In April 2020, Sport England revealed that there were 420,000 women and girls who were regularly participating in boxing, but in 1995, that number was officially zero. Women’s boxing has had a remarkable level of growth since the 1990s. It now holds household names, has its own standalone pay per view events, and attracts millions of viewers. However, much of this would never have been possible if it were not for the efforts of the inspirational trailblazer Jane Couch.
Just a few weeks ago, Katie Taylor defeated Natasha Jonas in an incredible fight to defend her world titles. The match-up was met with excitement, admiration and even calls for an immediate rematch as soon as full crowds are allowed back into stadiums to give the two fighters the spectators and atmosphere that their fight deserved.
But listening to Couch and Jonas discuss their boxing careers in Eurosport’s new podcast ‘RAW’, it is clear that their experiences are almost worlds apart, despite there being only 16 years between them in age. When Couch started boxing competitively in the 1990s, it would have been hard to imagine what women’s boxing has now grown into.
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Up until 1998, women’s professional boxing was officially illegal in the United Kingdom and Couch struggled to even be coached, with the ABA threatening to take her coach, Frank Smallbone’s, licence away for continuing to work with her.
Jane Couch wins fight against Leah Mellinger in 1997
Image credit: Getty Images
After years of boxing for free, Couch began to get more media coverage in her fight for equal pay. Following one particular interview, she was contacted by a lawyer called Sara Leslie who tried to help Couch once again apply to the British Board of Boxing for a licence. She was once again refused. The board’s solicitor argued that “many women suffer from premenstrual tension which makes them more emotional and accident prone.”
It is a view that is almost laughable now; the idea that no woman should ever be able to participate in a particular sport simply because they also happen to have a uterus. It seems absurd. But unfortunately, it is a view that has not completely dissolved. Boxing journalist Colin Hart wrote in 2016 that seeing women box made “his stomach turn” and viewed the women’s game as “distasteful”. World heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko stated in 2010 that women’s boxing made him “feel nausea” and that boxing was “appropriate for men, but not for women”.
The media coverage of Couch at the time also did not shy away from inappropriate and offensive remarks. While Couch fought in court with solicitor Sara Leslie and barrister Dinah Rose in a landmark case against sex discrimination and for the right to trade, one journalist decided the most appropriate analysis of this historic moment in women’s sport was to write that they “looked like three lesbians”.
However, while Couch endured this targeted negative coverage and ongoing legal battles for her right to participate in her beloved sport, unbeknownst to her, a young Jonas, who was growing up in Toxteth and pursuing football at the time, was reading this coverage of a woman fighting to box professionally and thinking, 'Go head girl. Boss that'. Jonas would go on to tell Couch, “I couldn't believe that you'd done it. And I didn't realise then, all those years later, it would affect me”.
Couch eventually won the right to box in 1998, after a tribunal overturned the British Board of Boxing’s original decision, paving the way for women like Jonas to become professional boxers. And In 2012, after another monumental step was taken when the Olympics introduced women’s boxing as an official event, Jonas represented Great Britain, taking another huge step forward in bringing representation of women’s boxing to young girls all over the world.
A step that did not go unnoticed by Couch herself: “I help in a local club just around the corner and, straight after the Olympics, it was all girls. There were no boys in! There was a boy [who] came in and he went, ‘I'm not staying here, it's all girls, and the little boy ran off…’” said Couch.
Natasha Jonas celebrates victory at London 2012
Image credit: Getty Images
Both Couch and Jonas are impressed with the growth of women’s boxing and the uptake of girls participating in comparison to both of their childhoods. But even as Jonas continues to make her mark on the sport and boost it to new heights, her womanhood and her uterus are still the topic of conversation. When making a statement comeback to the sport after time off in 2017, much of the media coverage was focused on her becoming a mum.
She explained: “It was like, Tasha's turning pro, and she's a mum, and that was the headline. Oh my God. A mum was turning professional. And I was like, Tom Stalker turned pro last year and nobody said anything to him. Anthony Joshua? No one said he's a dad.”
As with a lot of women’s sport, simply just participating in it, carrying on the legacy and inspiring a new generation of young girls to play can be a radical and trailblazing act within itself. When you have to fight against the preconceived ideas of what it means to be a woman just so you can play your sport, you are fighting battles that your male counterparts often do not have to fight.
Whether that is taking the official board of your sport to court, or dealing with the focus on your reproductive organs instead of your sporting ability, every step forward in this male-dominated sport is a hard fought one. So while Natasha Jonas may have lost her recent individual battle, when you look at how far women’s boxing has come and the institutional sexism it has faced and fought every step of the way, Jonas, Couch and all of women’s boxing are most certainly winning the war.
By Marva Kreel
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