In the wake of Ronda Rousey’s quick ascension to stardom in the sport of mixed martial arts, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that WMMA had arrived. That the sport had won over all its detractors and that it would finally be allowed to occupy its own space alongside its male counterpart as an accepted part of the combative sports pantheon.
Unfortunately, that will most likely not be the case, for those holding the most antagonistic views do so because they are against the very idea of women fighting. For them women’s MMA is akin to a freakshow, which has been hoisted upon them as legitimate sporting competition, only to take attention away from the real fighters – who happen to be exclusively men.
Women, the thinking goes, were never meant to take part in the fight game, as evidenced by the fact that women’s MMA, boxing, and wrestling are all recent inventions. That throughout recorded history women have shown no inclination for combat sports, is seen as proof that Individuals such as Rousey are merely anomalies.
What these detractors fail to note is that women’s prizefighting is not a recent invention, and its roots reach all the way back to its very beginnings.
The sport of boxing, and the profession of prizefighting, gained widespread popularity in England in the early 18th century, in part thanks to the accomplishments of James Figg. Crowned as the “Champion of England” in 1719, the very first holder of what would become the linear heavyweight championship of boxing, he promoted himself and pugilism tirelessly.
It was a very different sport in those nascent days, a complete martial art that included ground-fighting and weapons that eventually evolved to a standing, fist-only striking sport.
Even in these earliest times, female prizefighters were present, with the first recorded match between “two of the feminine gender”, appearing in the June 23, 1722 London Journal, where it makes mention that the women “maintained the battle with great valour for a long time, to the no small satisfaction of the spectators.”
For the remainder of the century, women and women’s “boxing” could be found being contested with regularity in London, sometimes with a level of parity to men that was shocking to the sensibilities. Martin Nogue documented in 1728 in his Voyages et Avantures [EN 1] of seeing women and girls fighting the same as the men, including being stripped from the waist up:
“Des femrnes des filles même combattent de la même forte, dépouillées jusqu à la ceinture.”
Throughout the 18th century, women’s boxing was practiced and promoted alongside that of their male compatriots. In 1795, the legendary champions Daniel Mendoza and ‘Gentleman” John Jackson even acted as seconds in a fight for a prize of 11 guineas, between Mrs. Mary Ann Fielding and a woman known only as the “Jewess of Wentworth Street”. For that sum, the two fought for 80 minutes during which there were over 70 knockdowns between them.
Not every woman had such accomplished corners, with the position usually falling to their husbands, who in turn seemed to have no problem assisting their wives in propagating such “unfeminine” behavior.
“In August 1793, a pitched battle was fought in Elmstead, near Chelmsford, Essex, by two LADIES of pugilistic spirit. Being stripped, without caps, and their hair closely tied up, they set to, and for 45 minutes supported a most desperate conflict; when, although one of them was so dreadfully beat as to excite apprehension for her life, her husband possessed brutality enough still to prompt her to fight; but, through the interference separated.” [EN2]
Women’s boxing continued into the early 19th century. The March 24, I807 edition of the Morning Chronicle told of
“Several fights amongst the lower orders on Sunday morning near Hornsey Wood but the one which afforded the most diversion was between two women the opponents were Betty Dyson a vender of sprats and Mary Mahony a market woman. These Amazons fought in regular order upwards of forty minutes until they were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. Betty was once completely blind but the lancet restored her sight and Mary was at length obliged to resign to her the palm of victory. The contest was for five guineas.” [EN3]
A round by round description of a match between two women named Sally and Nancy was published in the April 7, 1822 edition of Bell’s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle. Round one read as follows:
The Ladies on coming up to scratch, displayed fine science but were cautious. NAN made play, but SAL was not to be had, and fought rather shy. Some maneuvering ensued, when NAN, made a feint, SAL attempted to put in a left-handed hit, which was well stopped by the former, who placed a blow near the place where Sally took her snuff, and which made her ivories dance a reel in their box.
The last major prize fight of note between women took place in 1822. The combatants, an Irishwoman by the name of Martha Flaherty and an Englishwoman named Peg Carey, were competing for the rather large purse of £17, 10s.
Before the match, which started before dawn at 5:30 a.m. — so that spectators would still be able to make it to work on time afterwards, Flaherty is reported to have drunk almost a pint of gin. Perhaps it was to help deaden the pain, for after suffering great injuries, she triumphed the 14th round. The end result was that ”both ladies were much punished and Martha was taken away senseless in a tilbury.”
Changing tastes and mores would soon put an end to women’s participation in prize-fighting. Later generations of Englishmen would look back in horror at the popularity and acceptance such a “sport” held with their predecessors:
“The most revolting and disgusting spectacles of this kind were prizefights in which women were the competitors for the stakes, and, half-naked, battered and bruised each other, without cause or provocation, to the heart’s delight of a “respectable” circle of beholders! Under date June 22, 1768, we read Wednesday last, two women fought for a new chemise valued at half a guinea, in the Spa fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called ‘Bruising Peg’, who beat her antagonist in a terrible manner.” [EN4]
That Alexander Andrews would, in 1855, point to “Bruising Peg” as an example of the immorality of earlier London, shows the changes which had taken place over the intervening century, with regards to women’s roles.
