stories about Amazon mastectomies are likely owed to Hellenistic stage tradition rather than actual practice: Hellenistic actors traditionally bared their right breasts to show that they were playing unmarried females.

396 BCE: A Spartan princess named Kyniska becomes the first woman to win the chariot racing events at Olympia. While Plutarch wrote that Kyniska personally drove the winning chariot, most other ancient sources suggest that she was the owner of those horses rather than their driver.

About 330 BCE: Etruscan bronze statuettes show men wrestling with women. While the men were naked, the women wore thigh-length pleated tunics. Accordingly, the art was probably allegorical rather than erotic.

About 322 BCE: Greek writers describe the female bodyguard of a North Indian prince named Chandragupta.

First century CE: A Chinese annalist named Zhao Yi writes about a woman who was a great swordsman. She said the key to success was constant practice without the supervision of a master; after awhile, she said, she just understood everything there was to know. But as immediately after saying this she accepted the job as swordsmanship instructor for the Kingdom of Yueh, perhaps this description is lacking some verisimilitude. After all, if one did not need a teacher save one’s self to become a sword master, why would she herself become one?

18-27: A peasant rebellion rocks Shandong Province and leads to the collapse of the Xin Dynasty and the creation of the Later Han Dynasty. This unrest (called the Red Eyebrow Rebellion after its members’ practice of painting their eyebrows blood red) was led by a woman who claimed to speak with the voice of the local gods. Strictly speaking, this was a case of spirit-possession rather than shamanism.

About 41: Later Han soldiers under the command of the Shensi aristocrat Ma Yuan kill a Vietnamese feudal lord living near Tonkin and publicly rape his wife and sister-in-law. These rapes may have been official acts, as, from the Han perspective, they would have demonstrated the superiority of Chinese patrilineage over Vietnamese matrilineage. On the other hand, they could have been individual acts, as the Chinese did not consider rape a public crime until 1983. Either way, the outrage causes the two women, named Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, to incite a Vietnamese rebellion. This rebellion in turn introduces the Chinese to the giant bronze drums that the Vietnamese mountaineers used to transmit military information and provides a favorite subject for Vietnamese stage and puppet plays.

About 55: The Roman Caesar Nero introduces his notorious Youth Games, which featured, to the disgust of the historian Tacitus, sword fights between women.

About 60: When a British queen named Boudicca refuses to pay taxes to the Romans, a Roman official has the woman flogged and her daughters raped. The outraged Celts retaliate by killing tens of thousands of Romanized Britons living in what is today Norfolk and Suffolk, and burning the Roman capitol at Londoninium. When this rebellion is rediscovered through translation in the sixteenth century, it causes Boadica’s chariot, as the translators called it, to become an integral part of Elizabethan English nationalism. As for the unfortunate first century queen, she and her daughters committed suicide near Epping Upland after the Romans slaughtered the British men in battle.

About 200: A Christian philosopher named Clement of Alexandria writes that women should be athletes for God. That is, they should wrestle with the Devil and devote themselves to celibacy instead of bowing meekly to their destiny of mothers and wives. However, this was not a universally held view, and wealthy Roman men continued amusing themselves with gymnastic, gladiatorial, and swimming acts featuring scantily-clad female competitors.

271: A group of Gothic women captured while armed and dressed as men are paraded through Rome wearing signs that read “Amazons.”

About 535: Korean aristocrats replace female sword-dancers with male sword-dancers, apparently as a method of limiting the power of female shamans.

585: French churchmen debate whether women have souls. At least that is the postmodern feminist view of the debate, which was actually about whether the Old French word vir meant the same thing as the Vulgate Latin word homo. (The decision was that it did not.)

590: The Christian Synod of Druim Ceat orders British women to quit going into battle alongside their men. The ban must not have been especially effective, since the daughter of Alfred the Great is remembered as the conqueror of Wales and the people who taught sword dancing to the Ulster hero Cû Chulainn were female.

697: Roman Catholic priests prohibit Irish women and children from appearing on contested battlefields. This institutes a cultural change, for in pre-Christian times, Irish women and children had often accompanied Irish men into battle.

About 890: Beowulf is written. A villain of the piece is a homicidal crone called Grendel’s Mother. Meanwhile, in “Judith,” a much shorter poem written about the same time as Beowulf, the poet praises a God-fearing woman who gets a lustful feudal lord drunk then beheads him with his own sword. While unusual (medieval heroines were usually martyrs rather than killers), “Judith’s” author obviously knew something about beheadings, as Judith, a handsome Hebrew woman, required two mighty blows to sever the demonic lecher’s head from its neck-rings.

