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Women on boxing shows

Boxing and women

Crowd Control: Boxing Spectatorship and Social order in Weimar Germany

From the "Histories of Leisure" edited by Rudy Koshar

By Erik Jensen



Русская версия


Boxing's appeal transcended not only class and social lines, but also gender lines. Women composed part of every boxing crowd in the 1920s, especially at the big professional fights that had established themselves as staples of the social scene. This female presence in the audience not only challenged traditional notions of proper entertainment for women, but also made boxing itself more socially acceptable. If female fans formed a tiny minority in the early years of the Weimar Republic, their numbers increased over the course of the decade. Alliebe im reliable attendance figures categorized by sex do not exist, some early accounts noted that only a few women ventured into the boxing arena. A 1921 article by Rumpelstilzchen stated: "is not for delicate sensitivities. Here and there one sees a gangster with his diminutive girlfriend, but men fill the rows of benches almost exclusively". Another of his columns, two years later, also noted the low number of women in attendance and inferred that the brutal nature of the sport frightened many women away: "has to say it again: it [boxing] is truly a brutal craft. For every 100 male spectators there is one woman"

Other articles from the early 1920s, however, registered larger contingents of female fans, and this attendance grew as boxing gained in both popularity and acceptability. A 1922 article from Sport im Bild, for instance, highlighted the presence of women at a boxing match:

And the eternally feminine! They are also here, some as coolly non-engaged spectators, because one simply must be there, some enthusiastic, excited to the tips of their fingers, lustful, inflamed for the slender one or the blond or the strong one. They are entirely absorbed and never take an eye off the fighters once they have … figured out what boxing is really about.

This article advanced several explanations as to why women attended boxing matches, including social pressure and the attractiveness of the boxers, referred to in the article solely by their physical attributes. According to this reporter, even the enthusiastic female fans arrived at an understanding of boxing only belatedly, and the overall tone implied that few women truly understood the sport's strategy or appreciated its technique considering it simply as brawling.

The suspicion that women watched boxing for reasons other than a high regard for the sport lingered. A 1928 article in "Sport und Sonne", for example, reported that even the female custodial staff at the arena snuck a glimpse of the proceedings in the center ring. The reporter suggested, however, that they watched the fight more for the social cachet that attending such a popular and socially event conferred upon them than out of any true enthusiasm for the sport: "was able to push myself between a small herd of cleaning women, who also wanted to catch a glimpse… [and] want to be able to tell their neighbors the next morning that they were there". In a 1925 article in "Boxsport", Erwin Petzall analyzed the kinds of women who attended boxing. The wives of boxers, managers, and fans constituted one category, a reflection of the fact that many women attended boxing matches with a male escort, and usually at his behest. Indeed, an ideal evening for upperclass couples often included a visit to the fights. In the 1928 Fritz Lang film, Spione (Spies), the two main characters enjoyed a date at the fights, along with table after table of similarly elegant couples, all of them dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.

Petzall underscored the presence of many independent women, as well, those who attended either on their own or in the company of other women. Actresses and artists constituted a notable part of this category, a further indication of the popularity of boxing within the cultural circles of 1920s Berlin. Even workingclass women, though, occasionally went to the fights alone. A 1924 column described a scene in which a woman spent all of her money on a ticket to a boxing match and, upon learning that her small boy could not accompany her into the arena, sent the boy home alone while she hurried inside for an evening of boxing.

In his final category, Petzall placed those women who attended partly out of an interest in the proceedings, but equally out of sexual attraction for the boxers. "Sexual moments naturally also play a role with these women, who are moved by the athletic physiques of the protagonists". Many commentators invoked this image of the impassioned woman when describing or explaining female boxing spectatorship in the 1920s. Fritz Giese argued that women were subconsciously attracted to the hyper-masculinity of boxers, to their brute strength and raw force:

The women perhaps do not always know it, but the strong man and the boxer will always be the favorites of the unconscious feminine drive … The primitive instinct of the woman to detect love in masculine brutality… this and more influence the unconscious, primitive drive of the female spectators … and so women collect around the heroes like flies around a piece of sugar.

Giese's pseudo-anthropological explanation for female boxing spectatorship hearkened back to the "-instinct" of pre-historic women, but he simultaneously highlighted a very modern phenomenon, that of sexually liberated women objectifying and eroticizing the male body.

Liebe im Ring The motif of the woman enamored of boxers surfaced again and again in the popular literature and cinema of the period, as the Weimar media industry updated its staple romance lines with a popular and timely twist. Films, such as "Die Boxerbraut" (The Boxer's Bride), "Liebe im Ring" (Love in the Ring), and Knockout (not released until 1934) focused on the erotic attraction of the leading woman to a boxer. In "Die Boxerbraut", the heroine became so obsessed with boxing that her fiancae decided to pose as a professional boxer to ensure her affections. In the short story, "und der Boxkampf" ("and the Boxing bout"), the protagonist fell in love with a boxer she had seen in a painting. Driven by repeated dreams, she attended her first boxing match, where the presence of the two contenders (her "heroes") dazzled her. Both the film and the short story clearly presented their main characters as "Women" sporting bobbed hair and exuding an air of confidence and independence. For both of these stories, boxing represented not just modernity, but also a masculine world that these women breached, even co-opted. Interestingly, though, in both cases this cooptation proved only temporary, as the women ultimately recoiled from the violence and rawness of the sport.

