By Diane Curtis
Women have been engaged in combat sports for centuries. Today, the most dominant athlete alive is a female fighter — a thought that would have been unheard of in the not-so-distant past, when women in combat sports were derided, dismissed, and/or fetishized. This was no accident of history; rather, it was a rocky but steady climb of progression (and backlash) built upon the hard work, sacrifices, and triumphs of generations of competitive women who would not be denied. In every arena — that of public opinion, before athletic commissions, and in actual arenas — they fought for the right of all women to fight.
In She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports, author, scholar, and mixed martial arts fighter/trainer L.A. Jennings chronicles the lives, careers, and exploits of these trailblazing boxers, wrestlers, and martial artists, providing valuable social and historical context along the way.
In her preface, Jennings rightly points out that, “if fighting is as old as man, then it is as old as woman, too.” Fighting, at its most basic level, is not and has never been the exclusive domain of the male sex. Fighting is instinctively coded into each and every one of us. It is the essence of life for every species, humans included. We are all fighting, in one way or another, and we always have been. Naturally, this applies to both men and women.
So it should come as no surprise that women have been interested in fighting sports — as spectators and practitioners — for far longer than popular memory would allow. Reading recent news articles and opinion pieces about such fighters as Holly Holm, Laila Ali, or Ronda Rousey, you would be under the distinct impression that women have only gotten the urge to lace up the gloves in the past few decades.
Jennings often had mixed emotions upon reading such articles. She was excited to see women’s combat sports move out of the margins and into the spotlight, but at the same time, seeing the rich histories of those same sports — and the women who built them — forgotten and ignored was deeply upsetting to her.
This book is her answer to that exclusion.
In her introduction, Jennings touches briefly upon the general history of boxing and how it has evolved over the centuries, as well as several styles of wrestling and martial arts traditions going all the way back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. If you’re unfamiliar with boxing beyond the Rocky series, it serves as an excellent primer. If you’re a long-time fight fan, there are new and fascinating tidbits throughout.
She then fast-forwards to the Georgian and Victorian eras, for which we have more reliable written records, and introduces us to Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes, the “European Championess.” Stokes was an Englishwoman who began her career in 1722 by calling out fellow pugilist Hannah Hyfield via a public notice in the London Journal. (This is just one of the historical examples proving that, when it comes to boxing promotion, the more things change, the more they stay the same.) Stokes took approximately 22 minutes to triumph over Hyfield, and she fought for another six years after.
In addition to fighter and fighting history, Jennings also provides valuable insight into the ways in which female fighters were regarded by society. Fighting sports were almost the exclusive domain of the lower classes, where women often had more freedom of movement within their social circles. They were expected to labor alongside men on farms, and, later, in factories, and so a woman expressing herself in a physical manner was not as foreign or repugnant an idea as it was to the upper classes.
This does not mean women had an easy path, or that they were readily accepted as professional prize fighters. They faced derision and road blocks at every turn. And when they were allowed to fight, it was a lurid spectacle meant to titillate men, typically the upper classes out for an evening. Any regard as legitimate fighters was still centuries away.
During the 1800s in America, prize fighting in general remained rare, intermittent, and below ground. The prudish Victorian middle class regarded it as barbaric, and the gambling that was always associated with it as immoral. But in the mid-1800s, the National Police Gazette, a rather sensational publication akin to today’s tabloids, began promoting and reporting upon matches, including women’s bouts. Boxing once again started to gain a foothold of legitimacy.
Fighting became more visible and organized. Match rules were established and agreed upon. Acceptance of the sport grew, as did the number of female fighters, although boxing remained at the margins of society.
The 20th century brought the rise of the Gibson Girl, and, at the same time, the sporting woman as society’s ideal of health and beauty. Girls’ boxing gyms were established so that middle- and upper-class girls and women could spar and remain fit. Most didn’t train for competition, but many of them learned the ins and outs of the sport and started to follow professional prize fighting as spectators. It was only a matter of time before they wanted the right to compete, too.
As in other social arenas, including suffrage, the right to work, and the right to a higher education, women’s participation in organized athletics gained momentum in the 20th century. From the 19th Amendment to Title IX, women steadily gained the right to full participation in all aspects of public life.
Jennings concludes her book with a chapter on recent history, and the area most casual fans are the most familiar with: that of women in today’s arena of mixed martial arts. And while UFC phenom “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey is responsible for much of their broad appeal nowadays, she is by no means the pioneer in this sport. Jennings introduces us to the other women fighters every fan should know, like Sarah Kaufman, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, Miesha Tate, Julie Kedzie and Gina Carano. The last two made history in the first-ever televised WMMA match.
Also, the UFC isn’t the first organization to promote women’s matches. In fact, it’s the last. The UFC simply built upon, borrowed, moved over, or bought out all of those who came before, including Hook-n-Shoot, Strikeforce and Elite XC. Now, they have their sights set on the all-female Invicta FC, nearly cleaning out their Strawweight division in order to build one of their own.
Four years after famously declaring women would “never” fight in the UFC, the organization’s President, Dana White, is now a thoroughly converted fan. And it feels as though further weight-class expansions, most likely Featherweight and Flyweight, are on the horizon. For women in MMA, the future looks bright.
So, while we all keep our eyes on the prize, Jennings reminds us that we shouldn’t forget the past, either:
“Despite risks of social alienation and even scuffles with the law, these historic female fighters were relentless in their pursuit of the sports they loved. Their courage reminds us that as important as it is to look forward to the next fight…it is just as crucial that we look back and remember the women who gave us the audacity to fight today.”
