single combat



Women have the same rights to box as men

Shortened version of the article by Rachel Morley in API (Australian Public Intellectual Network)

LeRoy Neiman. Woman Boxer
LeRoy Neiman. Woman Boxer


Female boxers "The fight is universal and has nothing to do with gender while it might be masculine, it is not about men. And if masculinity is so easy to imitate by way of two women boxing authentically, rather than flailingly, or as a joke, is masculinity so inviolate?" (Mischa Merz)

"The image of the phallus as power is widespread to the point of near-universality, all the way from tribal and early Greek fertility symbols to the language of pornography, where the penis is endlessly described as a weapon, a tool, a source of terrifying power." (Richard Dyer)

"I am totally opposed to womens boxing. A woman is a petite person, not to be knocked about." (Arthur Tunstall)

"If boxing must exist, then it is crucial that women have the same rights to the sport as men, just as it is crucial that women have the same access to education, the right to vote and so on." (Rachel Morley)

When Diana Guzman walks into the boxing gym near the housing estate in which she lives to ask a trainer for lessons on how to box, she is immediately dismissed with the recommendation she try aerobics instead. In the dank wetness of the sweaty basement studio, amid the grunts of a group of young men working out, the male trainers message to the teenage girl is clear: Diana is female and, therefore, can never participate in the male and inherently masculine arena of boxing. Diana Guzman She is, by the very definition of her femaleness, bound by the baggage of her biology. Like veteran detractor Arthur Tunstall in the Age some four years ago, the trainer reinforces in the young girls psyche the commonly held notion that a woman is not to be knocked about. At least, that is, when she is standing visible within the parameters of the ring, and not beyond the invisible walls of the all too often bloodied domestic front.

This scene from Girlfight (2000) - Karyn Kusamas cinematic portrayal of a young womans fight to fight - is currently being played out across boxing rings throughout the world as women boxers fight for the recognition and redefinition of their sport. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New South Wales, where it remains illegal for women to participate in either an amateur or professional match, or in any contest, display or exhibition of boxing skills.

As an issue, the subject of womens boxing is regarded as of one of the sports longest grudge matches, played out between the States lawmakers and burgeoning female fighter lobby groups. Born out of a successful attempt by the Wran Labor Government in 1984 to stop a major kickboxing event at Sydney Town Hall, the NSW "Boxing and Wrestling Control Act" (1986) was first amended after the government decided it was not in the interest of good manners or decorum for women to fight. As then Minister for Sport, Michael Cleary maintained in his 1986 address to parliament, the spectacle of women attacking each other was simply not acceptable to most people and women who persisted in fighting risked becoming freaks in some sort of Roman circus disguised as a sporting contest. Some fifteen years or so later, section 62 (D) of the Act (1986) still rules against a womans right to fight in the ring. Women who flout the law risk hefty fines and possible gaol sentences. Their promoters can face double the penalty. Meanwhile, the woman boxers male counterpart continues to fight for unprecedented sums of money, sponsorship deals, endorsement packages and career advancement.

Entrenched in sexual discrimination, individual liberty and the notion of free will, the issue of womens boxing in NSW remains a contemporary problem in the States legislation on leisure, sport and what women are lawfully allowed to do with their bodies. As it currently stands, NSW is the only state or territory in Australia that legally bans women from participating in a sport that, for many, is still seen as one of the last posts in which to celebrate male pride.

As a matter of fact, a loophole in the current legislation allows women to kickbox and box in NSW providing the activity is classified as martial arts and not the sports true names. However, female athletes and their trainers remain disadvantaged by the NSW Governments sanctioned sexual discrimination simply because the government deems their bodies to be inappropriate to the sport. Due to the ban, they are unable to gain sponsorship, endorsement, regular matches or funded training opportunities, all of which are available - as part of the accession in sporting achievement - to their male counterparts.

Holly Ferneley The ban also ensures that women boxers do not receive media exposure, as evidenced by a recent Fox Sports decision to withdraw its planned coverage of the womens undercard fight of the Anthony Mundine - Lester Ellis bout in Melbourne on July 15, 2002. Holly Ferneley was due to fight Edith Ellis; however, Ferneley pulled out of the fight after learning of the broadcasters decision to cancel the coverage, claiming she would not support the promotion of the station if it did not support her.

Responding to the episode, Fox Sports programming director Craig Dobbs said the station did not benefit from showing womens boxing. He said: what we find with womens boxing is that it receives negative feedback from a whole raft of people [including] women and people who dont like boxing full-stop.

