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Original Issue

A Fight for the Right to Fight

Many were outraged when two women entered the ring in 1888; not much has changed

From today's perspective, A GIRL growing up in America in the 1880s didn't have a whole lot to look forward to when she came of age: She couldn't vote; in many states she couldn't own property once she married or divorce her husband if her marriage failed. She couldn't even take her leisure, at least not while wearing the tight corset that was the fashion of the day. Indeed, The National Police Gazette, the widely read forerunner of the tabloid, reported matter-of-factly in its Oct. 6, 1888, issue: "The bursting of an artery due to tight lacing causes the death of Miss Mary Crawford of Detroit, Mich." In the 1880s a lady knew her name should appear in print only twice: when she married and when she died.

No doubt, then, readers of the Gazette's July 28, 1888, issue were intrigued when they came across the following item on page 10: "Hattie Leslie, a young married variety performer, who is a skilled wrestler, has issued a challenge to engage in a match with fists, under prize ring rules, and it was accepted by Peter Bagley, of Bradford, Pa., on behalf of Alice Leary, who is a professional club swinger and athlete."

Though women had been boxing in variety theaters in the U.S. for a few years, the Leslie-Leary match was the first advertised sporting bout between female pugilists. According to her promoters Miss Leary, a 24-year-old brunette and five-year ring veteran, was 52-0 with 47 KOs. Mrs. Leslie, a redhead barely out of her teens and also undefeated, was billed as having knocked out 29 of her 34 opponents in her three years inside the ropes.

The "championship" fight (with $250 for the winner) took place on Sept. 16 on Navy Island, near Buffalo. According to the Gazette, the women, wearing flannel-lined kid gloves cut off at the fingertips, fought seven rounds in front of more than a thousand spectators. After the first two rounds, which were slow, Leary began to batter the 20-year-old Leslie around the ring in the third and dropped her for an eight count in the fourth with a hard right that drew blood and broke Leslie's nose. When another hard right to the face in the fifth floored Leslie again, her seconds pleaded with her not to answer the bell for the sixth. Though her left eye was nearly swollen shut and she was still bleeding from the nose, the redhead refused to quit. Instead, Leslie mounted a jabbing attack in the sixth. Chasing Leary around the ring, she landed two quick left hooks and put Leary on the canvas for a nine count. A flurry of punches dropped Leary a second time, but she was saved by the bell. When Leary came out for the seventh round, she was in no condition to continue. Within seconds a powerful right to the jaw dropped the spent brunette on her face for the full count, and Leslie was declared the female boxing champion of the world.

The fight—apparently vigorous, competitive and compelling—was recounted on page 10 of the Oct. 6 issue of the Gazette. Yet a prizefight between women must have been deemed particularly egregious, because the Buffalo district attorney made much of the incident in the Buffalo Morning Express, denouncing the contest and calling for a grand jury investigation. With the arrest of one of the seconds involved in the Navy Island bout, the matter disappeared from the news.

More than a century after Leslie's powerful right hook felled Leary, female pugilists are still seeking recognition as legitimate students of the sweet science. Last May, Jennifer McCleery, a teenager from Bellingham, Wash., who hopes to box in the Olympics, was allowed to fight in amateur competition pending a full hearing of the Washington ACLU's charges of sex discrimination against several U.S. and international amateur boxing organizations. A month before that ruling, several female fighters took matters into their own hands. In Bristol, England, on April 24, the first boxers licensed by the newly formed British Ladies Boxing Association demonstrated with their fists that women may finally have a fighting chance to box professionally.