The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff.
WWE of course was behind the times when it came to promoting the women. For years they languished as a sideshow on the mid-card that fans utilized as a chance to get a snack or go to the bathroom. When it came time to change the philosophy of the division, WWE acknowledged that in the past the women hadn't been applied to the best of their ability and that things were going to change. Stephanie McMahon of course was given full credit for this revelation, acknowledging that the days of bra and panties matches were in the past (never mind the fact that Stephanie had a big role in creative during the heyday of the bra and pantie matches). With an influx of talented new women, WWE began promoting a new era in Women's wrestling. Because of this new chapter, WWE as they are wont to do began rewriting history.
To WWE, the history of women's wrestling only includes the exploits of a few chosen performers (Lita, Trish, Alundra Blayze, Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young) and everything else is a mystery. That is really why I wanted to write this piece; because WWE is for better or for worse the gatekeeper of wrestling history to most wrestling fans and what they promote as history unfortunately ends up usually being taken as fact. Women's wrestling has a much longer, more defined history than the narrow scope of what WWE decides to promote.
Women's wrestling as a form of entertainment has been around for about as long as men's wrestling. During the Victorian era, women appeared on the carnivals along with male wrestlers, frequently challenging participants from the crowd that often included men. The women who wrestled in this era were on par with the most disfigured of freak show attractions because of how brazen their violation of gender roles were during such a stifling time period for female rights.
Around the turn of the century women's wrestling for the first time began to embrace the idea of sex appeal. While Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt were wrestling in front of large crowds at baseball stadiums, women's wrestling began to gain traction in burlesque houses and in taverns across the US, as drunken fans wildly cheered on the competitors. Similar to the carnival days, they would often take on male challengers from the crowd to baffle and entertain the audience. During this period a couple of women began to stand-out, with Josie Wahlford proclaiming herself the Women's World Champion and her title belt would eventually become the standard title for women's wrestling until the 1950s. Other wrestlers like Laura Bennett and the Russian Masha Poddubnaya, who took the championship to Europe, would emerge as top names.
While these women would earn title reigns, they could hardly be considered stars. They were unknown to the general population and women's wrestling was very much a niche form of entertainment. Women's wrestling during this era became a unique form of theatre, wildly different than the style of wrestling that women would employ in later eras. Max Viterbo, a French sportswriter described attending one of the shows at a burlesque club in Paris.
"The room was wild with impatience. The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out…a lubricious gleam came to the eyes of old gentlemen when two furious women flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes—hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded and stamped their feet."
Things would begin to change for women's wrestling in 1910 when Cora Livingston, a young grappler from Buffalo, emerged. She defeated Bennett for the title and became the first person to be officially recognized as the Women's Champion of the World. Livingston would in a lot of way become the Ed Lewis of women's wrestling, ruling the scene for decades as the indominatable champion, disposing of all-comers. What separated Livingston from the women of the past as that she was able to make women's wrestling more of a legitimate attraction than just appearing in the red light districts of major cities. In 1913 she married Paul Bowser, who later would become arguably the biggest regional promoter in the United States thanks to his promotion of stars in Boston like Danno O'Mahoney and Steve Casey. Her relationship with a respected promoter like Bowser opened new doors for women's wrestling. Livingston began appearing on major wrestling shows and while women's wrestling was still seen as a bizarre, freak show attraction, it was no longer restricted to taverns and night clubs.
In the 1920s the famed Gold Dust Trio of Ed Lewis, Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow began to revolutionize the wrestling business, turning it more into the spectacle of entertainment that it is today than just a formal athletic contest. This opened the door for more promoters to work with women's wrestlers, and in turn Livingston and other wrestlers were able to appear on more shows. Livingston retired from wrestling in 1925 and took the championship with her. However, due to her prominence as a wrestler more women had broken into the industry and one of them, Clara Mortenson, a wrestler from Portland who was taught to wrestle by her father, would claim the title in 1932. She held it until 1937, when women's wrestling first true star would emerge and change the industry forever.
