Pioneer of Women's boxing - how Jane Couch fought the boxing authorities and won

Boxer Katie Taylor's world title fights earn her around a million dollars apiece and global adulation. Jane Couch's reward was to be spat on and labelled a "freak".

That's how far women's boxing has come in 25 years. 

Before 1998, it was illegal for women to box in the UK. Fighters had to travel to Europe or America for recognised bouts, until Fleetwood's newly-crowned world amateur champion sat before a panel from the British Boxing Board of Control to ask for a professional licence.

The response, by today's standards and those of the late 90s, was shocking.

"They said to me 'Could you not do something a woman does?" recalls Jane.

"I asked what does a woman do? They said, 'Well, you could be a cleaner or work in an office.' I said I wanted to box. They said 'No. Over our dead bodies will you ever get a British licence.' 

"That's the day I decided 'I'm going to get that licence and I'm going to fight for every young girl that that wants to fight in the future."

Jane Couch inspiring female boxers at her old club, Fleetwood ABC Credit: Fleetwood ABC

Jane found her love for boxing after watching a documentary about women fighters in America. While working in a Fleetwood rock factory, she would hang up a punchbag in her lunch break and begin training.

Within two years of joining Fleetwood Amateur Boxing Club, she had won the world welterweight title. But her biggest fight came in the courtroom in 1998, with a sex discrimination case against the British Boxing Board of Control. 

Their argument, given at the tribunal, was that women should not be allowed to box because their periods made them unstable.

"My lawyer, Dinah Rose QC, made mincemeat out of them," says Jane.

"She said to the British Boxing Board of Control doctor 'So if you were going on holiday and you realised that the pilot was a woman, what would you do?' The doctor said 'Well, so long as she wasn't due on a period, she would be okay.'

"It was unbelievable. They also said that if you were ready to come on to your period while getting into the ring, then you might trip on the steps! It was just a bunch of old men that had never, ever experienced women in sport. They just had no respect for women whatsoever."

Jane Couch was Britain's first licensed professional female boxer Credit: Michael Stephens/PA Archive

Jane won £15,000 in compensation and, more importantly, her professional licence. At Caesars nightclub in London in November 1998, she became the first female boxer to legally enter a UK ring.

She won convincingly that night but it wasn't the triumphant celebration of sportswomen's rights which you might expect.

"I was in the dressing room getting ready and I was already nervous. Then I heard the officials laughing at me outside the door," says Jane.

"Then they were laughing as I walked to the ring. I even had someone spit at me as I was heading into the ring. People saying 'Women shouldn't be allowed to box.' 

"You basically had to fight for free. I'd turn up to a hotel in America and there'd be no room for me. You'd have to pay for your own flight and accommodation. I remember going to fight in Denmark and all the boxers were being handed their meal vouchers. And there were none for me. I said 'But I'm fighting for the world title'. They just said 'But you're a woman.'

"You couldn't make a living out of it because because you were trying to be the first. Boxing probably cost me money in the end."

Jane Couch, after collecting her MBE Credit: PA

In the two months after the court case, Jane was thrust from the boxing ring into the living rooms of millions on a dizzying media tour which only highlighted the negative attitudes towards women's boxing at that time.

"I came out of the court case and into one hotel, to a TV studio or to another hotel, then to another TV studio, to a radio show," Jane says.

"I didn't even come home for eight weeks. It was interview after interview but they just couldn't understand why women wanted to box. Most of the TV shows made me wear my boxing outfit. If they had a male boxer on, you wouldn't ask him to wear his shorts and his gloves.

"The national press were absolutely horrendous. They called me a freak and questioned whether I should you be allowed to box. I had no media training and it was a difficult time. The attitudes towards women boxing didn't change right up to when I retired. I just couldn't cope with how something that I'd given up everything for, I ended up not liking anymore because of the politics and the people that are involved in professional boxing.

"It took a massive toll on me. I struggled when I retired, like a lot of boxers do. You could be Ricky Hatton, Mike Tyson or Joe Calzaghe but there's no support when that phone stops ringing and you're on your own."

Opening up about mental health is a message Jane is keen to get across. She's set up a women's group, The Chill Lounge, in her hometown which recently staged a sleep out on Fleetwood beach to raise awareness of social isolation and mental health issues.

And she pops back to her old club, Fleetwood ABC, to inspire the next generation of young female fighters.

"Jane is a celebrity around here. She's huge in the community and a big inspiration," says head coach Sean McGann.

"Since I've taken over coaching, our classes are pretty much split 50-50 between girls and boys. That's a big change from when I was boxing. I tell the girls about Jane all the time because they might think women have always been allowed to box. But actually they weren't able to. And the fact that she's from Fleetwood is something they use as inspiration."

So, as Jane joins millions of UK viewers in watching women top the bill on major UK fight nights, was the struggle to legalise women's boxing worth it?

"I'm very proud of it all. But, in another way, they try to erase what you did," says Jane. 

"Some of the commentators never mention the court case. They don't talk about the fight I had. It's not the girls fault because a lot of them don't realise. Some of the girls do - like Stacey Copeland. She knows the whole history of the case. And Natasha Jonas, too. But a lot of the new girls coming through don't realise the actual struggle.

"But it was worth it to see the girls now. And it's good that they didn't know what I went through because it could affect them. But, yeah, it would have been great to have boxed on a big show in the UK."