Posts Tagged ‘Hattie Stewart

08
Aug
13

Another chapter done … a history of women’s boxing

Another chapter done … a history of women’s boxing

Dixie Dugan

Dixie Dugan, Comic Book #1, Issued July 2, 1942, one of several comic books during the war years that featured women as strong fighters.

Hattie Stewart, 1883

Hattie Stewart, 1883, published in the National Police Gazette. She was one of two fighters who were known as the Female John L. Sullivan. The other was Hattie Leslie.

The process of writing a book is humbling (as in the magnitude of the task), daunting (as in a HUGE undertaking), exciting (researching and finding tiny pearls are truly the cookies), maddening (as in losing my way) and ultimately immensely satisfying with the proviso that you see humbling.

Writing a history of women’s boxing which has to be teased out of endless newspaper stories, still images, and bits of surviving slim and distant memories, is particularly so.  I worry that I won’t get it right, or in delving into one subject or another, that I’ll be tickling my own fancy to the point where the random reader will exclaim “WTF” never to crack the book open again.

Fact checking is also difficult (see daunting), but one does find a rhythm and learns to use phrases such as “it has been said” or “it was dubiously reported” … and so on.

What’s extraordinary to me is that women have persevered in a sport that loved to hate them.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, that meant that women didn’t have the chance to fight professionally so they took to the variety theater stage instead.

Hattie Stewart was one boxer who plied the boards in the era. She and another fighter named Hattie Leslie were both known as the “Female John L. Sullivan.”  The never did meet in combat, though they called each other out in the boxing press. Unfortunately, Hattie Leslie passed away in 1892 from a sudden illness, so the fight of the dualing female Sullivan’s never did happen.

It’s also amazing to me that the writer Djuna Barnes penned articles about boxing–both from the point of view of being a spectator (My Sisters and I at the Prizefights) and in two interviews: one with Jess Willard not too long after he defeated Jack Johnson in 1915 (Jess Willard Says Girls Will be Boxing For A Living Soon) and one with Jack Dempsey published in 1921 (Jack Dempsey Welcomes Women Fans).

I find I have favorites too among the women I am writing about.

Belle Martell loses license.SANJoseEveningNews.27May1940.Page4.googleBelle Martel, the first female boxing referee, is someone I just adore.

She was a vaudvillian who met her husband Art, a former boxer, during her show business career. As the business died out with the advent of Talkies, she and Art settled in Van Nuys, California. He started a gym and began training youngsters how to box. Before long, she was in there with him and the two of them became very well known for the quality of the amateur boxing shows they put on–but really it was all Belle.

By 1940 she’d been a trainer, a boxing announcer, a time keeper, and as of April 1940, a duly licensed referee by the state of California Athletic Commission. Unfortunately, the hue and cry among certain folks in the boxing establishment and the press caused the Commission to issue a new rule less than a month later forbidding women from officiating at men’s fights. It was truly a blow to her heart, but she persevered and along with her husband opened the Martell Arena–fondly known as Belle’s Arena.

Gussie FreemanI also love Gussie Freeman (sometime known as Loony) who fought against Hattie Leslie in 1892 shortly before Hattie’s death.

They had a four-rounder at a theater on Grand Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that was talked about for decades.

It was the kind of fight that tall tales were made for.

On the first telling Gussie, her blond hair in a tizzy, barely made it into the third round before the fight was called.

A second telling had the two of them nearly spent,  after going four hard rounds that ended in a draw.

And by the next telling–Gussie soundly defeated Hattie in the fourth with a resounding knock out blow!

Whatever the real outcome of the bout, it gave Gussie, a rope maker on the docks at Newtown Creek, the chance to travel as far west as Chicago when she signed to fight in Hattie Leslie’s show. Gussie also earned enough money to open a bar for a while, until with the money gone, she went back to the ropewalk. Along the way she made a lot of people smile and fifty years after her fight, it was still fondly remembered.

I’ve got a way to go–and a hard deadline coming up, but when I feel overwhelmed by it all, I just think of the sheer nerve of those women and push on.

They are truly my heroines–every last one.

02
Oct
11

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.





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© Malissa Smith and Girlboxing, 2010-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Malissa Smith and Girlboxing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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