A Bit of Women’s Boxing History.

A Bit of Women’s Boxing History.

Joann Hagen and Pat Emerick, 1950's

I’ve been writing about boxing most of the day in preparation for a presentation I’m giving on boxing at my college in October. I’m also finishing up the first chapter of my thesis entitled “Boundaries in Motion: Women’s Boxing.”

What I’m most intrigued by is the number of women who’ve been boxing throughout the centuries.  Like many disenfranchised groups, they have fought under the radar so to speak for a lot of the time, but have also had their exploits written about or interpreted as cultural representations in one form or another.  Here’s a smattering (note that references have been removed, however, if anyone is interested drop me an email):

Women's Boxing, 19th Century

Women fighters of this era beginning in 1876, included Nell Saunders who purportedly out fought Rose Harland in the first “official” female bout in the United States at Hill’s Theater in New York.  Other important fighters included Hattie Stewart, the first female world boxing champion, and Britain’s Polly Fairclough from a family of well-known boxers and wrestlers.  Polly was renowned for her prowess as both a boxer and a Greco-Roman wrestler, and holds the distinction of having been the first female to fight at London’s National Sporting Club (she fought against men), and purportedly put on an exhibition bout with Jack Johnson in Dublin.

In the modern context, there have been women professional boxers in and around professional boxing since the 1920’s in the United Kingdom, France and the United States.  During this period in Britain women’s participation in boxing was “characterized as disreputable and dangerous and self-contained in working-class venues.”  Prize fighting as an acceptable entertainment for women, however, was taking hold through such things as the advent of charity fights to aid the war effort during the first World War “under the auspices” of such societal luminaries as Anne Morgan, “the philanthropic sister of J. Pierpont Morgan.”   

Women's Boxing, 1920's

With attendance, came the notion of making the sport an avenue from crossing class barriers to the “carriage” trade.  In particular, to promote a Jack Dempsey bout, his manager “Tex Richard made special arrangements for women spectators,” calling it a “‘Jenny Wren’ section.”  Women also reported on boxing, most notably Katherine Fullerton Gerould who famously wrote about the Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney fight in 1926 for Harper’s.  Pockets of women’s boxing subcultures began to sprout up as well.  As noted by Kate Sekules in her book, “The Boxer’s Heart,” this included the Flint, Michigan “stenographer-pugilists” known as the “Busters Club.”  There was also a rise in popularity of boxing exercises in the United States and Europe during the interwar period and the emergence of “girls’ boxing troupes,”  that appeared on otherwise all male fight cards. (All Girl Bands also enjoyed some popularity at this time as popularized in the 1959 gender-bending film Some Like It Hot.) 

Barbara Buttrick (L)

In the late 1940’s and 1950’s Britain’s Barbara Buttrick, a 4’11” fighter with a powerful jab known as “The Mighty Atom,” took up the sport having read about the exploits of Polly Burns.  She found a trainer in London (whom she eventually married) and set out to have a career as a fighter mostly on vaudeville stages and other exhibition venues in England. After arriving in the United States in the 1950’s, however, Buttrick was able to push the sport by finding other women boxers who were going along the same path – and fighting men, one step ahead of the boxing commissioners who continued to keep the female sport underground. Still, she was able to draw large crowds and had the first televised female bout in 1954.  There were also a smattering of big crowd draws, along with a growing number of professional fighters who plied the canvas in the 1960’s and 1970’s to include such boxers as Sue “Tiger Lily” Ryan a true trailblazer for the sport of women’s boxing and such fighters as Caroline Svendsen, the first woman fighter to be licensed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 1975 and Pat Pindela, the first woman fighter to be licensed in California in 1976.

15 thoughts on “A Bit of Women’s Boxing History.

  1. Lisa Creech Bledsoe

    Ooo, she whets our appetites! I’m gonna be ready to see the whole thing (thesis *and* presentation) when you’re done! It’s incredibly hard to find a good post about this online… Great work! Thanks for helping to mark and celebrate some of women’s boxing history.

  2. Pingback: Friday Randomness – Oct. 7 « Fit and Feminist

  3. Aficionado

    Hi, I have seen an important number of women boxing scenes in comic and B-films from 30s, 40s and early 50s. Usually, there are a closed connection between this kind of fantasy and the real life; therefore. It looks as there were many more action than we actually have on the records. I suspect there were matches; but, the information wasn’t on the news. What do you know about it ?

    1. Girlboxing Post author

      Thank you so much for your comment. I have not come across too many reference although, most famously, there are images of Wonder Women, punching the lights out of bandits. Your raise interesting questions and I will write up a piece as I learn more.

      1. Aficionado

        Well, one famous example : Wonder Woman vs Dalma. Comic Cavalcade # 12 (Fall 1945). Wonder Woman KO Dalma punching her out of the ring. Another example, famous in that age because Nyoka was a very popular: Nyoka vs White Princess. Nyoka, the jungle girl # 12 from Fawcett publicationes (October, 1947). Really is a fist fight; but, in previous scenes we did learn the white princess was a former woman boxer. And other example : Doris Dawle vs Priscilla Beeswax, debutantes chanpionship, in a kind of comic scene from Kid Dixon. National Comic #19 (January 1942). Kid Dixon was a serie on the National Comic magazine and, later on this serie, we had a female boxer as a regular character.

      2. Girlboxing Post author

        Thanks for all of this!! And by the way, check out today’s blog, Women Boxing in a Bookstore?!? (10/12/11) — I have a link to an amazing Popeye cartoon entitled “Never Kick a Women” at the bottom of the post!

      3. Aficionado

        Sorry, I did forget maybe the most famous example : Diana Palmer, The Phantom’s girlfriend, and later his wife. The first scene in the first The Phantom’s daily strip story (February 1936) is Diana training boxing with a male sparring.

      4. Girlboxing Post author

        I cannot thank you enough for these references. They will truly help me with the history section of my thesis paper — as well as the section on cultural representations. I truly had no idea.

      5. Aficionado


        Yes, I did know this Popeye’s cartoon and its color version. Probably, It’s the best cartoon example. But, there are also examples in other movies. And, it wasn’t only in United States, Mexico has also very interesting examples. There was boxing in the film “Club de señoritas” (1956), starring the famous dancer Ninon Sevilla. Check this link : http://articulo.mercadolibre.com.co/MCO-18603116-poster-original-club-de-senoritas-ninon-sevilla-j-pardave-54-_JM

        Also, the film “Las colegialas” (1946), starring Maria Elena Marquez, a very famoous mexican actress. It’s a film about girls in the school; It has a huge fist fight, Maria Elena vs the main bad girl (the most hard that I have seen in classic films), and later, the woman school director comment that she supports boxing for women.

        By the way, several comics, including the Nyoka and “Kid Dixon” examples are avalaibles for download from the website http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/index.php

        Almost the same material is also in its brother website http://goldenagecomics.co.uk

        You will need register for download.

        By the way, some “Kid Dixon” episodes are not still avalaibles in the website. According the story, I suspect, it can have more women boxing. I suggest you ask the owners and the members of its forum about comics with women boxers, or fighting characters.

        If you want more information, ask me

  4. Pingback: The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) A Silent Film Review – Movies Silently

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s