Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Pretty in pink, with flowers in their hair: Does the application of social constructions of identity, stereotyping and labelling, reinforce the perceived threat to a "myth" of manhood which negatively impacts on the female boxers right to fight equally alongside their male counterparts?
Trevor Lake, CEO, at Sportanarium Events, discusses these theories in this four-part weekly series.
Part 1: A brief history of women in boxing and an introduction
"One plays football. One does not play boxing!" Joyce Carol Oates (1987) On Boxing.
Throughout the history of boxing, women have only been credited with what could be deemed marginal roles, even though if you conduct a search through the history of the sport, you will find that women have been actively competing as pugilists since the late 1880's. Participation within the sport for women was traditionally that of caregiver, supporter from the side lines in the role of wife/girlfriend/mother, or as entertainment in the case of scantily clad ring card girls.
Christy Halberts "Tough enough, and woman enough" was a research study that took place in the 1990's to gain a better understanding of 12 women and their positions as athletes that competed within a sport, that more so in that time, was deemed as "deviant" for women. The data that Halbert accumulated revealed that women faced discrimination at gyms, and in competitions, and that they were acutely aware of the fact that their participation in boxing had reinforced numerous stereotypes. To counteract this, the participants adopted various strategies to regulate their identities in a bid to remain commercial entities within the marketable boxing industry. They were aware that to counteract this negativity they would have to format a balance for their public identities that would make them appear neither too masculine nor too feminine, and that this was done in an effort to avoid sanctions that could be viewed as negative, therefore, it would increase their chances of finding success as either an amateur or professional boxer.
As mentioned at the start of this piece, female participation in boxing matches has been recorded as far back as 1876. The history of female prizefighting can be traced back to accounts of women taking part in bouts at fairs, and carnivals, especially in countries such as France and the United Kingdom; although these bouts were in all likelihood not regular events. The first recorded female professional bout took place in the USA in 1876, contested between Nell Saunders and Rose Harland, with Saunders being awarded victory via a points decision. Despite this, female boxers, it can be argued, are still not taken seriously by many, mainly the male led rule-makers, within a sport that is deemed a masculine sport, and as a result are viewed as going against their gendered roles.
At the commencement of the 20th Century, female boxing had started to gain slight social acceptance, but only as a form of exercise. In 1905, the New York Evening World led with a headline that read "The Model Maid will help her health by boxing!", I will leave you to determine the meaning behind that. However, this interest did not last long, or indeed, significantly increase the popularity for women prizefighters. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, once again, there was an increase in the popularity of women taking up the sport, yet, the status of professional female fighters remained insignificant in comparison to their male counterparts. Sure enough the interest soon diminished.
Throughout the 1970's. sporadic female fighters, such as Sue "Tiger Lily" Fox, who today runs the very successful Women Boxing Archive Network (WBAN) and who was rated Number 1 in the world in 1979, began making a name for themselves. Interestingly, Sue, was named by The Ring Magazine Commemorative Issue of 2012, as one of the Top 10 most influential female fighters of all time, and is a good friend to us here at Sportanarium, so I definitely recommend you check her website out (link at bottom of page).
Due to the sporadic successes of fighters, such as Sue, gaining some marginal respect as boxers, this made way for what could be deemed as the first successful period in the 20th Century for female boxing, the 1990's, coinciding with the boom in professional women sports leagues such as the WNBA and WUSA, and with boxers such as Stephanie Jaramillo, Delia 'Chikita' Gonzalez, Laura Serrano, Christy Martin, Deirdre Gogarty, Laila Ali, Jackie Frazier-Lyde, Lucia Rijker, Ada Vélez, Ivonne Caples, Bonnie Canino and Sumya Anani, all world champions, jumping on to the scene. From a U.K perspective, the pioneer of women's boxing was Jane Couch, MBE, whose legal battles with the British Boxing Board of Control are well documented, and will be discussed later on in this series.
This period of time was deemed successful for female fighters due also to the sanctioning body for amateur boxing in the United States, USA Boxing, making provision for women to box as amateurs. This decision was widely viewed as an opportunity for women and young girls to gain more widespread acceptance, and to increase the popularity of female boxing, whilst developing an arena for them to develop their skills within the amateur sphere, enabling them to progress in to the professional ranks of boxing with the necessary boxing skills required to compete. Of course, that, like most things in life, is debatable. Throughout the history of boxing there have been numerous cases of boxers, both male & female that have been exploited by those who have been tasked with looking after their well-being, both financially and health wise. Many of the female fighters of the above era, were poorly advised & managed.
Although female boxers are undoubtedly still marginalised, many of its current participants have started to confront, and challenge the commonly held traditions of their role within the sport in an attempt to forge out successful careers. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss and breakdown that through the application of hegemonic masculinity , and negative sanctions, how female boxers are still held to ransom via "masculine currency" in an attempt to reinforce their feminine roles. I hope you will join me as we explore this fascinating subject.