How the Demands of Style Brought Women's Boxing in Vogue at the Turn of the Century

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

Training Female Pugilists, 'Illustrated Police News', 1872

Fashion may be the most rapidly changing and fluid cultural ideation that humans practice. The ontology of fashion may seem undeserving of our attention, but fashion reveals the cultural preoccupation with the body. As styles shift, so do the type of ideal body that occupies those clothing. In the majority of cases, significant changes in fashion operate as a backlash to the previous generation. And nowhere is that shift more palpable than in the Victorian Era turn of the century, where women who had previously been hobbled by elaborate skirts and tight-lacing, made the shift to looser fitting garments with lighter fabrics. Fragility and weakness was a virtue in mid-19th century England and the United States. Wan-faced women on fainting couches were the epitome of beauty in the fashionable aristocracy and the middle-class households who sought to emulate them—Tuberculosis chic. This type of affected illness was typically only prevalent in the upper and middle classes; people who were poor or lived in rural environments had no time to feign sickness when there were mouths to feed and work to be done. It is important to note that this emphasis on fragility was not just a feminine construct. Doctors at the time warned against exercise for women lest their uteruses, which the medical community had not sufficiently studied but were compelled to explain, freely ‘wander’ throughout a woman’s body.  

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the sartorial backlash began. Gone were encouragements for feminine weakness. Instead, women were encouraged to exercise, primarily as a mode to encourage strong, healthy children, and their clothing reflected this new trend—the importance of fitness for the sake of the nation state. Strong American babies meant a hearty American army down the road, and as the vessel, a mother’s good health was imperative to producing a robust future military. The 1890s and early 1900s, exercise became the prime directive of the leisure classes, and boxing, like the Tae Bo of the 2000s, the most popular fitness trend.

In 1894, Lady Greville published Ladies in the Field, a guide to women’s sports that included contributions from Lady Boynton and the Duchess of Newcastle. Lady Greville claimed that sports could improve ones’ spirits, since ladies enjoyed the bracing air of the refreshing outdoors just as much as gentlemen. She wrote that riding, specifically, improved the appetite, and made “black shadows and morbid fancies disappear from the mental horizon,” perhaps referencing the trend of hysteria amongst middle and upper-class women. Hysteria was a common medical diagnosis in the nineteenth century for women suffering from mental psychosis or women who wanted to live outside of the patriarchal structure. Lady Greville’s book anticipated the type of criticism that would almost certainly accompany the promotion of sports among upper-class women by choosing sports that reinforced gendered norms and did not make a woman less feminine. Her position in the aristocracy situated her arguments within a very specific and socially defined group because the upper echelons of society had different rules than the middle and especially the lower-classes. But her book normalized the desire for women to take part in physical activities, retrieving the female body from the fainting couches of the nineteenth century and releasing them to some semblance of freedom in the new century. Of course, in England, aristocratic women were only encouraged to engage in activities befitting their social position, such as hunting and riding. Women in the middle-classes were under less pressure to conform to certain social codes. And in the United States, that bizarre set of fashionable young women in the Northeast became obsessed with boxing as their form of exercise. The 1890s saw a rise in women’s boxing gyms in the United States. Presided over by boxing professors, these boxing schools trained women in the basics of boxing, focusing on the health benefits—a Victorian era version of cardio kickboxing.

In 1897, The Washington Post praised the trendy female pugilist, declaring that while women have made strides in other sporting activities, the “boxing woman…so far outranks all of the others that they should not be mentioned in the same breath.” Of course, the article explains that these women were not fighters and could not hurt themselves or anyone else because their gloves are so padded and their arms “not hard enough to land a blow sufficiently stiff” to cause injury. Additionally, the purpose of these new gymnasiums designed to teach women the art of boxing focus on technique and exercise, not on the art of fighting. Boxing was not only acceptable to The Washington Post as a form of exercise; the fashionable society of New York flocked to the new, chic boxing gyms in droves.

The boxing master at the New York gym told plump upper-class matrons that boxing was “the speediest and most healthful method for the annihilation of superfluous flesh.” But he was quick to explain to the Washington Post that his students were not learning to box for self-defense, because he considered it highly unlikely that a woman would ever need to defend herself. Nor, he emphatically declared, did he think it reasonable for a woman to box competitively. He explained,

it is all nonsense about women boxing. A woman can’t box because, if you hit her in the chest or the wind, you not only knock the breath out of her body, but you run the risk of starting some awful disease like cancer, or something of that sort.

It is unclear where the master got this idea of ‘starting cancer’ by inflicting someone with a blow to the chest, but it does reinforce the continued belief in a woman’s inherent fragility. The women at this particular gym learned the rudimentary skills and science of boxing, which were performed like a dance rather than a brawl. According to the boxing master, women were better at precision than their male counterparts, but decidedly less aggressive than men. Ultimately, the purpose of this facility was to get women in shape, as the fashion of day preferred svelte and light figures, much like today.  Yet some of the young women who learned the art of boxing in these posh gymnasiums were able when necessary to take their skills to the next level.

