After Roman Empire had declined, there are almost no indications of hand-to-hand combative women. Actually women might train in combative sports but since Christianity started spreading all over Europe almost all written source were dedicated to religious (rather than secular) matters. It’s known though that there were fierce customs among the Barbarian tribes which later on ruined Rome and women fought shoulder to shoulder with men. Tacitus testifies that Barbarian women (first of all in German tribes) participated in combat operations in the forefront and even led men to battles (like Boudicca). As we said, able-bodied German women were willingly selected for gladiatorial games. So, we can guess that women of those Barbarian tribes might practice in combat (with weapon or without it). But this is just a guess...
in Medieval armor
In fact, during the Medieval times there were just few indications that women participated in any physical activities (like impromptu sporadic wrestling, fighting and dueling). For instance, ancient Vikings cultivated the special wrestling style "Glima" (belt wrestling in special pants). This wrestling form is still popular among Iceland guys and girls. In that cruel time of wars and knight tournaments where just brute strength was in favor, there were no space for women in physical exercises. There were women warriors participated in warfare in early and late Middle Ages and armed duelists throughout the considered centuries who perhaps were skilled fencers (left). There are also stories about women combating in knight tournaments. You can read for instance the article "They preferred honest combat to idle gossips". However, the most of such facts go beyond the bounds of athletic combat activities.
In the Renaissance era brute strength was replaced by agility and finesse. Fencing became favorite sports of the aristocracy. Given the intensely aesthetic approach to sports, one might expect that Renaissance women, at least those of aristocracy, were welcomed into the world of sports as graceful and elegant participants. They were not. For instance, Giulliano de’ Medici (according to the book by Castiglione) said (regarding female physical exercises): "Since I may fashion this Lady as I please, not only would I not have her engage in such robust and strenuous manly exercises, but even those that are becoming to a woman. I would have her practice in a measured way and with that gentle delicacy that we have said befits her."
It happened that women challenged men to judicial duels and even won (see below). 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.
Medieval pictures (from left to right): female warrior (engraving on a 12 century manuscript); judicial duel in octagon with a "head start"; engraving "A lady overturning a knight"; painting "Female warrior with a sword"
In fact, in the early and late Medieval ages female warriors existed who participated in warfare. Besides, female duelists were not a rarity as well. Some of them were skillful fencers (see the picture at the left). Legends came from those times telling about ladies-knights who even fought in knight tournaments. However, the most of such facts do not exactly meet the term "Hand-to-hand combat".
"Ladies duel". Lithography
In the seventeen century women’s physical exercises are being spread over Europe and North America, starting with smock race (a footrace run by women in chemises, with a smock and a leg of mutton as prizes, was one of the few sports poor women participated in) and then – cricket. Women who worked alongside their men folks in the fields had to be physically equal to the task, and there were occasions for them to display their ability to lift, carry or throw (and possibly to wrestle). There are few evidences though of women competing in tests of pure strength before the eighteen century. In the beginning of the seventeenth century sculptors Barthelemy Prier and Johann Ulrich Hurdter made similar statues "Two Women Wrestling", which could reflect some interest to such activity at that old time.
All the sudden, in the eighteenth-century these "delicate creatures" who had been keeping out off any real physical exercise for centuries, burst into the most masculine and violent sport – pugilism in form of early bare-knuckle boxing which had been just established as a sport and a show by the famous maestro of pugilism, English epic hero, James Figg, who founded in 1714 the "Boxing Academy" in London where he taught pugilistic arts and held boxing bouts attended by high class persons including the king Charles II. Originally there were very few boxing rules, bouts ended just by submission and kicks and wrestling holds were used along with punches – bouts were quite brutal and bloody actions. Women’s boxing spread in England simultaneously with men’s boxing albeit not in famous venues and usually as prize fights. In addition to "men's technique" women used teeth, nails and hairpulling. Londoners first enjoyed the version of female physical prowess, much less pastoral than Spartan girl wrestling that was drawn by the famous artists.
Barthelemy Prieur (France, 1536-1611). Wrestling Nymphs.
ФFerdinando Tacca (Italian, 1619-1686/90). "Two Women Wrestling". Workshop of Ferdinando Tacca (1650-1690, Baroque).
Walters Art museum, Baltimor
Johann Ulrich Hurdter (Austria). "Wrestling Nymphs", 17th century,
Vienna Historical museum
Surprisingly, the vast major of testimonies about manifestation of female combative activities between the XVII and XIX centuries are about boxing. Those old regrets about Spartan girl wrestling started sounding irrelevant at the time when women fist fought. References to female pugilists occur with surprising frequency. The sources, mainly newspapers and travelers’ accounts, were seldom precise about the promoters of the bouts, but they were presumably men. It was unlikely that women’s opinions included this kind of entrepreneurship. The women who fought were almost certainly extremely poor and they were probably sexually disreputable as well. They had little to lose from what seems, in many instances, to have been a ritual of degradation similar to prostitutes’ races of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The female boxers, however, appear to have felt pride in their prowess rather than shame at the ignoble uses to which they were put.
