Photo by keith ellwood, Flickr CC

A stage play inspired by early boxing great Barbara Buttrick recently premiered in the United Kingdom. The play, title Mighty Atoms (after one of Buttrick’s nicknames, “The Mighty Atom of the Ring”), marks a departure in the history of women in boxing, away from condemnation towards acceptance, and has important implications for how we think about gender and women in sport.

Women participating in fights goes back to at least the 1700’s, in the form of Elizabeth Wilkinson, the “European Championess,” who competed in bare-knuckle boxing matches in the streets of London. Her combination of showmanship and fighting prowess made her popular in fighting circles. Still, for many, Wilkinson represented an awful kind of brutalism that lessened the value of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in the United States, women boxers were seen as a side-show, forced to compete alongside snake charmers and trapeze artists in American carnivals.
Sport scholars have shown that these ideas are stereotypes about women in boxing continue today. While often used to marginalize or exclude women from the sport, they can also provide a source of identity and meaning for female fighters.
Finally, it is worth noting then even when women’s boxing was finally included in the 2012 Olympic Games in London–the site of this week’s theatrical premier–the addition was met with opposition.