As a flip-side to these story-lines of women's naive infatuation with boxers, another sub-genre of novels, films, and short stories took as its central plot device the seductive cabaret singer, actress, or dancer who lured the boxer away from his pugilistic calling or sapped him of his strength. In the 1926 short story, "und der Boxer" ("and the Boxer"), for example, a young seductress's advances caused an up-and-coming boxer to neglect his training and jeopardize his fighting career. The title itself underscored the feminine danger, alluding as it did to the biblical story of Delilah, who cut Samson's hair and rendered him impotent. The 1930 film "Liebe im Ring", starring Max Schmeling (great German professional heavyweight), presented a talented boxer who fell under the sway of a sultry society woman and nearly lost an important fight as a consequence. In the film, Schmeling actually sang about the need for a boxer to remove himself from the influence of women:

The heart of a boxer knows only one love: the battle for victory above all else … And once his heart beats for a woman, passionately and loudly: the heart of a boxer must forget everything; otherwise the next guy will knock him out.

Boxing commentators, and boxers themselves, regularly asserted that one could not box at peak level and have a relationship with a woman at the same time. After the boxer Rudi Wagener began courting a film starlet in 1924, Rumpelstilzchen predicted, "will gradually cause a weakening of his muscles!" In a 1927 article from "Sport und Sonne", the American champion Gene Tunney argued that women only divert the boxer's attention and weaken his resolve: "all of his thoughts and everything within him is not concentrated on his retaining his crown … he will necessarily make mistakes and will probably be dethroned". Many male spectators feared that women would inhibit the crowd, as well as the boxers. A letter published in "Boxsport" in 1925 declared, "want to scream and yell to our heart's content at boxing matches and not be restrained out of respect for the weaker sex"

According to some reports, though, these male spectators need not have expressed concern for the sensibilities of the "sex". In fact, some writers described the female spectators as more enthusiastic about the violent aspects of the sport than their male colleagues. In the same 1929 "Arbeitersport" article that criticized the blood-thirstiness of boxing crowds, Fritz Wildung noted the significant numbers of equally exuberant women in the arenas. In "und der Boxkampf" even as the protagonist grew increasingly repulsed by the match, she noticed other women in the crowd enjoying themselves immensely. "She saw the men's expressions, contorted with excitement and passion, and in the eyes of the women an expression that she had seen flare up only in Madrid at the bullfights".

In fact, commentators during the Weimar Republic noted a small, but vocal contingent of women at most matches who reveled in the violent displays and exhibited precisely the same behavior that boxing sophisticates had come to associate with working-class men and "spectatorship". Rumpelstilzchen wrote that many women, by nature, enjoyed a bloody fight, rather than feeling repelled by it:

The forehead of one boxer has been beaten and the area around the left eyebrow ripped open. His opponent already has a shoulder that was beaten bloody by the second round. A pair of young women on the main floor, block A, lick their lips in deep satisfaction. This is nature, not decadence or perversion … I cannot understand how men, who certainly know this cruel feline instinct, can drag their girls with them to a boxing match at the Sport Palace.

Here, Rumpelstilzchen contradicted some of his earlier comments from the 1921 article regarding women, boxing and "sensitivities" Instead, now he argued against women attending boxing matches not because it would offend their natures, but precisely the opposite - because it would arouse their natures and appeal to their basest desires. Contrary to the standard assumption that women would reject boxing after witnessing its true nature, the article feared that women would embrace it.

Other commentators also saw something in the female nature that drew women to the violent aspects of the sport. In a 1928 article in "Sport und Sonne", boxing elicited the repressed, violence-loving side of its female spectators. Just as in the short story "und der Boxkampf" the article invoked the bestial image of a bull fight:

The women… Honor the women… but not at a boxing match. There the superwoman steels her gaze; nature reveals itself as cruel, cold and lascivious … ‘Oh God, Hans, look, he's bleeding!!’ I look at [the woman who just said that] … I suspect that this woman has onlyone regret: that we still do not have bullfights here.

The woman described in this article wore an expensive fur and the latest fashions and clearly came from the upper class. Interestingly, reports generally characterized the women who attended fights as middle or upper class, whereas many of these same reports continued to portray the majority of the male spectators as working or lower-middle class. Commentators who decried male behavior at boxing matches attributed it primarily to the crowd's working-class origins. Descriptions of improper female spectatorship, however, attributed it to the nature of women themselves.