Actually, prostitutes were always considered as the most pugnacious women - they easily engaged in fighting - for clients or for money. When the German traveler Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach visited London in 1710, he attended a boxing match and was told by a rowdy female spectator that she herself "had fought another female in the place without stays and in nothing but a shift. They had both fought stoutly and drawn blood, which was apparently no new sight in England". If it was a new sight, it soon became a familiar one. The "London Journal" for June 23, 1722, refers to a battle between "two of the feminine gender" who "maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators." After this description the advertisement appeared: "I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas; each woman holding half-a-crown in her hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle." Shortly after came the reply: "I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing on the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words – desiring home blows, and from her, no favor: she may expect a good thumping!" No doubt there were hordes who would have loved to have witnessed Elizabeth and Hannah belting seven bells out of each other, but the women were threatened with jail if they persisted in a public prize fight.
Could this be the first time boxing was driven underground? In the following year Martha Jones, a Billingsgate fish woman, challenged Wilkinson to fight. In the Wilkinson’s reply she claimed she had defeated Hyfield - she referred to having "beaten the Newgate Market basket woman". Besides, she declared herself the "City Championess". The bout took place "at the Boarded House in Marybon Fields", and again Wilkinson won. By 1728 Elizabeth Wilkinson had married Stokes who had a rival booth to James Figg on Islington Road in London. Elizabeth Stokes was calling herself "European Championess". Then she was challenged by an ass driver from Stoke Newington, Ann Field, at her husband’s booth in Islington road. The flavor of the times can be detected in the bravado of the two women who publicly challenged each other in the "Daily Post" for October 7, 1728. "Ann Field of Stoke Newington, an ass driver, announced herself ready to take on Elisabeth Stokes, "styled the European championess." The "championess" was more than willing to enter the ring: "I, Elisabeth Stokes, of the city of London, have not fought... since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 9 minutes, and gained a complete victory, which is six years ago; but as the famous Stoke Newington ass woman dares me to fight her for 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum. And doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses." Again, the formidable Elizabeth succeeded.
Paul Ballurian. "Prostitute duel"
Prize fighting that time was legal on the London stage and there was a definite distinction between trials of skills which involved weapons, usually swords and/or quarterstaffs and trials of manhood involving fists. Tony Gee in his research into the early history of prize fighting has revealed that in 1720s Elizabeth Stokes was one on the rare examples of a fighter who was equally proficient in both arenas and would engage in combat both with weapons and fists. He explains that: "Contrary to popular belief, no performer was required to engage in the two disciplines during the same contest, although boxing matches were often on the undercard of weapons confrontations. Elizabeth Stokes was primarily involved in trials of skill, in which she occasionally fought with her husband against other couples. However, in these mixed paired trials the women always appear to have competed only against each other and were never matched against the men. At no time, though, did pugilistic contests feature mixed pairs and in her fistic encounters Elizabeth Stokes was always billed individually." There is little doubt that women were involved in the prize ring during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, their fights are rarely recorded or taken seriously by the commentators writing at the time or by later historians.
Prize fighting in a London's street, 18th century.
"The ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, stripped to the waist, tied up their hair and fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail."
Then later, a forthcoming match was publicized with fanfare reminiscent of twentieth-century hype: "There has not been such a battle for these twenty years past, and as these two heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the spectators may expect abundance of diversion and satisfaction, from these female combatants." Martin Nogue’s "Voyages et Avantures", published in 1728, reported matches between girls and grown women "stripped to the waist." James Peller Malcolm’s "Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London" collected numerous references to female pugilists at Hockey in the Hole (a traditional venue for combat sports) and at James Figg’s famed "Amphitheatre" where "The Hibernian Heroine" entertained crowds.
In 1768 at the "Amphitheatre", "Bruising Peg", dressed in white stockings and Holland drawers, outclassed her opponent to the delight of several hundred spectators. In August 1792, two women fought at Chelmsford for three quarters of an hour with their husbands as seconds: "Being stripped, without caps, and their hair closely tied up, they set to, and for 45 minutes supported a most desperate conflict; when, although one of them was so dreadfully beat as to excite apprehension for her life, her husband possessed brutality enough still to prompt her to fight; but, through the interference of the spectators, they were separated". In April 1795 the most famous pugilists of the epoch, Mendoza and Jackson acted as seconds in a fight near the New Road in London between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and "a Jewess of Wentworth Street", won by the former in 80 (!) minutes. There were 70 knockdowns - and a prize of 11 guineas.
Female fistfight in 18th century. Perhaps, the left fighter is famous Elizabeth Stokes.
