An interview with Dr. Christy Halbert


Dr. Christy Halbert is a former professional boxer, a boxing coach, and one of the big reasons the International Olympic Committee decided to allow women’s boxing into the Olympics this summer. She’s also an open lesbian.

Christy, who is Chair of the USA Boxing Women’s Task Force, spoke to us at WNYC public radio’s Greene Space before an event called Women Box: Olympic Boxing Is No Longer A Man’s Sport. (The event, hosted by boxing fan Rosie Perez, can be seen here.). Christy was one of the first academics to research the stereotypes and challenges surrounding women’s boxing. We talked about whether women are too frail to box, the special challenges lesbian athletes face, and the big brouhaha over skirts at the Olympics.

Photo Credit: Matthew Septimus for WNYC/The Greene Space Christy, thanks so much for talking with me today. I believe that women first boxed in the Olympics in 1904 in an exhibition match — so why is this summer the first year they’ll be competing in the Olympics?
Christy Halbert: Why did it take 108 years? That’s a good question. I honestly fluctuate between wondering “Why did it take so long” and then “Wow, how did we get it in?” because there has been a lot of pushback over trying to get in. A lot of people consider boxing to be the most masculine of Olympic sports, which is possibly one of the reasons why it was the last to admit women, and also likely one of the reasons we see the possibility of skirts introduced.

AE: That’s the big controversy now, right? It seemed at first they might be mandatory, but now it will be optional for women to wear skirts at the Olympics. Tell me about that.
Boxers, when they speak to me personally, the vast majority don’t want to wear a skirt. They want to be a boxer. They don’t want to be seen as a woman who boxes  they want to be seen as a boxer. And it’s really become a divisive issue for a lot of people, because for women to speak out against the skirt  well, first of all, boxers have told me that they don’t speak out against it. If they speak out against it, they worry they might be coming out themselves and becoming a target of perceived sexual identity that’s outside the norm or perceived gender identity that’s outside the norm.

AE: The ideas seems to be that many boxers don’t want to wear a skirt – they want to be tough, they want to be fighters. And though it seems like a good idea, because women are just being given the option – the choice – they may not have an actual choice, right?

If their national federation wants them to look more feminine, there might be pressure to wear a skirt and so they might need to wear one, whether it’s uncomfortable or not. One female boxer – who may be heading toward the Olympics – told me that if she wore a skirt that she would worry during the whole match that it might fly up and she might be embarrassed.
CH: Right. I have another example. One boxer told me she would feel pressured to wear the skirt but would hate to do it, because the skirt is such a powerful symbol. When this boxer was younger, she was kicked out of her house for transgressing traditional gender norms, including dress. The last thing her father said to her was, “You’ll be back and you’ll be wearing a skirt.” That’s the moment it hit her what a powerful symbol skirts are in the U.S. and similar cultures. Her thinking was, if you’ve never experienced it yourself, it must be difficult to understand why suggesting women wear skirts, especially in a sport, would be so offensive. 

AE: Do you know about any women who’ve felt that pressure?
Sure. Some of them have come to me and complained about pressure on them from coaches or administrators in their national federations who are saying, “Well, if the International Federation wants this, we should go along with it.” The boxers who’ve talked to me about this issue express feeling powerless in that kind of debate. Women have been boxing for hundreds of years and this is the first time there’s ever been a proposal for women athletes to wear skirts. I don’t personally see a need for women athletes to be marked by their gender.

AE: Besides the skirts, will there be equality in men’s and women’s boxing in the Olympics?
CH: I wish we had more weight categories. The Olympics are trying to limit the total number of athletes to 10,000 or so, which is understandable, but it means that women have only three weight categories in the Olympics, not the 10 men have. That means that there will be only 36 women and 250 men. That means that boxing will probably end up with the lowest percentage of women participants compared to men. Eventually, I hope there will be more.