While stories of women working the ring are only just beginning to surface in mainstream culture, women have been boxing professionally for at least 100 years. Womens boxing was performed as a demonstration sport at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, Missouri. Yet, despite the history, the public image of women in the ring remains closer to a perverted parody of masculinity than to the athleticism of such fighters as Anthony Mundine or Mike Tyson. Unlike a man who means business when he dons the gloves, a woman who stands ready to punch - whether de-feminized by the bulk of her body or de-sexualized by her shadowy gender is generally cause for ridicule; a transgression of the natural order of things and a vulgar attempt to be male.

In this paper, as part of an overall examination of the politics informing womens boxing, I return to questions that dominated the early years of feminism and which continue to surface in the boxing debate. That is, what is it about women who take up activities traditionally associated with violence, aggression and power that so disrupts the boxing brigade, politicians and conservatives? What is it about so-called aggressive women dancing in the ring - all fired up and bloody-eyed - that unsettles some male and female spectators? Certainly, with regard to injuries it is no more dangerous for women than men, so what is it about womens bodies that make them unfit to box?

A specific politic informing this inquiry is, of course, the assignment of gender-driven physical specificity and the way in which this limits and controls corporeal experience(s). The work of Michel Foucault is important here; in particular, his notion that the body is not an historical given but, rather, an object of physical and psychical coding, enhanced by a specific set of cultural rules and constituted by what he terms power/knowledge relations. By this, Foucault is referring to the way in which sex-specific behaviors and patterns are grafted into and upon human experiences to form notions of masculinity and femininity; thus regulating what society deems possible and natural for male and female bodies to both do and appear. This, in a social realization, works to deny some bodies from particular performative acts, with codes dictating patterns of normal and extra-ordinary behavior. While this material has been well documented with regard to broad feminist objectives, I want to consider these gender-coded inscriptions and the way in which they are used to ensure women remain excluded from masculine spaces such as boxing.

I begin with an interrogation of critical readings of the female boxer and an outline of the bio-political history of the female body with regard to the issue of sexual equality versus sexual difference as it applies here, before turning back to the specifics of the NSW-based ban and its effects on the States female boxers.

The Theatre of the Flesh: Reading Male and Female Bodies

While boxing is considered to be an abhorrent act of violence by some, it is fair to say that most spectators gain pleasure from watching a boxing match. An entirely physical interaction between two people of the same sex, the sport can be viewed as a somewhat erotic display, with its homoerotic undertones and intense emotions that - combined with dance, courtship and spatiality - come to symbolize a disrobing of social mores in favour of an innate expression of physicality and desire. If one sees dancing as an erotic activity for couples, then so too is boxing. It is bodies against bodies - sweaty bodies at that - inviting a stickiness of smell and the expulsion of raw emotions, unfettered by restraint or social confinement, to invoke a notion of the body at its most primal peak.

Beauty boxers The only space women have traditionally held in boxing is that of the passive, smiling, G-string clad, high-heeled (and thus demobilized) girl who parades around and around the ring clutching a series of cards to display the round number of the match. The round girl, as she is known, is like the boxer; part of the entertainment and spectacle of the theatre of the flesh, providing contrasting feminine relief from the intensely masculine and sweaty performance that takes place within the ropes. Her sexual performance and attractiveness is asserted over her physical capabilities, emphasized by her heels and bikini and her deferred involvement from the action within. She stands as object, in stark contrast to the male fighters, positioned in time and space to uphold the cultural dualism between man/woman. The round girl is a series of contrasts: softness against hardness, vulnerability against strength and passivity against activity.

The male boxer at his finest represents the epitome of masculinity. He is Man. He is a thoroughbred, primed for prowess and power, a sporting body that actively engages in a spectacle that involves, not surrounds him. While an object in so far as he is watched, he also occupies the position of subject through his participation and the expression of his desires and, indeed, his subjective self, as one-half of the nucleus of the bout. While he may be ridiculed outside of the arena for his social interactions or his level of intelligence (a notion that seems to have developed on account of the massive blows the boxer receives to the head) he is, in the ring, the master of his body and - providing he is not knocked out - of his own destiny. The female boxer, by contrast, is seen as a perversion of bodily subjectivity or as part of an erotic performance navigated by ridicule or fetishism. Either way, by participating in an activity reserved for the expression of masculinity, the female boxer violates the stereotype of Woman and thus cannot be taken seriously; she is a parody, like a man in high-heels, a monstrous cartoon of the real and masculine activity that occurs within the ring. While a male boxers biology is defined purely by his power and strength, the female boxers is contrasted almost entirely by her lack; that is her lack of phallus, and therefore her assumed lack of power, masculinity, force, aggression and so on. On the cultural front, the female boxer is literally boxed in by her biology, namely her capabilities for reproduction - essentialized from the point of view of man and the notion that the female represents Nature. For if we are to believe the traditions passed down to women through the history of patriarchal discourse, it is in maternity that woman fulfills her psychological destiny; it is her natural "calling", since her whole organic structure is adapted for the perpetuation of the species.