Sure, “Bruising Peg” was renowned for her brutality, but she was also immensely popular during her day, enough so to earn her keep by giving boxing exhibitions at a London theatre (where she was often accompanied by Macomo the Nubian lion tamer). Decades later she would be the basis for Paul Creswick ‘s journal’s of Margaret Molloy a fictionalized account of Bruising Peg’s life that was published in 1898 and which transformed her into a mythical character of London.
“The ladies decided to settle their differences according to the rules of the prize ring, stripped to the waist, tied up their hair and fought fiercely, with an excited crowd cheering them on. Forgetful of the rules of the Prize Ring, they went for each other, literally with tooth and nail.”
Perhaps, no one exemplified these early female prizefighters better than Elizabeth Stokes, born Elizabeth Wilkinson, the first and greatest gladiatrix of the era. Her date of birth is unknown, first appearing (although she could very well be one of “two of the feminine gender” who appeared in the June 23, 1722 London Journal) amongst “The Fancy” in a 1722 newspaper advertisement for an upcoming fight, which read:
Transcription of above image:
“CHALLENGE. – I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas; each woman holding half-a-crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle.
ANSWER. – I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate Market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, ‘God willing’, to give her more blows than words, desiring home blows, and from her no favour: she may expect a good thumping!” [EN5]
The half-a-crown rule was a clever ploy by which Wilkinson could be assured that her opponents kept their hands clenched for the duration of the match, preventing them from using such foul tactics as pulling hair, clawing the eyes, scratching the face, or tearing the ears or breasts.
We have no description of the fight itself, but we do know that Wilkinson was victorious and was soon declared the “Cockney Championess”. Almost immediately thereafter, her title was challenged:
“I, Martha Jones, fish-woman, who have fought the best fighting women that ever came to that place, and hearing the fame that is spread about the Town of thee noble City Championess, of her beating the Newgate Basket-woman, think myself as brave and stout as any, therefore invite her to fight me on the stage for 10 pounds.” [EN6]
The two would meet in London that year at the Boarded-House, an establishment owned by the father of boxing, James Figg. The only details we have for this match is that it lasted 22 minutes and Wilkinson was again victorious.
Wilkinson continued to fight at the ‘Boarded-House in Marylebone, as well as Figg’s other establishment, the Amphitheatre, which was the subject in a contemporary poem:
“From Fig’s new theatre he’ll miss a night, though cocks, and bulls, and Irish women fight”. [EN7]
During this time, she would marry James Stokes, himself a boxer that had met and lost to Figg on at least one known occasion. James Stokes would go on to open a rival school and amphitheater to Figg, and the newly named Elizabeth Stokes’, would go on to defend her title of “city championess” at this new location from challengers all across the Isles.
“We hear that the gentlemen of Ireland have been long picking out an Hibernian heroine to match Mrs. Stokes, the bold and famous city championess. There is now one arrived in London, who by her make and stature seems likely enough to eat her up.
“However, Mrs. Stokes being true English blood (and remembering some of the late reflections that were cast upon her husband by some of the country folk) is resolved to see out ‘vi et armis.’ This being likely to prove a notable and diverting entertainment, it is not at all doubted but that there will be abundance of gentlemen crowding to Mr. Figg’s amphitheatre to see this uncommon performance.” [EN8]
That the match being proposed was to be “vi et armis“, or “by force and arms”, suggests that it was not merely to be another fight with clenched half-a-crowns, but instead one that was to include cudgels, daggers, and/or swords, the other tools of trade that made up the sport of boxing at this time, in addition to the bare knuckle (it wouldn’t be until Jack Broughton’s rules were implemented in 1743 that it would become a solely unarmed sport).
Although there is no account of who won, or even if the match took place, Mrs. Stokes continued to advertise participation in armed “boxing” contests:
1 October 1726
At Mr. STOKES’s Amphitheatre, in Islington Road, near Sadler’s Wells, on Monday next, being the 3d of October, will be perform’d a trial of skill by the following Championesses.
Whereas I Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the noble science of defence, and thought to be the only female of this kind in Europe, understanding there is one in this Kingdom, who has exercised on the publick stage several times, which is Mrs. Stokes, who is stiled the famous Championess of England; I do hereby invite her to meet me, and exercise the usual weapons practis’d on the stage, at her own amphitheatre, doubting not, but to let her and the worthy spectators see, that my judgment and courage is beyond hers.
I Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment in the above said science; having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always came off with victory and applause, shall make no apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine, not doubting but to maintain the reputation I have hitherto establish’d, and shew my country, that the contest of it’s honour, is not ill entrusted in the present battle with their Championess, Elizabeth Stokes.