At that time, boxing prize bouts ran bare-knuckle.
A brutal bout between two women in 1794 was described as follows: "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 through having the sight of the other considerably obscured by a flux of blood which had then continued greatly for over forty minutes... not more than a place even as large as a penny-piece remained upon their bodies which was free of the most evident signs of the harshness of the struggle. 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 since many a shout was raised causing each female to mightily increase her effort."
An account of women boxers appears in "Famous Fights", published in 1803. In this the writer described an incident from the first half of the 19th Century which occurred outside "The Crown" in Cranbourne Alley, in London. "The Crown" was owned by Stunning Joe Banks, a well-known publican at the time and a close friend of the pugilist fraternity. The protagonists, Amy Russell and Julie Pyne, are described as ladies both well-known to the residents of St Giles and the police. During an argument, the ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, with Stunning Joe acting as the referee. "Then the two Amazons stripped to the waist, tied up their hair, chose seconds of their own sex, and then set-to stunning Joe himself being referee. For 20 minutes they fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Once or twice, forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail, but Joe interfered, and savage though they were, the two females (we cannot call them women) restrained their natural inclination to tear and claw, and standing up like men punched each other with their fists till the blood ran in streams down their faces and breasts."
Poster from "Police Gazette", 19th century
William Hickey, a Hogarthian rake fond of eighteen-century low life, wrote memoirs that include a vivid account of a ferocious fight at Wetherby’s in Drury Lane: "The whole room was in an uproar, men and women promiscuously mounted upon chairs, tables and benches, in order to see a sort of general conflict carrying on upon the floor. Two she-devils, for they scarce had a human appearance, were engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their backs. For several minutes, not a creature interfered between them, or seemed to care a straw what mishap they might do each other, and the contest went on with unabated fury." The fight may have been simply a bar-room brawl, but the "London Times" continued to publish accounts on regular matches conducted under the same rules as men’s fights. The tone of the reports changed, however, early in the nineteen century when pugilism began to seem intolerable to middle-class sensibilities. When Betty Dyson, a vendor of sprats, met Mary Mahoney, a market woman, "The Times" (March 24, 1807) commented that "the Amazons fought for over forty minutes and were both hideously disfigured by hard blows.
It was a sight that "afforded the most disgust." The "Sporting Magazine" of December 1811 had also carried a report of what it declared to be "Amazonian boxing". Two women, Molly Flower and Nanny Gent, fought to settle a family dispute for the price of a pint of gin and a new shawl. Flower won after a 20-minute struggle, and the writer was impressed: "Both were good hitters, and they were worse hit the head than is witnessed amongst many second-rate pugilists. Nanny jibbed a bit in the twelfth round and gave in from a dexterous hit down in the following round." Another match, which took place in 1822, fifteen years before Victoria’s ascent to the throne, signaled a sea-changed in British manners. It pitted Martha Flaharty against Peg Carey. As was often the case, the promoters of the bout counted on English-Irish antagonisms to increase the crowd’s excitement. The social class of the two participants was obvious: they fought for a prize of nearly eighteen pounds; they began at 5:30 am, before the fighters and the spectators had to be at work; and Flaharty consumed half a pint of gin before she stepped into the ring. Perhaps the gin deadened the pain of the blows she received. She won despite severe injuries.
Charles Williams. The Boxing Baroness, 1819.
The etching depicts a fashionably dressed woman in full pugilistic stance. It portrays an actual boxer, Lady Barrymore, who was married to the Seventh Earl Barrymore. Both the Earl and his wife were good amateur boxers.
Actually, bare-knuckle prize fist-fighting was very widespread entertainment in Britain. Participation in the Prize Ring was open to all social classes and to the both genders, although those who needed to fight for living far outnumbered those who fought for fun of love (especially it applied to women). Many of the fist fights were also organized as a way to settle disputes between two people – the most such fighters belonged to the working class, and occasionally some were women. Fighting women were often more vicious than the men - they would often strip each other naked, scratching and hitting until they were completely covered in blood. Since early the XVIII century (when female pugilism and boxing started having the notable history) until the Victorian era female prize fist-fighting was quite popular in the lower-class of Great Britain. Irish female fighters were considered as the toughest ones - the frequency of references to Irish women in the prize ring was remarkable. The versifier James Bramston wrote on "Figg's new Theatre" where "cocks and bulls and Irish women fight."
Boxing training in London in 1880s
As we mentioned, it was the sport more close to kickboxing with elements of wrestling, rather than boxing. According to the rules women would punch, use their feet and knees kicking to all parts of their opponents’ body. They also could maul, scratch and throw. This resulted in serious injury for either or both fighters. Boxing fights at that time were bloody and bare-knuckled contests fought to the end among working class women, thought to be "naturally" tougher and more brutish than the delicate and docile Victorian ladies. Sometimes female boxers were stripped to the waist. The sight of a vampish, aggressive woman, sweaty, bloody and often bare breasted, provided an exciting display of animality and passion rarely seen in the sexually repressed Victorian woman. While this undoubtedly provided sexual titillation for the male audience, it also powerfully denies popularly held beliefs about the natural passivity, gentleness or weakness of the female sex.