About 970: According to a twelfth century writer named Zhang Bangji, Chinese palace dancers began binding their feet to make themselves more sexually attractive to men. The crippling practice was widespread throughout southern China by the fourteenth century, and throughout all of China by the seventeenth, and is remarked because footbinding prevented well-bred Han females from effectively practicing boxing or swordsmanship until the twentieth century. (Some were noted archers, though, generally with crossbows.) Still, into the 1360s, Hong Fu, Hong Xian, Thirteenth Sister, and other Chinese martial heroines (xia) were sometimes portrayed by women on Chinese stages, and there was a seventeenth-century reference to a fourteenth-century woman named Yang who was said to be peerless in the fighting art of “pear-blossom spear.” But in general this ended with the spread of footbinding, and from the fourteenth to twentieth centuries specially trained men played female roles in Chinese theatricals.

About 1020: The Iranian poet Firdawsi describes polo as a favorite sport of Turkish aristocrats. According to the thirteenth century poet Nizami, aristocratic Turkish women also played polo, which was the Central Asian equivalent of jousting.

1049-1052: A female general named Akkadevi becomes a heroine of west-central Indian resistance to southern Indian aggression.

About 1106: Troubadours popularize pre-Christian legends about an Ulster hero called Cû Chulainn who was so much man that by the age of seven, he already required the sight of naked women to distract him from wanton killing. Further, as he got older, Cû Chulainn became notorious for conquering matristic societies by rape. Evidently Christian patrilinealism was being imposed on Ireland, and the victors were describing how it was being done, as in the earliest forms of the story, Cû Chulainn’s martial art instructors included a woman known as Scáthach, or “Shadowy.”

1146: Eleanor of Aquitaine, the self-willed 24-year old wife of Louis VII of France (and future wife of Henry II of England), joins the Second Crusade dressed and riding astride like a man. While this was doubtless chic (Eleanor never actually entered battle with the Muslims), her disregard for propriety caused the Pope to forbid women from joining the Third Crusade of 1189. Like most laws, the ban was widely ignored by the working classes.

1184: Minamoto soldiers kill a Taira general named Yoshinaka and his wife. Subsequent Japanese accounts portray the woman, Tomoe Gozen, as a mighty warrior.

Thirteenth century: Tahitian priests introduce the huna religion into Hawaii. The martial art associated with this religion was known as lua, a word meaning “to pit [in battle]” or “two” (e.g., duality; the idea was to balance healing and hurting, good and evil.) The methods developed from both military hand-to-hand combat and the ritual killings that were part of the huna religion, and its practitioners were divided into those who used their skills to heal and those who used their skills to harm. Skill in lua involved setting or dislocating bones at the joints, inflicting or stopping pain using finger strikes to nerve centers, and knowing how to use herbal medicines and sympathetic magic. Working-class Hawaiians, both men and women, also boxed and wrestled. There were no set rules in these latter games, which were known collectively as mokomoko. Accordingly, players slapped palms upon agreeing to terms or to signify a draw.

1207: King Pedro II of Aragon sponsors the first European tournament known to have honored a woman. (His mistress, of course, as Iberian nobles married for land and children rather than love.) The construction of prepared stands soon followed, as the lady and her servants could not be expected to stand in the mud like ordinary people.

1228: A woman challenges a man to a judicial duel at the lists in Bern, Switzerland, and wins. Such challenges were not uncommon in Germany and Switzerland during the thirteenth century, particularly during rape cases. To even the odds, such judicial duels were arranged by placing the man in a pit dug as deep as his navel while allowing the woman free movement around that pit. The usual weapons included leather belts, singlesticks, and fist-sized rocks wrapped in cloth. During these duels, if a participant’s weapon or hand touched the ground three times, he or she was declared defeated. Male losers were beheaded, while female losers lost their right hands.

1280: The Venetian merchant Marco Polo describes a Mongol princess named Ai-yaruk, or “Bright Moon,” who refused to get married until she met a man that could throw her. The story may be exaggerated, as it was not written until around 1295, and the writer, Rustichello of Pisa, was never one to let facts stand in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, it is likely that during his travels Polo really did see some Mongol women wrestling.