National Police Gazette

In 1895, the National Police Gazette reported a ten round bout at a Chicago gymnasium in which two young women fought to a knockout. The paper claims that new members fainted, and the rest of the girls, including the two contestants, cried together in the dressing room. However, they apparently had “a lovely time,” because all were “eager for the next bout.”

Boxing for exercise may have been approved to a certain extent for young women near the turn of the century, but fighting as a career remained on the margins of respectability. In California, even then a liberally-inclined state, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article praising a young boxer, Miss Cecil Richards, as both a skillful and ladylike fighter.  The paper described Miss Richards in details rivaling a Flaubert novel, portraying her healthy, slim figure and rosy complexion as the personification of ideal feminine beauty. The article primarily focuses on how lovely Miss Richards appeared, and suggests that boxing might become more socially acceptable if women like the beautiful Cecil step into the ring. Or at least, it may not be as disgusting a spectacle if the fighters were attractive. Cecil Richards confessed to the paper that the reason she became a boxer was to make money, just as anyone would choose a profession. Perhaps Californians were less judgmental about how young ladies spent their time than the high-society circles in New York or Boston. For Miss Cecil Richards in 1897, boxing was as good a job as any, and the spectators at her fights seemed to agree.

​Pugilism at the World's Fair 1904

Nearly ten years later, in 1904, the New York Times published a rather hilariously condescending article, “And Now It’s the Boxing Girl,” about the newest fad amongst young women. The article assured readers that boxing would remain a man’s sport, and that women would never “invade the ringside. Heaven forbid!” Young women could practice the “science and skill” of boxing “with all the brutality left out.” And of course, like many fitness articles assert today, boxing was great exercise, and that was its ultimate appeal to the new ‘it girl,’ who apparently longed to fit into tight-wasted frocks. The fashion of the mid-to-late nineteenth century was, in way, more forgiving to full-figured women because the lines of the garments emphasizes large chests and rear ends while the waist was tightly cinched in with the aid of corsets. But in the early twentieth century, the move away from extreme corseting meant that women had to work even harder to achieve the ideal waistline. At the gym, however, the women wore bloomers, a traditional shirtwaist or blouse, and flat-soled shoes. On their hands, they wore hard leather six-ounce gloves rather than the usual heavier glove favored by boxing gyms at the time.

The boxing master at this New York facility told the paper that boxing was ideal for “fat” women, but that nervous women, who, according to him, are always thin, should not box, because it is too strenuous. Instead, boxing should be reserved for the “overweights, for the sluggish, phlegmatic women who take on pounds faster than they can let out the seams of their clothes.” Plump women, according to the paper, should rejoice in the new boxing trend because it was the best method to lose fat and get in shape. The New York Times, it seems, wrote one of the twentieth-century’s first fat-shaming articles. The patronizing voice of this article is obnoxious, but it happens to contain a few gems of information regarding the structure of some of these early boxing gyms in the twentieth century. The standard time for a round between men lasted three minutes, while women fought for two. Additionally, men took one minute of rest between rounds, just like today. But women were given three minutes of rest between the two-minute rounds. This rest was intended to revive the apparently stout woman between rounds, although she was not allowed to go near an open window or the water cooler, lest she disrupt the fat-burning process.

But while sartorial demands may have instigated women’s interest in boxing, many discovered a passion for the sport itself. The New York Times presented these schools as nothing more than glorified weight-loss clinics, but to the girls and women who practiced boxing at the turn of the century, it was more than just a means to a smaller dress size. They discovered community, self-confidence, and a skill that they could use for sport or self-defense. A group of young women from Vassar who trained boxing together soundly flattened a man going through the pockets of their unguarded coats while they were bathing at a local beauty spot. In 1908, twelve-year-old Frances Moyer made headlines when she bested not just her female cohorts, but four boys in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. While boxing schools may have become respectable for chic young women in New York City seeking fun and diversion through exercise, this particular fight occurred in a vacant lot rather than a gymnasium. Frances began her day by besting a thirteen-year-old girl, and then she fought four boys in a row, beating all of them before finishing the standard six rounds. Her last match against Clarence Moser was considered a draw and was the only bout that went the entire six rounds.

Before the institutionalization of the Boxing Commission, which would upon its creation, immediately ban women from competing, these early boxing schools provided women of all ages with the opportunity to participate in pugilism in a way that was socially acceptable and even encouraged. While the fashion of the period required a certain body type to occupy trendy clothing, the larger cultural movement was a turn away from weakness to strength. Exercise served not only to help both men and women obtain the ideal body type, but also to serve the greater need of creating a healthy citizenry that would, in turn, producing a powerful new generation of Americans. Women’s initiation into the sport of boxing began as a fitness activity, but led, as it has for numerous women today, myself included, into a genuine love of the sweet science. 


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