Crash Course: Little Known History – Fighting Like A Girl

put up your dukes

What fighting like a girl was all about in Georgian Era Britain: The story of Elizabeth “Lady Bare Knuckles” Stokes.

From the 18th to early 19th century it was not uncommon for women to fight in the ring as well as men. Back then boxing was not the boxing of today, not by a long shot. Venues tended to be saloons, pubs, small arenas, or even open streets and back-alleys.

Rules differed from venue to venue, but for the most part fights were done bare knuckled, and many fights were a no holds barred type setup. Some fights even included deadly weapons such as clubs, swords, and staves. Needless to say, injury and death was common.

One of the most famous female fighters in early 18th century Britain was Elizabeth Stokes (born Elizabeth Wilkinson), a mother and fighter whose career lasted mostly throughout the 1720’s. In 1722 she was challenged by Hannah Highfield for a prize of three guineas. Stokes accepted the challenge but offered a counter challenge:

“I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, who had earlier had some words with Hannah Hyfield, ‘challenged and invited’ her to meet me on the stage for three guineas. Each fighter will hold half-a-crown in each hand and the first to drop the money would lose the battle”

Elizabeth won after a 22 minute fight, giving Hannah Hyfield a savage thumping that caused her to drop her coin. Later in the evening she won another fight against a woman named Martha Jones.

After the fight with Hannah Hyfield Stoke’s career took off, making her the most popular female fighter in Britain and earning her the name “Lady Bareknuckles”. After marrying her husand James Stokes, the couple often fought in paired and tag-team matches. Incredibly Stoke’s even fought men on a number of occasions, something that was rare in bareknuckle boxing.

Even more incredibly, she trounced them every time, beating the crap out of them with her swift and powerful fists. Not only was she a master pugilist, Stokes was also skilled with weapons as well. She was known to be particularly skilled with the cudgel and short sword.

By the mid 19th century women’s fighting had come to a close as professional organizations, rules, and Victorian Era prejudices against women drove the sport underground and turned fighting into a gentlemen’s sport.