In 1932, Mildred Bliss was an 18 year old waitress working in on an Indian Reservation in Gallup, New Mexico. Eventually she married a man who whisked her away to Kansas City and introduced her to professional wrestling. Bliss became captivated with the sport and while the marriage did not last, her fascination with professional wrestling did. Blessed with a naturally muscular physique that was unheard of for a female during that time period, Bliss cut a striking figure that was both athletic and sexually attractive to men.
Billy Wolfe was a World War I veteran who was a run-of-the-mill middleweight wrestling in the Mid-West. In the 1930s he found a niche by training and managing women's wrestlers in Kansas City and was approached by Bliss in 1935. As legend has it Bliss was eager to be trained by Wolfe, who was originally dismissive and to teach her a lesson he ordered a male wrestler to perform a body slam on Bliss to show the lady that wrestling was not for her. When Bliss ended up body slamming the male wrestler instead, Wolfe did a complete 180 and released that Bliss could be his ticket to success. He agreed to train Bliss and developed a personal relationship with her that led to their marriage. Changing her name to Mildred Burke (which is humorous because today Mildred Bliss would be considered a far superior in-ring name than Mildred Burke) she proved a natural and quickly became the top draw in women's wrestling.
In 1937 she defeated Mortenson for the Women's World Championship and began an incredible run of dominance. While Mortenson and Livingston broke barriers by appearing on the undercard of male-dominated shows, Burke became the first female wrestler to be a true drawing card. Burke is still today the most popular women's wrestler in American history. She became the first women's wrestler to regularly main event shows and drew crowds that still stand today as records for American women. In 1941 she successfully defended her championship against Elvira Snodgrass in Louisville in front of 18,000 fans, an insane accomplishment for a female competitor. Considering WWE, the global leader in the industry only draws 18,000+ people a handful of times a year, it's amazing in retrospect to see how big of a star Burke was.
Wolfe leveraged the success of his wife to eventually negotiate a deal with the fledgling National Wrestling Alliance, where he would become responsible for booking and training all female wrestlers for the Alliance. While at first this worked out splendidly for Burke, who became the queenpin of women's wrestling in the NWA, it soon turned into a nightmare. Wolfe, now in charge of dozens of women, proved to be a less than spectacular husband and his numerous indiscretions along with his often brutal treatment of Burke who he treated more as meal ticket and less as a wife, led to her filing for divorce in 1952.
The divorce of Burke and Wolfe would prove disastrous for women's wrestling, and in a lot of ways it still hasn't recovered. Burke formed her own promotion, the World Women's Wrestling Association and created her own world title. However, Wolfe's connections with the NWA allowed him to shuffle the recognized championship (still the old Women's World Championship) onto his daughter-in-law June Byers. Wolfe savagely blackballed Burke from the NWA and promoted Byers as the real champion. This eventually led to a 2-out-of-3 falls match between Byers and Burke to determine the true champion in 1954. Burke was told she was going to lose the first fall but rally back to win the next two, but when she lost the first fall Wolfe and the NWA double-crossed her and ended the match right there, giving the impression Byers had defeated Burke clean in the middle of the ring. Left with little recognition, Burke continued to train women's wrestlers in California for the rest of her career—the biggest women's wrestler in American history toiling away in virtual anonymity because of blatant misogyny and trickery by the business that had made her a star.
Byers would hold the championship until 1956 when she retired. Byers' retirement mostly marked the end of Billy Wolfe's involvement in women's wrestling. While he was controversial and smeared Burke out of wrestling, the fact is that he was incredibly dedicated to pushing women's wrestling as a serious form of entertainment and women's wrestling was never taken more seriously in the United States than when Wolfe was involved. Looking to wash their hands of the whole debacle, the NWA decided to put their faith in a new star, Lillian Ellison, a 33 year old veteran from South Carolina.
