Women in the Martial Arts: 479 b.c.-a.d. 1896

Martial arts do not exist in a vacuum and issues of gender and violence are never unambiguous. As Britain’s Jennifer Hargreaves has written regarding women’s boxing:

Although strength and muscularity in boxing have symbolically been a source of physical capital for men, the diversity and complexity found in representations of the female body in boxing make it difficult to assess the extent to which the sport is a subversive activity for women or an essentially assimilative process with a radical facade. For now, female boxing remains riddled with contradictory cultural values. (1996, 131)

Therefore, beyond demonstrating female participation in martial activities such as boxing prior to the twentieth century, the following also attempts to place that behavior in cultural context. While the result may please neither moralists nor advocates of gender parity, that too is nothing more than a reminder of the contradictory nature of the study.

479 B.C. A Greek woman named Hydne becomes a Hellenic hero by helping her father Skyllis pull up the anchors of some Iranian ships during a storm, thus causing the ships to founder and their crews to drown. While most modern authorities suggest that Hydne and her father were probably sponge-fishers, it is possible that they were upper-class athletes whose training for Dionysian swimming meets had been interrupted by war. Two circumstances support this hypothesis: first, Hydne’s and Skyllis’s subsequent fame (Greek sponge-fishers rarely became Athenian heroes), and second, the paucity of detail and mass of conjecture surrounding the original sources.

About 460 B.C. The Greek historian Herodotus describes the practices and culture of some female warriors he called the Amazons. Who the Amazons were is not known, and in practice there were female warriors and priestesses throughout the Mediterranean world. Also, stories about Amazon mastectomies are likely owed to Hellenistic stage tradition rather than actual practice: Hellenistic actors traditionally bared their right breasts to show that they were playing unmarried females.

Engraving of the French national heroine Joan of Arc holding a sword.

Engraving of the French national heroine Joan of Arc holding a sword.

396 B.C. A Spartan princess named Kyniska becomes the first woman to win the chariot-racing events at Olym-pia. While Plutarch wrote that Kyniska personally drove the winning chariot, most other ancient sources suggest that she was the owner of those horses rather than their driver.

About 330 B.C. Etruscan bronze statuettes show men wrestling with women. While the men were naked, the women wore thigh-length, pleated tunics. Accordingly, the art was probably allegorical rather than erotic.

About 322 B.C. Greek writers describe the female bodyguard of a north Indian prince named Chandragupta.

First century A.D. A Chinese annalist named Zhao Yi writes about a woman who was a great swordsman. She said the key to success was constant practice without the supervision of a master; after a while, she said, she just understood everything there was to know. But as immediately after saying this she accepted the job as swordsmanship instructor for the Kingdom of Yue, perhaps this description is lacking some verisimilitude. After all, if one needed no teacher save oneself to become a sword master, there seems no reason why she herself would become one.

18-27 A peasant rebellion rocks Shandong province and leads to the collapse of the Xin dynasty and the creation of the Later Han dynasty. This unrest (called the Red Eyebrow Rebellion after its members’ practice of painting their eyebrows blood red) was led by a woman who claimed to speak with the voice of the local gods. Strictly speaking, this was a case of spirit-possession rather than shamanism.

About 41 Later Han soldiers under the command of the Shensi aristocrat Ma Yuan kill a Vietnamese feudal lord living near Tonkin and publicly rape his wife and sister-in-law. These rapes may have been official acts, as, from the Han perspective, they would have demonstrated the superiority of Chinese patrilineage over Vietnamese matrilineage. On the other hand, they could have been individual acts, as the Chinese did not consider rape a public crime until 1983. Either way, the outrage causes the two women, named Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, to incite a Vietnamese rebellion. This rebellion in turn introduces the Chinese to the giant bronze drums that the Vietnamese mountaineers used to transmit military information and provides a favorite subject for Vietnamese stage and puppet plays.

About 55 The Roman Caesar Nero introduces his notorious Youth Games, which feature, to the disgust of the historian Tacitus, sword fights between women.

About 60 When a British queen named Boudicca (Boadicea) refuses to pay taxes to the Romans, a Roman official has the woman flogged and her daughters raped. The outraged Celts retaliate by killing tens of thousands of Romanized Britons living in what is today Norfolk and Suffolk, and burning the Roman capital at Londinium. When this rebellion was rediscovered through translation in the sixteenth century, it caused Boadicea’s chariot, as the translators called it, to become an integral part of Elizabethan English nationalism. As for the unfortunate first-century queen, she and her daughters committed suicide near Epping Upland after the Romans slaughtered the British men in battle.

