Women Who Would Not Be Sheep: Women's Combative Sports in the Twentieth Century

By Joseph R. Svinth http://ejmas.com Copyright © 1999 All Rights Reserved. (FN1)

I'd tell her to fight with all her heart. Just fight with your heart and your fists.

-- Trainer Wilson Ramirez, speaking of his amateur boxer Dee Hamaguchi (FN2)

During the early 1900s, feminists often regarded combative sports such as boxing, wrestling, fencing, and judo as tools of women's liberation. Because these sports were historically associated with prizefighting (in Shakespeare's time, prizefighters were fencers rather than pugilists) and saloons (the Police Gazette was holding "Female Championships of the World" in New York City saloons as early as 1884) ' the middle classes publicly despised such activities.

Nevertheless, starting around 1900 combative sports started becoming more fashionable. Fencing was particularly popular with women, partly because of its exercise value, partly because it was said to build character, and mostly because it was not a contact sport.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, judo classes became popular with upper-class women. Partly this was due to the Japanese Army claiming that judo was the secret weapon that made its soldiers invincible in the trench fighting around Port Arthur, and partly it was due to the exaggerated claims of jujutsu teachers and sportswriters. (FN3) In The Cosmopolitan of May 1905, for instance, a Japanese visitor to New York named Katsukuma Higashi boasted that given six months, he could teach any 110-pounder of good moral character to "meet a man of twice his weight and three times his muscular strength and overcome him under all circumstances." This was hyperbole rather than fact -- within the year the 120-pound Higashi himself proved incapable of beating either a 140-pound professional wrestler (George Bothner) or a 105-pound judoka (Yukio Tani). Nevertheless the myth persists. Witness, for example, the enormous popularity of The Karate Kid, a Hollywood film that saw its youthful hero change from chump to champ during the seven weeks between Halloween and Christmas.

Jujutsu was first introduced to England in March 1892. Yukio Tani introduced judo into the British music halls in 1899, and by the time that "The Adventure of the Empty House" appeared in Strand Magazine in October 1903, Sherlock Holmes was using "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling," to free himself from the clutches of Professor Moriarity. (FN4) There were also judo practitioners in the US and British navies by this time, where Japanese were commonly employed as cooks. And, of course, there were Japanese immigrants to both North and South America who knew some judo or jujutsu.

The first book to publicly advocate women's jujutsu was probably A. Cherpillod's Meine Selbsthilfe Jiu Jitsu für Damen (Nuremburg: Attinger, 1901). In English, the first was probably Irving Hancock's Physical Training for Women by Japanese Methods (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904). Two years later, Physical Training for Women was followed by The Fine Art of Jujutsu by Mrs. Roger (Emily) Watts (London: Heinemann, 1906).

Male reactions to women's involvement in combative sports varied. A few men thought it wonderful, Sam Hill of Seattle even suggesting that all white women living in the South learn jujutsu for self-defense. Others were appalled, seeing it as contrary to God's Will. Most, however, were simply amused, until, during the late 1930s, women's self-defense was made acceptable by militarization.

Women's reactions varied, too. Suffragettes and rich women often viewed participation in combative sports as empowering. Working-class women sometimes viewed them as a means toward getting a paying job in vaudeville. Working women and actresses also thought that some method of physical retaliation useful against men who reached under their skirts was handy, too. On the other hand, many parents had strong misgivings regarding all female athletics. The fear seems to have been that "respectable" boys would not marry girls who could beat them at anything.

But whether mothers and educators liked it or not, by the 1920s huge numbers of young women were regularly playing baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, and volleyball. Unable to stem the tide, the educators and physicians sought to turn it by stating that while nothing preserved female beauty so well as sport, there were certain sports that were better than others, and a few (including soccer and boxing) that were downright unladylike. Furthermore, competition and the development of unsightly muscles could be dissuaded by new rules that made girls' sports considerably less exciting than boys' sports.

These rules could be draconian. In 1922, for example, rules for a championship caliber girl's basketball team at Martinez High School in San Francisco included: "No dancing, no soup, no milk, no candy, no ice cream; [hot] chocolate while resting instead of oranges; two hours rest before each game; eight hours sleep daily; no fried foods; no pastry; feet to be bathed three times weekly in tannic acid." (FN5) Most of the time, however, the rules were simply inane, such as those requiring girls to essentially stand in one place while playing basketball. While the athletes protested ' the Martinez girls, for instance, said no dancing, no basketball team ' hardly anyone, least of all physical education teachers or school administrators, listened. After all, in the words of a Scientific American author in 1936, "Feminine muscular development interferes with motherhood." (FN6)

Despite some loosening of dress codes during the Edwardian era, before World War I most female athletes dressed as conservatively as Iranian female athletes of the 1990s. Afterwards, however, dress codes relaxed and sports pages started showing pictures of attractive movie starlets dressed in bathing suits. As a result, by the 1930s female athletic attire roughly matched equivalent male attire except in "genteel" sports such as fencing and golf, where skirts remained the norm into the 1950s. Still, Mother Grundies worried about "indecent exposure" and as a result various elastic undergarments were developed. During the 1910s, for example, some women tried Leo McLaglan's "Jujutsu Corset," and during the 1950s female professional wrestlers supported their rhinestone-encrusted bathing suits with two-inch wide elastic bands. The most popular device, however, was the brassiere. First developed by the New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs around 1914, its original purpose was not to assist in athletics but to flatten the bust.