Ellison began to work with veteran promoter Jack Pfefer who had her billed as The Fabulous Moolah and with the support of Pfefer she was given the women's world title that was recognized by the NWA in September of 1956. Moolah was a mediocre wrestler, but her real skill was maneuvering herself into positions of power. With Wolfe out of the picture, Moolah became the new power broker in women's wrestling. She created Girl Wrestling Enterprise and like Wolfe handled all of the booking for women wrestlers in the NWA. She also began training wrestlers in South Carolina and was able to guide their careers along. Most importantly, she developed relationships with important promoters, including Vince McMahon Sr. in New York City.
Unlike Wolfe, Moolah was a performer and therefore booked herself as the perennial champion. While she dropped the championship on a couple different occasions (only to quickly regain it) she was able to pretty much re-write history and eventually claimed that she had been champion since 1956—which she basically was. Today, the fact that Moolah held the title for 28 years is mind-boggling, but if you understand what the situation was back during her reign, it isn't really that amazing. Moolah owned the legal rights to the championship so she was in complete control of its booking. She also was responsible for training and booking all the other female wrestlers throughout the NWA, meaning she controlled the careers of her potential rivals as well.
More than anything, women's wrestling under the thumb of Moolah went backwards. The days of women main-eventing large houses were long gone and once more women were really only brought in as a novelty match. Few promoters actually cared about the women's championship, but they would hope that the rare match would sell some extra tickets. Any long-term storyline development that might be able to bring women's wrestling back was snuffed out both by promoters indifference to the division and also by Moolah's reluctance to allow a rival to reach her level. Her long-term relationship with the McMahon family has allowed WWE to rewrite history to make her seem like the greatest women's wrestler of all-time, but in reality she was a jobber compared to a star like Burke.
While women's wrestling was fading in the United States, it would began to take hold in Japan. Like the US, women's wrestling had been around for decades without much fanfare, but that would all change with the rise of The Beauty Pair. Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda were two novice teenage wrestlers working for All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling in the mid-1970s. Japanese pop culture had a fascination with teenage girls and some of them were huge, huge stars, becoming very popular with girls and teenagers. In February of 1976 Sato and Ueda formed The Beauty Pair and captured the WWWA World Tag Team Championships (AJW recognized the championships from Burke's old promotion as their main titles) and became huge celebrities. The reason for this is because AJW mixed their wrestling matches with pop music, and The Beauty Pair were not just a tag team, they were a massive pop sensation. By recording popular music (The Beauty Pair had hit singles that were played on the radio throughout Japan) they became enormous stars and achieved a level of mainstream success that few performers, male or female would ever achieve.
Live shows featuring The Beauty Pair would have wrestling matches with music concerts in-between matches and often times the crowd popped big for the music and were quiet for the matches. Neither Sato nor Ueda were outstanding wrestlers, but that hardly mattered, they were selling not only tickets but records, posters, t-shirts and pretty much any other form of merchandise you can think of. The concept was pure gold for AJW, and their formula would be mimicked later by the WWF (but in a different way).
However, The Beauty Pair proved to be a fad and like many of the other teen idols in Japan came and went rather quickly. Now that they were no longer teenagers, AJW quickly whisked them away and forced them into retirement in 1981, when Sato was only 23 years old.
After The Beauty Pair there was The Crush Gals. Like Sato and Ueda, Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka debuted when they were only teenagers and almost instantly became top stars for AJW. The team of Asuka and Nagayo mixed music and wrestling and built on the popularity that The Beauty Pair developed, and became incredible draws. Throughout the early-1980s they had several Top Ten hits and captivated the nation. However, unlike The Beauty Pair Nagayo and Asuka were very good wrestlers, and a lot of what they did in the ring redefined the perception of what a women's wrestling match could consist of. They were involved in a lengthy storyline against Dump Matsumoto, who perfected the role of the stocky bully who terrorized the slim and attractive babyfaces. The feud between The Crush Gals and Matsumoto was ratings magic on Japanese television, frequently generating ratings north of 12.0. Other stars like Jaguar Yokota and Bull Nakano rounded out the shows with more terrific matches.
The Crush Gals eventually broke up during the late 1980s and the ensuing rivalry between Asuka and Nagayo continued to draw extremely well. However, The Crush Gals were still susceptible to the short shelf life of being a teen idol, and they began to fade from the spotlight while still very much in their physical prime.
