Stylist.co.uk contributor, Alexandra Hayward, meets three women who fight for a living, and uncovers the struggles and sexism they faced to succeed.
Across most of the western hemisphere, competitive female fighting long existed only as a taboo.
While men in the ring have been idolised for decades, it was illegal for women to fight each other professionally in Britain right up until the mid-90s.
1998, however, saw the beginning of a sea-turn in attitude.
With Girl Power in full tilt, the first sanctioned UK women’s fight took place in south London, and by the millennium, the first women's European Cup and World Championships were taking place.
The runaway success of Britain's Olympic boxing champion, Nicola Adams, at London 2012 accelerated this effect (“I'm always getting tweets from girls saying they've taken up boxing because they've seen me win,” she later recalled). And it's reflected in a more positive approach by the Powers That Be towards women in sport in general.
“We are proud to support male and female athletes equitably,” Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive of UK Sport – a governing body that champions women in the ring - tells Stylist.co.uk.
“Successful athletes can have a really positive, motivating and empowering influence. Since London 2012 (where 92 of our female athletes won Olympic and Paralympic medals) our athletes have been active in local communities, sharing their experiences and skills to inspire others.”
We hear from three women who fight for a living, and the challenges and triumphs they've faced along the way:
“To be a great fighter you need to have mental clarity”
Cathy Brown, 40, was the second woman to receive a boxing licence in the UK in 1998 and won numerous titles including European Flyweight Champion and ranked number three in the world. In 2007 she retired from the sport due to injury and is now using her experience as a trainer, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and Sports Psychologist and works closely with a domestic violence charity.
“I began boxing after a violent relationship I had during my teenage years. He damaged my self-confidence. Boxing was perfect as it made me stronger physically and mentally, and made me adamant that no one was ever going to bully or abuse me ever again. As I grew emotionally, boxing became something that calmed me - to be a great fighter you need to have mental clarity.
There was never any female fighting inspiration to watch when I was younger. I can't actually remember seeing any woman fight until I started training. Women's boxing didn't make it on to the BBC until 2010.
I was a forensic photographer for the Met Police when I began competing in kickboxing (I had 25 undefeated fights). When I applied for my professional licence, I gave-up my seven-year career. My parents were devastated; they never came to watch me fight.
No companies would sponsor me because I was a woman, so I had to work full-time to fund myself. Men said I shouldn't be allowed to box, and they wouldn't train me or let me fight in their clubs. My female opponents had to be flown-in because there were only two women in the UK with licences. Even today, the boxing world remains protective over its status as a ‘man’s sport’.
I immensely admire any sportswoman who has become successful against all the odds. Professional sport has and continues to be a hard battle for all women. We still have a long way to go before women are treated as equal.”
“I was told that ‘women should be in the kitchen, not in the ring”’
Marianne Marston, 41, now has legions of her own protégées, but originally gained worldwide recognition as the protégée of various male Heavyweight and Cruiserweight World Champions. In 2014 she was crowned MBC International Super Bantamweight Champion and has reported on women' boxing for the Olympics.
“I wanted to box when I was a kid, but was told that women don’t box, so I took up foil fencing instead. About a decade ago, when boxing became a fitness thing I started. For me, it's the ultimate sport, the ultimate test of strength, of fitness, speed, reflexes and will power.
Gyms and coaches never had an issue with my gender, but when I applied for my professional license from the British Boxing Board of Control, I was told that ‘women should be in the kitchen, not in the ring.’ As a debutant I had been discovered by the biggest names in sport and yet, the so-called powers-that-be for UK sport were totally against women's boxing.
We’ve overcome that, but it took a lot of effort to get here. Women are not lesser humans because we have different bodies. We make history. This winter we are going to be entering the history books again, as I be fighting to unify four World titles against South Africa’s Unathi Myekeni, and there will also be four women’s bouts joining me on the event.
The girls that I train are inspiring to me. And, because I cannot let them down, I have to have to keep getting better for them, too.”
“I'm inspired by anyone who believes they are capable of more than what society is telling us”
Sylvie Von Duuglas-Ittu, 31, is a pro Muay Thai fighter who moved from the US to Thailand due to unsupportive conditions. She surpassed her goal of 100 fights in record time and trains women of all ages between competitions. She also self-documents all her fights in films and via her blog.
“For me, one of the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated sport is that I'm constantly aware of my outsider status. Sometimes I get ‘positive’ attention from gamblers or promoters for not fighting 'like a woman’.
I encounter sexism every day, both with the direct expectations and limitations placed on me by my trainers and teammates as well as wider society, and by the internet, where expectations and limitations are also placed on me. I'm the only woman at my gym and one of very few women blogging about my life as a fighter.
I moved to Thailand because I wanted to fight as much as possible. In the US, the possibilities were limited. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made.
I'm inspired by anyone who believes they are capable of more than what society is telling us. I don’t know my own limits, so how could someone else know them? Increasingly, I hear from women who over the age of 35 are telling me that they're going to get in the ring. That's incredible.
When I first launched my website almost four years, women younger than me used to get in touch and ask if they were too old to start fighting. Obviously the answer is no, and the same applies to women older than me.
Without a moment's hesitation, I would claim myself as a feminist. I stand by feminism in recognition of how the scales are still tipped.”
Hero image of Cathy Brown by Helen Armstrong