Note: The doors will be open’d at two, and the Championesses mount at four. N.B. They fight in close jackets, short petticoats, coming just below the knee, Holland drawers, white stockings, and pumps. [EN9]
Of particular interest is the fact that the clothing the participants were to wear was described, something never done for men, and that it appears to have been very modest. The reason behind this would be to differentiate this match from those less legitimate affairs held for licentious purposes.
Such matches were common in the less respectable quarters of London, and usually involved prostitutes or Irish women, often stripped to the waist, fighting with no half-a-crowns, thus allowing them to use the most foul of tactics.
It is not clear whether Stokes and Welsh did meet in 1726, but the following year another match was arranged, one in which Mrs. Stokes would be partnered with her husband James against Ms. Welsh and Robert Baker with the weapons being swords, daggers, and quarterstaves.
Issued by the proprietors of the Amphitheatre
“In Islington road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the following combatants.
‘We Robert Barker and Mary Welsh, from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mr. Stokes and his bold Amazonian virago to meet us on the stage, where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honourable Lord of our nation who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house; and if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution, will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment.’
‘We James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London. having already gained an universal approbation by our agility of body, dextrous hands, and courageous hearts, need not preambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of Mrs. Stokes’ performing on the stage.’
-There will be a door on purpose for the reception of the gentlemen, where coaches may drive up to it, and the company come in without being crowded. Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six precisely. They all fight in the same dresses as before.'” [EN10]
“Of particular significance in these notices are the apparent frequency of such battles and the casual acceptance of women combatants. Neither the report of the bout nor the advertisement for it makes any distinction between male and female duellists, nor does either treat the presence of the women as particularly noteworthy. Applying no special rules to the women, the proprietors extend the rewards without qualifications to “the male or female who gave most cuts.” Like the ballad heroine, these women were not expected to duel any differently from men, and their participation in “masculine” sport seems not to have been considered a violation of their “natural” female inclinations.”[EN11]
On July 17, 1728, the following match was announced in the pages of The Daily Post involving the now European Championess (obviously, the 1927 match had not been Mrs. Stokes’s last). This, too, was to take place in her husband’s amphitheatre on the Islington Road in London:
“‘Whereas I, Ann Field of Stoke-Newington, ass-driver, well known for my abilities in boxing in my own defence wherever it happened in my way, having been affronted by Mrs. Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of the best skill in boxing, for ten pounds, fair rise and fall; and question not but to give her such proofs of my judgment that shall oblige her to acknowledge me Championess of the Stage, to the entire satisfaction of all my friends.’
‘I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, have not fought in this way since I fought the famous boxing-woman of Billingsgate twentynine minutes, and gained a complete victory(which is six years ago); but as the famous Stoke-Newington ass-woman dares me to fight her for the ten pounds, I do assure her I will not fail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows which I shall present her with, will be more difficult for her to digest than ever gave her asses!'”
-Note. A man, known by the name of Rugged and Tuff, challenges the best man of Stoke Newington to fight him for one guinea to what sum they please to venture. N.B. Attendance will be given at one, and the encounter is to begin at four precisely. There will be the diversion of Cudgel-playing as usual.
Daily Post from July 7 1728 [EN12]
In Ronda Rousey, we see not only a continuation in the traditions of earlier female fighters, but we also find some striking similarities between her and Elizabeth Stokes: the charisma to headline an event, the drive, the skills, and even the trash-talking.
Mrs. Stokes would be proud…
EN 1: Martin Nogué, Voyages et Avantures (1728)
EN 2: Unknown Author, Pancratia, or a History of Pugilism (1812)
EN 3: John Bentley, A Reply to Apeleutherus (1819)
EN 4: Alexander Andrews, “The Eighteenth Century”, The New Monthly Magazine (1854)
EN 5: By a Young Man of the Fancy, “On Fighting”, London Magazine Vol. 1 (1820)
EN 6: John Richards, The Annals of London: a Year-by-Year Record of a Thousand Years of History (2000)
EN 7: Robert Dodsley, A Collection of Poems: in Six Volumes, (1782)
EN 8: From Nov. 20, 1725, Mist’s Journal, reprinted in The Annual Register (1808)
EN 9: Advertisement from the Weekly Journal, or the British Gazetteer, October 1, 1726
EN 10: James Peller Malcolm’s, Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London Vol 2 (1807). For those interested in further reading, here is Vol 1.
EN 11: Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (1996)
EN 12: Advertisement appeared in the Daily Post, July 17, 1718 and reprinted in the Quarterly Review, June & September (1855)
- “Girls Fighting” via fsclub.com
- “Prize fighting in a London’s street, 18th century. Sketch from an old engraving” via fsclub.com
- “Taught Her Son to Use His Fists” via Yesterday’s Papers
About the author