About 200 A Christian philosopher named Clement of Alexandria writes that women should be athletes for God. That is, they should wrestle with the Devil and devote themselves to celibacy instead of bowing meekly to their destiny of mothers and wives. However, this was not a universally held view, and wealthy Roman men continued amusing themselves with gymnastic, gladiatorial, and swimming acts featuring scantily clad female competitors.

271 A group of Gothic women captured while armed and dressed as men are paraded through Rome wearing signs that read “Amazons.”

About 535 Korean aristocrats replace female sword dancers with male sword dancers, apparently as a method of limiting the power of female shamans.

585 French churchmen debate whether women have souls. At least that is the postmodern feminist view of the debate, which was actually about whether the Old French word vir meant the same thing as the Vulgate Latin word homo. (The decision was that it did not.)

590 The Christian Synod of Druim Ceat orders British women to quit going into battle alongside their men. The ban must not have been especially effective, since the daughter of Alfred the Great is remembered as the conqueror of Wales, and the people who taught sword dancing to the Ulster hero Cu Chulainn were female.

697 Roman Catholic priests prohibit Irish women and children from appearing on contested battlefields. This institutes a cultural change, for in pre-Christian times, Irish women and children had often accompanied Irish men into battle.

About 890 Beowulf is written. A villain of the piece is a homicidal crone called Grendel’s mother. Meanwhile, in “Judith,” a much shorter poem written about the same time as Beowulf, the poet praises a God-fearing woman who gets a lustful feudal lord drunk and then beheads him with his own sword. Although such a woman was unusual (medieval heroines were usually martyrs rather than killers), the author obviously knew something about beheadings, as Judith, a handsome Hebrew woman, requires two mighty blows to sever the demonic lecher’s head from its neck-rings.

About 970 According to a twelfth-century writer named Zhang Bangji, Chinese palace dancers began binding their feet to make themselves more sexually attractive to men. The crippling practice was widespread throughout southern China by the fourteenth century, and throughout all of China by the seventeenth, and is remarked because foot binding prevented well-bred Han females from effectively practicing boxing or swordsmanship until the twentieth century. (Some were noted archers, though, generally with crossbows.) Still, into the 1360s, Hong Fu, Hong Xian, Thirteenth Sister, and other Chinese martial heroines (xia) were sometimes portrayed by women on Chinese stages, and there was a seventeenth-century reference to a fourteenth-century woman named Yang who was said to be peerless in the fighting art of “pear-blossom spear.” But in general such activity ended with the spread of foot binding, and from the fourteenth to twentieth centuries specially trained men played female roles in Chinese theatricals.

About 1020 The Iranian poet Firdawsi describes polo as a favorite sport of Turkish aristocrats. According to the thirteenth-century poet Nizami, aristocratic Turkish women also played polo, which was the Central Asian equivalent of jousting.

1049-1052 A female general named Akkadevi becomes a heroine of west-central Indian resistance to southern Indian aggression.

About 1106 Troubadours popularize pre-Christian legends about an Ulster hero called Cu Chulainn who was so much man that by the age of 7 he already required the sight of naked women to distract him from wanton killing. Further, as he got older, Cu Chulainn became notorious for conquering matristic societies by rape. Evidently Christian patrilinealism was being imposed on Ireland, and the victors were describing how it was being done, as in the earliest forms of the story, Cu Chulainn’s martial art instructors included a woman known as Scathach (Shadowy).

1146 Eleanor of Aquitaine, the self-willed, 24-year-old wife of Louis VII of France (and future wife of Henry II of England), joins the Second Crusade dressed and riding astride like a man. Although her behavior was doubtless chic (Eleanor never actually entered battle with the Muslims), her disregard for propriety caused the pope to forbid women from joining the Third Crusade of 1189. Like most laws, the ban was widely ignored by the working classes.

A depiction of the mighty female warrior Tomoe Gozen from 100 Heroes Story by Japanese author Kuu'yoshi.

A depiction of the mighty female warrior Tomoe Gozen from 100 Heroes Story by Japanese author Kuu’yoshi.

1184 Minamoto soldiers kill a Taira general named Yoshinaka and his wife. Subsequent Japanese accounts portray the woman, Tomoe Gozen, as a mighty warrior.

Thirteenth century Tahitian priests introduce the Huna religion into Hawaii. The martial art associated with this religion was known as Lua, a word meaning “to pit [in battle]” or “two” (i.e., duality; the idea was to balance healing and hurting, good and evil). The methods developed from both military hand-to-hand combat and the ritual killings that were part of the Huna religion, and its practitioners were divided into those who used their skills to heal and those who used their skills to harm. Skill in Lua involved setting or dislocating bones at the joints, inflicting or stopping pain using finger strikes to nerve centers, and knowing how to use herbal medicines and sympathetic magic. Working-class Hawaiians, both men and women, also boxed and wrestled. There were no set rules in these latter games, which were known collectively as mokomoko. Accordingly, players slapped palms upon agreeing to terms or to signify a draw.