1292: Northern Italian towns start holding pugil-stick fights, bare-knuckle boxing matches, and cudgeling tournaments. Legend attributes the creation to the Sienese monk Saint Bernard, who taught that fists were better than swords or sticks for deciding arguments, but illustrations show slapping games in which players sat cross-legged on benches, and then took turns slapping one another until somebody fell off the bench. Another game involved slapping buttocks; this was often played between men and women. Mock equestrian battles were also fought in which a girl sat on a boy’s shoulders, and the pairs then undertook to knock over the other.

About 1300: A secretary to the Bishop of Wurzburg produces a manuscript depicting unarmored German fighters. Known today as Manuscript I.33 (pronounced one, thirty-three), the text is in Latin while the technical terms are in German. Most of the work, however, involved a series of watercolor drawings showing students, monks, and even a woman training in a variety of sword-and-buckler techniques.

1354: The Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta reports seeing female warriors throughout Southeast Asia. While many of these women were probably sword-dancers, others were royal bodyguards. (Southeast Asian princes often preferred female bodyguards to eunuchs.)

1364-1405: Tamerlane’s armies ravage Central and Southwest Asia. While Tamerlane was a devout Muslim, and non-Muslims took the brunt of the Timurids’ legendary cruelty, his use of female archers in defense of baggage trains appalled orthodox Muslim opponents.

1389: Sixty aristocratic women lead 60 knights and 60 squires from the Tower of London to the lists at Smithfield. The thought of females actually fighting during a tournament was, in the words of a near-contemporary German author, “as impossible as a king, prince, or knight plowing the ground or shoveling manure.” (Contemporary tales of female jousters appear most often in erotic fantasies and satires.) Women did sometimes compete in ball games and foot races. Many wealthy women also enjoyed hunting with crossbows and falcons.

1409: Christine de Pisan, the Italian-born daughter of a French court astrologer, publishes a book called Livre des Faits d’Armes (“Stories of Feats of Arms”). Hers was a vernacular study of military strategy and international law. It included original work alongside translations of Vegetius and Frontinius. It is also a reminder that medieval females could be as knowledgeable about military and political matters as was anyone else within their social or economic classes.

1431: The English burn a 19-year old Frenchwoman named Jeanne la Pucelle as a witch. Her actual crime was rallying peasants to the French flag. (She and some Scottish mercenaries had won some important battles, thus giving the peasants hope.) Jeanne la Pucelle was renamed Jeanne d’Arc (Joan the Archer) during the sixteenth century. The modern cult of Saint Joan dates to the 1890s, when French politicians decided to use the woman’s martyrdom to create a unifying national holiday. (Bastille Day, which the Catholics viewed as godless, and the Royalists viewed as an insult, was too controversial for this purpose.)

1541: While going up a river in Brazil, the Dominican monk Gaspar de Carvajal reports being attacked by a band of armed females. The story causes the river along which Carvajal was traveling to be called “the Amazon.”

1541: Pedro de Valdivia leads a military expedition whose members included his mistress, Inés Suárez, overland from Peru into Central Chile.

About 1545: Women begin playing female roles on the French stage. The practice spreads to Italy around 1608, and Britain around 1658. The reason was that dowryless females were willing to work for less money than the men and boys who had traditionally played female roles.

1561: Mochizuki Chiyome, the wife of the Japanese warlord Mochizuke Moritoki, establishes a training school for female orphans and foundlings. The skills the girls learned included shrine attendant, geisha, and spy. While Mochizuke-trained geisha are sometimes claimed as the first female ninja, it is more likely that the women were simply prostitutes trained to remember and repeat whatever they heard from their carefully selected patrons.

About 1590: A chronicler named Abu Fazl describes the harem of the Mughul Emperor Akbar as housing about 5,000 women. About 300 of these women were wives, the rest were servants and guards. The guards were mostly from Russia and Ethiopia, and were little more than armed slaves. There were exceptions, of course, and one of Akbar’s chief rivals in the 1560s was a warrior-queen named Rani Durgawati.

1601: A Javanese prince named Sutawijaya Sahidin Panatagam dies. Throughout his life, the man’s courage and luck were legendary, and he reportedly forgave would-be assassins by saying that daggers could not pierce the skin of a man who was protected by the gods. He took this belief seriously, too, as his concubines included an East Javanese woman who introduced herself to him by attacking him with some pistols and butterfly knives.

1606: The Iberian navigator Quiros visits the Tuamotus Archipelago, and observes its Polynesian inhabitants wrestling. Both men and women wrestled, and there were sometimes mixed bouts. The audience defined the ring by standing around the participants. The wrestling was freestyle, and hair pulling was allowed.