Bellows. Boxing
This is on George Bellows' opinion, what might happen if women sit too close to the ring. Painting, 1924

Due to the inhibitions and superstitions surrounding women's attendance and to the fear that the physical aggressiveness of the sport would either upset or arouse them, boxing associations in the 1920s often sought to restrict women's presence at fights. During a meeting of the "Boxsport-Behorde Deutschlands" (German Boxing Authority) in 1927, the council reminded officials not to seat women ringside at any fights. The minutes mentioned no specific reason for this reassertion of existing policy, but it probably aimed both at safeguarding boxing from the presumed deleterious effect of women on the performances of the fighters, and at protecting the sensibilities of women from the violent scenes visible at such close proximity to the ring.

A very few boxing commentators, however, took the opposite stance. Rather than seeking to restrict women's access to boxing matches, they sought to increase it. Erwin Petzall, in his analysis of women at the fights, pushed for greater female attendance, arguing that this would encourage better behavior on the part of the men and revive appreciation of the sport. Petzall essentially saw women as instruments in fostering proper spectatorship. Working from the prevalent assumption at the time that primarily working-class men attended bouts and that they caused the disruptions, Petzall claimed that women would tame these unruly fans: "very presence of the woman gives our sport the proper dignity, for her presence will contribute greatly to the disciplining of the male public". Greater attendance by women would not just make an evening at the fights more decorous, however. Petzall further implied that female spectatorship could change the nature of the sport itself. He noted that the introduction by the Verein Deutscher Faustkompfer (Association of German Fistfighters) of the six-ounce glove and soft bandaging at all national fights had reduced the number of knockouts and focused attention more on the technical prowess of the fighters. He estimated that this development would lead even more women to attend matches. This suggested the possibility that boxing federations would, in turn, respond to increased female spectatorship with further reforms in this direction - a gradual and market-driven feminization of boxing.

Petzall returned to the theme of class at the end of his piece with a direct appeal to the Bildungsburgertum (the educated upper and middle classes) among male boxing fans:

We desperately need women from precisely this social background [educated professional classes]. Therefore we must try by all means to win her for us. To our followers let it be said: bring your wives with you to the fights. They will and must learn to love our sport, the most beautiful that there is.

Womens boxing
Postcard "Women's Boxing in 1920s, Berlin."
Not women's boxing is ridiculed here as there was no trace of it in Germany at that time (except as in a burlesque). The cartoon makes fun of the very combination 'women and boxing': "The two awkward ladies look ridiculous in the ring as ridiculous women look next to the ring."

This article served the larger project of many boxing officials in Weimar Germany to attract and groom a proper spectatorship for the sport. In Petzall's estimation, the presence of women not only would subdue the unruly fans that he attributed to the working classes, but also would gradually replace them with members of the professional classes, Petzall's ideal audience.

Petzall's article certainly provided one of the most explicit calls for a more refined spectatorship at boxing matches, but far from the only one. His voice joined a whole chorus of commentators who criticized the conduct and composition of boxing crowds throughout the 1920s. In a similar manner to the "professionals" that Leora Auslander describes in her history of furniture design in France, these commentators saw themselves as both able and obligated to shape the behavior of a growing group of sports consumers. Although the criticisms of these commentators often varied significantly from one another, they shared a basic agenda that sought to solidify boxing's standing as a serious sport. These critics generally wished to purge the arena of its carnivalesque atmosphere, which smacked too much of American-style commercialism and a fixation on the knockout, and to encourage an appreciation of style, strategy and a victory by points.

The attendance of women received little support or encouragement from the boxing press, and its criticisms of female spectators reflected not only the traditional biases regarding women's natures, but also the growing anxiety over the increasingly assertive role of women in Weimar society. Even those few commentators who championed female spectatorship as a means of abetting the larger project of drawing an appreciative and well-behaved crowd to the big boxing matches played on well-worn stereotypes regarding the civilizing function of women.

The anxiety of the boxing associations over proper spectatorship represented a larger effort to keep the sport entirely legal and socially accepted. The danger existed that if boxing degenerated into a gladiatorial brawl, focused exclusively on the knock out, that municipalities might once again choose to restrict or ban the sport, just as many had done in Wilhelmine Germany.

More importantly, however, the anxiety over the nature of spectatorship at the big professional fights intersected with many of the larger social issues of the Weimar Republic. The lampooning of nouveau-riche boxing fans resonated with broader criticisms of the behavior of a new breed of profit-oriented business people in the 1920s. The debate surrounding women in the boxing arena mirrored the larger debate surrounding the emergence of the New Woman. As women achieved greater prominence in politics, business, culture, and even sports, social commentators grappled with these rapidly changing gender roles and sought continually to redefine exclusively male spheres.

Erik Jensen

January 2007


Boxing spectator
A woman watches a bout at Alf Weston's Boxing Booth at Newbury Fair and grips her handkerchief with tention
Pub. 1954. Photo by Charles Hewitt/Getty Images

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