Monday, January 30, 2023

Prizefighting women of Victorian Britain struck forgotten blow for equality

Scores of female prizefighters in Victorian Britain faced down jeering hostility and struck a blow for women’s rights that has been overlooked.

That’s according to a study which reveals that, having been hailed as skilful boxers in the 18th century, women continued to enter the sport in numbers decades later despite opposition from the courts and press. Ignoring claims that they were bestial and unfeminine, or delicate crybabies, they challenged patriarchal power and fears around women’s emancipation.

Dr Grace Di Méo, the study’s author, said that during prizefighting’s heyday in the mid to late Georgian period, women fought each other at the same crowded events as champions such as “Gentleman” John Jackson and Daniel Mendoza. They also squared up against men, such as the “colonel” who posted an ad in The Times in 1789 seeking a rematch to “thrash” a woman who had defeated him.

Fears around public disorder forced prizefighting underground at the end of the Regency era, but it came back to the fore around the 1840s. This was prompted partly by legislation allowing rings to be built indoors and by new modernising rules.

Women’s boxing began in Britain but was very popular in the US by the early 20th century. The Bennett sisters, above, were among the best-known fighters. Photo: Library of Congress

However, attitudes had changed and boxing resonated with new Victorian ideas around masculinity and self-control. By contrast, Di Méo, a historian at the University of Southampton, said: “While women’s involvement in prizefighting was often accepted and celebrated in 18th century, it received far more stigmatisation in the Victorian period. Potentially this could be linked to two things. Firstly, fears around public morality and violent behaviour across the 19th century ⁠— what we call the ‘civilising process’. And, second, fears around women’s growing role in society.”

Even so, contrary to previous perceptions that boxing was by this time a man’s sport, Di Méo found abundant evidence of women in the fray.

In the first analysis of its kind, in the Journal of Victorian Culture, she identified 162 prize fights involving women between 1850 and 1900 in sources including newspapers, sporting magazines and memoirs. This may represent the tip of the iceberg. Di Méo said: “It’s likely there were more cases. One of the problems with studying the history of violence and crime is that there’s always such a large proportion of activity we don’t know about.”

For her paper, she examined a sample of 80 fights across the half-century, involving 166 women as fighters or seconds. A handful of the fights were between women and men, but Di Méo said that such contests appear to have been far less common than in earlier decades.

Although boxing wasn’t illegal, organised fights could be linked to offences such as disorderliness, riots, breach of the peace and assault. Whereas Georgian authorities appeared untroubled by women fighters, their successors took a dim view. Some 96 of the 166 women in the study came to the attention of the courts. Of these, 75 were tried in magistrates’ courts and three in the quarter sessions ⁠— which heard more serious cases. There were 32 convictions, leading to fines or imprisonment and 15 women were bound over to keep the peace. Of the women who managed to avoid proceedings, eight fought off policemen before they could be arrested.

It’s not surprising, then, that Di Méo found that 51 of the 80 fights she studied were held in fields or other relatively private spaces. Newspaper accounts suggest that women’s fights were intentionally held away from prying eyes. They were sometimes arranged outside working hours for the fighters’ and spectators’ convenience, as when two women of Middlesbrough agreed to meet before 5am at a quiet spot beside a river.

“These women were portrayed as domineering and challenging patriarchal power”

Dr Grace Di Méo

The women fighters included market traders, mill workers, domestic servants and 33 referred to only as “pugilists”. After one fight, friends of the boxers stayed behind to “attend to the toilette” of the loser so she could “afterwards return to work”. Di Méo surmises that many women fought solely for financial rewards, with prizes ranging from around a shilling to the considerable sum of £10. Nevertheless, she said that some boxed to maintain their fighting reputation or resolve disputes.

As for technique, Di Méo found that women sometimes fought “like men”, stripping to the waist and following etiquette such as shaking hands. Although some respected the “scientific” principles of pugilism, others were reported to have resorted to lowly tactics such as hair-pulling and biting. Two women were described as scratching at each other “like Kilkenny cats”.

