2612568276918. "Seeing What Frames Our Seeing": Exploring the Histories of Early Black Female Boxers...

“Seeing What Frames Our Seeing”: Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxers

“Seeing What Frames Our Seeing”: Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxers  

Department of Kinesiology
Brock University

“Seeing What Frames Our Seeing”: Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxer – Grounded in a deconstructionist approach, this article identifies ideological elements’ in historical work on women’s boxing, including my own.

First, I examine the sources, practices, and evidence that have constituted historical facts on women’s boxing. Then, employing some of the tactics of a deconstructive historian, I examine and critique the erasure of black female combatants from boxing history through an examination of various written sources about pugilism.

To rectify this longstanding silence and exclusion, I provide a brief account of some black female boxers from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries.

This paper draws from mainstream and African-American newspapers, U.S. boxing periodicals, and a sample of scholarly and popular literature on the history of boxing.


“The past is what actually occurred in some previous era; history is the stories we tell about the past.”

HISTORIAN, AFRO-AMERICAN STUDIES SCHOLAR, AND BOXING ENTHUSIAST Jeffery Sammons documented the role of boxing in American society stating that perhaps “no sport has been more confined to the realm of men than boxing.”

In Beyond the Ring (1988), Sammons highlights a bout between two unnamed women in the 1880s remarking that the fight was “an anomaly and must have been that period’s answer to contemporary, voyeuristic mud wrestling.”

Bob Mee, who traces the history of bare-knuckle prizefighting, claims that prior to the 1990s, women’s boxing “had laid dormant for the best part of a century.”

In both of these examples, the claim that women’s boxing was not historically significant is emphatic and epistemologically self-assured. Accordingly, this article seeks to move past such narrative closures of the past, in favor of a history that acknowledges the ideological nature and discontinuities within historical coverage on women’s boxing and works to place black female boxers on the agenda.

First, let me begin with a confession: I have always believed that women, though fewer in numbers, have been raising their fists in this fascinating, brutal, bloody, and dangerous sport. Yet, there was little evidentiary basis for this hunch.

Another confession: I am not a historian. As a practitioner of physical cultural studies, I have been researching women’s boxing as a means of interrogating cultural mythologies surrounding women, violence, and aggression.

Part of this work has involved researching the histories and experiences of women boxers from somewhere outside of History, a location from where I could question whose historical “truths” get told while also stressing the imposition list role of the historian.

As such, this article is offered from a particular engagement with deconstructionist history, one that pays critical attention to the understanding that history is always about power and is never innocent but always ideological. In other words, I question historical understandings of women’s boxing, acknowledging the ways in which ideological considerations enter into historians’ attempts to conduct historical inquiry and produce truth claims.

In particular the focus remains on the ideological “representations of pastness” of black women boxers.

The article consists of two main parts. The first examines historical sources and evidence in order to reflect explicitly on the practices that have governed the production of knowledge on women’s boxing. In doing so, I give greater consideration to the interpretation’s imposed on the past by boxing scholars. In the second part, I highlight a series of discontinuous histories of several African-American female pugilists who, dating back to the 1860s, raised gloved and naked fists to one another, yet have not been included in historical narratives on boxing.

As such, this paper stresses the historical absence of female, and in particular black female pugilists, by examining the role historians have played in framing and narrating boxing history.

As Keith Jenkins argues there is an irreducible ideological component in every historical account of the past. To this end, I argue that there are many different stories to be told about women’s boxing, that each act of telling is an unavoidably ideological act and that there is no such thing as getting the past “right” as it actually happened.

Rather, I suggest that we need boxing histories that educate us about the discontinuities instead of the “convincingly objective” ways that conventional boxing histories tend to be written. To this end, I recognize my own role in representing the past as I attempt to construct boxing histories on ignored and overlooked racialized female boxers while fully acknowledging the centrality of my own worldview to what I produce.

Boxing’s Past: “Seeing What Frames Our Seeing”

History, as deconstructionist historian Alan Munslow contends, is a construction and a fuller understanding of the past can emerge only when the role of the historian in representing the past is considered. Similarly, Murray Phillips has challenged accepted practices within sport history by asserting that “[h]historian’s cannot be wrung out of history, nor can textuality be wrung out of history.”

