Every female boxer I have met since joining Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club has been asked the question. Why fight? You might as well ask why she breathes. We all have a pat response on hand, often citing fitness. A more authentic answer would mean alerting the questioner to the minefield they have pranced into.
I, for one, was drawn to fighting at a particular low point in my life, attracted to combat sports’ extreme demands. I instinctively yearned for the deep ache of throwing your entire body into a punch. You learn to differentiate between different kinds of pain. All of it was better than what I was feeling emotionally. Boxing remade, and likely saved, me.
Alison Dean is familiar with the question as well as the way fighting can put a person back together again, stronger. Quiet, introverted and an academic, she was never an athlete. But then she found herself adrift: in the limbo of a postdoctoral research project, far from home, with her marriage effectively over. Martial arts called to her at gyms in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Vancouver, even when her bruises had bruises after kickboxing training.
Her book, Seconds Out: Women and Fighting (Coach House Books, 262 pages), is both a philosophical study of the gendered aspects of martial arts (the differing advice around crying during sparring, for example) and a literary memoir, as Dean prepares for her first fights while being stalked and harassed by a former student.
Dean is not the first author to cover this subject, but she might be the most rigorous. She is also the beneficiary of more source material than ever before, as women have gained entry into Olympic boxing (at the 2012 Games) and pro competitions such as UFC. There is also greater awareness of gender and sexuality in sport, especially in the wake of #MeToo. This book is a much-needed update.
As Dean surveys in her book, boxing holds a special attraction for writers, as spectators (Joyce Carol Oates) but also practitioners (Ernest Hemingway, Morley Callaghan). Dean herself teaches English literature. The appeal is easy to understand: Fighting is undeniably of the body – there’s nothing like it for someone whose occupational hazards include being too much inside their own head.
Journalist and author Leah Hager Cohen (Heart, You Bully, You Punk; The Grief of Others) is one more on the list of writer-pugilists. Without Apology: Girls, Women and the Desire to Fight is Cohen’s account of her year at the Somerville Boxing Club, outside Boston, in 2001, told through the lens of six women and girls. There’s Cohen herself as she learns the sweet science. Raphi, the coach, is a former Golden Gloves champion. And then there’s a four-pack of girls aged 10 to 15 containing one intense female friendship and the contested relationship between siblings.
Cohen is of an earlier generation of boxers who began training during the first boom in the women’s sport, after legal sanctions lifted in several countries during the 1990s (in Canada, 1991). Women actually have a long history in combat sports, as Dean’s book attests, though it’s this modern era that writing tends to focus on. A lot has changed since then, but not enough.
Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall: A Closer Look at Women, Violence and Aggression is by author, journalist, and former Golden Gloves champion Rene Denfeld, who in 1993 was among the first women to train as an amateur boxer, at Grand Avenue Boxing Gym in Portland, Ore.
This book is almost a quarter of a century old, and some of its details feel dated. And yet … when I first read Denfeld’s book, as well as Cohen’s, at Newsgirls’ book club, they both felt dispiritingly current in their broad strokes. Denfeld’s argument is that denying the destructive force of female violence, and downplaying healthy, natural female aggression, is bad for women and girls, and for society as a whole.
In 2021 writers such as Dean are still required to articulate that female aggression and violence even exist. She wrote Seconds Out partly during the coronavirus pandemic, amid lockdowns that mandated not only working, but also working out from home. The gyms that have transformed women’s lives by letting them survive in the ring typically run on shoestring budgets in the best of times. These spaces have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions. If we want to see progress in the next chapter of women in martial arts, these gyms need us in their corner.
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