- She’s a Knockout! A History of Women in Fighting Sports by L. A. Jennings
In 2011, Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC) president Dana White famously stated that women would never compete in the UFC—the world’s most successful mixed martial arts organization. Three years later, the first UFC women’s champion, bantamweight Ronda Rousey, won while headlining UFC 157. On November 15, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia, Rousey, whom ESPN named the greatest female athlete in history (beating out Serena Williams), headed undefeated into UFC 193 to face former world champion boxer Holly Holm. It was the most attended UFC event in the organization’s twenty-two-year history and the first time two female fights were the main and comain event. Rousey, though heavily favored to defeat Holm, lost for the first time in a mixed martial arts event.
As the UFC webpage announced on October 29, 2015, “There is a revolution happening in the sporting world right now and it has been televised.” Indeed, as L. A. Jennings, author of She’s a Knockout! A History of Women in Fighting Sports, acknowledges, mixed martial arts “has been a conduit of change for female fighters” (xv). Given this backdrop, the timeliness of this book could not be better. Jennings, in addition to being a mixed martial artist, is a coach and gym owner, holds a doctorate in literary studies, and continues to write about female fighters on websites such as Fightland. Her book focuses on the rich and storied history of women in fighting sports, including striking (boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and so forth), grappling (freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo, among others), and mixed martial arts (MMA).
The five chapters primarily rely on newspaper and popular press sources and include photographs of some of the most significant pioneers. As Jennings explains, “[T]his book [End Page 234] does not relate the narrative of large social movements, but rather the fight of individual women whose stories come together to substantiate the reality of female fighters in history” (xiii). To this end, she primarily traces the history of individual female fighters in Britain and the United States, starting in the early eighteenth century.
The first chapter focuses on fighting in the Georgian and Victorian eras, in particular highlighting prolific British fighter Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes. Chapter 2 highlights American women and draws heavily on the National Police Gazette archives to introduce readers to pioneers of women’s boxing: Hattie Stewart, Hattie Leslie, and Gussie Freeman. Chapter 3 examines the growth in popularity of women’s boxing and grappling in the early twentieth century, in part through traveling circuses and burlesque theaters, which brought fighting further into mainstream entertainment. The chapter also highlights champion Cora Livingstone, “America’s first great female wrestler” (74) and Barbara Buttrick, a British fighter who relocated to the United States to further her boxing career. Chapter 4 focuses on the latter half of the twentieth century and outlines the numerous court cases and lawsuits undertaken by women to be allowed to participate legally in combative sports. The final chapter explores the history of women’s involvement in MMA, including the meteoric rise of Ronda Rousey and others who gained recognition in the sport, while also examining the pressure on female athletes to fulfill expectations of conventional femininity.
A very significant problem with She’s a Knockout! is the glaring lack of engagement with scholarly work on women’s sport history in general and women in fighting sports in particular. The bibliography reveals no engagement with several key works. In the preface, Jennings highlights that, as a scholar her work focused on cultural studies and feminism. In 2006, while searching for academic work on fighting sports, she claims, “There was nothing about women fighters” (x). However, with this claim, she is throwing a loose and sloppy jab. This is simply wrong and ignores work, particularly about female boxers, that was already published, such as Jennifer Hargreaves’s Women’s Boxing and Related Activities (1997...