Phillips also asserts that historians have the potential to offer new versions of the past as we gain access to new documents, ideas, and concepts. Unfortunately, early sources on women’s boxing remain elusive, a significant limitation when the historical enterprise involves translating evidence into “fact,” which then functions as historical truth.

However, deconstructionist history problematizes the basic tenets of historical knowledge arguing that there is no unmediated access to the past as it actually happened. There are only situated and partial versions or stories that historian’s create based on evidence that is used to sanction one mode of explaining over another.

In other words, all histories are interpretations framed by meanings imposed by an author. As such, deconstructionist historians urge us to pay careful attention to the way in which history is interpreted and reported as a literary product.

A central tenet of postmodern historical analysis is the view that history is “a truth effecting rather than a truth-acquiring discipline.” Deconstructionist sport historians compulsively foreground this distinction, arguing that history writing does not reveal “the truth” about the past; rather it imposes meaning on the past. Even the best primary historical sources do not provide unmediated access to historical truth.

Historical evidence is already framed by particular narrative structures and freighted with cultural meanings.

Deconstructionist history moves beyond seeking objective facts in favor of asking questions about the origins of facts and their operation. As Patti Lather posits, “It is not a matter of looking harder or more closely, but of seeing what frames our seeing spaces of constructed visibility and incitements to see which constitute power/knowledge.” Under the influence of postmodernism, historians are urged to pay attention to seeing what frames our seeing.

This article begins by examining the practices that have governed the production of knowledge on women’s boxing, highlighting the silences, fissures, and gaps within historical representations of female pugilists.

To begin, I briefly review the ways in which women boxers have been chronicled as the subjects of history. Three types of boxing writing, highlighted in Dan Streible’s work, aid this inquiry: 1) anecdotal boxiana; 2) critical reflections on boxing by later essayists; and 3) the work of sport historians.

In addition to highlighting an impressive range of writing on boxing, produced and consumed by boxing aficionados, literary pugilists, and academics alike, these varied types of writing are useful for outlining the widespread absence of women from the storied landscape of boxing.

It is also the first step in assessing the ideological effects of this history upon the understanding of women’s boxing in contemporary society. To this end, each of the three categories are taken up here to examine the ways in which historical discourses articulate and organize our understandings and experiences of women’s boxing. I do not devote an equal amount of space to each section as I focus most attention on the abundant and rich sources in the first mode of representation, boxiana.


The first type of historical writing is “boxiana,” a term that comes from Pierce Egan’s 1812 book on pugilism. The main focus of Egan’s work was blow-by-blow accounts of ring battles, commentary, biographical sketches, and career highlights of particular fighters.  Boxiana is a term that captures the vast majority of boxing history that exists in the form of “anecdotal histories, fan literature, ephemera, record books, illustrations, popular biographies, and sports periodicals.”

A significant component of boxiana history is the tabloid press including sports periodical’s such as the National Police Gazette and The Ring magazine. Both periodicals became the authoritative boxing journals of their time and their respective editors Richard Kyle Fox and Nathaniel Fleisher, authored numerous books on boxing, earning them each a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

While the Police Gazette was an integral part of the development of professional women boxers in the 1880s and 1890s, The Ring did not provide any substantive accounts of female pugilists.

Founded in 1845 the Police Gazette, as it was more commonly known, was an illustrated weekly featuring “buxom showgirls, scandals, hangings, red-tinted paper, and spicy stories.”19 Fox took over the sensationalistic magazine in 1877 and added a sports section.

The first time the Gazette reported on boxing was in 1880, covering an eighty-five-round heavyweight championship fight between Paddy Ryan and Joe Goss. Sales for the issue dramatically increased, and Fox responded by giving increased prominence to the world of sports, noted by the magazine’s new subtitle The Leading Illustrated Sporting Journal in America.


“Seeing What Frames Our Seeing”: Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxer”

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