The fraught history of women's boxing

Tom Costello August 28, 2020

In the aftermath of the thrilling rematch between undisputed lightweight champion Katie Tyler and former champion Delphine Persoon, we take a look at the history of women’s boxing.

Last Saturday’s fight went the whole distance and it proved to be arguably the best of the night. Persoon was relentless in her attack. I had never seen a woman box with such sustained ferocity and her style of pressure boxing would make any coach proud.

However, Taylor proved herself to be technically superior. Her defence was impenetrable, bobbing and weaving before striking efficiently, just when it mattered most. It was really a beautiful match on both parts.

I felt that both these women were a class above every other male boxer (and indeed every other boxer, in general) on the card that night. As one commentator remarked, ‘this isn’t women’s boxing, this is boxing‘.

Anthony Joshua vs Oleksandr Usyk | Official Fight Trailer

The first women who boxed

It wasn’t always easy for women to compete in boxing matches and it was even harder for them to be respected as legitimate opponents. Women have literally had to fight for their right to compete.

By Bain News Service – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs via Wiki Commons

The history of women’s boxing can be traced back to the 18th century, when Elizabeth Wilkinson fought in London. A bare-knuckle boxing champion, she is considered to be the world’s first female boxer.

The first women’s boxing club was formed by Professor Andrew Newton in London as late as 1955. At the time, the mere idea of women boxing still elicited fierce opposition from men, who believed it to be “unladylike”.

The history of women’s boxing is intertwined with politics

Exhibition matches between female boxers were widely banned by local councils across London at the beginning of the 20th century. The Mayor of Hackney wrote in 1925, ‘I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men’.

Even the Home Secretary at the time voiced his opposition, saying ‘the legislature never imagined that such a disgraceful exhibition would have been staged in this country’.

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), via Wiki Commons

This is, of course, an extremely misogynistic stance, in keeping with the gendered views of early 20th century England. To insist that a woman cannot be a boxer is to suggest that she not only cannot be a fighter, she cannot be an athlete either.

We know this wasn’t true of the first women in boxing. Annie Newton, billed as the best female boxer in England during the 1920s, could reportedly punch a bag 900 times in a row without missing one shot.

Women’s boxing at the Olympics

Women’s boxing first appeared at the Olympics in a demonstration bout in 1904, but didn’t become an official event until more than a century later, at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

After decades of resistance, the British Amateur Boxing Association finally sanctioned its first ever women’s boxing competition in 1997, with the first European Cup for Women taking place in 1999 and the first World Championship for Women following in 2001.

Despite a long history of women’s boxing in the UK, the British Boxing Board of Control refused to grant licenses to women all the way up to 1998.

The significance of Taylor v Persoon 2

The history of women’s boxing has been fraught with misogyny and intertwined with political and social interests. Because it was only recognised and respected as legitimate in the UK as late as 1998, fights like ‘Taylor vs Persoon 2’ are a giant step forward for the sport and for female athletes in general.

Crossing over to mixed martial arts, women’s participation in the UFC proved to be a huge success and led to the rise of legendary fighters such as Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes.

If a woman sees her calling as boxing or mixed martial arts then she should be given the respect of being allowed to train and compete. Pioneering female athletes such as Taylor and Persoon have more than proven that.

 

Have something to tell us about this article?
Let us know