• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Let's applaud the overdue fall of another bastion of prejudice

IT has taken a while, but women's place in the combat sports arena has finally been sealed with confirmation that the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will follow the Olympic precedent by including women's boxing.

And after the picnic, they boxed . . .  How times have changed . . .  once ruled a health risk by the IOC, women's boxing is now widely accepted throughout the world
And after the picnic, they boxed . . . How times have changed . . . once ruled a health risk by the IOC, women's boxing is now widely accepted throughout the world

The battle for acceptance has been plagued by conflicting medical opinion, entrenched chauvinism, and confused feminist campaigners. The latter stridently demanded the same opportunities for women while paradoxically not extending this to sport.

Yet the Amazons of mythology show fighting women predate recorded history. Modern society might regard mastectomy (the better to unleash arrows) as a step beyond eccentricity. However, heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis is just one of many who considered women's boxing "a freak show". And just before London, a poll by Britain's leading Games website showed 73% of nearly 7000 respondents disapproved of women boxing.

Some medical arguments conclude boxing should be banned completely, but it would be perverse in an age of equality to deny women the right to box. So we applaud the overdue fall of another bastion of prejudice.

Boxing was an Olympic demonstration sport for women in 1904, but the International Olympic Committee ruled it a health risk. They had a record of misogynism, so it's worth noting it was the most popular women's sport. There were just six women on the whole of the offical St Louis programme, yet 18 entered women's boxing.

This decision foreshadowed IOC prejudice against female athletes. When several women collapsed after the 1928 Olympic 800 metres final, the Daily Mail suggested they would "become old too soon". There was no women's race longer than 200m for a further 32 years.

The British Boxing Board of Control was also entrenched, and when they relented, in 1997, the same newspaper branded the first officially santioned contest between two teenagers "a bout of madness".

It was 1984 before the IOC finally added the marathon to the women's athletics programme, but that was 30 years after the first women's boxing contest had been screened on US TV, and seven after the first female judged a world title fight (Ali v Shavers).

Yet it is fitting that London finally parted the Olympic ropes for women – almost three centuries after women's professional boxing had first been promoted in the city.

By the early 1700s, there was already a tradition of fights for gin, new clothes, and even men, by prostitutes stripped to the waist. Kicking, knee-butting, biting and gouging were allowed.

Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell moved the sport marginally up-market. In 1722 she and Hannah Highfield, of Newgate fought a bare-knuckle contest for a three-guinea purse. The rules were that they held a half crown in each bare first, and the first to drop a coin lost. This prevented scratching and gouging.

A later contest near Saddlers Wells, publicised in the same paper, took place 286 years ago today. Mrs Stokes was challenged by Mary Welch, Championess of Ireland, to meet her in a match which might include cudgels.

Her response? "I shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto establish'd, and shew my country that the contest of its honour is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess."

The more male-oriented a national culture, the harder it seems to have been for female boxers. Islamic nations still ban them. Australia forbade women from boxing (only lifted in Queesland in 2000), and New South Wales banned women even from watching men box.

Jane Couch (aka The Fleetwood Assassin) took the British Boxing Board to court to win the first UK women's licence. Barrister Dinah Rose took on the case, no win, no fee. "If we don't win, I'll eat my wig,' she told Couch. "We challenged them on sexual discrimination and restraint of trade," Couch told me. "I was already was a two-time world champion . . ."

Board medical evidence suggested pre-menstrual tension made women unstable. It must have helped that the case coincided with Mike Tyson attempting to bite off Evander Holyfield's ear.

"Dinah was brilliant," added Couch. "She made a complete fool of the board's medical witness. He said there were times when a woman should not be allowed to box, that women were unstable at a certain time of the month. He said if I was a woman pilot, and I was on my period, he wouldn't even get on my plane. 'God forbid that women should ever be trusted with children,' my barrister said."

Couch won her case, and yesterday interrupted preparations to have Tyson on a talk show in Bristol this week. "The decision is fantastic news," she told me. "It should have been like that when I was doing it.

"It took me about 10 years, start to finish. They didn't treat me fairly, but it's moved on now. They probably realise now how stupid they were."

We salute the decision, and Couch for the pioneering role which helped make it possible.

Contextual targeting label: 
Health

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

118310