In 2018, the notion of women boxers isn’t exactly unheard of. We have come to know the names of a select few women-boxing stars, seen the arrival of a Barbie-doll version of our very own Olympic boxing champion, Nicola Adams – albeit without the muscles that she has built up during her more than two-decade long career – and continued to make strides towards recognising the talents of women in a field that has long been considered incompatible with their gender.
But, as far as we have come (and we still have a long way to go – the first televised boxing match on the BBC arrived as late as eight years ago, a year after women’s boxing was permitted to be included in the 2012 Olympics), we are yet to recognise the significant impact that women pioneers made in the boxing field over the last century.
Annie Newton was one of them: a single mother of two who participated in fights in order to support her family. Newton was, according to a contemporary Ohio-based newspaper, billed as the best female boxer in the country and had been due to fight her career rival, Madge Baker, at Shoreditch Baths in 1926. But, as word spread about the six-round boxing match, a campaign against women’s boxing – led by Hackney’s then-mayor, Rev W Evans – began to gain traction. As the Hackney Gazette reported, Evans considered the “proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men”.
Spurred on by his distaste for women’s participation in a sport dominated by men, Evans then brought the match to the attention of home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks. Believing that “decent public opinion” would prevail against “such an outrage”, Joynson maintained that he “should have no power to interfere… because the legislature never imagined that such a disgraceful exhibition would have been staged in this country”. The match was banned by Shoreditch Borough Council soon after, with just one vote in favour of it going ahead coming from a woman, who said that “if the girls wanted to maul each other” it was “perfectly all right” in her opinion.
Annie was, as expected, angered by the ban. Speaking to a reporter at the time, she said: “All this talk about boxing being ‘degrading’ and ‘risky’ and ‘too hard work’ strikes me as very comic.
“Is it any more degrading, or half as hard work as scrubbing floors? Is it any more risky than working in a munitions factory?”
In a desperate bid to see the fight go ahead, Annie even went so far as to put herself forward to box with two men, but was later relegated to exhibiting her punch-ball skills to a crowd.
Without women like Newton, who vowed that while she 'may not see it… the day will come – like it or not – when the world will see women in the ring', the advancement of women in sports like boxing would likely have been much slower
Women’s boxing was not necessarily new to England in those days, although it was widely banned by the Amateur Boxing Association of England (now England Boxing) for 116 years – until 1996, when the ban was finally lifted. In fact, Newton herself, who said she would “go on with [her] sparring partners and enjoy [herself] no end” in spite of the ban, took up boxing as a child after her amateur-boxing champion uncle “Professor” Andrew Newton introduced her to the sport. Years later, it would be the push that saw her become the most prominent member of her uncle’s London-based women’s boxing club.
There are clear parallels between the backlash against women’s participation in boxing – as well as other combat sports – in 1920s Shoreditch and our shockingly recent decision to embrace it within recent decades. But it’s clear that, without women like Newton, who vowed that while she “may not see it… the day will come – like it or not – when the world will see women in the ring”, the advancement of women in sports like boxing would likely have been much slower to occur. Not long after boxing champion Adams’ 2012 victory, for example, England Boxing reported that an “Adams effect” had driven a surge in the number of women who “participate in boxing”, with “the number of registered female boxers in Great Britain [rising] from 70 in 2005 to more than 1,000 in 2011”.
Thanks to historians at the East End Women’s Museum and Hackney Museum, stories of women like Newton – who defied the notion that “pre-menstrual syndrome made” women “too unstable to box”, according to Rebecca Odell, a curator at Hackney Museum – have been able to come to the fore. Who knows how many more women’s names and narratives we have yet to learn.