In the middle of XIX century, women’s prize fighting was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Because there were relatively few women competitors, exhibition matches were often against men and sometimes women were the victors. More usually, women were seriously injured; at least one may even have been killed. On-the-spot stitching of large cuts was sometimes carried out so that a bout could continue, and women fought on with broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth and swollen eyes.
Such wild and brutal fistfights until submission became better regulated and organized after Marques of Queensberry in 1867 introduced new boxing rules based on the ideas of John Graham Chambers. The most important novelty was mandatory wearing boxing gloves. Many parameters of a boxing match were determined: sizes of the ring, weight of the gloves, introduction of the ten counts in the event of a knockdown, three minutes in duration followed by a one-minute interval. The Chambers-Queensberry regulations made boxing bouts shorter and more humane.
In the XIX century, the famous British scientist Sir Francis Galton tested 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, most women could hit only 55% as hard as men. Yet some women could hit harder than the average man, so, in theory, the strongest woman can beat an average man.
What motivated the male and female spectators is hard to say. As was the case with the smock races, it is impossible to disengage male and female voyeurism from the desire to place a bet, to admire raw courage, or just to mingle with the crowd.
Rodin. "Furious women"
Aristide Maillol. "Nude wrestlers"
Women fought with blades as well as fists and since the XVIII century we have some confident testimonies about that. Cesar de Saussure commented in 1725 on a fencing match between an Englishwoman and an Irishwoman, probably the same combat as the one reported in "Mist’s Journal" for November 20, 1725. Female fencers, however, were not nearly as popular as boxers. Among the most famous female strongwomen was Ada Menken born in 1835 in the USA. Despite she was not, strictly speaking, an athlete, she was followed by women who were. Among them was Etta Hattan, who took the stage name of Jaguarina and was billed as the "Ideal Amazon of the Age". From 1884, when she was twenty, to the end of the century, Jaguarina challenged and defeated numerous men in mounted broadsword contests. When she overwhelmed Sergeant Owen Davis in 1897, the humiliated champion of San Francisco's military post charged and threatened the hapless referee. He was neither the first nor the last man to find defeat by a woman intolerable.
Historians differ over the degree to which feminine debility was admired by Victorian bourgeoisie in its heyday. There is agreement that physical frailty has never been much prized by the men and women of the lower classes. In England and America, Irish girls worked hard as domestics and as factory hands. Black women, slave and free alike, performed heavy agricultural tasks of the sort that European peasants women had done for centuries. Pride of the strength doubtless led more than one female worker not only to protest against allegations of weakness but also to test her strength and her speed against others, including physical combative contest, just as men did. The editor of the magazine "Physical culture" Bernarr McFadden proclaimed in the June 1899 issue that "can be no beauty without fine muscles".
The sight of British female pugilists stripped or not, surprised French visitors, although women’s combats were also known in France. A seventeen-century Breton ballad relates the story of a peasant girl who challenged a young nobleman to a wrestling match and defeated him (and won his heart), Through nineteen-century France, in circuses, in music-halls, and at fairs, French women of the working class boxed and wrestled. Although eighteen century London had been the preferred venue for female pugilists, it was from London to Paris that Lydia Harris fled in 1872 when the ferocity of her blows injured her opponent and brought in the police. Some forty years later, Francis Carco’s novel, "Jesus la Caille" (1914), narrated the exploits of female boxers at the famed Moulin Rouge, where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had once sketched his beloved Jeanne Avril.
Henry Cham. "Wrestlers from Rouen in 1868"
Inspired by spectacles of women wrestling, artists and sculptors (especially French ones) drew female wrestling scenes. A Damier-like drawing by Amadee Sharles Henry Cham, a count of Noe, published in 1848 (at the left), caricatured a pair of tubby female wrestlers as they pulled and tugged at each other before a crowd of grinning male spectators. Twenty years later, a certain Couturier, who might have been any one of several artists of that name, visited Elysee-Monmartre and sketched two bare-breasted young wrestlers. Another minor artist, Henri Habriel Ibels, portrayed in 1895 two of the era’s grappling women in "Lutteuses" (wrestlers). Five years later, a young man who was to become one of the century greatest sculptors, Aristide Maillol, produced a bronze statue with the same title "Nude wrestlers". Emmanuel Croise exhibited in 1903 "Les Jeunes Filles de Sparte" (Young girls of Sparta), a conventionally sylvan scene with no fewer than three sets of wrestling adolescents.