1611: The Mughul Emperor Jahangir falls in love with an Iranian widow named Mehrunissa. The emperor’s fascination is not surprising, as Mehrunissa was a gifted poet, competent dress and carpet designer, and avid tiger hunter. (She hunted from atop a closed howdah, and once killed four tigers with just six bullets.) Her niece was Asaf Khan’s daughter Arjumand Banu, the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

1630-1680: Dueling provides a favorite theme for French playwrights. According to these writers, people (both men and women dueled in French plays) dueled more often for love than honor, and noted that trickery brought victory more often than bravery.

About 1650: Doña Eustaquia de Sonza and Doña Ana Lezama de Urinza of Potosí, Alto Perú become the most famous female swashbucklers in Spanish America. At the time, Potosí, a silver-mining town in the Bolivian Andes, had more inhabitants than London, and was probably the richest city in the world.

1688: Following a coup in Siam, women drilled in the use of muskets replace the 600 European mercenaries and Christian samurai who had served the previous government. The leader of these women was called Ma Ying Taphan, or the Great Mother of War. Burmese princes also used female bodyguards inside their private apartments, and European, Japanese, or Pathan mercenaries without.

About 1690: Female wrestling acts become common in Japanese red-light districts. Although Confucianist officials charged that such acts were harmful to public morals, female wrestling remained popular in Tokyo until the 1890s and in remote areas such as southern Kyushu and the Ryukyus until the 1920s.

1697: A 40-year old Maine woman named Hannah Dustin escapes from an Abenaki Indian war party after hatcheting to death two Abenaki men, their wives, and six of their seven children as they slept. (A third Abenaki woman and a child escaped, although both appear to have been injured.) For this slaughter (which is almost unique in frontier annals), the Puritan minister Cotton Mather proclaimed Dustin “God’s instrument,” while the General Assembly of Massachusetts awarded her a sizable scalp bounty.

1705: Because a Comanche raid covered hundreds of miles and lasted for months, wives often accompanied war parties, where they served as snipers, cooks, and torturers. Unmarried Comanche women were also known to have ridden into combat, although this was considered somewhat scandalous..

1706: A trooper in Lord Hay’s Regiment of Dragoons is discovered to be a woman. At the time, she had thirteen years service in various regiments and campaigns. Subsequently known as Mother Ross, she had enlisted after first giving her children to her mother and a nurse. She spent her military career dressed in a uniform whose waistcoat was designed to compress and disguise her breasts.

1707: The French opera star Julie La Maupin dies at the age of 37; in 1834 novelist Théophile Gautier made her famous as Mademoiselle de Maupin. In her time she was a noted fencer and cross-dresser; her fencing masters included her father, Gaston d’Aubigny, and a lover, a man named Sérannes. Other redoubtable Frenchwomen of the day included Madame de la Pré-Abbé and Mademoiselle de la Motte, who in 1665 fired pistols at one another from horseback from a range of about ten yards, and then, after missing twice, took to fighting with swords. And in 1868, two women named Marie P. and Aimée R. dueled over which would get to marry a young man from Bordeaux. Marie was hit in the thigh with the first shot, leaving Aimée free to marry the young man. (Or so said the popular press.)

1722: Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell challenges Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market to meet her on stage, and box for a prize of three guineas. The rules of the engagement required each woman to strike each other in the face while holding a half-crown coin in each fist, and the first to drop a coin would be the loser. These rules perhaps suggest how bare-knuckle boxing began, as James Figg was a chief promoter of women’s fighting. For example, in August 1725 Figg and a woman called Long Meg of Westminster fought Ned Sutton and an unnamed woman; Figg and Meg took the prize of £40. Nevertheless, says historian Elliott Gorn, the sporadic appearance of women at English prizefights only “underscored male domination of the culture of the ring.” (Gorn, 1986, fn. 69, 265)

1727: After his army takes heavy casualties during a slave raiding expedition against Ouidah, King Agaja of Dahomey creates a female palace guard and arms it with Danish trade muskets. By the nineteenth century this female bodyguard had 5,000 members. One thousand carried firearms. The rest served as porters, drummers, and litter-bearers. These Dahomeyan women trained for war through vigorous dancing and elephant hunting. They were prohibited from becoming pregnant on pain of death. They fought as well or better than male soldiers, and were said by Richard Burton to be better soldiers than their incompetent male leadership deserved.

