Fight Like a Girl a brief history of women in boxing

“You’ve started boxing?! But what about your pretty face!” This is the dubious and patronizing reaction I’ve been receiving as of late when explaining my newfound hobby. In need of a replacement for running in the dark as the winter night’s draw in, I found myself in a hot and stuffy boxing gym. The gender divide was obvious from the second I walked through the doors. I spied only a couple of women and they were working hard pounding away at the stiff dangling boxing bags. They’re focused, in control and strong - I want to be just like them. 

The history of women and professional boxing is a short and contentious account. Although women have been boxing as long as the sport has existed, fights reported in the public domain are mere fresh facts highlighting the vast discrepancies between male and female boxing. Shockingly, the British Boxing Board of Control refused female boxers licenses until 1998 when boxer Jane Couch challenged them on grounds of sexual discrimination. Supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission the ruling was overturned and Couch became the first licensed female boxer in the UK. It wasn’t until in 2001, the first Women’s World Championship organised by AIBA took place - 25 years after the men’s equivalent in 1974. Probably the most disappointing fact of all which highlights the prevalence of inequality in this contact sport, initially introduced in the 1904 Summer Olympics, only featured women in the last games of 2012!

Illustrations: Julia Scheele

After beating three-time world champion, China’s Ren Cancan, Team GB’s very own Nicola Adams swept up the title of being The World’s First Women’s Boxing gold medalist. What a title indeed! Adams is no stranger to such ‘firsts’ and the trajectory for a gold rush was clear with her impressive background. It’s sad that still to this day there is “first” and “women” in the same sentence and dotted throughout this article. But, Adams is one of the leading ladies in women’s boxing pushing the sport forward. Only able to squeeze in a second during her hectic training schedule I was able to get her thoughts on this matter; "Having the title of the first Olympian female boxing champion is an incredible honour. There is still a long way to go for women in boxing and if I can inspire other women to get involved to move the gender divide forward, I'll be incredibly proud. Equality in sport is a necessity!" 

Cathy Brown was the second woman to acquire a professional boxing license in the UK before going on to win both the English and European titles and rank number three in the World. Brown, who is a pioneer for female boxing, has been victim to such stereotyping and fights not just for her own titles but for equality too. She believes that promoters have had a detrimental influence on allowing women in the ring due to debates on their sporting ability and the public’s interest. To counter this Brown had to make agreements and personal sacrifices with small promoters that she would sell enough tickets to cover her opponent’s costs. Although this has changed since there still isn’t enough support for women to turn professional. “Female Amateur boxing has great support nowadays in comparison to how it was,” Brown explains. “There has been an amazing influx of women fighting in the amateur circuit but there is no incentive for them to turn professional. This is mainly because it's extremely hard work, not just the training or commitment but with the lack of support and the battle outside the ring trying to get into the ring; this was my biggest battle.”

To improve female participation Brown boils it down to the need for “more support from professional boxing promoters and sponsors. Along with the necessity of governing bodies of both amateur and professional boxing work together to help the transition of status and also, perception. Though sport coverage still lags behind in equal reporting however there is a simple remedy of; more reporting equals more acceptance. Boxing in general may have a bad name with the common misconception of the association with boxing and violence. “Boxing is not about aggression, in fact on the contrary, it is about having a skill set and it is a thinking sport. You have to out think, out move, out speed and out manoeuvre your opponent, the more calm and relaxed you are the more clarity you have to see and react to your opponent, once you lose your temper you have lost the fight.”

Gender stereotyping is a crushing element to both men and women in all areas of life and it is particularly detrimental to participation in sports deemed masculine. The Lotto funded ‘This Girl Can’ Campaign has even incorporated boxing into their encouraging sporting messages. They introduce young boxer Skyla with her stating, "I always wear pink, because I’m girly but I’m not at the same time". Regardless of gender, individuals should be allowed to feel both feminine and masculine as they see fit and sports should not be governed by such ideals. Although boxing for women has positively evolved in the last couple of decades there is evidently a very long way to go in the name of equality. Seeing the amazing work by Brown and Adams and other great boxers like Katie Taylor and even young Skyla, has inspired me to step in the ring. Hopefully such campaigns will motivate others too, as I know I’m (right) hooked!

“Boxing is not about aggression, in fact on the contrary, it is about having a skill set and it is a thinking sport.”

illustrations: Julia Scheele

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