Couturier. Wrestling in Elisee Montmartre in 1889
(from Sonntag's collection)
The novelist Frantz Reichel, writing in the sporting magazine "Le Velo" (Bike) in 1899, published a verbal sketch of the wrestlers at the "Salle du Noveau Concert" (New concert Hall). Although he claimed to have been initially skeptical of this for of entertainment, he was quickly converted: "Supple and feline, the female wrestlers combine the brutality of their holds with an elegance... that pleases and captivates." The atmosphere of one of these bouts can be sensed in the vivid words of sports journalist Max Viterbo. He recalled a 1903 visit to a dive ("boui-boui") on Rue Montmartre.
Although there was music to mollify the waiting crowd, "the room was wild with impatience. 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... a lubricious gleam came to the eyes of old gentlemen when two furious women flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes – hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth.
Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet". The classical reference to the modern bacchantes does not do much to elevate the tone of the passage. In fact, women often aimed to strip each other which would considered as an indication of the victory. French novelist Emil Zola in his "L'Assommoir" portrayed a fight between two laundresses which was stopped when one of them managed to expose the thighs of her opponent.
Jean Veber. Nude wrestling
(from Sonntag's collection)
If the English assumed that they had to visit Paris for such a sight, they were mistaken. In rural England, women wrestled in barns and in back rooms for a handful of coins tossed upon a plate. On at least one occasion, witnessed by the French painter Jean Veber, the wrestlers were naked and the spectators at the degrading scene were predominantly female.
Wrestling was very popular form of shows on European fairs and markets. Sometimes women participated is such matches (against women and mostly against men). In a photograph taken at a fair at Neuilly in 1905, a crowd of men and women are gathered before an outdoor stage to stare at a group of wrestlers. From the stage, in the second row, almost unnoticed, a beefy female glares her challenges. As a matter of fact, circus wrestling which was really flourished in early the XX century was grown from those fair and market wrestling.
Very common and popular on fairs and markets was wrestling against volunteers (often for prize).
On the two pictures of the German painter Heinrich Zille female wrestlers are drawn who challenge men to wrestle. The caricature (left) shows the moment when a self-confident tall man just came to the stage for belt wrestling against a plump female wrestler for the prize of 100 Marks (a lot of money that time!). Since the price is very substantial the owners were quite confident in the victory of their robust lady (or they knew the contest would be fake). Otherwise, they wouldn't risk losing a lot of money that time. The other Zille’s painting (right) represents the culmination of such a belt wrestling match in a booth when a vigorous man (his clothing proves that he came out from the audience) from the audience is about throwing his female opponent down. Actually, challenging volunteers for wrestling (rarer for boxing) against hired wrestlers or fighters, especially female ones was a culmination of many fairground sights. On the cartoon at right below the host announces: "This youngster will wrestle the lady! Wrrrestling! Wrrrestling!!!" In order to guarantee troupe's wrestlers from defeat as well as to prevent the troupe's women from contesting with strong men, challenges were often announced on behalf of a group of wrestlers with women among them (women were especially advertised). Then show hosts decided who should compete against a volunteer. If a volunteer was a woman she had very little chance to stand against skillful and strong fair female wrestlers. Experienced fairground hosts infallibly recognized weak and unskillful male volunteers and ordered out women against them. If a woman managed to defeat a man the audience's joy was limitless, the show had more publicity and entrepreneurs – more money.
Challenging volunteers for wrestling (rarer for boxing) against hired wrestlers or fighters, especially female ones was a culmination of many fairground sights. In order to guarantee troupe's wrestlers from defeat as well as to prevent the troupe's women from contesting with strong men, challenges were often announced on behalf of a group of wrestlers with women among them (women were especially advertised). Then show hosts decided who should compete against a volunteer. If a volunteer was a woman she had very little chance to stand against skillful and strong fair female wrestlers. Experienced fairground hosts infallibly recognized weak and unskillful male volunteers and ordered out women against them. If a woman managed to defeat a man the audience's joy was limitless, the show had more publicity and entrepreneurs – more money.
Dudley Sargent, one of the most influential leaders in physical education in the United States in the XIX century had high-minded deprecation of female boxers and wrestlers. But does this really mean American women actually punched and grappled as British and French women did? Polite opinion hoped they did not. As early as 1793, "The Lady’s magazine" dismissed American women who sought a greater measure of equality with gibes about "Mesdames Humphries and Mendoza" (two of the era’s most famous pugilists). In 1852, a writer in "DeBow’s Review" asked sarcastically if the ladies were "ready for boxing match". The ladies were not, but American women of the lower classes were hardly exemplars of restrained gentility. In New York’s slum-dweller neighborhoods the women "lit into each other, usually with their bare hands – scratching, pummeling and tearing each other’s clothes." On these occasions, a ring of spectators quickly gathered. It was not long before entrepreneurs realized that gawkers might as well be mulcted for the sight of female pugilism as for the oddities exhibited in the "Barnum American Museum". On March 16, 1876, an excited crowd assembled to watch Nell Saunders outbox Rose Harland at Hill’s Theater in New York (a well-known pugilistic venue). Saunders won a silver butter dish (low left picture).