1759: Mary Lacy, a runaway serving girl who served twelve years in the Royal Navy, gets in a fight aboard HMS Sandwich. “I went aft to the main hatchway and pulled off my jacket,” wrote Lacy, “but they wanted me to pull off my shirt, which I would not suffer for fear of it being discovered that I was a woman, and it was with much difficulty that I could keep it on.” The fight then developed into a wrestling match. “During the combat,” said Lacy, “he threw me such violent cross-buttocks ... [as] were almost enough to dash my brains out.” But by “a most lucky circumstance” she won the bout, and afterwards she “reigned master over all the rest” of the ship’s boys. (Stark, 1996, 137)

1768: After disguising herself as a boy and shipping out with the French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Jeanne Baré becomes the first female to circumnavigate the world. Women also served in the British Navy. These women avoided discovery because European seamen seldom bathed and invariably slept in their clothes.

1768: In the Clerkenwell district of London (perhaps at the London Spa), two female prizefighters mill for a prize of a dress valued at half-a-crown, while another two women fight against two men for a prize of a guinea apiece. And at Wetherby’s on Little Russell Street, the 19-year old rake William Hickey saw “two she-devils... engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from them.” These “she-devils” were singers and prostitutes, and their pre-fight preparation consisted mostly of drinking more gin than usual. Other rough venues included the Dog and Duck in St. George’s Fields, Bagnigge Wells on King’s Cross Road, and White Conduit House near Islington. (Quennell, 1962, 63-66)

1774: During Wang Lun’s rebellion in Shandong Province, a tall, white-haired female rebel is seen astride a horse, wielding one sword with ease and two with care. The woman, whose name is unknown, was a sorceress who claimed to be in touch with the White Lotus deity known as the Eternal Mother. An actress named Wu San Niang (“Third Daughter Wu”) was also involved in Wang Lun’s rebellion. Described as a better boxer, tightrope walker, and acrobat than her late husband, Wu’s skill is remarked mainly because female boxers were unusual in a society whose standards of beauty required women to bind their feet.

1776: According to tradition, a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui creates a southern Shaolin boxing style known as wing chun (“Beautiful Springtime”). The tradition has never been proven, and twentieth century stylistic leaders such as Yip Chun believe that a Cantonese actor named Ng Cheung created the style during the 1730s. If Yip is correct, then the female attribution could mean that Ng Cheung specialized in playing female roles, or that the ultimate master is a loving old woman rather than some muscled Adonis. Still, it is possible that some southern Chinese women practiced boxing in a group setting. During the late eighteenth century, Cantonese merchants began hiring Hakka women to work in their silkworm factories. (While ethnically Chinese, the Hakka had separate dialect and customs. Unlike most Chinese, these customs did not include binding the feet of girls. Therefore their women were physically capable of working outside the home.) To protect themselves from kidnappers (marriage by rape remained a feature of Chinese life into the 1980s), these factory women gradually organized themselves into lay sisterhoods. So it seems likely that Ng Mui was simply a labor organizer or head of an orphanage whose name became associated with a boxing style.

1782: A 22-year old Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson cuts her hair and enlists in the Continental Army. She called herself Robert Shurtliff, and fought against the Tories and British in New York. She also wrote letters for illiterate soldiers and did her best to avoid rough soldiers’ games such as wrestling. (The one time she did wrestle, she was flung to the ground.) After the war, Sampson married, and in 1838 her husband became the first man to receive a pension from the United States government for his wife’s military service. Sampson’s maritime equivalents during the Revolutionary War included Fanny Campbell and Mary Anne Talbot.

About 1794: A boxing match between two English women is described. “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… 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.” (Hargreaves, 1996, 125)

About 1805: British newspapers start reporting the faction fights that had been occurring at Irish fairs and horse races since the 1730s. Irish men fought using sticks and brick-sized stones while Irish women struck using razors or stones sewn inside knitted socks. While it was acceptable for a male faction fighter to use his stick to parry a blow from a woman, it was considered bad form for him to hit her with the stick. Fists and feet were another matter -- 2.5% of deaths associated with the faction fights were the results of kicks administered once the other fellow was down, and 5% of deaths were due to infected bites.

1807: After learning that the Polish hussar Aleksandr Sokolov was actually a Russian woman named Nadezha Durova, Tsar Alexander I awards Durova a medal for bravery and a commission as an officer in the Mariupol’ Hussars. Durova continued serving with the Russian Army throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and retired as a captain in 1816.

1817: The British fencing master Henry Angelo describes a mulatto fencer known as Chevalier de Sainte Georges as the finest fencer in the world. Other noted Afro-European fencers of the period included Soubise, who taught aristocratic women (including the Duchess of Queensberry) to fence at Angelo’s London salle.