1207 King Pedro II of Aragon sponsors the first European tournament known to have honored a woman (his mistress, of course, as Iberian nobles married for land and children rather than love). The construction of prepared stands soon followed, as the lady and her servants could not be expected to stand in the mud like ordinary people.

1228 A woman challenges a man to a judicial duel at the lists in Bern, Switzerland, and wins. Such challenges were not uncommon in Germany and Switzerland during the thirteenth century, particularly during rape cases. To even the odds, such judicial duels were arranged by placing the man in a pit dug as deep as his navel while allowing the woman free movement around that pit. The usual weapons included leather belts, singlesticks, and fist-sized rocks wrapped in cloth. During these duels, if a participant’s weapon or hand touched the ground three times, he or she was declared defeated. Male losers were beheaded, while female losers lost their right hands.

1280 The Venetian merchant Marco Polo describes a Mongol princess named Ai-yaruk, or “Bright Moon,” who refused to get married until she met a man who could throw her. The story may be exaggerated, as it was not written until around 1295, and the writer, Rustichello of Pisa, was never one to let facts stand in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, it is likely that during his travels Polo really did see some Mongol women wrestling.

1292 Northern Italian towns start holding pugil-stick fights, bareknuckle boxing matches, and cudgeling tournaments. Legend attributes the creation to the Sienese monk Saint Bernard, who taught that fists were better than swords or sticks for deciding arguments, but illustrations show slapping games in which players sat cross-legged on benches, and then took turns slapping one another until somebody fell off the bench. Another game involved slapping buttocks; this was often played between men and women. Mock equestrian battles were also fought in which a girl sat on a boy’s shoulders, and one pair then undertook to knock over another.

About 1300 A secretary to the Bishop of Wurzburg produces a manuscript depicting unarmored German fighters. Known today as Manuscript I.33, the text is in Latin, while the technical terms are in German. Most of the work, however, involves a series of watercolor drawings showing students, monks, and even a woman training in a variety of sword-and-buck-ler techniques.

1354 The Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta reports seeing female warriors throughout Southeast Asia. Although many of these women were probably sword dancers, others were royal bodyguards. (Southeast Asian princes often preferred female bodyguards to eunuchs.)

1364-1405 Tamerlane’s armies ravage Central and Southwest Asia. Although Tamerlane was a devout Muslim, and non-Muslims took the brunt of the Timurids’ legendary cruelty, his use of female archers in defense of baggage trains appalled orthodox Muslim opponents.

1389 Sixty aristocratic women lead sixty knights and sixty squires from the Tower of London to the lists at Smithfield. The thought of females actually fighting during a tournament was, in the words of a near-contemporary German author, “as impossible as a king, prince, or knight plowing the ground or shoveling manure.” (Contemporary tales of female jousters appear most often in erotic fantasies and satires.) Women did sometimes compete in ball games and footraces. Many wealthy women also enjoyed hunting with crossbows and falcons.

1409 Christine de Pisan, the Italian-born daughter of a French court astrologer, publishes a topic called Livre des Faits d’Armes (topic of Feats of Arms), a vernacular study of military strategy and international law. It includes original work, alongside translations of Vegetius and Frontinus, classical authorities in the field. It is also a reminder that medieval females could be as knowledgeable about military and political matters as was anyone else within their social or economic class.

1431 The English burn a 19-year-old Frenchwoman named Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid) as a witch. Her actual crime was rallying peasants to the French flag. (She and some Scottish mercenaries had won some important battles, thus giving the peasants hope.) Jeanne la Pucelle was renamed Jeanne d’Arc (Joan the Archer) during the sixteenth century. The modern cult of Saint Joan dates to the 1890s, when French politicians decided to use the woman’s martyrdom to create a unifying national holiday. (Bastille Day, which the Catholics viewed as godless, and the Royalists viewed as an insult, was too controversial for this purpose.)

1541 While going up a river in Brazil, the Dominican monk Gaspar de Carvajal reports being attacked by a band of armed females. The story causes the river along which Carvajal was traveling to be called the Amazon.

1541 Pedro de Valdivia leads a military expedition whose members include his mistress, Ines Suarez, overland from Peru into central Chile.

About 1545 Women begin playing female roles on the French stage. The practice spreads to Italy around 1608, and Britain around 1658. The reason for the change was that dowryless females were willing to work for less money than the men and boys who had traditionally played female roles.