In his "Recollection of an old New Yorker" (1932), Frederick Van Wyck looked back on his youth and recalled how he escaped from his upper-class home in order to spend "a night with Mr. Norris and his attractions." The attractions offered by Mr. Norris, who owned a livery stable, included a match between two female boxers stripped to waist. On the whole, however, American accounts of female pugilism have few references to half-naked combat and few apologetic allusions to Greek antiquity. No "modernes bacchantes" in American prize rings!
Honoring Nell Saunders
Saunders gets the prize while knocked out Rose Harland is still unconcious.
Actually, female boxing and wrestling history in America starts in 1877 when the editor of the New York magazine "The National Police Gazette" Richard Fox began seriously covering sports – a significant percentage of the athletes featured by Fox were female professionals who made their living by giving exhibitions of the "masculine" sports of boxing, wrestling and weightlifting in the saloons and vaudeville houses of the late nineteen century.
These women were not simply entertainers as the first women’s boxing article (October 12, 1878), amply demonstrates: "Miss Burke’s nose was red and spreading over her face while her left jaw and forehead showed the effects of the hard blows of her opponents... Miss Wells, too, showed that she had been pretty roughly handled; her lip was bleeding and her nose was also damaged." Other reports in the Gazette indicate that women boxers utilized regular training regimens to improve their pugilistic skills and physical fitness. Anna Lewis, one of the most famous boxers of the 1880s, for instance, hired a male trainer and used dumbbells, Indian clubs and sandbags to improve her strength and hitting power. Professional strongwomen such as Minerva (Josephine Blatt) regularly tested their physical capabilities in competitions with other strongwomen and in public exhibitions where they attempted to set new lifting records.
Police Gazette advertisement
of New York Sporty Hall, 1879
As it did for male athletes, the "Police Gazette" not only gave coverage for female athletes, it also assisted in setting up matches between women, carried their challenges in its "Pugilistic News" column and even offered championship belts to women. Minerva was given, on separate occasion, both a championship belt and a loving cup to commemorate her physical achievements. This message is unclear about what competition Minerva participated in to get the belt. Another article "A Legacy of Strength" that mentioned that contest didn’t specify its type either: "In 1893 Minerva received widespread national attention following her victory over another professional strongwoman, "Victorine", and her acceptance of a belt – donated by the "Police Gazette" - recognizing her as the "world’s strongest woman." Since it’s a question of "Pugilistic News" (which included wrestling news as well), we can guess they had a boxing or wrestling match in addition to a power contest. By 1891, the Police gazette was ready to sponsor a "wrestling championship match" between two female wrestlers. Dressed in tights, with short hair (to prevent pulling), Miss Alice Williams took on Miss Sadie Morgan in the "Owney Geoghegan’s Bastille of the Bowery". At right you see a fragment of the "New York Sporty Hall" advertisement in the "Police Gazette" as of November 22, 1879.
Alice Williams against Sadie Morgan. "Police Gazette", 1891".
There is no question that Richard Fox and the "National Police Gazette" were an integral part of the development of the professional women boxers, wrestlers and strongwomen of the 1880s and 1890s. Though many upperclass Victorians may have viewed these athletic activities as unfeminine and even demeaning, these female athletes were seen as competent, professionals and, in many ways, the equal of their male peers.
It is important when looking at these women, however, to keep in mind how limited their professional options truly were. The fifteen to twenty-five dollars a week women boxers earned as places such as Harry Hill’s Saloon in New York City, no doubt proved a powerful incentive for women whose primary employment options were back-breaking factory work or prostitutions. Furthermore, these women knew that if they became good enough, as Minerva did, that there was a realistic chance that they could earn even greater sums by defying the traditional ideals of Victorian womanhood.
