Dr Sarah Crews: Exploring the achievements of women in boxing

Sarah Crews

Dr Sarah Crews, Head of Music and Drama, and senior lecturer in Performance and Media, has a specific interest in boxing and identity. Her research spans women's boxing in Wales - past, present and future - gender and performance in boxing, and the role of boxing in physical and visual cultures more broadly.

Sarah led the sporting heritage project, Women’s Boxing Wales: Past, Present and Future, funded by the National Lottery Heritage fund, which aims to document the experiences of women in Welsh boxing and celebrate the contributions they have made to the rich history of boxing in Wales.

She embarked on her PhD after developing an interest in thinking critically about some of the biggest issues facing her subject area at the time. Her thesis was based on core themes that had emerged around strong, complex and challenging female characters in theatre, and how performers approach them during the rehearsal process.

Following her PhD, Sarah started to combine her work with an interest in women’s boxing, and, working with her colleague Matthew Gough – senior lecturer in Dance – created a 30-minute dance production, called Ymladd, with Dance students which involved the performers undertaking intensive boxing training, and was shown at Dance House Wales in 2019.

Sarah discovered a love for boxing later in adulthood, after not particularly enjoying sports at school, and still enjoys training every week. Having grown up with two older brothers, Sarah has always been aware that it is a historically male-dominated sport, and this awareness has played a big part in her current research.

She said: “I used to watch professional boxing with my brothers, and I don’t ever recall the headline boxing matches having any mention of female boxers. I’d always considered myself a bit of a ‘tomboy’ when I was younger, so being in those male-dominated spaces never really fazed me.

“During my twenties, I spent years training with men who were over 6ft, and probably weighed three of me, but I wouldn’t think twice about holding the pads for them, sparring with them. There’s that sense of camaraderie in boxing – no one’s ever looking to hurt you – so although I was smaller, I never felt any different because I could keep up with them.

“Now, I’ve noticed a huge difference. Through my research, and my own experience of training, I understand that there are big differences between male and female bodies, and different types of bodies.

“It can be difficult, especially in a very male-dominated environment, to adapt particular exercises or perhaps pull back when everyone else is throwing themselves around, as you don’t want to feel weak, or be perceived as weak.

“I’ve never personally felt that way in the gym environment, but my research has made me more starkly aware of not only the inequalities between men’s and women’s sport generally, but about how female athletes require a different approach to coaching from time to time. There’s a real lack of knowledge around how female bodies perform differently at different times. The ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work.”

Earlier this year, Sarah spent a week in iconic boxing venue Gleason’s Gym in New York, interviewing female boxers. She also interviewed Mariam ‘Lady Tyger’ Trimiar, the first female boxer to be licensed in the city, about some of the challenges she faced during her boxing career.

She said: “Lady Tyger spoke openly about how there weren’t separate male and female changing rooms at the time, so she would have to get changed in a cupboard and was aware that people were spying on her. She was even subjected to sexual harassment from coaches, and spoke about not being taken seriously as a boxer – that’s a core theme in all of my interviews; it seems that women have to prove themselves even more because they are female boxers.

“Those inequalities and challenges for women in boxing are still very much alive. We see the headlines of Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams – these incredible boxers who have achieved wonderful things and earning millions, but sadly that’s not the reality. They are the exception.”

Sarah’s latest research has a specific Welsh focus, exploring how the benefits of female participation in boxing can be integrated into the school curriculum, and how pathways can be developed for young women and girls in boxing to progress beyond daily training to elite level.

She is also building on her New York research, exploring the impactful activist work by women in boxing. This work will contribute to her monograph, ‘Trailblazing and Troublemaking: Labour, Legacies and Limitations in Women’s Boxing’, and a feature-length documentary she is developing with a boxer based in Swindon.

Sarah said: “Women’s boxing wasn’t made legal in the UK until 1998. To think that it was in my lifetime just seems incredible, so I think that it’s important to recognise the achievements of women in the sport, which historically have often been hidden and therefore forgotten.

“For example, New York had a group of boxers called the Royal 6 – women who faced struggles individually, but they recognised that through joining forces, they could use their platform to raise public awareness of breast cancer, sexual violence and other issues that are not often spoken about.

“Boxing, in a way, became a vehicle to get people talking, and so I’m hoping to continue shining a light on the incredible things that these women achieved.”