2612568276918. Lacing Up the Gloves: Women, Boxing and Modernity

Lacing Up the Gloves: Women, Boxing and Modernity

Lacing Up the Gloves: Women, Boxing and Modernity

Irene Gammel
Ryerson University, Toronto

Lacing Up the Gloves: Women, Boxing and Modernity – The article examines how women in the early twentieth century embraced boxing to articulate the fractures and paradoxes of contemporary existence.

Equally drawn to and repelled by the visceral agonism of the sport, female artists and writers of the First World War and postwar era appropriated the boxer’s virile body in written and visual autobiographies, effectively breaching male territory and anticipating contemporary notions of female autonomy and self-realization.

Whether by reversing the gaze of desire as a ringside spectator or inhabiting the physical sublime of boxing itself, artists such as Djuna Barnes, Vicki Baum, Mina Loy and Clara Bow enlisted the tropes, metaphors and physicality of boxing to fashion a new understanding of their evolving status and identity within a changing social milieu.

At the same time, their corporeal and textual self-inscriptions were used to stage their own exclusion from the sport and the realm of male agency and power.

Ultimately, while modernist women employ boxing to signal a radical break with the past, or a reinvention of self, they also use it to stage the violence and trauma of the era, aware of limits and vulnerabilities.

Keywords: boxing, women, modernity, self-representation, gender.


No man, even if he had earlier been the biggest Don Juan, still risks it in this day and age to approach a lady on the street. The reason: the woman is beginning to box!

– German boxing promoter Walter Rothenburg, 1921


Following Spinoza, the body is regarded as neither a locus for a consciousness nor an organically determined entity; it is understood more in terms of what it can do, the things it can perform, the linkages it establishes, the transformations and becoming’s it undergoes, and the machinic connections it forms with other bodies, what it can link with, how it can proliferate its other capacities – a rare, affirmative understanding of the body.

– Elizabeth Grosz, 1994


In his autobiography, the American poet and physician William Carlos Williams recalls a strange altercation with the German Dada poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the early 1920s.

Trying to stage a tryst, the enamored female poet had used the pretext of a medical emergency to lure Williams from his house in Rutherford, New Jersey. When her advances were rebuked, however, she purportedly hit the doctor ‘alongside the neck with all her strength’, causing a panicked Williams to purchase a punchbag and begin practicing his boxing moves.

When he next met the Baroness on Park Avenue, he ‘flattened her with a stiff punch to the mouth’.3 As bizarre as this episode may appear, its frequent repetition in the annals of modernism alerts us to its emblematic function, signaling that the modernist world was one in which the old gender categories were becoming unraveled, as women’s androgynous, no longer docile bodies openly inserted themselves into traditionally male games, persiflage traditional rules and expectations.

The Baroness’s body, with its pungent smell and athletic musculature made for Dada confrontation, is an emblem not only for the boxer’s paradoxical mixture of toughness and vulnerability, but also for the new woman who aggressively breaches masculine domains.

No other sport is as associated with masculine power as boxing, which may explain its attraction for women looking to push the boundaries of body and self during the modernist era. Vanessa Toumlin has shown that, as early as the nineteenth century, women could be witnessed boxing in burlesque or vaudeville shows.

Prominent examples included the Scottish Johnson sisters, ‘who would exhibit in red velvet dresses, decorated with amber colored cuffs and gold braid, complete with boxing boots and gloves’; American Marie Ford, who travelled throughout the United States challenging male and female volunteers to fight; and British-born Annie Hayes (née Hickman), who ‘claimed that she did fights against male opponents.

Some boxing matches pitted women against men, the crowd cheering on the women and the punches intensifying as the bets increased. Identifying a surge in the popularity of women’s boxing during the 1930s, sports sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves observes: ‘In its most pure form, it was a celebration of female muscularity, physical strength and aggression.

Power was literally inscribed in the boxers’ bodies – in their actual working muscles – an expression of physical capital usually ascribed to men.’

Extending this exploration of boxing as a metaphor for liberation, Erik N. Jensen studies the artistic, theatrical and performative dimensions inherent in women’s boxing during Weimar Germany. As Jensen asserts: ‘By celebrating or engaging in violence themselves, these female boxing enthusiasts staked a claim to masculine behavior for women too.’

In her essay ‘On Boxing’, American writer Joyce Carol Oates articulates a different, though somewhat complementary, position, noting that boxing is ‘the obverse of the feminine, the denial of the feminine-in-man that has its ambiguous attraction for all men.’ Having attended countless fights with her father, a boxing aficionado, Oates knows the sport’s paradoxes intimately.

David Scott paraphrases her to explain that: ‘In this way, the ring, in its geometrical symmetry with its matched opponents, becomes a mirror-like structure in which, for the duration of the bout, the boxer is trapped in a confrontation of self and other that can only be resolved by extreme violence.’

Although there is admittedly a world of difference between (lawless) fighting and (codified) boxing in the ring, boxing is a primal sport, given in particular the intentional and legitimate blows to the head to achieve the desired knock-out of the opponent.

Perhaps it is this primal element, with its channelings of violent trauma, which made boxing so popular for modernist artists and the public at large during the First World War and post-war eras.

Interestingly, the ring’s agonistic structure evokes Renato Poggioli’s definition of the modernist avant-garde: ‘Of unlimited importance is the moment of agonism, no doubt representing one of the most inclusive psychological tendencies in modern culture.

Whereas agone expresses itself in ‘contest, sport, and game’, as Poggioli explains, ‘agonism means sacrifice and consecration: an hyperbolic passion, a bow bent toward the impossible, a paradoxical and positive form of spiritual defeatism’.  Such agonism is arguably also at the heart of boxing, a sport predicated on the sacrifice of one of the opponents.

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