In the 1990s a new generation of Japanese women emerged. This new generation was unlike The Beauty Pair and The Crush Gals in that they were not musicians—and they became popular purely based on their wrestling ability. Performers like Manami Toyota, Akira Hokuto, Mayumi Ozaki, Aja Kong and Kyoko Inoue were as good as any other wrestler in the 1990s, male or female. Business continued to be good for AJW, which culminated in the biggest event in women's wrestling history, Doumu Super Woman Great War at the Tokyo Dome in 1994, which drew 42,000 people, by far the largest crowd to ever attend an all-women's show.
However, the major Tokyo Dome show proved to be the tipping point for women's wrestling in Japan. Because of the popularity of women's wrestling more promotions began to open and talent began to defect from AJW. Financial problems continued to hamper the company and as their TV ratings slid they eventually lost their television deal in 2002 and the company closed their doors in 2005. Today women's wrestling is still prevalent in Japan, but none of the major male promotions associate themselves with the sport and instead, smaller all-women independent organizations such as STARDOM and Ice Ribbon carry on the tradition today and have produced some notable wrestlers, including Kana (who would sign with WWE and adopt the ring name Asuka) and the Shirai sisters, Io and Mio.
With women's wrestling floundering in the NWA and the WWF under the reign of The Fabulous Moolah, alternatives began to develop. Perhaps the most well-known is the television program Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Unlike normal wrestling promotions, GLOW was a syndicated television show that had seasons. It focused mainly on comedy and over-the-top gimmicks rather than wrestling and most of the performers were actresses who had briefly been trained to wrestle. While far from achieving outstanding popularity, GLOW has become a bit of a cult-hit because of its uniquely 80s presentation.
Another strange phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s was Apartment Wrestling. Apartment Wrestling was a secretive event that normally took place in hotel rooms and apartments that featured women, often naked, wrestling (probably shooting) to the delight of male audience members. This harkened back to the turn-of-the-century type of women's wrestling that was popular as a form of sexual entertainment. Apartment Wrestling became notable because throughout the 1970s wrestling magazines would often feature the results of these matches and promise risqué photos on the inside of the magazine. While the amount of people who actually attended the matches was very small, the coverage from the magazines made the fad seem like a bigger deal than it really was. Eventually the magazines moved in a more family-friendly direction and Apartment Wrestling faded away, although it has re-emerged in recent years on the internet as a form of pornography.
The fate of mainstream women's wrestling in the United States would rest in the hands of Vince McMahon Jr. McMahon purchased the WWF from his father and would have an up-and-down relationship with women's wrestling throughout the years. In the beginning he brought in The Fabulous Moolah and purchased the rights of the championship from her, and did crown her the WWF Women's Champion. The real reason Moolah was brought in however was to do the job to Wendi Richter, a pupil of Moolah's who McMahon envisioned as a top star. He brought in pop star Cyndi Lauper to manage Richter, and Richter defeated Moolah at the MTV TV special The Brawl to End it All in July of 1984, winning the title and ending Moolah's alleged 28 year reign. While McMahon originally had high hopes for Richter, trouble soon began with Richter refusing to sign a new contract with McMahon and Richter's frustration with the political maneuvering of Moolah who was not quite ready to give up the spotlight. A controversial match with Moolah in November of 1985 that cost her the title led to Richter leaving the company.
With Moolah back in the fold as the champion the women's division in the WWF fizzled out to little fanfare. The title was deactivated in 1990 and remained dormant as the WWF's women's division crumbled. The main women in WWF served as managers, most famously the pious Miss Elizabeth and the nefarious Sherri Martel. In 1993, looking to spark sagging business McMahon again tried to revitalize women's wrestling, by relaunching the division. The inaugural champion was Alundra Blayze, a veteran who had found success working as Madusa in Japan. Blayze would embody what WWE would eventually want out of its women wrestlers today, combining sex-appeal with athletic in-ring ability. Names like Aja Kong and Bull Nakano were brought in from Japan to challenge Blayze for the championship and the series of matches Blayze had against Nakano might to this day be the best women's matches in company history.