Q&A with the Author
D.E.C.: Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? Your general background, academic work, MMA training, and how they intersect?
L.A.J.: I started training [in] martial arts in 2003, and by 2006, the same year that I graduated from Florida State University with my B.A., I was competing in submission wrestling and kickboxing events. I earned my Masters in English from Florida State in 2008, all the while training and competing in martial arts, and a year later, moved to Denver, Colorado, to begin my doctoral program in Literary Studies at the University of Denver.
My academic work primarily focused on cultural theory, on what George Lipsitz called “the ordinary and the commonplace.” I am especially interested in gender studies and how meaning is generated through language, which is typically referred to as semiotics in academia. In my doctoral program, I realized that I was too busy to continue to compete, so I concentrated on coaching new fighters. My husband and I own a MMA gym in Denver called Train.Fight.Win. that provides fitness and MMA training in an egalitarian, gender-neutral environment.
My graduate student studies neatly coincided with my increasing interest in martial arts. I was training in a nearly all-male professional MMA gym, and I viewed all of my training and interactions through the theory I read in class, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan to Judith Butler. I wrote a great deal about feminism, especially examining how powerful female characters, such as the femme fatale, are framed through formulaic narrative devices. I saw parallels in the way that the narrative structure of a hard-boiled detective novel, a closed system of meaning, limited the power of the femme fatale, similar in my mind to how the mixed martial arts community marginalized female fighters. Yes, a woman could participate in fighting (or, in the novel’s case, crime), but she would always be limited by the rules and structure of the world in which she operated. For female fighters, when I was competing, that meant the UFC (and in the hard-boiled detective novel, that meant the confines of the narrative’s functionality).
D.E.C.: What inspired you to write this? What impact do you hope it will have?
L.A.J.: I love history, and as I became more deeply engrossed in training, especially when I was first learning catch wrestling, I began to look for famous female fighters as inspiration. I found that I had to dig through a lot of hyperbole and inaccuracies in order to learn about the women who came before me in the sport. I want to tell everyone who loves fighting sports, male and female, that women had a long and storied history that impacted how MMA is practiced and produced today.
As an academic, I had access to libraries and databases that allowed me to thoroughly research the history of female fighters. It was a rigorous process, but I constantly experienced moments of delight when I would find an obscure article or create a connection to something happening in the fighting world today.
I hope that the book reveals the way that women’s history is often ignored, misconstrued, or intentionally hidden in order to create the myth that certain activities, such as fighting, have always been a man’s domain.
D.E.C: You write about the "Centerfold Imperative" for many women athletes. Do you think this is a double-edged sword for women who are judged harshly either way — sort of "damned if you do; damned if you don't?" Do you support the women athletes who choose to do this? If so, under what, if any, conditions? Or do you feel it actually does more harm than good, that there really is such a thing as bad publicity?
L.A.J.: I absolutely support an individual woman’s right to participate in any type of promotion she wishes. The problem is when women who are very talented do not receive the same opportunities as their more conventionally attractive counterparts because they do not conform to the beauty ideal. I do not think athletes who do pin-up or Playboy photoshoots should be condemned at all. But I do think that advertisers, such as Reebok, should be called out for only choosing conventionally attractive women to represent their sport.
D.E.C.: Now that women have a "place at the table" in the biggest global organization professional combat sports has to offer (UFC), what do you see as the next challenge? The next frontier?
L.A.J.: The next challenge is to make sure that all female fighters have a place in the UFC. Right now, only Strawweight and Bantamweight fighters are represented. It is not coincidental that these particular weight classes are populated by women who are an ideal size according to American beauty standards.
D.E.C.: One of the cornerstones of a sport's rise to legitimacy and the mainstream is a robust and well-managed youth development program. But "kids fighting in a cage" is the current, sensationalized narrative. At what age do you think it's appropriate for kids to start training? To start competing? As the owner of a MMA gym, what would that look like to you? What competition and safety guidelines would you see implemented in such a program?
L.A.J.: This is an interesting question; my gym does not have a children’s program and I do not have (nor plan to have) children myself. But my inclination is to say that children’s MMA could be organized in a way that is similar to football programs for children. There would be a structure that would determine at what age particular moves or strikes would be permissible and undoubtedly, an emphasis on safety by requiring more robust safety gear than what is appropriate for adult, professional MMA.
DEC: You state in your intro that the scope of this work had to be narrowed. What, if anything, do you regret having to leave out? Do you have plans for future works to expand on this subject and include that which you omitted this time around?
L.A.J.: I would have loved to do a more worldwide survey of women in fighting sports so that I could speak more as to how female fighters are positioned in other countries. However, I also think that would have been problematic. As an academic, I am perhaps overly concerned with my position and very hesitant to put myself in a situation where I would be ‘speaking for’ or representing women in other countries. For example, I would love to have included more about Muay Thai and the gender politics of Thailand’s fight scene, but it felt inappropriate since I would be looking at it as a complete outsider through an occidental lens. One of my dear friends, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, has been living and fighting in Thailand for the past three years and is a much more informed voice on Muay Thai. Thus, while I did regret that the book was so focused on American and European history, it was probably for the best.
Currently, I am working with a nonprofit in Denver that provides services for women, children, and transgendered individuals experiencing poverty or homelessness. This is my passion project, so I have no plans to write anything lengthy for the next year or so. However, I do want to write an official history of MMA that will be a deep dive into the cultural history and implications of the sport.