The Gordon sisters in an exhibition match, 1910. The film by Thomas Edison is one of the first to show women boxing. Library of Congress

Women’s boxing in Switzerland: A fight for equality

Around 1880, women here and there in Switzerland picked up boxing gloves for the first time. With their efforts initially dismissed as circus sideshows, women battled until the 1990s to be allowed to box competitively.

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker is a sports historian, head of Swiss Sports History and co-director of the FCZ Museum.

Around the world, many different cultures can be found in which fighting with the fists is practiced as a sport, an art or a form of self-defence. Probably the best-known and most widespread type of pugilism is modern boxing, which has its origins in England and was first practised there under rules that generally still apply today. Boxing is still considered a masculine domain; it is male-dominated, brutal and, depending on your perspective, can be considered violent. Historically, though, the fairer sex has also shown a great deal of talent in boxing. Women have engaged in organised hand-to hand fighting since ancient times. However, this activity is very little studied and researched to date. This article outlines how women in Switzerland have fought, literally, to participate in boxing.
The first specific references to boxing women in Switzerland date to around 1880. Lausanne gymnastics and fencing teacher Louis Brun and his father-in-law, C. Reynold, offered boxing training sessions in grandes salles. But what they offered was a far cry from competitive boxing training; it was instruction for artistic boxing showpieces based on gymnastics, fencing and self-defence techniques. In accordance with the ‘natural’ and pseudo-scientifically supported gender perceptions prevalent at the time, women were encouraged to engage in this ‘gentle’ exercise for the benefit of their physical health (which referred primarily to childbearing in the service of the nation) and to ensure they developed into ‘graceful and elegant women’. Men too were encouraged, in line with this biologistic reasoning, to exercise for their health, so that they could pass on ‘valuable genes’. For men, taking care of their health signified strength and combat, and was aimed at helping them, as citizens and soldiers, to ensure the ‘survival of the people’. Accordingly, martial arts such as boxing were seen as ‘masculine’, while boxing women, on the other hand, would have risked damaging their ‘beauty’.
Certificate for a January 1905 course with Louis Brun.
Certificate for a January 1905 course with Louis Brun. Archives cantonales vaudoises
Miss Sanderson
Miss Sanderson was the wife of Pierre Vigny, who ran a martial arts school in Geneva from the 1890s. In a self-defence advertising campaign by Vigny’s school in 1908, she was referred to as ‘boxing champion’, so she was probably one of the first few female boxers in Switzerland. The Bartitstu Society
By 1910, a number of other boxing academies for a female clientele had been established in French-speaking Switzerland. But they were a peripheral phenomenon within Switzerland’s sporting and gymnastics community. As a result, the earliest female boxers were often the wives or daughters of boxing coaches. Subsequently the academies focused, interestingly, on gymnastics and dance. The nascent discipline of female boxing as a specific activity gradually disappeared. It’s impossible to say definitively why this happened, but there were parallel developments that may have played a part in boxing women being sidelined and forced out.
The founding of the Swiss Boxing Association (SBV) in 1912, for example, played a key role in defining what ‘boxing’ should be understood to mean in Switzerland: a martial art organised on the basis of the English model, exclusively for men. In addition to the prevailing ideas of gender mentioned above, the SBV’s rules were closely aligned to international and national developments. International competence was provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which likewise only included men’s boxing in its programme, while the impetus at national level came from state institutions; the army and police incorporated boxing into their training programmes. Taken together, all of these developments favoured and reinforced the masculine character of boxing; any publicising or support of women’s boxing would probably have had negative consequences attached to it both socially and economically.
In the United States, too, women’s boxing started out as a spectacle for entertainment. Like the Gordon sisters, the Bennett sisters fought for the amusement of the audience, as part of circus performances.
In the United States, too, women’s boxing started out as a spectacle for entertainment. Like the Gordon sisters, the Bennett sisters fought for the amusement of the audience, as part of circus performances. Library of Congress

Women’s boxing as amusement

From then on, women boxers only appeared in spheres unrelated to sport. They were presented as metaphors for mannish women, as emotionally overwrought spectators who bewailed the toughness of masculine struggles and, in particular, as a key element of circuses and variety shows where real boxing shows were presented. A dash of eroticism and the burlesque nature of the display were intended to pull in mainly male audiences. The spectacle of boxing women served primarily for entertainment, thus further cementing the existing gender roles. This was reinforced by the idea of including women’s boxing matches as part of beauty pageants, as in Stockholm from 1950 onwards. Later on, nude boxing was also introduced – this was not so much about emulating ancient ideals, but rather, as is so often the case in boxing, about new sources of money. The collective outcry was great, but soon died down again.
An English dance ensemble taking a boxing lesson, 1929.
An English dance ensemble taking a boxing lesson, 1929. Keystone/Imagno

Fighting for equality

There were also official bans that made it difficult for women to engage in pugilism. The SBV didn’t allow competitive women’s boxing until the 1990s, although after the introduction of women’s suffrage in 1971 and the inclusion of the article on sports promotion in the Federal Constitution in 1972, the discipline slowly gained momentum in the sporting arena. The (mostly male) concerns that this type of sport was unsuitable as a competitive activity for women and was too brutal persisted for a surprisingly long time. Nonetheless, the realisation grew, as it did also in other sports, that boxing was beneficial for stamina, general fitness and self-defence. In 1992, Boxclub Basel was the first club to introduce boxing training and fitness boxing for women.
Report on the first fight between two women at the amateur boxing championships, 1996 (in German). SRF
1996 can be seen as a turning point. A willing amateur fighter stepped up, in the shape of Christina Nigg, the current and also the first female president of Swiss Boxing (formerly SBV). Due to international regulations, the boxing association had to issue her an amateur licence despite its reservations. Nigg’s goal was to obtain a professional licence as well, but thanks to the SBV, her efforts amounted to little more than banging her head against a brick wall. Initially she got around this by moving abroad, obtaining licences in Germany and the USA. In 1999, after a long fight against prejudice and in support of the cause of boxing women, Nigg was the first woman in Switzerland to obtain a professional boxing licence. This was only after she became world champion in 1998. Nigg is still fighting for equality in boxing, but no longer with her fists – now, she uses other compelling reasoning against spurious arguments that boxing would trigger issues such as breast cancer or other medical risks.
The image of boxing women in Switzerland has thus changed in a relatively short time. At the beginning of the 20th century the discipline was on the verge of going mainstream, especially in the Lake Geneva area; but this progress was halted. The transformation from clandestine, circus-like or erotically tinged exhibition fights to a sporting discipline that is recognised and no longer frowned upon has been an arduous one, and owes a huge debt of thanks to lone warriors like Christina Nigg and Anyia Seki. Like many things in Switzerland, this process has taken comparatively longer than elsewhere, and in terms of advertising revenue, training opportunities and the gender pay gap there is still a long way to go.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).