About 1820: According to Richard Kim, the wife of the Okinawan karate master Matsumura Sokon becomes known as one of the finest karate practitioners in the Ryukyus. As Mrs. Matsumura could reportedly lift a 60-kilo bag of rice with one hand, the reputation may have been deserved. On the other hand, it could be modern myth. For one thing, Matsumura Sokon was born in 1805. Since Asian men typically marry younger women, this means Mrs. Matsumura was likely no more than ten years old. For another, Okinawans usually associate female wrestling with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of aristocrats. Furthermore, left to their own devices, most Okinawan women take up dancing rather than karate or sumo. Finally, Nagamine Shoshin did not publish the stories upon which Kim based his accounts until June 1952, which was more than a half century after Matsumura’s death. So perhaps some exaggeration crept in over time.

1821-1829: With significant outside assistance, the Greeks free themselves from Ottoman Turkish rule. A heroine of the war was a Spetsiot woman named Lascarina Bouboulina, who commanded ships in battle against the Turks and Egyptians, and took pride in taking and discarding lovers like a man.

1822: In London, Martha Flaherty fights Peg Carey for a prize of £18. The fight, which started at 5:30 a.m., was won by Flaherty, whose training included drinking most of a pint of gin before the match. Female prizefighting was a function of the low prevailing wage rate for unskilled female labor. (Assuming she worked as a fur sewer or seamstress, Flaherty’s prize exceeded a year’s wages.) Attire included tight-fitting jackets, short petticoats, and Holland drawers. Wrestling, kicking, punching, and kneeing were allowed. Women with greater economic freedom usually preferred playing gentler games. For instance, although Eton did not play Harrow in cricket until 1805 -- Lord Byron was on the losing Harrovian side -- Miss S. Norcross of Surrey batted a century in 1788.

1829: The Swiss educator Phokian Clias publishes a popular physical education textbook called Kalisthenie. (The title came from a Greek word meaning “beauty” and “strength.”) Clias favored light to moderate exercise, and rejected ball games for women because he thought they required too much use of the shoulder and pectoral muscles.

About 1830: An Italian woman named Rosa Baglioni is described as perhaps the finest stage fencer in Germany.

1832: Warning that lack of exercise produced softness, debility, and unfitness, American educator Catherine Beecher publishes A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies. And what was the best exercise for a woman, according to Mrs. Beecher? Vigorous work with mop and wash tub. No liberation there. Then, in 1847, Lydia Mary Child, author of The Little Girl’s Own Book, became slightly more adventurous, saying that “skating, driving hoop, and other boyish sports may be practiced to great advantage by little girls provided they can be pursued within the enclosure of a garden or court; in the street, of course, they would be highly improper.” (Guttman, 1991, 91)

1847: Queen Victoria decides that women who served aboard British warships during the Napoleonic Wars would not receive the General Service Medal. At least three women applied, and many more were technically eligible. But they were all denied. Explained Admiral Thomas Byam Martin, “There were many women in the fleet equally useful, and [issuing awards to women] will leave the Army exposed to innumerable applications of the same nature.” (Stark, 1996, 80-81, fn. 66, 184)

About 1850: After catching her trying to steal their horses, Flathead Indians club to death a Blackfoot war chief called Running Eagle. As Blackfoot men frequently rode naked into battle as a way of showing that they had nothing to lose by fighting, it cannot be argued that Running Eagle masqueraded as a man. Instead, it seems to have been fairly common for childless Blackfoot women to participate in horse-stealing expeditions. Cross-dressing men (berdache) also accompanied Plains Indian military expeditions. The cross-dressers provided supernatural protection and the women did the cooking. The Indians were never as sexually obsessed as the European Americans, and ethnographic evidence suggests that most rapes attributed to the Indians were actually done by European or African Americans. (While tales of female sexual bondage to the Indians have been a staple of English and American literature, theater, and movies for 300 years, most Indian cultures require warriors to go through lengthy cleansing rituals before having sex with anyone, male or female. These rituals were taken seriously, too, as failure to accomplish them properly could cause a man to lose his war magic.)

