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The Hidden History of Women’s Boxing
By Edie Cay
February 2, 2021

If you do a casual google of women’s boxing, most articles will lead you to believe that women’s boxing didn’t come about until the late 1990s—after the English Amateur Boxing Association (now known as England Boxing) repealed their decision that women’s boxing was illegal. But why was it illegal if it was something women weren’t doing?

Aha.

In my books, Bess Abbott is a female prize-fighter. This is absolutely, 100% accurate.

Invincible City Championess

I based the character of Bess Abbott, the heroine of The Boxer and the Blacksmith, on a real-life woman, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes. I made up the details (because we don’t know much of hers), changed some of what little we know of her, and moved her forward in time. The real woman’s name is likely a stage name, taken for a murderer who hanged just days prior to her first recorded fight, and Stokes was the last name of her promoter who she may or may not have later married. So I’m just going to call this woman Elizabeth, because it is likely that really was a name that was hers.

A ticket for James Figg, made by the artist William Hogarth

She was from a lower class background, and had male friends in the industry, including James Figg (he’ll be important later). Her fights included public trash talk in the newspaper, and money for winning—all the hallmarks of “real” fights. Some accounts say that women fought as novelty acts. In Elizabeth’s own words:

“I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate 29 minutes, and gained a complete victory, (which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke Newington ass-woman dares me to fight her for the 10 pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”

Those are not words of a novelty act. Some historians have wondered if she may have invented the pre-fight trash talk. It’s very possible. She was the biggest name of her time.

For 150 years, she was considered the greatest boxer of the 18th century, her career lasting from 1722-1728. She fought with her fists, of course, but also daggers, cudgels, swords, quarterstaffs, and would today be described as a mixed-martial artist.

Prizefighters were self-employed, then, just like now, and so she talked a good game. She called herself the “Invincible City Championess.”

 

Going Topless

While history records that many women boxed “in a state of undress”—some interpret this as topless, others interpret as in only a chemise (full-length linen slip)—Elizabeth fought fully clothed, a signal that she was a serious athlete.

In my book, Bess uses bands about her chest (like a sports bra), which also helps cover her up when she pulls the top of her dress down. Bess teaches Lady Lydia to do the same.

Why did I have them undress at all in my book?

Well, as a nod to this detail, but also because in men’s boxing at the time, the Peel was an important part of the pre-fight ritual. Men would take the stage, or the ring, or wherever they were, and some experienced fighters would take the opportunity to flex and intimidate as they peeled off their clothing. Remember that even an average man wore way more clothing than we do now. Long shirt tucked into breeches, some kind of cravat (neckcloth), a waistcoat (vest), and a coat. The fighter can become a favorite of the crowd, earning more money if more people bet on him, so a good peel could win fans.

And also, in The Boxer and the Blacksmith, I wanted to show how Bess Abbott had zero time for preening.

In reality, women were still fighting during the Regency, but clearly not as commonly, and possibly more as the novelty acts later historians would deem them. A man named Pierce Egan detailed (and I mean detailed) every fight he witnessed and wrote about it in a weekly paper called Boxiana. He talked about the famous fighters, and did his best to show how very English the sport was: because it was noble and manly. A female fighter would undermine his efforts to make boxing respectable. I suspect—greatly suspect—though I cannot prove—that Mr. Egan chose not to write about the female fights because he didn’t respect them.

Female Bruisers after John Collet, 1770. A satirical work, showing a moneyed woman knocking down a market woman. But it clearly shows by the title and the positions of the women, while this male artist didn’t think of women’s boxing as a sport, he thought women could be aggressive and unrestrained—just as someone might do the same today, but place the women in a shoe store or a make-up counter having this same fight. The artist found his misogyny funny, which shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So in The Boxer and the Blacksmith, I cast Pierce Egan as a mild villain who erases women from the record, which is not entirely true. Egan does acknowledge Elizabeth’s contributions to the sport in his work Boxiana. (She disappeared in 1728, Pierce Egan was born fifty years later in 1772.)

 

Queen Victoria and Queensberry Rules

But then King George dies, and his son, the Prince Regent takes over, and then he dies without a legitimate heir, and we get Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria is a young woman, and completely over her uncles’ gambling, womanizing, indulgent lifestyles. The Regency wanes into the Victorian era. The Victorian era is long because Queen Victoria’s reign is long. The changing economic pressures of England and its former colonies cause gender norms to shift.

Partly because of the suffrage movement (the right to vote for women, which would not come about until 1918, but also the expansion of male electorate) gaining steam in the late 1800s, the cultural moves to stifle women’s freedoms becomes heavy. Even Queen Victoria herself issues statements against women gaining the right to vote, saying that women who want to vote

“‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.”

And so, by 1870, when Queen Victoria says that, Elizabeth’s accomplishments have been replaced in history by a male contemporary of hers who shared much of her background, James Figg. James Figg becomes the forefather of modern boxing. James Figg becomes a champion, even though no one—NO ONE—during his lifetime ever described him as such. He wasn’t a boxer. He was a swordfighter—more MMA than pugilist.

Caricature of Marquess of Queensberry, 1877 {{PD-US}}

The first rules in pugilism were the Broughton rules in 1743—no eye-gouging or attacking an opponent when they’re down—which is likely why Egan calls Broughton the father of pugilism. Hair-pulling—which occurs in my books—is completely legal. Broughton was a student of Figg’s, and while Figg believed that pugilism needed rules, he never insisted on them when he fought. Though Elizabeth did. Elizabeth was insistent on rules whenever she fought. In 1867 the Queensberry Rules are formalized, which marks the advent of the modern sport of boxing.

Once Elizabeth’s career ended, in 1728, she disappears. There is no recorded reason as to why she stopped fighting, and we don’t know when she died or how. She was recognized as the best boxer in London, organizing how the sport was engaged, starting a school, and creating the staple of sports trash-talk that we still enjoy today. This is not feminist revisionist history. This is the history that was erased to make gender divides more comfortable a century later.

What Queen Elizabeth said in 1870 about women needing male protection? Well, a mere ten years later, women’s boxing is outlawed. The formation of the Amateur Boxing Association in 1880—a coming together of the major men’s clubs in London—drew up the rules. They used the Queensberry Rules (with a few minor tweaks), and then dominated the boxing circuit for the next century—even censoring a 1904 exhibition of women’s boxing at the Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Today I focused on Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, and said nothing about the woman who became known as Lady Barrymore, the Boxing Baroness. Hers is a sad story, and she was remembered not as an athlete, but as a mistress. It would take another blog to cover her story.

Lady Barrymore, the boxing Baroness. She was not really Lady Barrymore—she was likely the mistress of Lord Barrymore, and there is some dispute on whether or not he married her. The evidence points to probably not.

So when you see women out running in the park, remember that it was illegal for women to run in the Boston marathon until 1972. Women’s bodies were restricted territories, even from such simple activities as running. I hope that by writing about the past, before Queen Victoria, before a push for suffrage, women were athletic, aggressive, and proud of their physicality.

 

For more information:

Edie Cay

Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com

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