By the 1890s boxing shows proprietors were advertising "Women Champion of the World" or "Lady Boxing Attraction" as part of the show. The Fox’s alumni, Anna Lewis (58kg, born in Washington, D C. in ~ 1860) initiated the first female boxing bout for the "world champion title". Anna challenged any woman to box with her for the champion title. Hattie Stewart was the one who volunteered to stand against Anna and on April 14, 1884 she defeated her becoming the first known female "World Boxing Champion". She was born in Norfolk, Virginia (USA). She participated in numerous female boxing matches in theaters and varieties shows all over the country being a champion for three years. On March 9, 1882 Hattie Stewart billed as the Champion Lady Pugilist, outclassed her opponent Mabel Hatfield in three rounds in a theater in Norfolk, Virginia. She was beaten by 22-year-old Cecil Richards (59 kg) on August 29, 1887, in Spokane, Washington. Cecil was born in Chicago, Illinois. She began her pugilistic career at the age of 14. After her victory, she defended her title 87 times for three years until she lost to Hattie Leslie (56 kg) in the bout on September 6, 1890, in Detroit, Michigan. Hattie was born in Buffalo. The information about first boxing championess is quite contradictory. According to another source the first properly advertised Championship probably took place in 1886. According to the published information, neither of the contestants had ever been beaten in a fight, and together they had accumulated 76 knockouts. On this occasion, Hattie Leslie was battered around the ring, knocked down for a count of eight, had her nose broken and blood drawn and one eye practically closed, but then, miraculously, turned things around and became the first officially recorded "Female World Champion." The last XIX century female boxing champion seems to be Dolly Adams (64kg/165cm) who beat Hattie Leslie on June 3, 1894, in New York. The world champion title in boxing didn't mean too much though. Even now we have a few champions in each boxing category (according to different versions). But in the era when there was no world federations at all any person would be declared a champion, especially if she or he had a good publicity.
Physical parameters of the first female boxing champions testify there were no heavyweights or middleweights among them.
There was another bizarre boxing form popular among men and women in the rural American "Wild West" - so-called "donkey boxing". The goal of the contest was not knocking an opponent down as in boxing but to knocking out of the saddle.
One of the most famous women boxers at the turn of the century was Irish Polly Burns, a female challenger in a carnival boxing booth. Catherine Morley in her article "My Grandmother Was a Boxer" told the story of Polly Burns, who became the "Women's World Boxing Champion in 1900".
Polly Fairclough was born in 1881 and according to the family legend she was a professional boxer in 1890s who worked on the fairground booths owned by her family. At the age of 16, Polly went into the family business and became a "strongwoman", famous as "the lady who held up donkeys with her teeth". Her connection with the family of pugilists resulted in Polly becoming initiated into her new family's business and according to her granddaughter, Polly strapped on a pair of gloves and entered the boxing ring. Since 16 she was fighting in booths at fairs, and mostly against men. As a matter of fact, she was not unique in London; even Faircloughs had other strongwomen and female athletes on the front of boxing shows. Polly Fairclough and other female boxers were recalled by Harry Hiley in the "World's Fair" newspaper in 1953: "I should like to say that I saw Polly Fairclough, a very clever boxer, at Burton Statute Fair many years ago... I remember also a lady boxer who used to appear with her husband, they called him Mush Collings." In 1900 Polly went to Paris to take on the US women's champion, Texas Mamie Donovan. The American failed to show up, and Polly was duly declared the Women's World Champion. "She was one of the few women at the time, who fought men," said Morley "She made thousands out of it." According to the documentary
Polly Burns had an exhibition match with Jack Johnson (then heavyweight champion of the world) in Dublin. Also, she was supposed to have fought men at the "National Sporting Club" in London, and one of her opponents there became her second husband. Unfortunately, besides her granddaughter testimony there is not a lot of hard evidence about Burns' boxing career, as very few contemporary accounts of her fights survive.
Polly Fairclough (Burns) with other boxers
in front of her boxing booth, about 1900
As a matter of fact, female boxing was not rare or unique event in Britain at that time. For instance, a group of lady boxers participated at the World's Fair, held in the "Royal Agricultural Hall" in Islington in December 1893. Besides, tantalizing details from regional newspaper reports refer to lady boxers at "Hull fair".
Boxing matches at this time were held on fairgrounds, in the open air, or venues associated with popular entertainment. It therefore appears likely that many of the women fighters were hired mostly for their entertainment and novelty value and more rarely for their pugilistic ability. This is reflected the story that appeared on the "Women Boxing Archive Network". In 1892 Hessie Donahue, a large and formidable American matron (the wife of a boxing trainer) performed in the show with the legendary heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. The idea of these actions was that towards the end of the performance, when John had dealt with all comers he would announce that he had been challenged by a woman. As the crowd buzzed with this astonishing news, Hessie would step into the ring in her full prize fighting fig out of blouse, skirt, bloomers, long stockings and boxing gloves. She would then trade a few playful blows with Sullivan until the curtain came down. But one night this jolly tableau got rather out of hand. Sullivan threw a punch to Hessie's face that was far harder than he intended. Riled by this departure from the script, the bruiser in bloomers let rip with a right to Sullivan's jaw and the champion dropped unconscious to the floor where he stayed for a disturbingly long time. The crowd roared its appreciation and the punch, with suitable theatrical touches, was kept as part of the act.
The Donahue-Sullivan story illustrated the fact that the main venues for boxing matches involving women on both sides of Atlantic appear to be either theatres of fairground booths. Interesting evidence for this can also be found in the Thomas Edison film "Comedy Set-to" produced in 1898.
