Women’s boxing: Knocking prejudice out for good

One year on, I’m still not sure what first possessed me to trek to Iffley for boxing. I think I might have joined OUABC to annoy my parents. Either that or the extreme disorientation of a history degree struck a loose nerve to create some kind of structure.

In the instance of the former, I certainly succeeded. My mother was resolutely horrified. Luckily for her my brother was on hold to offer some expert advice: ‘Oh leave her. She’s just escaped home and is dabbling with the whole rebellion thing. She never went through any of the angst-fuelled phases properly. The emo-fringe was only ever half-hearted. She grew it out when she started bumping into things more often than usual.’ Or words to that effect I am sure.

What was immediately apparent was my family’s dogmatic perception of the incompatibility of boxing with myself. ‘You’re just not, you know, built for that. There looked to be lots of nice dance societies in the prospectus. I know you’re not very good at that sort of thing but you might surprise yourself with proper training!’ Ugh. The bitter sting of familial disapproval. With this, I finally felt like a fully-fledged student ready to embrace socialism, Doc Martens and most ardently of all, the now ancestrally verboten boxing.

The fact my family were surprised is, of course, unsurprising. Women’s boxing is not a hobby often slipped into idle conversation. Nor should it be expected to be so. Women’s right to professionally fight was the result of lengthy battle.

Interestingly, the incompatibility of femininity and boxing was institutionalised later in human history than might be expected. In terms of bare-knuckle ‘fisticuffs’, women have been ‘boxing’ for just as long as men. In the 18th century, men and women even shared the same arena; the Bear-Garden. However, what was different was the content of the ensuing match reports. Rather than commenting on any technical skill or physical prowess, as was custom in the reports from the men’s matches, it was the fact that the women were so scantily clad that put pen to paper. Reports of female boxing thus became little more than romantically adroit erotica.

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The explicit exclusion of women actually arrived with the reforms made to boxing that transformed bare-knuckle prize-fighting into the sport we recognise today. In order to maximise appeal to the upper classes, the presence of women and backdrop of gambling were replaced by the introduction of the large, padded, and now emblematic, gloves. From then onwards, women were automatically associated with the plebeian and paltry character of illegal prize-fighting.

Today, female boxing seems still to be masked by the outmoded head guard of sexual voyeurism. The origins of this may well lie in 18th century match reports but fault now rests with popular culture. Whilst the feisty-feminist look of the early 2000s may be felt to be empowering, Christina Aguilera’s pre-Miley Cyrus twerking in a boxing ring does nothing to rescue female fighters from associations of farcicaland sexual spectacle.

This aside, the fundamental problem is that women in boxing have alwaysfallen foul of a double jab from social expectations. The first punch is the belief that it isunnatural for women to hit, and the second, that it is equally unnatural for women to be hit. Written in 1840, Thomas Ingoldby’s poem epitomises the first blow:

Within a well-roped ring, or on stage,

Boxing may be a very pretty Fancy,

When Messrs. Burke or Bendigo engage;

– ‘Tis not so well in Susan, Jane, or Nancy:

To get well mill’d by any one’s an evil,

But by a lady – ‘tis the very devil.

A century and a half later, Amir Khan, without the furnishings of a Venus and Adonis stanza, delivered the second, “Deep down I think women shouldn’t fight …When you get hit it can be very painful. Women can get knocked out.”

Since 2004, Khan has changed his mind. Recently, women’s boxing has come the furthest in the shortest space of time. It was over a century ago when women’s boxing was first showcased at the Olympics in a demonstration bout in 1904, yet it was not seen again till London 2012.

Here in Oxford, we’ve reached the title fight too. By that I mean more than just Varsity. Although, now that elephant’s entered the arena, it is worth mentioning that three of the club’s female boxers fought this year. This included an inter-club bout because Cambridge had no girls to compete. Regardless, it must be stressed that OUABC is not all about Varsity. It’s about boxing and this comprises two components; training and sparring. The endgame of being a member is to be just that, a part of the boxing club. In the words of women’s captain Lucy Harris, “You aren’t really mates till you’ve punched each other in the face repeatedly.” At the same time, sparring occupies just one corner of the ring. Girls are welcome who have no interest in actually fighting, but just want to get fit. There’s a lot of solidarity to be shared in the physical grilling of training.

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The women’s club is not an isolated sorority. Its raison d’être is to honour that the decision to fight is a right to have and a choice to be made. In just 2000, this decision was referred by a Daily Mail columnist as the result of “the raging politically correct lobbies who determine in this deranged nation that women must have the same right as men to be struck in the head and the chest.” Injected with an antidote for prejudice, this opinion translates to the cause well. Why is it acceptable for men to choose to hit each other in a professionalised arena, yet unacceptable for women? Opponents of female boxing should only make their case grounded on objections to boxing as a whole. The point is that it is the individual’s choice whether they don gloves, not the expectations of society.

Now it’s 2014 and we are in the position to pack a real punch. Instead of pandering to the conventional tropes of femininity and whining about the male domination of sport, why don’t we invite it to the blue corner and lace up our red gloves? Boxing is not about pointing the finger at others: it’s an individual sport. If something goes wrong in that ring, it’s your own fault. This attitude must be passed over the ropes. The fight outside has lasted long enough, it’s time to get in the ring.