1561 Mochizuki Chiyome, the wife of the Japanese warlord Mochizuke Moritoki, establishes a training school for female orphans and foundlings. The skills the girls learned included shrine attendant, geisha, and spy. While Mochizuki-trained geisha are sometimes claimed as the first female ninja, it is more likely that the women were simply prostitutes trained to remember and repeat whatever they heard from their carefully selected patrons.

About 1590 A chronicler named Abu Fazl describes the harem of the Mughul emperor Akbar as housing about 5,000 women. About 300 of these women were wives; the rest were servants and guards. The guards were mostly from Russia and Ethiopia, and were little more than armed slaves. There were exceptions, of course, and one of Akbar’s chief rivals in the 1560s was a warrior-queen named Rani Durgawati.

1601 A Javanese prince named Sutawijaya Sahidin Panatagam dies. Throughout his life, the man’s courage and luck were legendary, and he reportedly forgave would-be assassins by saying that daggers could not pierce the skin of a man who was protected by the gods. He took this belief seriously, too, as his concubines included an east Javanese woman who introduced herself to him by attacking him with some pistols and butterfly knives.

1606 The Iberian navigator Quiros visits the Tuamotus Archipelago, and observes its Polynesian inhabitants wrestling. Both men and women wrestled, and there were sometimes mixed bouts. The audience defined the ring by standing around the participants. The wrestling was freestyle, and hair pulling was allowed.

1611 The Mughul emperor Jahangir falls in love with an Iranian widow named Mehrunissa. The emperor’s fascination is not surprising, as Mehrunissa was a gifted poet, competent dress and carpet designer, and avid tiger hunter. (She hunted from atop a closed howdah, and once killed four tigers with just six bullets.) Her niece was Asaf Khan’s daughter Arju-mand Banu, the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

1630-1680 Dueling provides a favorite theme for French playwrights. According to these writers, people (both men and women dueled in French plays) dueled more often for love than honor, and trickery brought victory more often than bravery.

About 1650 Dona Eustaquia de Sonza and Dona Ana Lezama de Ur-inza of Potosi, Alto Peru, become the most famous female swashbucklers in Spanish America. At the time, Potosi, a silver-mining town in the Bolivian Andes, had more inhabitants than London, and was probably the richest city in the world.

1688 Following a coup in Siam, women drilled in the use of muskets replace the 600 European mercenaries and Christian samurai who had served the previous government. The leader of these women was called Ma Ying Taphan, or the Great Mother of War. Burmese princes also used female bodyguards inside their private apartments, and European, Japanese, or Pathan mercenaries without.

About 1690 Female wrestling acts become common in Japanese red-light districts. Although Confucianist officials charged that such acts were harmful to public morals, female wrestling remained popular in Tokyo until the 1890s and in remote areas such as southern Kyushu and the Ryukyus until the 1920s.

1697 A 40-year-old Maine woman named Hannah Dustin escapes from an Abenaki Indian war party after hatcheting to death two Abenaki men, their wives, and six of their seven children as they slept. (A third Abenaki woman and a child escaped, although both appear to have been injured.) For this slaughter (which is almost unique in frontier annals), the Puritan minister Cotton Mather proclaimed Dustin “God’s instrument,” while the General Assembly of Massachusetts awarded her a sizable scalp bounty.

1705 Because a Comanche raid covers hundreds of miles and lasts for months, wives often accompany war parties, where they serve as snipers, cooks, and torturers. Unmarried Comanche women are also known to have ridden into combat, although this is considered somewhat scandalous.

1706 A trooper in Lord Hay’s Regiment of Dragoons is discovered to be a woman. At the time, she had thirteen years’ service in various regiments and campaigns. Subsequently known as Mother Ross, she had enlisted after first giving her children to her mother and a nurse. She spent her military career dressed in a uniform whose waistcoat was designed to compress and disguise her breasts.

1707 The French opera star Julie La Maupin dies at the age of 37; in 1834 novelist Theophile Gautier made her famous as Mademoiselle de Maupin. In her time she was a noted fencer and cross-dresser; her fencing masters included her father, Gaston d’Aubigny, and a lover, a man named Serannes. Other redoubtable Frenchwomen of the day included Madame de la Pre-Abbe and Mademoiselle de la Motte, who in 1665 fired pistols at one another from horseback from a range of about 10 yards, and then, after missing twice, took to fighting with swords. And in 1868, two women named Marie P. and Aimee R. dueled over which would get to marry a young man from Bordeaux. Marie was hit in the thigh with the first shot, leaving Aimee free to marry the young man. (Or so said the popular press.)