In contemporary terminology, the sexual division between men and women is partly defined by the notion that aggression is male and passivity is female, two notions that lend themselves to a policing, and as a consequence, disciplining of bodies. However, as boxer Mischa merz and psychologist Lynne Segal argue, women can be, and indeed some women are, as aggressive and violent in their behavior as men. It is equally true that from an early age, women are made aware of obstacles to, and the confinement of, their corporeal specificity and the expression of their own desires, based on the basic modalities of feminine body comportment.

Women are also subjected to greater social condemnation of habits specifically defined as male - swearing, shouting, excessive drinking and physical fighting - in or outside of the ring. Men, by contrast, are almost expected to engage in these ritualistic aggressive displays (creating alienation among those men not attracted to these pursuits). For the woman who boxes these pressures have come to influence patriarchal dictates on the natural order of feminine behavior, working to preclude her from any activity outside of what is deemed normal within these parameters. Thus, femininity becomes a weapon against lived experience, confining a womans body to particular modalities that enforce restrictions on certain activities by virtue of what society deems possible for women to do. This has been charted in the sexual difference debate, which I now consider.

A Perverse Parody

Female boxing In discussions on boxing, a number of arguments have surfaced which recall what is commonly known as the sexual equality versus sexual difference debate. Put differently, there will always exist, both in and out of academic circles, the tendency to debate what is and is not natural for men and women to do, based on the differences of the male and female anatomy and the ways in which femininity and masculinity are encoded upon sexed bodies.

One response to the differential powers and capacities of men and women in the context of public life is to claim that, comparatively, women are biologically disadvantaged compared to men, namely through the restrictions (interestingly not the possibilities) of womens capacities for reproduction. As de Beauvoir wrote in her groundbreaking text:

Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance.

Working from this analysis, it can appear critical to demand a further degendering of reproductive differences between the sexes through advances in technology and medical science. But, as Moira Gatens affirms in Power, Bodies and Difference (1992), this style of social reform achieves little in the way of breaking down gender stereotypes, concurrently leaving the rectification of the remaining determinations of womens situation to the increase in control over nature; that is biology, thus castigating women to the status of transcended male subjects. As critics of de Beauvoir were quick to point out, to leave the emancipation of women in the hands of science - traditionally a male domain in its own right - will not solve the problem of womens bodies. Rather, it can only serve to reinforce the social and cultural problems of womens bodies, confining them to the omni-present status of Woman and further entrenching them in the oppressive dualistic structure dominated by Man.

An alternate response, then, to the question of corporeal specificity is to argue that women should not aspire to be like men, a claim made by many who oppose womens place in boxing, whether feminists or from other political persuasions. On the one hand, this argument can be specifically masculine and almost misogynous if used inappropriately, representing a deep hatred of womens bodies and a fear of losing phallic power by way of penetrating historical differences between men and women. Certainly as one of the male characters in Girlfight says, on learning he must fight Diana, this will be the end of me. I will be ridiculed and made a laughing stock. On the other hand, and in response to this negative outlook, there is the notion of reversed corporeal specificity used by feminists who advocate the affirmation and celebration of womens bodies - rather than the denigration - for their ability to recreate and nurture. In its extreme form, this view argues that the specific capacities and specialties of womens bodies create an essential difference between the sexes, where women can be seen as essentially peaceful, caring and nurturing and not attracted to brutal sports such as boxing. In all, these theorists argue - whether in pro- or anti-feminist voices - that there is a sexual difference between men and women that should be retained, and not eroded by the likes of scientific and technological intervention.

Beauty boxers Yet both of the responses outlined above cannot and do not escape the paradigm which understands the body as a given biological entity which either has or does not have particular a historical characteristics and capacities. Like the very augments which augment a biological mapping of what mens and womens bodies do and can do, such notions confine the sexes to certain corporeal specificities, thus limiting their physical experiences.28 To this extent then, the sexual equality versus sexual difference debate remains steeped in the dualistic and binary frameworks of body/mind, nature/culture.