This 50 foot film shows Belle Gordon and her male opponent Billy Curtis in one of their cleverest boxing acts. The film is described in the following way in "War extra" in May 1898: "Miss Belle Gordon holds the "Police Gazette" medal as "Champion Lady Bag Puncher". The bout is a combination of popular leads and blows used by pugilists, and the grace and ease with which Miss Gordon does a cross-under or throws an upper cut or an under cut at Billy Curtis is so quick that one wishes the round was three times longer. Belle is a frisky little lady as ever donned a boxing outfit, shows sleeves and low necked waist makes a very jaunty costume." Curtis-Gordon show appear to have been a popular vaudeville act which was held regularly on the American stage between 1896 and early 1900s. Edison continued the theme of this film when in 1901 he recorded a film representing a demonstrating boxing match between the sisters Gordon. Bessie and Minnie Gordon claimed to accomplish the first real female boxing act. In the early years of motion pictures, there was such a demand for motion pictures that Edison's company filmed all sorts of things. Although the women where dressed as regular women, they definitely showed real boxing skills.
These types of exhibitions - vaudeville shows were very popular on the fairground and in the music halls. For instance, the "Royal Agricultural Hall" in London provided an ideal arena for such exhibitions in 1890s. Reports from "Islington Gazette" and "The Era" reveal that female pugilists were part of the attractions on offer. Unfortunately, they are rarely named and it is not until the turn of the century that the identity of these women is revealed in the reports and advertising material surrounding the events.
Wrestling women. Etude by Renoir
Women's wrestling in the United States can trace its roots to the great American burlesque theatre at the turn of the century. Acts where women would box or wrestle other women, or men, could be seen in burlesque theaters across the country. Around the decade of 1880 women wrestlers existed, although rarely on the national level, being limited often to act in their regional environment.
According to Nat Fleischer from "Ring Magazine” dated 1966; "Going over a list of old-timers I find Nellie Reville, Sis Howard, Kitty Ammerman, May Edwards, Texas Mamie, the Cleve sisters, Lyde Sheeron, Babe Kelly, Cora Williams, Elsie Burns and Helen Hildreth standing out" in boxing or wrestling. Many acts featured both wrestling and boxing. Helen Hildreth and her partner Jack Atkinson had an act where Hildreth mainly boxed while Texas Mamie's act included both wrestling and boxing. The oldest known American female wrestler was Grace Hemindinger. She was a formidable woman having weight 125 kg and height 185 cm. Between 1875 and 1878 he competed against men and she was recognized as one of the best wrestlers of her epoch. After leaving the wrestling she worked as a strength performer in a circus, although she was forced to disguise as a man because the circus promoters thought that public wouldn’t believe to such a strong woman and for that reason wouldn’t attend the spectacles.
"The Edison Manufacturing Company" was able to shoot "Gordon Sisters Boxing" after Edison and his employee William Dickson had spent years inventing the motion picture camera.
In 1892 the powerful woman appeared, Josie Wahlford, who became unbeatable wrestler at least by the end of the century. She was the first really capable wrestler to emerge from the burlesque circuit. Wahlford stood 5 feet 8 inches (173cm) and weighed 165lbs (75kg). Josie was powerful. She placed herself in the hands of Charley Blatt, who came from Hoboken and was a strongman more than a wrestler. The Professor taught Josie all the tricks and she became invincible. Josie Wahlford seemed to be the first generally accepted champion among the fair wrestlers of the USA. Wahlford soon carved her way through the limited opposition available in those days and at age 24 began touring the vaudeville circuit as a strong-woman act. She called herself Minerva and would lift 700 pounds a foot off the floor and toy with 100-pound dumb bells.She also performed with other spectacles of strength. Being unbeatable in wrestling in her century, Josie was second to the great female wrestler of the next generation, Laura Bennett. At the end of Josie’s athletic career, when she was 36, she tried to return to the wrestling, twice challenging the champion of 1900s. But in the both matches Josie was defeated by Laura Bennett (see the Part III).
Miniature "Wrestling women"
In 1890 a spectacle was presented in London, in which a female wrestler, blond called Nellie, offered 5 pounds to any man out of the public that managed to defeat her in a wrestling match. In 1899 and 1900 female wrestling matches were held in "Folies Bergeres" in Paris.
Laura Nugent. "Boxers"
Actually, unlike female boxing bouts, there are very few manifestations though of competitive women wrestling matches - the most of wrestling matches between women and mixed ones were more or less staged in the considered period of time. If consider female wrestling, it was very difficult to separate real competitions and spectacles. Since the late of XIX century up until the late of the XX century women wrestling developed at first as spectacular actions in circuses and theaters and later took a form of "professional wrestling", which then became the exceptionally popular and profitable show.
As we can see from the above said, women fought, boxed and wrestled even in those times when female sports was not known and women did not have elementary social rights.
Old private match on the carpet. Artwork by artist Danny (bruce710)