Even though women’s boxing has yet to burst into the mainstream, the sport has a long and illustrious history of female participation.
Gender equality in boxing took a long time to develop before slowly progressing forward. In the early 1700s, raw British female fighters like Elizabeth Wilkinson engaged in bare-chested, bare-knuckle brawls with other women (and even males). No “rounds,” “weight classes,” or “low blows” were used. Essentially, there were no rules at all. Women competed in deadly prize bouts, mixed-gender boxing, and even cudgel or tiny sword combat.
Boxing did not establish respectability and appeal in Europe until the early 1800s, even though it was outlawed for most of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, this occurred at the same time when the British Evangelical Christian movement characterized women’s participation in sports as an abomination. Female athletes had been relegated to sideshow “performances” and nightclub acts, but they now existed to wow men on a sensationalist level.
Women’s boxing as a sport thus remained mostly unnoticed – at least until recently. The inaugural women’s world championship match in the United States took place in New York in 1888. Hattie Leslie and Alice Leary were involved in a vicious fight that resulted in black eyes for both of them. They were also subjected to unrelenting mockery and abuse from the media. The New York Herald demonized and objectified the fighters in its account of the event.
Because of the controversy, both Leary and Leslie (the champion), Leslie’s husband, and several other men were arrested and charged. The charges included “aiding and abetting a prize fight” — even though such a battle between males was rather usual.
Although only as a demonstration battle, women’s boxing made its Olympic debut at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis.
For years, female fighters fought for equality in the sport. Caroline Svendsen became the first woman to be granted a boxing license in the United States in 1975.
On the other hand, women’s boxing still lacks the respect that men’s boxing does, as well as the popularity of modern mixed martial arts fights. Women’s boxing was only reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2012 by the Olympic Committee.
Here’s to all the women who have stepped into the ring in the past and now.
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