1722 Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell challenges Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market to meet her on stage and box for a prize of three guineas; the rules of the engagement require each woman to strike each other in the face while holding a half-crown coin in each fist, with the first to drop a coin being the loser. These rules perhaps suggest how bareknuckle boxing began, as James Figg was a chief promoter of women’s fighting. For example, in August 1725, Figg and a woman called Long Meg of Westminster fought Ned Sutton and an unnamed woman; Figg and Meg took the prize of £40. Nevertheless, says historian Elliott Gorn, the sporadic appearance of women in English prizefights only “underscored male domination of the culture of the ring” (Gorn 1986, fn. 69, 265).

1727 After his army takes heavy casualties during a slave-raiding expedition against Ouidah, King Agaja of Dahomey creates a female palace guard and arms it with Danish trade muskets. By the nineteenth century this female bodyguard had 5,000 members. One thousand carried firearms. The rest served as porters, drummers, and litter-bearers. These Dahomeyan women trained for war through vigorous dancing and elephant hunting. They were prohibited from becoming pregnant on pain of death. They fought as well or better than male soldiers, and they were said by Richard Burton to be better soldiers than their incompetent male leadership deserved.

1759 Mary Lacy, a runaway serving girl who served twelve years in the Royal Navy, gets in a fight aboard HMS Sandwich. “I went aft to the main hatchway and pulled off my jacket,” wrote Lacy, “but they wanted me to pull off my shirt, which I would not suffer for fear of it being discovered that I was a woman, and it was with much difficulty that I could keep it on.” The fight then developed into a wrestling match. “During the combat,” said Lacy, “he threw me such violent cross-buttocks . . . [as] were almost enough to dash my brains out.” But by “a most lucky circumstance” she won the bout, and afterwards she “reigned master over all the rest” of the ship’s boys (Stark 1996, 137).

1768 After disguising herself as a boy and shipping out with the French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Jeanne Bare becomes the first female to circumnavigate the world. Women also served in the British navy. These women avoided discovery because European seamen seldom bathed and invariably slept in their clothes.

1768 In the Clerkenwell district of London (perhaps at the London Spa), two female prizefighters mill for a prize of a dress valued at half a crown, while another two women fight against two men for a prize of a guinea apiece. And at Wetherby’s on Little Russell Street, the 19-year-old rake William Hickey sees “two she-devils . . . engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from them.” These “she-devils” were singers and prostitutes, and their prefight preparation consisted mostly of drinking more gin than usual. Other rough venues included the Dog and Duck in St. George’s Fields, Bagnigge Wells on King’s Cross Road, and White Conduit House near Islington (Quennell 1962, 63-66).

1774 During Wang Lun’s rebellion in Shandong province, a tall, white-haired female rebel is seen astride a horse, wielding one sword with ease and two with care. The woman, whose name is unknown, was a sorceress who claimed to be in touch with the White Lotus deity known as the Eternal Mother. An actress named Wu San Niang (“Third Daughter Wu”) was also involved in Wang Lun’s rebellion. Described as a better boxer, tightrope walker, and acrobat than her late husband, Wu has skill remarked mainly because female boxers were unusual in a society whose standards of beauty required women to bind their feet.

1776 According to tradition, a Buddhist nun named Wu Mei (Ng Mui) creates a Southern Shaolin Boxing style known as yongchun (wing chun; beautiful springtime). The tradition has never been proven, and twentieth-century stylistic leaders such as Yip Chun believe that a Cantonese actor named Ng Cheung created the style during the 1730s. If Yip is correct, then the female attribution could mean that Ng Cheung specialized in playing female roles, or that the ultimate master is a loving old woman rather than some muscled Adonis. Still, it is possible that some southern Chinese women practiced boxing in a group setting. During the late eighteenth century, Cantonese merchants began hiring Hakka women to work in their silkworm factories. (While ethnically Chinese, the Hakka had separate dialects and customs. Unlike most Chinese, these customs did not include binding the feet of girls. Therefore their women were physically capable of working outside the home.) To protect themselves from kidnappers (marriage by rape remained a feature of Chinese life into the 1980s), these factory women gradually organized themselves into lay sisterhoods. So it seems likely that Wu Mei was simply a labor organizer or head of an orphanage whose name became associated with a boxing style.

1782 A 22-year-old Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson cuts her hair and enlists in the Continental Army, calling herself Robert Shurtliff. She fought against the Tories and British in New York, and she also wrote letters for illiterate soldiers and did her best to avoid rough soldiers’ games such as wrestling. (The one time she did wrestle, she was flung to the ground.) After the war, Sampson married, and in 1838 her husband became the first man to receive a pension from the United States government for his wife’s military service. Sampson’s maritime equivalents during the Revolutionary War included Fanny Campbell and Mary Anne Talbot.