AE: On the good side, why was it important to you that women’s boxing come to the Olympics? Why did you work so hard for it?
For boxing, the Olympics is the biggest stage. The most prestigious stage. By allowing women boxers into the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is validating, or making legitimate, the pursuit of these sporting women. 

And an Olympic program provides a reason for national federations to create women’s national programs, to fund those programs, and then that then allows the grassroots to develop. 

Without the IOC’s nod, women’s boxing was developing  but it’s developed much, much faster since 2009. The best example that I can think of is that in 2011 Syria and Afghanistan had national championships for women boxers.

AE: Really? That seems unreal to me, because I feel like women in those countries are not allowed to do very much – that they’re allowed to fight is kind of crazy.  Has it helped the situation for women there?
I don’t know. I know there are women boxing there in national programs and they still are facing obstacles. But quite frankly, women boxers in 2012 in the United States face obstacles. Women boxers are discouraged in a number of ways. But that’s one of the things that’s so great about women who box  just stepping through the ropes, whether she’s sparring or she’s competing on the local level or she’s gonna be in the Olympic games  a woman boxer has not only done what all of her colleagues in other sports have done and gone through what her male counterparts have gone through, but she has also overcome societal barriers put in place by friends and family and schools and sometimes boxing gyms. 

Those 36 that end up in the Olympic Games, they will represent collectively the hard work, the determination, the sacrifice plus the persistence of all those women who choose to transgress traditional gender roles by boxing.

Photo Credit: Matthew Septimus for WNYC/The Greene Space

AE: You’re clearly proud of the Olympians already.
Oh, yeah! The best-case scenario, of course, is bringing back a medal. And I think that medal will be shared among thousands and thousands of people that participated along the way. People think about boxing as an individual sport. And it’s true that boxers are in the ring by themselves, and what they do has a direct reflection on their success. But no one can box alone. 

AE: What do you mean?
The resources and the social networks that are required  it’s impossible to box by yourself. You have to have coaches, you have to have opponents, you have to have sparring partners. You have to have people willing to put on tournaments so that you can compete. You have to have the ringside physicians and the judges and the referees and all of that.

AE: I imagine that more and more people are going to be boxing. More and more women will find out that they can box, and get into it. But people who are against women boxing will be horrified by that idea, right? Can you talk to me a little bit about that? 
Well, a really important part of getting into the Olympics was education and the dispelling of myths. For example, there were people who were going to be voting who believed that women’s bodies were too frail to do something like boxing. That’s obviously not true.

My experience at least is that a lot of the people who are negative or quick to judge women’s boxing haven’t seen it. But also, a lot of those who are against it are coming to the table with some preconceived notions of gender and gender performance. 

AE: Some women are also concerned that it doesn’t seem very  well, feminist  for women to be beating each other up.
Amateur boxing does not feel violent to me. Amateur boxing really is about points. There are knockouts, but they’re not that common. Plus, there are a number of people looking out for the boxer. A number of people can stop the bout in an amateur match: the ringside physician, the coach, the referee, the jury, so there lots of people watching to make sure its not a mismatch. 

In professional boxing, it’s the opposite. And one of the reasons I had to finally stop professional boxing myself was that the second or third time that I had an opponent on the ropes, she would be turning around, turning away – which is an indication that she don’t want to do this anymore! I look at the referee and the referee is saying “Whatcha doing? Come on!” He wanted me to keep hitting. And I thought, ugh, this just doesn’t feel right for me. 

AE: So you wound up studying boxing instead.
After boxing once for money [on a lark], I wanted to do an actual study as part of my thesis, so I started by walking into a boxing gym just to – you know, I wanted to know when they talk about a jab, what was a jab? I just wanted to understand, because I was about to do a lot of in-depth interviewing. 

I walked through the door and they sized me up quick and thought they could make some money off of me, I guess,  and so I ended up again, poor graduate student, having a short professional boxing career while I was finishing my mater’s degree and then starting my Ph.D.  and then the worlds just could no longer coexist, so I retired. Never lost — then again I never fought for a world title or anything like that.

