Marjolin van Pavel has just returned from a visit to Mexico when I met her in the historic building of the University of Antwerp, her university. After nine years abroad, four of them in Mexico, she has returned to Belgium since September 2020. There she studied the history of boxers and wrestlers. In 2015, she entered the world of boxing through the family of her Mexican husband.
She unexpectedly became part of the entourage of Mexican boxer Edgar Sosa. I was in Los Angeles for my Ph.D. Coincidentally, Sosa was fighting an important battle there at the time. Sosa is a good friend of my brother-in-law, and his deputy appointed me on the spot. Van Pavel went to his training sessions and spent time with his team and family. “This is how I got to know the sport closely.”
Boxing is very popular in Mexico, especially in poor working-class areas. Like the neighborhood in Mexico City that Van Pavel’s relatives come from. Drugs and violence are rampant, and poverty is often passed on from generation to generation. Possible way out? boxing!
Van Pavel was particularly fascinated by the Mexican boxers who entered the ring in the 1920s and 1930s. Then the Mexican Revolution will end. There is hope for a more secular and inclusive society.
“Women are given more opportunities: they are more and more in public places, they can drive and play sports … The post-revolutionary government organizes mass demonstrations where there are also so-called ‘flipper girls’, from nurses to sports teachers.”
At the same time, boxing in Mexico is becoming more popular, especially among the working class. Women also go into boxing. Some newspapers even write that every woman should learn to box. A good example is the French-American boxer Jean La Mare.
“The idea is that women should be able to stand up for themselves,” says Van Pavel. They are more present in public, go out to work, but remain vulnerable to becoming victims of violence. Women who learn to box are also better able to master their husbands.
In addition, sports will make a woman stronger and healthier, which will benefit motherhood. It was a way to get closer to the ideal beauty of a slim, athletic woman. How about a “crooked nose”? “Men assume that women boxing are only training, but they are not going to fight in the ring.”
Then they think wrong. Women enter the ring anyway. The public is in shock, according to newspaper articles that Van Pavel studied. “Women don’t have to compromise on their pretty faces.” Besides boxing, women also wrestle, more specifically in lucha libre. This is a theatrical form of wrestling, which falls somewhere between a wrestling match and an acrobatic circus performance.
At the end of the 1930s, it wasn’t the case for women boxing or wrestling. A male boxer and wrestler becomes a model of “working-class masculinity” and grows into national champions. Women do not fit into that image. Above all, they should be loving and supportive mothers. “The exclusion of women has been used to make boxing the manly sport par excellence that has made Mexico great.”
Meanwhile, a Catholic president takes power in Mexico, with elitist government and traditional mores about men and women. Boxing is prohibited by law for women. The female Luchadora is tolerated only outside the capital.
“Boxing is seen as undesirable by women,” says Van Pavel. “Lucha libre isn’t good either, but it’s less bloody. Women wrestle in swimwear, where men can look shamelessly into women’s bodies. In the 1950s, a group of Luchaduras crossed the country. They make a living and often support other family members.” Many of them are single mothers. One of these pioneers is said to have been a lesbian. All this is inconsistent with the behavior that policy makers wish to encourage. The example of these transgressive women must be made invisible.
Since women were allowed to box and wrestle again in Mexico City, we’ve seen the opposite. Athletes are encouraged to have sex with themselves. Contemporary Mexican boxer Mariana “La Barbie” Juarez, for example, has also pitched for Playboy.
This brings us to the previous research conducted by Van Pavel. She interviews Playboy models, as well as women who do bodybuilders. “I am interested in sexual dynamics in society and how women go against the flow,” she says.
“Boxing, bodybuilding, porn magazines: these are the contexts in which men rule. Women who go into this field transcend social and material norms. They are often disrespected because they have sex or “infiltrate” the male territory.”
The sexualization of women in sports and other matters. audio stream? Indeed. Just think of the Norwegian handball players who had to pay a fine to the European Handball Federation for refusing to play in a bikini. Or the derogatory comments about the Belgian basketball team by sports journalist Eddie Demarez.
More and more cases of MeToo are coming to light, also in the sports world. The notion that women “get left behind” after themselves when something happens is still widespread. “It has always been the norm for women to take what is happening, and even be ashamed of the misconduct of others. Only when victims break the silence do you create awareness. Thanks to women who refuse to do what is expected of them, society changes.
This will also eventually happen to women’s boxing in Mexico. Laura Serrano became the world boxing champion in 1995, but was not allowed to fight in her city due to the ban.
Cyrano defies the boxing ban. After much debate, it was canceled in 1998. “Women’s boxing was the engine of change here. But they often pay the price. For example, Serrano was boycotted and he didn’t get a chance to fight in Mexico City.”
Van Pavel is also considering researching the history of boxing and wrestling in Belgium. I discovered that a hundred years ago there were women wrestling in Belgium. It’s a history that has been completely forgotten, and I’d like to delve deeper into it in the coming years.
Marjolin van Pavel
Marjolin van Pavel studied history at the University of Antwerp and then moved to London. I got my PhD in Research Models at Playboy. After visiting Yale University as a research assistant, I moved to Mexico. There she began working as a post-doctoral researcher at the National Autonomous University. She recently returned to Belgium and is affiliated with the Center for Mexican Studies at the University of Antwerp. She is a board member of the Society for the History of Gender (VVG) and a member of the Belgian Forum on Gender History where she is the driving force behind the programme, Consent, Ethics and Activism: Rethinking Historical Practice after MeToo.