An alternative view of bodies and power is to refuse the dualistic structures that articulate the issue of sexual difference - an approach that is often applied by queer theorists and which I believe is crucial to this debate. Specifically, it is to return to the Foucauldian approach that claims a history of the body in a bid to examine and understand the ways in which diet, environment, lifestyle and activities vary historically, and the way in which this impacts on capacities, desires and physical form. In this way, we can see that the body of a woman who occupies the role of lover/wife/mother/homemaker is invested with certain desires and wants that are different from say that of an Olympic athlete or in this instance, a boxer. In this case it is clear, as Gatens affirms, that biological commonality fails to account for the specificity of two bodies that are subject to change, not only at the physical level, but also at the level of form, capacities and desires. She says: 'It is important to create the means of articulating the historical realities of sexual difference without thereby reifying these differences. Rather what is required is an account of the ways in which the typical spheres of movement of men and women and their respective activities construct and recreate particular kinds of body to perform a particular kind of task.'

If gender categories are not tied to sex, either causally or expressively, then gender is a kind of social assignation that can penetrate beyond the binary limits imposed by the dichotomies dividing the sexes. As Judith Butler states in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), gender would be a kind of cultural/corporeal action [requiring] a new vocabulary that institutes and proliferates present principles of various kinds, re-significable and expansive categories that resist both the binary and substantializing grammatical restrictions of gender.

It is a view that is utopian in vision but which can mark the start of the passageway toward re-definitions of both womens and mens corporeal liberation. In paving the way to fight, women are conquering spaces from which they have been traditionally excluded. Boxing is one of the last altars of the forced cult of the celebration of maleness and whether female fighters think of their pursuit in this manner (most of them do not) or simply just as an enjoyable physical pursuit, womens boxing can touch upon Foucaults pursuit of bodies defined not by history but, rather, by presence.

Fighting Back: Reclaiming Womens Bodies. Final Blows

Fighting back Womens exclusion from boxing is largely based on archaic notions of what constitutes female and male identities and, thus, feminine and masculine behaviors. Certainly, the NSW law, as it stands, fails to take account of the historical evolution of both male and female bodies and the evolving and diverse assignation of traditional modes of gendered experience, compounded by the two-way sex-distinction. The battle remains one of corporeal specificity; that is, socially constructed notions of what women (and men) should and should not do with their bodies, governed and regulated primarily by an overwhelming majority of male parliamentarians. The question for women boxers determined to stay in the game is not why? but instead, as I come to ask myself in this paper, why not?

This paper has followed a general objective to open the debate on womens exclusion from the boxing arena and to provide suggestions about some of the historical and contemporary considerations that govern the boxing ban in NSW. I do not pretend that it is an exhaustive discussion of the issues at hand - far from it. But what I will say is that the fight, as it were, to keep women either in or out of the ring is not confined solely to the parameters of sexual equality versus sexual difference but points instead to another issue - the inherent crisis of femininity and masculinity. It seems to me that boxing is a direct challenge to what is still defined as male/female bodily experience. I am not suggesting boxing is a feminist pursuit. I for one can but barely understand the physical attraction. But, as is evident in this latest debate over the public rights of women, it is here again that we see the State playing a decisive role in regulating a hegemonic heterosexual masculinity. Womens exclusion from the sport can only be read as an exclusion from full citizenship.

The challenge for the boxer then, will be not to conform and play the game by the rules of machismo and the patriarchal brandings of womens bodies, clad in G-strings and brief bras. If women are to gain any equal footing at all in this sport, it must be on their own terms and not on those of the old boys who run the show. Without this, the question will forever be asked: are these women trying to gain ground in a mans world by taking control of a mans vehicle of power or, are they simply cartooning mens games?

If boxing must exist, then it is crucial that women have the same rights to the sport as men, just as it is crucial that women have the same access to education, the right to vote and so on. Without this, womens bodies remain steeped in the dichotomies that, it would seem, continue to shape our world.

Originally published in McWilliam, Stephenson and Thompson (eds), Voicing Dissent: Journal of Australian Studies no 76, St Lucia, UQP, 2002.

Rachel Morley

A former journalist, Rachel Morley is now completing her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her thesis is a critical/creative project which explores auto/biographical writing and the politics of self-representation using the case study of poets Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and niece who wrote collaboratively under the pen name of 'Michael Field'. Rachel's forthcoming papers include ficto-critical essays in Colloquy and The Journal of Lesbian Studies and an article on Helen Demidenko which has been selected for an international collection on contemporary women writers.

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