Even allowing for hype ' vaudevillians and society women both received more than their fair share of media coverage ' early twentieth century women played combative sports for the same reasons as their granddaughters. In short, they did them for one of four main reasons: body sculpting, socializing with friends or business acquaintances, personal empowerment, and physical self-defense. (FN7) Another constant over time was the derisive attitude that people ' women as well as men ' took toward female participation in "unladylike" sports. For example, as recently as 1981, some US sociologists wrote about female karate black belts: (FN8)

There was evidence that a psychology of tokenism is operating in Karate as it operates in other domains# The skills of these "tokens' are belittled, and ritualized deference is withheld. The interesting question is whether increasing participation and success by women will eliminate the token aspects of responses to them. Or will the cognitive inconsistency# be resolved by devaluing the achievement of a black belt (a pattern found in the occupational world). The long-term results are interesting# because the issues involved are so fundamental to the ideology of gender typing.

Sexual stereotyping ' "any woman who boxes must be a lesbian" ' was another constant. As recently as May 9, 1994 the Irish boxer Deirdre Gogarty told British video journalists: (FN9)

I'm always afraid people think I'm butch. That's my main fear. I used to hang a punch bag in the cupboard and bang away at it when no-one was around, so nobody would know I was doing it. I was afraid people would think me weird and unfeminine.

Still, resistance toward female involvement in combative sports seems to have softened somewhat over the years, especially when the female involvement is amateur rather than professional. Said the father of Dallas Malloy, a sixteen-year-old amateur boxer profiled in the Sunday supplement of the Seattle Times on August 8, 1993: (FN10)

We've tried to encourage our daughters to do something interesting with their lives, not be a sheep. I have a feeling whatever Dallas does, she will always be different. She'll do anything but what the crowd does.

This paper is dedicated to those women who would not be sheep.


FN1. I am collecting clippings and stories related to female involvement in combative sports, especially before 1960, and readers with material to share are asked to contact me at jsvinth@juno.com.

FN2. Rafu Shimpo, June 8, 1998, 2. Another Japanese American boxer of the mid-1990s was Sky Hosoya of Flushing, New York, who won three successive Golden Gloves championships between 1995 and 1997, a first for a woman of Asian ancestry. For more about Hosoya, see http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltsplash.htm.

FN3. Jujutsu was the forerunner of judo. Although outwardly similar, to purists, the former is budo, a martial way of life, whereas the latter is a combative sport. In lay terms, that means that jujutsu is a traditional Japanese method of mostly unarmed and unarmored self-defense whereas judo is a modern form of international belt-and-jacket wrestling played as an athletic game.

FN4. To be precise, Holmes should have said he was practicing Bartitsu, as that was what E.W. Barton-Wright's combative was called. For details, see Graham Noble, "An Introduction to W. Barton-Wright (1860-1951) and the Eclectic Art of Bartitsu," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8:2 (1999), 50-61.

FN5. Japan Times, March 29, 1922.

FN6. Donald Laird, "Why Aren't More Women Athletes?" Scientific American, 151 (March 1936), 142-143.

FN7. Robert A. Smith, Eugene Weinstein, Judith Tanur, and Gayle Farb, "Women, Karate, and Gender Typing," Sociological Inquiry (1981), 51:2, 120.

FN8. Part of the process of personal empowerment included dress reform. Bloomers, for example, encouraged greater freedom of movement while the elimination of corsets not only saved the lives of countless whales but also led to the creation of a society where a combination of exercise and diet was required to maintain chic standards of physical beauty. Other non-traditional exercise programs dating to the early twentieth century include the now forgotten Delsarte System of Physical Culture and the still popular modern dance movement.

FN9. Quoted in Jennifer Hargreaves, "Bruising Peg to Boxerobics: Gendered Boxing ' Images and Meanings," in Boxer, edited by David Chandler, John Gill, Tania Guha, and Gilane Tawadros (London: MIT Press, 1996).

FN10. Malloy, a high school sophomore from Bellingham, Washington, started boxing at a Fairhaven gym in August 1992. Because she was female, she could not box in sanctioned events so the ACLU of Washington filed a discrimination suit on her behalf. In Seattle on May 17, 1993, King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that the USA Boxing restriction violated Washington State law. Therefore USA Boxing changed its bylaws, and Malloy got to fight. Her first (and only) opponent was 21-year old Heather Poyner, a martial arts student whom Malloy easily defeated in bout held in Edmonds, Washington on October 30, 1993. (For those who track such things, the venue was Edmonds Community College and the official scorecard read Malloy, win by decision in three.) That said, Poyner rather than Malloy enjoys the distinction of being the first female boxer ever registered by USA Boxing. The reason is that the Pacific Northwest Amateur Boxing Association decided, perhaps in spite, to file her application ahead of Malloy's. For the most recent article on the subject, see Bellingham Herald, August 9, 1999, B3.