About 1794 According to sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves, a boxing match between two Englishwomen was described: “Great intensity between them was maintained for about two hours, whereupon the elder fell into great difficulty through the closure of her left eye from the extent of swelling above and below it which rendered her blind. . . . Their bosoms were much enlarged but yet they each continued to rain blows upon this most feeling of tissue without regard to the pitiful cries issuing forth at each success which was evidently to the delight of the spectators” (1996, 125).

About 1805 British newspapers start reporting the faction fights that had been occurring at Irish fairs and horse races since the 1730s. Irishmen fought using sticks and brick-sized stones while Irishwomen struck using razors or stones sewn inside knitted socks. Although it was acceptable for a male faction fighter to use his stick to parry a blow from a woman, it was considered bad form for him to hit her with the stick. Fists and feet were another matter; 2.5 percent of deaths associated with the faction fights were the results of kicks administered once the other fellow was down, and 5 percent of deaths were due to infected bites.

1807 After learning that the Polish hussar Aleksandr Sokolov is actually a Russian woman named Nadezha Durova, Czar Alexander I awards Durova a medal for bravery and a commission as an officer in the Mariupol Hussars. Durova continued serving with the Russian army throughout the Napoleonic Wars and retired as a captain in 1816.

1817 The British fencing master Henry Angelo describes a mulatto fencer known as Chevalier de Sainte Georges as the finest fencer in the world. Other noted Afro-European fencers of the period included Soubise, who taught aristocratic women (including the duchess of Queensberry) to fence at Angelo’s London salle.

About 1820 According to Richard Kim, the wife of the Okinawan karate master Matsumura Sokon becomes known as one of the finest karate practitioners in the Ryukyus. As Mrs. Matsumura could reportedly lift a 60-kilo bag of rice with one hand, the reputation may have been deserved. On the other hand, it could be modern myth. For one thing, Matsumura Sokon was born in 1805. Since Asian men typically marry younger women, this means Mrs. Matsumura was likely no more than 10 years old. For another, Okinawans usually associate female wrestling with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of aristocrats. Furthermore, left to their own devices, most Okinawan women take up dancing rather than karate or sumo. Finally, Nagamine Shoshin did not publish the stories upon which Kim based his accounts until June 1952, which was more than a half century after Matsumura’s death. So perhaps some exaggeration crept in over time.

1821-1829 With significant outside assistance, the Greeks free themselves from Ottoman Turkish rule; a heroine of the war is a Spetsiot woman named Lascarina Bouboulina, who commands ships in battle against the Turks and Egyptians, and takes pride in taking and discarding lovers like a man.

1822 In London, Martha Flaherty fights Peg Carey for a prize of £18; the fight, which starts at 5:30 a.m., is won by Flaherty, whose training has included drinking most of a pint of gin before the match. Female prizefighting was a function of the low prevailing wage rate for unskilled female labor. (Assuming she worked as a fur sewer or seamstress, Flaherty’s prize exceeded a year’s wages.) Attire included tight-fitting jackets, short petticoats, and Holland drawers. Wrestling, kicking, punching, and kneeing were allowed. Women with greater economic freedom usually preferred playing gentler games. For instance, although Eton did not play Harrow in cricket until 1805—Lord Byron was on the losing Harrovian side—Miss S. Norcross of Surrey batted a century in 1788.

1829 The Swiss educator Phokian Clias publishes a popular physical education text topic called Kalisthenie (the title comes from the Greek words meaning “beauty” and “strength”). Clias favored light to moderate exercise, and rejected ball games for women because he thought they required too much use of the shoulder and pectoral muscles.

About 1830 An Italian woman named Rosa Baglioni is described as perhaps the finest stage fencer in Germany.

1832 Warning that lack of exercise produces softness, debility, and un-fitness, American educator Catherine Beecher publishes A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies; the best exercise for a woman, according to Mrs. Beecher, is vigorous work with mop and washtub. No liberation there. Then, in 1847, Lydia Mary Child, author of The Little Girl’s Own topic, became slightly more adventurous, saying that “skating, driving hoop, and other boyish sports may be practiced to great advantage by little girls provided they can be pursued within the enclosure of a garden or court; in the street, of course, they would be highly improper” (Guttman 1991, 91).

1847 Queen Victoria decides that women who served aboard British warships during the Napoleonic Wars will not receive the General Service Medal. At least three women applied, and many more were technically eligible. But they were all denied. Explained Admiral  Byam Martin, “There were many women in the fleet equally useful, and [issuing awards to women] will leave the Army exposed to innumerable applications of the same nature” (Stark 1996, 80-81; fn. 66, 184).