Some women went through formal training, even if men’s accounts lampooned the process. In one article of 1886, a boxing instructor complained about “the universal inclination among the female sex to strike with her hand open”. Despite his best efforts to teach one pupil to close her fist, he claimed she had slapped him with such force that she hurt herself and “threw off her gloves and sat down to have a good cry”.

Di Méo found that many women fought on numerous occasions. One Yorkshirewomen, for example, had “a great reputation in the fighting line”, while another woman claimed she “had been engaged in a hundred fights” and never beaten. 

Still, any fame was local and ephemeral as Di Méo found no evidence of any Victorian women fighters becoming national celebrities. This was in contrast to the Georgian period, when Elizabeth Wilkinson, or Stokes, a working-class Londoner came to be known in the 1720s by titles such as the “European Championess”. Likewise, in 1795, Mary Ann Fielding and “a noted Jewess of Wentworth Road” fought with the champions Jackson and Mendoza as their respective seconds.

She said: “In the 18th century, they were often seen as dangerous women but also, sometimes, as glamorous and celebrated. The press would see them as having a lot of prowess. In 19th-century reporting, you start to see these women portrayed as uncivilised. They talk about women who are no longer part of the fairer sex and that they start to act like men. They used terms like ‘wild beasts’, ‘impulsive’ and ‘unrestrained’.

According to Di Méo, newspapers linked female prizefighters to fears around women’s broadening involvement in the workforce and public life. “It was seen as another way in which women were trying to dominate in a public space. That came through in the reporting, because these women started to be portrayed as domineering and challenging patriarchal power. I think that’s why part of why these women were sometimes defeminised ⁠— one police officer who went to the scene of fight stated that he ‘couldn’t tell whether they were women or men’.

During the 18th century, women prizefighters fought at the same events as champions such as Daniel Mendoza, left. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The authorities took a similar tone to journalists, with Sheffield magistrates describing the conduct of two boxing women as “scandalous and disgraceful to civilisation”, adding that they “could not behave much worse if they were on some cannibal island”. A police officer testified to the brutality of some women’s fights when he described how one combatant had “two black eyes from which she could scarcely see . . . [with] her face covered with bruises and her mouth so swollen that she could scarcely make herself understood.”

Commentators didn’t only deplore women fighters as wild and manly, but mocked some of them for supposed feminine frailties. An article of 1869, called “How Not To Fight”, described how: “There was no preliminary sparring or any other evidence of training in the semi-dignified art of self-defence, but almost instantly Molly made a lunge for the proboscis of the timid Sarah, but the latter dodged the blow and, screaming for help, jumped over one of the benches among the spectators.”

This was all in stark contrast to 18th-century commentary, such as when Fielding and her adversary in the 1795 clash were praised for their “great dexterity, intrepidity, and astonishingly well-conducted manoeuvres in the art of boxing.”

Criticism of female boxers was linked to wider fears around women’s broadening involvement in public life. Here, in a cartoon by Punch’s John Leech, an “impudent” young women is shown smoking while working as a bus conductress

When Victorian commentators acknowledged the prowess of women boxers, it was often to warn of alleged danger to the social order. Given the ascent of “Lady Boxers”, one reporter, in 1890, felt it was “greatly to be feared” that “the man who jostles against a lady on the street may find himself lying backwards through the plate-glass window of a shop.”

But did these women pose a real challenge to the status quo? Di Méo believes so. She said: “Physical power could be a representation of political power as well. That’s why this seemed to be potentially dangerous.”

While female boxers were identified with a broader movement of women entering new roles, the spectacle of their fights gave them a far-reaching influence. Di Méo said: “Women first got involved in boxing in Britain, then it spread to America where women’s prizefighting became very big in the early 1900s. That’s around the time when the British suffragettes started to use violence as a part of establishing power, with their use of martial arts and self-defence being termed ‘suffrajitsu’.

“For women in England and across the Atlantic, ritualised violence therefore became a means not only for challenging power hierarchies and exploring the world of sport but also, more broadly, for establishing the ‘new woman’ ideal of the late Victorian period.”

The image at the top of the article is from a late 19th-century cartoon depicting women learning to box. Photo: Alamy

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