Women in fencing

At the first international fencing competition for women in 1921, Uta Barding, a ‘strong and scientific Danish fencer’, won the event fencing to the strains of the Toselli Serenade.

How civilized.

Of course, there were no squealing scoring boxes to compete with, just the sound of clashing blades and perhaps the occasional ‘yes!’ from the fist-pumping Dane.

A sport for boys?

A sport involving one-on-one combat with a weapon might not be the obvious choice for girls who love to compete. Sabre traces its roots to military training and the mastery of killing. Epee was born out of dueling, an inherently male pursuit bound up with notions of manhood and honour. But from its infancy as a competitive pursuit in the early twentieth century, women have taken to the piste in droves.

There have been a few obstacles along the way, like long dresses and a stubborn male insistence that we couldn’t handle an epee or a sabre. But history lent us a hand. French fencing clubs, desperate for customers after World War 1 decimated its clientele, began offering special courses for women in the 1920s. Women fencers in Denmark held national foil championships between 1915 and 1918 and we have British and Danish women to thank for convincing the FIE to include a women’s foil competition at the 1924 Paris Olympics. The women’s team foil event was eventually included in 1960. Skirts were compulsory until 1935.

Too dangerous for girls

It took until the 1980s for a committee of five women, chaired by a man, to investigate issues of ‘protection and safety’ for women fencing epee. After much debate, women competed in this weapon internationally for the first time in the 1989 World championships and at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, but only using the traditional French grip handle on their weapons. Pistol grip was considered too dangerous.

Sabre followed suit eventually, despite misgivings the weapon was ‘too demanding (with) blows too violent for frail shoulders’. The first world championships for women’s sabre were held in Seoul in 1999 with the first Olympic event in Athens in 2004.

Hear us roar

Today women are more likely to have their voices heard in our sport, comprising six of the 22 Executive Committee positions on the International Fencing Federation, including Australian Helen Smith. And what better demonstration that women can do battle on many fronts than our own Evelyn Halls; fencer, wife, mother, lawyer, President of the Australian Fencing Federation and current national women’s epee champion?

Inspiration indeed.

By Angela Bensted


Source: Thierry Terret and Cecile Ottogalli-Mazzacavallo (2012) Women in Weapon Land: The Rise of International Women’s Fencing, The International Journal of Sport