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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Women’s Boxing by Malissa Smith
  • Gerald R. Gems
Smith, Malissa. A History of Women’s Boxing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. xxii+ 311. Notes, bibliography, index, photos. $38 hb.

At the outset, a notice of full disclosure is appropriate. Rowman & Littlefield recently published my own history of boxing, but other possible reviewers working on the subject were involved to various degrees with this publication or too busy working on other projects to provide a review. With that acknowledgment, I offer the following, hopefully objective assessment.

Malissa Smith has been involved in boxing since 1997 and has developed numerous contacts within the sport that contributed valuable information and insights that are apparent in the work. Smith also maintains her Girlboxing blog that offers historical and current material, as well as interviews with female boxers. The author is also a member of the board of the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame. The book is derived from her master’s thesis at Empire State College in New York. Rowman & Littlefield can be commended for its publication, as it is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject and addresses a considerable gap in the historical literature. It is a generally well-written account that covers the past three hundred years of organized women’s bouts in considerable depth. Each chapter is contextualized within the era covered. While much of the narrative of the early years retraces the previous works of such scholars as Jennifer Hargreaves and [End Page 280] Roberta Park, Smith also sheds new light on a cast of characters little studied, including women as fighters, fans, and promoters. While much of the text is Anglo-centered, Smith provides accounts of French and German female boxers before World War II. The work is particularly insightful and helpful in detailing the trials and tribulations of early pioneers who confronted both legal and social boundaries as they sought professional status over the last half of the twentieth century.

For scholars who might follow in her footsteps, Smith elucidates some of her own historiographical obstacles and research difficulties, such as tracing the lineage of Hattie Leslie, allegedly born as Libbie Sporn, and whose consort/husband was variously listed as Spann or Spond (and in other’s research as Spahn). Boxing records of even more recent fighters are clouded by fixed fights, mismatches, and fake records. Throughout her work, Smith raises questions of social class, race, gender, and sexuality, but provides only partial responses, leaving plenty of room for exploration by future scholars. For example, the author reveals that many of the early professional boxers were college-educated women, but a thorough examination and analysis of motives might have indicated substantial gender differences with male boxers.

Smith provides extensive coverage of the rise of Christy Martin as a phenomenon in the 1990s, the marketing of Mia St. John as a sex object, and the celebrated career of Laila Ali. On the whole, the book offers a good starting point for further research into the subject of women’s boxing, but it also has its faults. Smith was not served well by her copy editors, as the text is marred by numerous typos, misspellings, and repetitions as the chronological organization jumps back and forth. The Introduction states that 2012 Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields was an eleven-year-old in 1995, but sixteen at the time of her triumph in London. The names of such well-known fighters as Carmen Basilio (113), Muhammad Ali (119, 238), Vito Antuofermo (121), and Marian Trimiar (177) are all misspelled. Such misgivings aside, Smith has provided the foundation for the future work of scholars interested in the burgeoning field of women’s boxing.

Gerald R. Gems
North Central College


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pp. 280-281
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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