About 1850 After catching her trying to steal their horses, Flathead Indians club to death a Blackfeet war chief called Running Eagle. As Black-feet men frequently rode naked into battle as a way of showing that they had nothing to lose by fighting, it cannot be argued that Running Eagle masqueraded as a man. Instead, it seems to have been fairly common for childless Blackfeet women to participate in horse-stealing expeditions. Cross-dressing men (berdache) also accompanied Plains Indian military expeditions. The cross-dressers provided supernatural protection, and the women did the cooking. Native Americans were never as sexually obsessed as the European Americans, and ethnographic evidence suggests that most rapes attributed to the American Indians were actually done by European or African Americans. (Although tales of female sexual bondage to the Indians have been a staple of English and American literature, theater, and movies for 300 years, most Indian cultures required warriors to go through lengthy cleansing rituals before having sex with anyone, male or female. These rituals were taken seriously, too, as failure to accomplish them properly could cause a man to lose his war magic.)

1850 Theater manager A. H. Purdy introduces the spectacle of “Amazons,” or uniformed women performing close-order drill, to the New York stage. Female drill teams remained popular with North American audiences for the next 150 years; just look at football halftime exercises.

1854 In New York City, an Englishman named Harry Hill opens a concert saloon at 25 East Houston Street; although prizefights are illegal in New York, Harry Hill’s nightly shows include boxing and wrestling acts. Most pugilists were male—both William Muldoon and John L. Sullivan started at Harry Hill’s—but could be female. In 1876, for instance, Nell Saunders boxed (and beat) Rose Harland for the prize of a silver butter dish. A drawing published in the National Police Gazette on November 22, 1879, shows Harry Hill’s female boxers wearing T-shirts, knickers, and buttoned shoes, and showing a scandalous amount of arm and thigh. Harry Hill’s had two entrances. The main entrance was for men, who paid twenty-five cents’ admission. The side door was for women, who paid nothing. Hill’s drinks were overpriced, and the air was a cloud of tobacco smoke. Other than that, Hill ran a respectable house, and his boxers circulated among the crowd to keep it that way. Reform politicians finally caused Harry Hill’s to close in 1886.

1857-1858 Forty-seven battalions of Bengali infantry and several independent principalities rebel against Britain’s Honourable East India Company. Although most rebels were men, the best-known rebel was a woman, the 25-year-old Rani of Jhansi. She rode into battle armed and armored like a man, and died of wounds received near Gwalior in June 1858. Rani’s counterpart on the British side, a woman whom the modern Indians revere much less, was an equally redoubtable Afghan widow from Bhopal named Sikander Begum.

1864 In volume 1 of a text called Principles of Biology, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer coins the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Spencer saw nature as a state of pitiless warfare, with the elimination of the weak and unfit as its goal. People who did not read him closely soon applied this theory to social dynamics, and called the result Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was a very popular theory among white-collar workers whose masculinity (and jobs) were threatened by women and immigrants.

1865 General James Miranda Barry, the inspector general of the British Army Medical Department, dies in London, and is discovered after death to have been female.

1870 In a world where clerks and secretaries are increasingly female, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Chains turns male clerks’ terror of what Henry James called “damnable feminization” into a fantastic story of fur-clad, whip-cracking women verbally and sexually abusing men. Besides creating a stock figure for subsequent pornographic fiction, von Sacher-Masoch’s conclusion retains some validity: “Whoever allows himself to be whipped deserves to be whipped.”

1875 Parisian street gangsters are reported shaving their heads and dressing in metal-studded leather jackets; the press responds by calling such people “apaches.” Originally, this name referred to a Belgian pepperbox revolver that had a blade under its barrel and a knuckle-duster in its butt, rather than to the Athabascan people of the American Southwest, but after the Apache leader Geronimo became a household word, the revolver was forgotten. Around 1890, the apache name also began to describe a sadomasochistic dance genre in which tattooed, scarred women fought knife or saber duels while stripped to their underclothes, or smiled while men slapped them around.

1878 J. R. Headington argues in the American Christian Review that female athletics represent a nine-step path to ruin; for example, a croquet party leads to picnics, picnics lead to dances, dances lead to absence from church, absence from church leads to immoral conduct, immoral conduct leads to exclusion from church (no forgiveness here!), exclusion from church leads to running away, running away leads to poverty and discontent, poverty and discontent lead to shame and disgrace, and shame and disgrace lead to ruin. Although many middle-class women heeded Head-ington’s advice, fewer upper-class women did, causing female athleticism, especially in golf, tennis, and cycling, to become increasingly common throughout the late nineteenth century.