However, the division struggled with inadequate booking and never really took off the way it had the potential to do so. A perfect example of this would be the case of Rhonda Sing, a veteran worker who had been trained by Burke and had success in AJW as Monster Ripper. The Canadian came to the WWF in 1995 but was given a new gimmick, Bertha Faye, the Queen of the Trailer Park. The gimmick was terrible and worse, Sing was told not to do any of the power moves that the male wrestlers were doing, leaving the 300lb Sing very limited in the ring. She flopped in the company and the division went away once more at the end of 1995.
Women's wrestling would enter a new phase, beginning in ECW with women like Francine, Beulah and Dawn Marie flaunting their bodies in promiscuous fashion and getting involved in feuds with men, often taking bumps from men. The crash mentality worked in ECW which thrived on over-the-top violence, so over-the-top sexuality was right in line. As the WWF was losing ground to WCW, they began to look at ways to pop the audience back up. One of the big things that the WWF had in their favor was that the USA Network allowed them to push the boundaries with more adult-content while WCW's TV partner, Turner, was very strict on keeping WCW family friendly. Taking a page out of ECW's book, the WWF began promoting women in a much more sexual manner than they had in the past.
Tammy Sytch came to prominence as Sunny, the wife and manager of Chris Candido when she debuted in the WWF in 1995. Eventually the WWF noticed that fans were really interested in cheering the buxom manager and she became an important part of the company during 1996 and 1997, turning into one of the more popular acts in WWF. While not much of a wrestler, Sunny's popularity would pave the way for the next set of women to make a splash in WWF.
Like Sunny, Rena Mero debuted in the WWF and worked with her real-life husband, Mark Mero, under the ring name Sable. Soon Sable would outshine her husband and the attractive Sable became a huge star in the WWF, dressing in increasingly risqué outfits and taking the T&A aspects of women's wrestling to whole new levels. A key part of the Attitude Era, more women would flow into the WWF and play similar roles, including Miss Kitty, Ivory, Terri Runnels, Debra and Torrie Wilson.
These women would develop into major attractions for the WWF, proving the old adage that sex sells. Similar to the way The Beauty Pair were wrestlers that got over because of their singing careers, these women were wrestlers but really got over because of their sex appeal. The matches that they had were largely bad and their mic skills were not much better, but that didn't really matter. Their segments on TV were highly rated and they sold tons of merchandise and became the most requested autographs in the company.
While these women were huge bonuses to the WWF, a debate began to take place if it was morally acceptable for these women to use their bodies in such a provocative way on television and advertisers questioned the use of such open sexuality, in addition to the violence that they often were a part of, frequently at the hands of male performers. Another issue was that the promotional philosophy of hiring women for the company began to put looks ahead of talent. The result was while the women were great to look at, their skills as wrestlers were not up to par at all, and it also stifled the careers of many women who may have had a huge passion for wrestling but did not necessarily meet the all-world beauty standards that the WWF kept. A few stars, like Jacqueline Moore, Victoria, Lita, Trish Stratus, Mickie James and Molly Holly were able to play a role in company while also being competent workers, but the long term damage of a majority of women's matches being poor would have an effect on the industry for a while.
Another aspect of the Attitude Era was Chyna, who was something completely different than anything else in wrestling. A former bodybuilder, Chyna debuted in 1997 as the bodyguard of Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who was also her boyfriend at the time. Chyna's physique (along with her plain appearance) cut a strict contrast to the rather petite women who normally played a role in the WWF. Because of that she had no issue getting into the ring and engaging physically with male wrestlers and not since the days of Mildred Burke had a women's physique justified their ability to physically stand up to men. Her unique appeal and her affiliation with the popular stable D-Generation X opened the door for a big push from the WWF, and by the end of the decade she was one of the more popular acts in the company and was even InterContinental Champion.