AE: Did you say you never lost?
Never lost. But for me, I didn’t really have much of an interest in professional boxing, because it’s more like an entertainment industry and I was accustomed to school athletics, basketball, athletics for athletics’ sake. 

Photo Credit: Matthew Septimus for WNYC/The Greene Space

AE: I think that’s the image people may have of Olympic boxing. That’s it’s like Vegas,  with women in tiny bikinis.

AE: But in addition to that, there’s all the money that people bet on games. And I think people may worry about boxing because they feel like it’s this sport where men from poor urban neighborhoods beat each other up while rich people bet and make money off their pain.
First of all, we need to differentiate between Vegas-type pro boxing and Olympic amateur boxing. Certainly the social science research once supported that conclusion for men boxers, that they came from under privileged backgrounds. I’m not sure it that’s still the case. If you look at 2008, the U.S. sent eight men to the Olympics, and the only one who got a medal came out of college basketball. 

Of course, boxing is interesting because you don’t have to have a lot of money to do it. You don’t need a large field to play, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. It is one of the last sports that literally anyone can try and potentially become successful. So it does speak to people who are trying to become upwardly mobile through a sport. You do find those kinds of stories on the women’s side.

But a lot of women also come to competitive boxing because they want to lose weight. Or they want to try something new. Or they tried kickboxing and they thought maybe they could transition over to boxing. 

AE: What would you say to women who are still skeptical/ambivalent about boxing?
They should try it. If they have the option to take a class or work with a trainer, to get personal exposure to the sport, I’d encourage it. Everyone should give boxing a try. You don’t have to be anyone in particular to box. You don’t have to be tall, heavy, light, rich. You come to boxing as you are and you get out of it what you put into it. Whether you box for fitness or recreation or competition, it’s a very rewarding experience. In my experience, there’s nothing else like it. 

AE: Let’s talk about something else for a moment. Lesbians in general have had it tough in sports.

AE: Lesbians have a very strong sporting culture – but on the other hand, sports can be very homophobic and teams sometimes discourage women from coming out. What is that dynamic in boxing?
That’s a good question. I remember playing high school basketball. I was being recruited by some colleges and I remember my high school coach making a derogatory comment about a specific college team:  “Oh, you don’t want to play for them, because there’s a bunch of dykes on that team.”

I have never heard that specifically said about boxing, although to my knowledge there’s only one openly out woman boxer in Olympic-style boxing, Patricia Manual, out of California. There are other gay women in the sport of course, but if you don’t know them, you wouldn’t know that they were out. There’s still that stigma.

AE: Why?
Boxing tends to be very conservative. Boxing is a very conservative subculture. So there’s that  and the fact that if women are thinking of turning pro, then the common thinking is that you need to be perceived as being heterosexual in order to be successful professionally.

AE: Does that happen often?
Yes, girls and women athletes are often targets of people who want them to perform their gender in proscribed, traditional ways, and those people often use overt and covert rewards and punishments. It’s not a boxing thing, it’s a woman-athlete thing.  

But in the this case it’s women athletes in a sport often perceived as being the “most masculine.”  It’s no coincidence that women boxers report facing even greater pressures from friends, family, boxing coaches, to find ways to perform traditional femininity in order to “balance” their participation in boxing.  

AE: Have you seen any overt homophobia in the last few years?
Oh, sure. Boxers have told me about coaches who will make derogatory comments, a couple of boxers have told me about coaches who have been critical of the boxer’s sexual identity or perceived sexual identity. 

AE: Finally, what do you want for the future of women’s boxing?
I am encouraged that the international federation has already announced that in 2016 they are trying to get more women’s weight categories and more women athletes. 

AE: What else should I have asked?
I want to circle back to the resurgence of stigma attached to women in sports. I do think women boxers struggle with that. I am looking forward to the day when a women athlete can just pursue her sport. Like men get to do. That will be a great day. But that day’s not here just yet.

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