1850: Theater manager A.H. Purdy introduces the spectacle of Amazons, or uniformed women performing close order drill, to the New York stage. Female drill teams remained popular with North American audiences for the next 150 years; just look at football half-time exercises. And even by mid-nineteenth century standards, most of these acts were tame entertainment. In 1852, for example, Hispanic women appeared on San Francisco stages wearing nothing but bolero jackets, garters, and slippers. In 1877, immigrant women dressed in spangled tights and swung on trapezes in Wyoming saloons. And in 1881, “Turkish dancers” appeared on Arizona stages wearing nothing but open vests and transparent pantaloons. Contemporary audiences even enjoyed transvestite performances so long as the cross-dressers kept their place. (Their popularity is suggested by noting that the practice of describing transvestite performers as dressing “in drag” dates to about 1870.) Explained Tom Barrett, a hoofer for Haverley’s Augmented Mastodon Minstrels, “Every show had a quartet, and most every show had a female impersonator… [who appeared during] the second part, what we usually called the big act. That was where some of the boys would put on wench dresses and they would play some fool sketch or travesty.” (Erdoes, 1985, 172) Of course, when the cross-dressers overstepped their limits (as did three male cancan dancers at the Bird Cage Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, shortly before the Shoot-out at the OK Corral), then they might be dragged offstage and beaten.

1854: In New York City, an Englishman named Harry Hill opens a concert saloon at 25 East Houston Street. Although prizefights were illegal in New York, Harry Hill’s nightly shows included boxing and wrestling acts. Most pugilists were male -- both William Muldoon and John L. Sullivan started at Harry Hill’s – but could be female. In 1876, for instance, Nell Saunders boxed (and beat) Rose Harland for the prize of a silver butter dish. A drawing published in the National Police Gazette on November 22, 1879, shows Harry Hill’s female boxers wearing T-shirts, knickers, and buttoned shoes, and showing a scandalous amount of arm and thigh. Harry Hill’s had two entrances. The main entrance was for men, who paid 25¢ admission. The side door was for women, who paid nothing. Hill’s drinks were over-priced and the air was a cloud of tobacco smoke. Other than that, Hill ran a respectable house, and his boxers circulated among the crowd to keep it that way. Reform politicians finally caused Harry Hill’s to close in 1886.

1857-1858: Forty-seven battalions of Bengali infantry and several independent principalities rebel against Britain’s Honourable East India Company. Although most rebels were men, the best-known rebel was a woman, the 25-year old Rani of Jhansi. She rode into battle armed and armored like a man, and died of wounds received near Gwalior in June 1858. The Rani’s counterpart on the British side, a woman whom the modern Indians revere much less, was an equally redoubtable Afghan widow from Bhopal named Sikander Begum.

1864: In volume I of a text called Principles of Biology, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer coins the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Spencer saw nature as a state of pitiless warfare with the elimination of the weak and unfit as its goal. People who did not read him closely soon applied this theory to social dynamics, and called the result Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was a very popular theory among white-collar workers whose masculinity (and jobs) were threatened by women and immigrants.

1865: General James Miranda Barry, the Inspector General of the British Army Medical Department, dies in London, and is discovered after death to have been female.

1870: In a world where clerks and secretaries were increasingly female, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Chains turns male clerks’ terror of what Henry James called “damnable feminization” into a fantastic story of fur-clad, whip-cracking women verbally and sexually abusing men. Besides creating a stock figure for subsequent pornographic fiction, Masoch’s conclusion retains some validity: “Whoever allows himself to be whipped deserves to be whipped.”

1875: Parisian street gangsters are reported shaving their heads and dressing in metal-studded leather jackets. The press responded by called such people “apaches.” Originally, this name referred to a Belgian pepperbox revolver that had a blade under its barrel and a knuckle-duster in its butt instead of the Athabascan people of the American Southwest, but after the Apache leader Geronimo became a household word the revolver was forgotten. Around 1890, the apache name also began to describe a sadomasochistic dance genre in which tattooed, scarred women fought knife or saber duels while stripped to their underclothes, or smiled while men slapped them around.

1878: J. R. Headington argues in the American Christian Review that female athletics represented a nine-step path to ruin. For example, a croquet party led to picnics, picnics led to dances, dances led to absence from church, absence from church led to immoral conduct, immoral conduct led to exclusion from church (no forgiveness here!), exclusion from church led to running away, running away led to poverty and discontent, poverty and discontent led to shame and disgrace, and shame and disgrace led to ruin. While many middle-class women heeded Headington’s advice, fewer upper-class women did, causing female athleticism, especially in golf, tennis, and cycling, to become increasingly common throughout the late nineteenth century.

1881: Charlotte Perkins Gilman of Providence, Rhode Island, becomes the United States’ first known female body-builder. Besides lifting weights, Gilman ran a mile a day and boasted of her ability to “vault and jump, go up a knotted rope, walk on my hands under a ladder, kick as high as my head, and revel in the flying rings.” By 1904, fencing was also popular with Rhode Island society women; instructors included Eleanor Baldwin Cass while students included Marion Fish and Natalie Wells.