However, Chyna's shelf life had an early expiration date. It didn't help that over time she lost a significant amount of her muscle mass and underwent plastic surgery to become more of a sex symbol. While this netted her the cover of Playboy it also kind of downgraded her appeal—instead of sticking out for her unique look she was trying to become just like all the other women. While she was put in programs with talented performers like Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero, the fact is Chyna just wasn't a very good wrestler and had limited charisma. Along with a fractured relationship with Triple H, he famously broke up with her and began going out with Stephanie McMahon, and a reputation backstage for being difficult to work with, Chyna eventually left the company in 2001.
In the wake of the Attitude Era, women's wrestling went into an extended slump. WWE began to reel back some of the overt sexuality of the women which while much more tasteful, hurt the popularity of the women because now they were just performers having generally bad matches. It also turned out that WWE was not the only entertainment group to discover that showcasing sexy women being mean to each other was good for ratings. The explosion of reality television during the 2000s led to countless shows highlighting that very thing, and WWE became far from the only show that had extremely attractive women pushing the boundaries of discernment. For over a decade women's wrestling limped along as the often poor matches were rarely coupled with a solid storyline and fans became trained to tune out whenever the women came on.
Outside of WWE alternatives did exist. All-women's indie promotions like SHIMMER and SHINE emerged and unlike WWE focused on wrestling and not sexuality and performers like Sara Del Ray and Daizee Haze became popular because of their abilities inside the ring. TNA had more success than WWE in promoting their women's division, mainly because they mixed in a more aggressive approach to sexuality with The Beautiful People with solid wrestling with performers like Gail Kim, Alyssa Flash and Awesome Kong.
About half-way through the 2010s WWE began to rethink their approach to women's wrestling. It began strangely enough in NXT, their developmental promotion. Female performers in the women's division like Paige, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Bayley began to get over with the audience, mainly because they were given more storyline attention than their main roster counterparts. The in-ring work was also very strong and was greatly assisted by the signing of Del Ray to be the first female trainer in WWE history, giving the women a skilled veteran to work with and learn from. The matches between the women over the NXT Women's Championship gained notoriety for their high-quality matches and were easily the best matches women have had since the days of Alundra Blayze and Bull Nakano.
In the summer of 2015 WWE openly admitted that women had not been getting a fair shake on the main roster and decided to change things. The top women in NXT were brought up and to WWE's credit they have been consistent in their insistence that women's wrestling matters. The women are now given more storyline time than ever and have longer, better matches. The audience has responded in-turn by becoming much more interested in the women's matches, and WWE has succeeded in changing the fans' attitudes towards female wrestlers. The beauty standards have still subsided a bit; the women are still attractive but the focus has largely shifted away from their looks and more towards their charisma and wrestling.
In April of 2016 WWE completed the makeover by discontinuing the Diva's Championship, which had taken over from the Women's Championship years before. The term Diva had been used by WWE for the previous dozen years to describe the female wrestlers and it was viewed as a derogatory term that was associated with inferior wrestling. The Women's Championship was brought back and the flowery Diva's Championship was replaced with a more mature Women's Championship belt. While the changes were all welcome, some of the bliss that came from the improvements was derided by WWE's constant promotion of itself as a progressive company (something nobody would ever say about them in the real world) and acting as if finally giving women a fair chance to succeed as wrestlers was some sort of stroke of innovative genius.
Women's wrestling has a long and illustrious history that has spanned over a century of ups and downs. The constant struggle to gain mainstream respect while navigating the historically misogynistic world of professional wrestling has created a tantalizing account of success and failure—a unique tale of perseverance that male wrestling could never equate. With more public support than ever, women's wrestling seems to be in a great place to grow in the coming years; but as history has shown us that popularity could dissipate quickly.
Must Watch Matches:
Kenny Omega vs YOSHI-HASHI: **** - NJPW Destruction in Hiroshima
Michael Elgin vs Tetsuya Naito: ****1/2 - NJPW Destruction in Kobe
The Ladder War match at ROH's All-Star Extravaganza between The Addiction, The Motor City Machine Guns and The Young Bucks was easily one of the best matches of the year; although I don't rate matches that I attended live.