Pugilistic Pioneers: The Women Who Led The Way

In this week’s women’s boxing post we look at three remarkable boxers from a long-ago past.

September 23rd, 2021

Women’s boxing is experiencing a new dawn, a renaissance. 

Boxers like Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano, and Claressa Shields are capturing the fan’s attention because of their fighting skills, entertaining bouts, and warrior spirit. Many others can be mentioned and honoured for elevating the sport, not only for women but in general. 

And soon, female boxers will quest for The Greatest Prize in Boxing, the Muhammad Ali Trophy for the first time.

Through ought boxing’s history, female fights have been effectively outlawed, with athletic commissioners refusing to sanction or issue licenses to women boxers, and most nations officially banning the sport

Trailblazers from the 1990s have paved the way for the wave see today, fighters like Christy Martin, Jane Couch, Laila Ali, and Mia St. John helped legimatising women’s boxing and became household names through their performances in the ring.

Here, we present three fighters who helped pave the way for the ones who paved the way.


Elizabeth Wilkinson

Women’s boxing goes back at least to the early 18th century, when Elizabeth Wilkinson, considered by many to be the first female boxer, fought in London, England. Billing herself as the European Championess, Wilkinson fought both men and women.

What is possibly the earliest recorded women’s boxing bout in London came about in 1722 between Elizabeth Wilkinson and Hannah Hyfield.

Wilkinson was famous for her entertaining trash-talk. In a published acceptance of a challenge from Ann Field, an ass-driver from Stoke Newington, she told readers that “the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses”.

According to the book, She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports Wilkinson was celebrated and not condemned by English society, although she defied eighteenth-century gender roles.

Source: She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports By L.A. Jennings

An excellent feature on Wilkinson’s extraordinary life and career can be read on vice.com 


Annie Newton

Annie Newton claimed during her time to be ‘the greatest woman boxer in the world’. As a novelty act on professional bills, Annie sometimes boxed three-round exhibitions with male opponents. There was no public outcry when Annie sparred with men, but a fight between two women proved a step too far for 1920s sensibilities.

In early 1926, Shoreditch Borough Council banned an arranged exhibition bout between Annie Newton and Madge Baker. An attempt to hold the fight in nearby Hackney instead was defeated by a campaign led by the Mayor of Hackney, who wrote “I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men.”

Newton came with a prediction: “While I may not see it, or you either, the day will come, like it or not, when the world will see women in the ring.”

Source: Born to Box: The Extraordinary Story of Nipper Pat Daly By Alex Daley


Barbara Buttrick

‘Battling Barbara’ or ‘The Mighty Atom’ from Hull, England was a world champion in women’s boxing in the 1940s and 1950s. A 4’11” fighter with a powerful jab, she took up the sport accidentally having read about the exploits of Polly Burns – a mythical fairground boxer from the beginning of the 20th century.

On September 9, 1954, Buttrick faced Jo-Ann Hagen in Calgary, Canada in a battle broadcast on radio – a first for women’s boxing anywhere in the world. She lost the fight – her only career loss – by a decision, but won the night along with her counterpart. The reporter stated that “without exception, the bout provided plenty of action and the crowd in its entirety ate it up.”

In the mid-1990s, Buttrick founded and became the president of the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF).

Buttrick told Vice in a 2017 interview: “I’m happy with the fact that I did what I wanted to do and I did as much as I could. And now it’s accepted. I feel very happy about that.”

Barbara Buttrick, now a 91-year-old Miami Beach resident, became the first woman inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with Lucia Rijker and Christy Martin (Class of 2020).

Other merits include:

  • First English female professional boxer.
  • Obtained the first female boxing license in the State of Texas, October 1957.
  • Won the first Women’s World Boxing Championship in San Antonio, Texas, on 9 October 1957 against Phyllis Kugler.

Source: A History of Women’s Boxing By Malissa Smith