1881: A Swedish woman named Martina Bergman-Osterberg becomes the Superintendent of Physical Education for London’s public schools. By 1886, she had trained 1,300 English schoolteachers in the methods of Swedish gymnastics. “I try to train my girls to help raise their own sex,” said Bergman-Osterberg, “and so accelerate the progress of the race.”

1884: The British scientist Sir Francis Galton tests 500 men and 270 women to see how fast they could punch. He found that the men averaged 18 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 29 feet per second, while the women averaged 13 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 20 feet per second. In other words, while some women could hit harder than the average man, most women could hit only 55% as hard.

1884: A 20-year old American woman named Etta Hattan adopts the stage name of Jaguarina, and bills herself as the “Ideal Amazon of the Age.” Whether Hattan was all of that is of course debatable, but she was certainly Amazon enough to defeat many men at mounted broadsword fencing during her 15-year professional career.

1887: Circus magnate P.T. Barnum hires wrestler Ed Decker, the Little Wonder from Vermont, as a sideshow attraction. Barnum offered to pay $100 to anyone who could pin Decker, and $50 to anyone who could avoid being pinned within three minutes. Despite weighing only 150 pounds and standing only 5’6” tall, Decker reportedly never lost to a paying customer. Of course, some matches were harder than others, and as a British sideshow boxer told a reporter year later, “I still pray, ‘Oh, Lord, let me win the easy way.’” Women also fought as booth boxers. According to Ron Taylor, a Welsh sideshow promoter of the 1960s, “My grandmother used to challenge all comers. She wore protectors on her chest, but she never needed them. Nobody she ever went up against could even come close to hitting her.” (Undated clippings in Joseph Svinth collection.) The most famous of these British fairground pugilists was probably Barbara Buttrick, who was the women’s fly and bantamweight boxing champion from 1950-1960. This said, not all the female pugilists were female. For instance, a carnival shill named Charles Edwards told A. J. Liebling about a turn-of-the-century Texas circus that had a woman stand in front of the tent promising $50 to any man who could stay three rounds with her. Once inside the dimly lit tent, the mark then found himself boxing a cross-dressing male look-alike.

1889: Female boxing becomes popular throughout the United States. Champions included Nellie Stewart of Norfolk, Virginia, Ann Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio, and Hattie Leslie of New York. The audiences were male, and the fighters sometimes stripped to their drawers like men. Savate fights in which kicking was allowed were also popular. Girls as young as 12 years headed the bills. Cuts were stitched on the spot, and the women often fought with broken noses, jaws, and teeth. There were occasionally matches between female boxers and female savate fighters. In 1902, for instance, a Mlle. Augagnier beat Miss Pinkney of England during such a bout. Pinkney was ahead during the first ninety minutes, but then Augagnier managed to kick Pinkney hard in the face, an advantage that she immediately used to send a powerful kick into Pinkney’s abdomen for the victory.

1889: Female wrestling becomes popular in France and England. Masha Poddubnaya, wife of Ivan Poddubny, claimed the women’s title. Said journalist Max Viterbo of a female wrestling match in the Rue Montmartre in 1903, “The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out.” As for the wrestlers, “They flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes -- hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet.” (Guttman, 1991, 99-100)

1891: Richard Kyle Fox and the National Police Gazette sponsor a women’s championship wrestling match in New York City. To prevent hair pulling, the women cut their hair short, and to keep everything “decent,” the women wore tights. (Not all matches were so prim, and in 1932, Frederick Van Wyck recollected some matches of his youth that were between “two ladies, with nothing but trunks on.”) (Gorn, 1986, 130) Fox’s wrestlers included Alice Williams and Sadie Morgan. The venue was Owney Geoghegan’s Bastille of the Bowery.

1895: Theodore Roosevelt hires the New York Police Department’s first female employee. The reason was that Minnie Kelly did more work for less money than did the two male secretaries she replaced. In 1896, Commissioner Roosevelt also gave uniforms and badges to the women who processed female prisoners at police stations. Excepting meter maids and secretaries, police departments used women mainly as matrons and vice detectives until 1968, when the Indianapolis police pioneered the use of female patrol officers.

1896: San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Pavilion becomes the first US boxing venue known to have sold reserved seats to women. (The occasion was a title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Sharkey, and Fitzsimmon’s wife Rose was notorious for sitting ringside and shouting advice to her husband.)


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