Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Fighting Fairer Sex

While fighting may have been a man’s game, and certainly the vast majority of spectators were male, there was always something new and different to appeal to the potential audience. In 1852, at Kensal-green, a fight took place between two women who according to a writer to The Times “fought for about half-an-hour, some say for 5s., some say for a sovereign, and some say they will do it again. I saw the winner led back in triumph.”

The writer emphasises the fact that “Men took them there, men backed them, men were the bottle-holders and time-keepers” and concludes by expressing his view that “some vices and some crimes are too disgraceful for mere punishment of a clean, well-ordered, and well-fed prison. Let us have the whipping-post again, and at the flogging let the crime of ‘unmanly brutes’ be written over their heads.” [1]

As with so much of women’s history, little is known of their involvement in pugilism although there is evidence of their participation as early as 1722 when Elizabeth Wilkinson entered the ring. Like male boxers, they fought bare-knuckled and fights were bloody and brutal affairs. The women in the ring were probably drawn from the lower and labouring classes where fighting was as much a way of life as Gin. Certainly amongst the costermongers fighting was expected and approved and many a personal disagreement between women would have been settled with their fists. Mayhew notes that “it is important for a lad and even a girl to know how to “work their fists well”--as expert boxing is called among them. If a coster man or woman is struck they are obliged to fight.”[2]

For the men attending the fight the excuse that it was an exercise in the “manly” art of self defence would hardly be applicable. More likely, it was the contrast of these blood covered, sweating, bare-breasted women with the traditional image of the classical Victorian woman that appealed and probably aroused the fight-goers.

[1] The Times (1 September 1852) quoted in http://www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/boxing.htm (accessed: 21 March 2006).
[2] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols. (London: 1851-1862), I, 16.

No comments: