The Fight for Women’s Boxing Rights

Pacific Standard, Apr 15, 2015

Photo: Chun Li/Flickr

Photo: Chun Li/Flickr

 
 

Every boxing gym shares a familiar set of sounds. There’s the thwack of jump ropes hitting the floor, the badadum-badadum of hands against the speed bag, the high-pitched, electronic beep of the timer that seems to ring constantly. That timer goes off every three minutes; in most boxing matches, rounds are three minutes long, and this is the standard unit of a boxer’s training. When Alicia Ashley, a world-champion fighter, steps into the ring at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, she spars three-minute rounds alongside the guys. “They’re not changing the bell for me!” she says, laughing.

But in competition, it’s a different story. Like all women boxers, Ashley’s professional fights are restricted to 10 two-minute-long rounds. That’s a total of 20 minutes. Men are allowed to fight as many as 12 three-minute rounds, or 36 total minutes. Shorter fight times have long been a thorn in the side of professional female fighters, who see no reason that they shouldn’t be allowed to box longer rounds in pro fights when they do so in training. Pro female fighters also say that boxing authorities use their shorter fight times as one of many justifications for paying them less than men. A few months ago, Ashley informally surveyed other pro women boxers, asking them whether women’s fights should be longer. “One of the major things that stood out, because all these women were pros, was that they weren’t getting paid,” Ashley says. “The promoters were saying, ‘We’re not paying you because you’re not doing the same work [as men].’”

Both inside the ring and out, Ashley has a calm, self-possessed presence. She has boxed since the mid-’90s, when she was 28 years old. For years before, Ashley had been a modern dancer, until a torn meniscus ended her career. Her brother convinced her to study karate for exercise, and she later turned to boxing. When she began fighting, she was given the nickname Slick because of her ease in the ring, the way she could slip out of the path of a punch. “People are like, ‘How come you’re so relaxed when you’re boxing?’” Ashley says. “Even if I’m in trouble, somebody is attacking me, it doesn’t look that way. For me, because of my dance background, boxing is a performance.”

Around the time Ashley started boxing, restrictions on women’s participation in amateur tournaments in New York City were being lifted. From the beginning, women’s fights were shorter than men’s — in the amateurs, female fighters get three two-minute rounds. Ashley entered the Golden Gloves in 1996, the second year women could register. She won easily. Dancing, in addition to giving her a sense of calm, ensured that Ashley never had to worry about stamina. Contemporary dancers often perform long, evening-length works, so in the ring, a few two-minute boxing rounds were, for her, no big deal. She also took the Gloves in ’97 and ’98, and won two consecutive national championships.

In search of longer, more challenging bouts — and a chance to make some money — Ashley turned professional, quickly working her way up to 10-round title fights. “I’m comfortable doing 10 rounds,” Ashley says. She’s now in her late forties, a world champion who runs marathons when she’s not boxing. “I get stronger by the tenth round, and my opponents get weaker.” This is true even when the women Ashley fights are decades younger than she is. Having mastered the 10-round fight, Ashley is at the top of her sport. And with no option to fight more rounds, she now challenges herself by dropping weight; that way she’s able to fight the strongest women in other weight classes.

Last fall, the World Boxing Council, one of four organizations that sanction professional fights, held a meeting to decide whether to extend the length of time that it allows women to box. (There is no single national or international organization that regulates professional boxing; instead, there are four major groups that sanction boxing matches. Each can impose its own rules and standards, but they all restrict the length of women’s fights.) The WBC had indicated that it was open to bringing women’s fight times in line with men’s, but in the end, the group voted unanimously against the reform.

The organization said the decision was motivated by health and safety concerns, and went on to list a number of suspect claims to that effect. “Menstrual cycle has tremendous impact on the body of a woman, including 12 hormones which act in the body system, creating radical changes in several areas,” according to a press release explaining the decision. The release went on to say that women’s fight times should not be extended because “women’s endurance has been proven to be less than men.” Such logic left many female boxers rolling their eyes, but few were surprised. The history of boxing is littered with attempts to use shaky medical reasoning to keep women out of the ring. This felt like more of the same. Ashley was immediately suspicious of the decision. “I want to know what they based their information on,” she says, sitting in her small office at the back of Gleason’s, the walls of which are covered with championship belts and photos from matches. “And is it all men on the panel? Is it just about ‘protecting’ women?”

One of the WBC’s points, though, seemed like cause for legitimate concern: Women’s fight times need to remain shorter than men’s, the release explained, because women are more prone to concussions. The WBC was referencing an ongoing debate within the medical community over whether women are at higher risk for concussions, and, when they do have concussions, whether they recover differently than men do. If the WBC was right, there could be significant implications for female fighters. Boxing is a sport in which the surest way to victory is by knocking out your opponent cold. If women really are more susceptible to concussions, it would mean both their safety and their ability to push boundaries within the sport is at risk.

For almost as long as women have wanted to box, they have been met with the argument that fighting would be uniquely harmful to them. Many such concerns initially centered on women’s reproductive health. In the 1930s, the boxing commentator Nat Fleischer argued that female fighters would have problems bearing (or breastfeeding) children. In the ’70s, the Amateur Athletic Union barred women from competing in boxing tournaments because, according to the organization, taking hits to the chest would lead to the development of breast cancer. Some groups, like the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, allowed women boxers to fight, but only if they wore aluminum bras to protect against this cancer risk. Around the same time, the California State Athletic Commission gave its first boxing licenses to female fighters. But certification came with one degrading condition: A woman could only compete if she’d certified, before her bout, that she did not have her period.

The men making these rules had no experience overseeing female athletes. There’s no evidence that the regulations they put in place were medically necessary, or that boxing organizations’ concerns about women’s reproductive health were legitimate. But the rules persisted for decades. Not until the mid-’90s, after women at different levels of the sport sued successfully to be allowed to compete, did women’s boxing inch toward standardization. Some of the pseudoscientific requirements died out accordingly, though questions are occasionally raised about whether they should be re-instated. The International Boxing Association, which governs the amateur sport, still maintains a page on its website dedicated to dispelling the idea that women’s boxing is more dangerous than men’s. Today, women are allowed to box while menstruating, but they must prove they’re not pregnant by taking a test before each fight. And, though there is no link between being hit in the chest and developing either breast cancer or problems with breastfeeding, some referees get angry when women refuse the optional chest protectors available to them.

When the WBC first considered sanctioning women’s boxing in 1995, its medical advisory board prepared a report to guide the organization through the “physiological, psychological and physical differences between women and men.” It mentioned the risk of “internal traumatic hemorrhages in the vagina,” and stated, “the effects of menstruation on physical performance are rather variable.” The concerns read less like legitimate medical issues than like questions raised by a group of men who didn’t know what to make of the female body. The WBC took the report under advisement. It would be another nine years before the organization sanctioned its first women’s fight. When it did, the WBC required women to wear chest protectors, and instituted shorter fight times. Some women felt it was a way to remind them of their place in the sport. OK, boxing authorities seemed to be telling female fighters, we’ll let you in the door, but you’d better remember that you’ll never be as good as the guys.

Even now, the organization’s leadership might not understand the science it uses to justify women’s shorter fight times. Mary Palmore, an obstetrician and gynecologist who has advised the WBC about women’s health issues, says she was concerned that members of the organization had misconstrued the information she presented to them. Before the organization made its most recent decision not to extend the length of women’s fights, Palmore spoke to a meeting of female boxers and WBC officials about basic women’s health issues, including the importance of annual gynecological exams and the fact that, due to hormonal changes, some women retain water in the lead-up to their periods, which could impact their ability to make weight. “Women should be aware if they do a weigh-in during their cycle, they may be a bit heavier,” Palmore explains, but “there isn’t anything wrong with women fighting on their period.” The WBC, however, “misinterpreted everything that I said in regard to periods and hormones,” Palmore says, extrapolating from her talk that premenstrual hormonal shifts could impact women athletes’ safety. “They got it all wrong.”

When I asked Paul Wallace, a cosmetic surgeon, dermatologist, and the chairman of the WBC’s medical advisory board, about the organization’s statement about menstruation, he tried to walk it back. “The issue with regards to hormonal changes has nothing to do with the ability of a female boxer to be able to go three minutes rather than two minutes,” he says. But, he continues, when considered on top of the other reasons the WBC gave for restricting women’s fight times, menstruation must be taken into account. (This doesn’t make much sense. Doctors say that it’s safe to box while menstruating; there is no caveat that having your period could make a medical condition — say, a concussion — more dangerous.) Wallace also says that there is no link between hits to the chest and breast cancer, but he still recommends women wear chest protectors, to be safe.

When the WBC raised suspect concerns about menstruation alongside legitimate ones about concussions, the organization pulled boxing’s history of excluding women through pseudoscientific claims into a recognized area of medical debate. “The literature is quite clear, and so is the evidence that we’ve seen. Females have a higher incidence of concussions,” says Wallace, who described shorter fight times as a simple issue of protecting female fighters.

Women boxers see the “age-old menstrual argument,” as Alicia Ashley calls it, as a way for male boxing authorities to remind them of their proper place. “The powers that be are stuck in the Middle Ages,” Ashley says. “They’re stuck in the mindset that this is a male sport.” But female fighters are less certain about how seriously to take the concussion issue. “It’s something I have no idea about,” pro fighter Heather Hardy tells me. “I don’t even know if it’s true or not.” Another boxer, Susan Reno, says she’s so used to getting “nonsense” from boxing officials that “I let a lot of it roll off my back.” “They need to provide the science to go with this decision,” she adds. “They haven’t.”

When I asked Peter Warinner about gender differences in concussion risk, he spoke cautiously about the existing research. Warinner is the founder of the Sports Neurology and Concussion Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He’s also a ringside physician. “The literature is very confusing, it is relatively unreliable, and much of it is probably not even valid,” he says. When a team of doctors with the American Academy of Neurology undertook a five-year review of thousands of journal articles in an attempt to come to an “evidence-based understanding of concussion management,” Warinner says, “most of it was inconclusive.” Doctors just don’t know enough about brain injuries to make absolute statements about how to prevent or treat them. Each concussion is different.

In clinical practice, many doctors report seeing that women get more concussions than men. There are a number of variables that could explain this. It could have to do with physique — for instance, men’s neck muscles tend to be stronger than women’s, which may help protect men against concussions — or some difference within the brain itself. Doctors also aren’t sure whether women tend to report concussions more readily than men, and how much this might skew the data.

The science, as understood by Warinner and several other experts I spoke with, is too inconclusive to justify a rule that limits women’s fight times. But some doctors still think it’s a good idea. “I don’t know if [the rule] is medically indicated, but I think it makes sense,” says Anthony Alessi, a member of the American Academy of Neurologists and a longtime ringside physician. “The less exposure you have to head injury, the safer the sport is. Maybe we should think about less time in the ring for men as well.”

But the WBC has deemed 36-minute fights safe for men, and Wallace, the WBC’s medical advisory board chairman, says there are no plans to change that. Though Wallace believes women are capable of fighting longer bouts, he still doesn’t think they should. It’s hard not to see paternalism in opinions like that. And for female fighters, it’s also hard to forget that the men are the ones making millions for the sport, and for themselves. Nearly every woman boxer I spoke with told me they believed that if the WBC felt it could make money from longer women’s fights, the opposition would melt. “You want to protect female fighters? That’s fine,” pro boxer Susan Reno says. “But they think, ‘Well, we’re not sold that we can make money on you yet, so we don’t want to take up too much time on the card.’ I think if they saw money to be made — who’s not going to jump on that?”

In the meantime, Ashley says that keeping women’s fights shorter is a way for the boxing world to justify the massive gap between women’s and men’s earnings. It isn’t uncommon for her to be offered $10,000 for a title fight that would typically earn a male boxer six figures. “Promoters are always saying, ‘Oh, you don’t fight enough rounds, or minutes, and we can’t pay you comparably,’” Ashley says.

Female boxers’ hesitance to believe that the WBC’s regulations are based on legitimate safety concerns makes sense in light of boxing’s history of using trumped-up concerns about women’s health to keep them from ascending in a sport they were long told wasn’t made for them. It is easy to see an insidious sexism in the WBC’s decision on fight times: It applies medical fact tenuously, and in doing so, gives women reason to doubt themselves and their place in the ring.

The WBC firmly disagrees with such conclusions. To understand the organization’s perspective, I phoned Jill Diamond, a co-chair of the WBC’s Female Championship Division. She is also the only woman on the WBC’s Board of Governors, the body ultimately responsible for forming regulations based on doctors’ advice. “To say that the WBC is using medical information to closet sexism is not only inflammatory, it’s completely incorrect,” Diamond says. “You may feel the medical information is misleading…. Everything is subject to interpretation. The information that’s being put out is the information that we’ve gathered.” Later in our conversation, she adds, “There’s no doubt in my mind that a woman can box 12 three-minute rounds. The question is, should they? Does it make for a better show? Do the fans like it? Is it better for the women?”

In 2009, it was announced that for the first time, women would be allowed to box in the Olympic Games. Shortly after, the International Boxing Association made an announcement of its own: Female boxers would wear skirts while competing, rather than the traditional shorts. The reason being that in the ring, with helmets on, spectators were no longer able to tell female fighters from male. “You unpack that a little and you leap for joy,” women’s boxing historian Malissa Smith says, “because it means that their skill level is equivalent to boys.” That boxing officials could not accept this, and sought a solution to ensure that women were set apart, says a lot about the dominant mentality within the sport.

If the medical community establishes that women are indeed more at risk for concussions than men, then precautions should be taken to ensure that they can box safely. Until then, let them fight. Everybody knows that they can.