1881 Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman of Providence, Rhode Island, perhaps best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” becomes the United States’ first known female bodybuilder. Besides lifting weights, Gilman ran a mile a day and boasted of her ability to “vault and jump, go up a knotted rope, walk on my hands under a ladder, kick as high as my head, and revel in the flying rings” (Guttman 1991, 124). By 1904, fencing was also popular with Rhode Island society women; instructors included Eleanor Baldwin Cass, and students included Marion Fish and Natalie Wells.

1881 A Swedish woman named Martina Bergman-Osterberg becomes the superintendent of physical education for London’s public schools. By 1886, she had trained 1,300 English schoolteachers in the methods of Swedish gymnastics. “I try to train my girls to help raise their own sex,” said Bergman-Osterberg, “and so accelerate the progress of the race.”

1884 The British scientist Sir Francis Galton tests 500 men and 270 women to see how fast they can punch; he finds that the men average 18 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 29 feet per second, while the women average 13 feet per second, with a maximum speed of 20 feet per second. In other words, although some women could hit harder than the average man, most women could hit only 55 percent as hard.

1884 A 20-year-old American woman named Etta Hattan adopts the stage name of Jaguarina, and bills herself as the “Ideal Amazon of the Age.” Whether Hattan was all of that is of course debatable, but she was certainly Amazon enough to defeat many men at mounted broadsword fencing during her fifteen-year professional career.

1887 Circus magnate P. T. Barnum hires wrestler Ed Decker, the Little Wonder from Vermont, as a sideshow attraction, offering to pay $100 to anyone who can pin Decker, and $50 to anyone who can avoid being pinned within three minutes. Despite weighing only 150 pounds and standing only 5 feet 6 inches tall, Decker reportedly never lost to a paying customer. Of course, some matches were harder than others, and as a British sideshow boxer told a reporter a year later, “I still pray, ‘Oh, Lord, let me win the easy way.’” Women also fought as booth boxers. According to Ron Taylor, a Welsh sideshow promoter of the 1960s, “My grandmother used to challenge all comers. She wore protectors on her chest, but she never needed them. Nobody she ever went up against could even come close to hitting her” (undated clippings in Joseph Svinth collection). The most famous of these British fairground pugilists was probably Barbara Buttrick, who was the women’s fly and bantamweight boxing champion from 1950 to 1960. This said, not all the female pugilists were female. For instance, a carnival shill named Charles Edwards told A. J. Liebling about a turn-of-the-century Texas circus that had a woman stand in front of the tent promising $50 to any man who could stay three rounds with her. Once inside the dimly lit tent, the mark then found himself boxing a cross-dressing male look-alike.

1889 Female boxing becomes popular throughout the United States. Champions included Nellie Stewart of Norfolk, Virginia; Ann Lewis of Cleveland, Ohio; and Hattie Leslie of New York. The audiences were male, and the fighters sometimes stripped to their drawers like men. Savate fights, in which kicking was allowed, were also popular. Girls as young as 12 years headed the bills. Cuts were stitched on the spot, and the women often fought with broken noses, jaws, and teeth. There were occasionally matches between female boxers and female savate fighters. In 1902, for instance, a Mademoiselle Augagnier beat Miss Pinkney of England during such a bout. Pinkney was ahead during the first ninety minutes, but then Augagnier managed to kick Pinkney hard in the face, an advantage that she immediately used to send a powerful kick into Pinkney’s abdomen for the victory.

1889 Female wrestling becomes popular in France and England, with Masha Poddubnaya, wife of Ivan Poddubny, claiming the women’s title. Said journalist Max Viterbo of a female wrestling match in the Rue Mont-martre in 1903, “The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out.” As for the wrestlers, “They flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes—hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet” (Guttman 1991, 99-100).

1891 Richard Kyle Fox and the National Police Gazette sponsor a women’s championship wrestling match in New York City; to prevent hair pulling, the women cut their hair short, and to keep everything “decent,” the women wear tights. (Not all matches were so prim, and in 1932, Frederick Van Wyck recollected some matches of his youth that were between “two ladies, with nothing but trunks on” [Gorn 1986, 130].) Fox’s wrestlers include Alice Williams and Sadie Morgan. The venue is Owney Geoghegan’s Bastille of the Bowery.

1895 Theodore Roosevelt hires the New York Police Department’s first female employee. The reason was that Minnie Kelly did more work for less money than did the two male secretaries she replaced. In 1896, Commissioner Roosevelt also gave uniforms and badges to the women who processed female prisoners at police stations. Excepting meter maids and secretaries, police departments used women mainly as matrons and vice detectives until 1968, when the Indianapolis police pioneered the use of female patrol officers.

1896 San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Pavilion becomes the first U.S. boxing venue known to have sold reserved seats to women. (The occasion was a title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Sharkey, and Fitzsimmon’s wife Rose was notorious for sitting ringside and shouting advice to her husband.)

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