“Lita was in the First Funking Conservatory training camp. She was the only girl in camp with 15 other men. Nothing was easy. She earned their respect by working hard and asking for no privileges because she was a girl.” -Dory Funk Jr.
Hello! Today, we continue a mini-series of articles looking at the women’s revolution in wrestling, and who deserves the utmost credit. I will not be giving my answer to the title until we conclude the last article. Previously, we covered the history of women’s wrestling in Japan, Mexico, United Kingdom, and detailed the contributions by pioneers Mildred Burke & Billy Wolfe. We ended with mentioning The Fabulous Moolah, along with the WWF reviving the Women’s Championship. If you missed it, you can check it out here: Vol. #1
In the first volume, we did not touch on the rise of America’s first all-women’s wrestling promotion. While The Fabulous Moolah enjoyed her last days as champion in the WWF (after “The Spider Lady” screwed Wendi Richter), Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling emerged in early 1986. It was colorful, comedic, and featured strong women from all walks of life. Actors, athletes, models, dancers, stunt women, and wrestlers came together to produce something unique.
You could say it was ahead of its time, however, it suffered in its early seasons. Many of the performers and founder David McLane did not appreciate the low brow humor. After the second season, he & others left to form the more serious promotion called Powerful Women of Wrestling. GLOW had to recast and lasted two more seasons until it struggled to produce a fifth. Most fans will remember Tina Ferrari, who later became Ivory in WWE. She was the only wrestler to win the GLOW Championship, and the tag titles.
While competing with GLOW, McLane’s POWW featured former and future WWF stars leading its own roster. Wendi Richter, Luna Vachon, Alundra Blayze, and Ivory all showed up to put it on the map, as a place where women’s wrestling could be respected. In 1989, the promotion was briefly aligned with Verne Gagne’s AWA. However, while it was admirable, taking women’s wrestling seriously did not translate to lucrative business, and POWW closed its doors in 1990.
With no women’s wrestling in the WWF, all-women’s promotions sprang up in its absence and picked up the pieces. By 1990, GLOW, the Ladies Professional Wrestling Association, and Ladies Major League Wrestling all enjoyed success in the same market. WCW recognized Susan Sexton, the champion of LWPA, as their World Women’s Champion. She defended the title at Clash of Champions XII against Bambi, who made a name for herself working for all the previously mentioned companies. WCW had its own women’s division until the end of 1991, when they phased it out.
The LPWA held shows until 1992 and featured a few future stars getting in to the business. Much like POWW, it focused on actual wrestling. Jacqueline, Madusa, Tori and Dawn Marie mixed up with the established stars of the past. However, it also featured some male stars, like British legend Adrian Street, who played an integral part of the show. The Glamour Girls were there too, to make the tag team division worthwhile. Jim Cornette, Sgt. Slaughter and Nick Bockwinkel were on hand to announce.
After The Fabulous Moolah left the WWF, she formed the Ladies International Wrestling Association, which apparently ran events between 1990-2000. There’s so little information about this company that it’s hard to gauge how well it did. Moolah must have been making enough to keep her lifestyle going until WWF got her back in the late 90s.
It’s safe to say that 1987-1992 was a significant period for women’s wrestling outside the global promotions. Yet, it feels like the world wasn’t ready for a women’s revolution. There wasn’t enough support to keep it afloat. In terms of business, the demand was too low. Women’s wrestling had been promoted as second-rate for too long.
Sadly, when these promotions closed their doors, it was a dark time. Unless you worked in Japan, there weren’t many places to go. In volume #1, we went over how the WWF brought back the women’s title in 1993, but it wasn’t enough. Alundra Blayze became champion three times, but she never defended it at WrestleMania. In 1995, Alundra Blayze jumped ship, and it took little convincing from Eric Bischoff to dump the title in the trash on WCW TV. The WWF was going through financial issues, so they got rid of the women again. No, it wasn’t professional, but you can’t really blame Madusa for feeling angry. It’s an iconic moment, because it shows how low women’s wrestling sunk. It was literally in the trash. Only the Japanese & Mexicans were showing it any kind of respect.
Looking back, it’s the first time any woman made such an impactful statement. It didn’t lead her to better opportunities in WCW, but it definitely affected the industry. We can’t know for sure, but I feel it contributed to Vince McMahon’s paranoia leading in to the Montreal Screwjob. He’d already seen Madusa drop his women’s title into the trash, and he didn’t want Bret Hart doing the same thing with the WWF title. Aside from that, Madusa’s actions killed any chance of a revival in WWE until 1998. There’s a chance they could have brought it back sooner, but management felt it was more trouble than it’s worth. Vince McMahon had no intention of bringing it back, but two women got over enough to change his mind. Women’s wrestling somehow crawled back out of the trash, but this time, it would remain a filthy, cheap mess.
Meanwhile, WCW tried building their own women’s division with Japanese stars Akira Hokuto and Devil Masami, but it didn’t go anywhere. It also had a Women’s Cruiserweight title, which was only won by Japanese wrestlers. The titles were dropped in September 1997 and were never reinstated. Despite this, WCW kept on promoting women’s wrestlers sparingly on Nitro, and more often on other shows.
Sunny & Sable
With no Moolah, Miss Elizabeth, Sensational Sherri, or a women’s division, the WWF was void of female talent. The company had to look elsewhere, so it brought in Sunny. For a while, she was the only woman regularly appearing on TV. WWF later introduced Marlena (aka Terri Runnels) to manage Goldust, and not long after, Sable debuted as the manager of Triple H. Sunny was the most downloaded celebrity in the world on AOL in 1996. As Sunny has stated during interviews, she and Sable did not get along. It’s understandable that she would feel threatened by Sable moving in on her spot.
With WWF using sexuality to appeal to a mature audience, ratings rose and management continued to plug Sunny & Sable. From 1997 to early 1999, the only female wrestlers who signed with the WWF were Chyna, Luna Vachon, Jacqueline, and Debra Marshall. Jacqueline won the revived women’s title in September 1998, and Sable in November, but the WWF had no intentions of building a division. The only reason they brought the title back was to put it on Sable and capitalize on her popularity, which rivalled Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. It was during her time as a champion that Sable called herself a diva, coining the term for WWE’s future women’s wrestlers.
After leaving the company in 1999, Sable’s $110 million lawsuit remains a topic of debate. Jim Ross puts it the following way (h/t to WrestlingInc for the transcript):
“Sable was absolutely a bonafide star, gender aside, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. She earned and garnered the numbers every single time she stepped out on television. She got over. In two years, she was doing Playboy, T.V. guide, and they were selling. She was a star, she moved the needle on every venue she performed in, and she did it all with no advanced training – 24 months.
There’s people in NXT that have been there for 24 months that are still working hard to get called up or even get on the show. Her rise to that stardom is nothing short of incredible. She listened to the wrong people. You can look at it in a zillion ways. It comes back down to me as being egocentric. Every pro wrestler has a varying amount of insecurities and anxieties, every one of them. Some to a degree that it is counterproductive, and some to a degree that motivates them to be great and stay great. But she got a little too big for her britches.
We were not going to release her. Not seeing Sable in a match, having her in a house show when she was there as an attraction, it was nice, but we didn’t have to have her. She was trying to ease out of the wrestling world to try her hand in a Hollywood thing. It’s every little girl’s dream. It didn’t come as a shock. Well, I didn’t see the lawsuit coming. I thought it was a nuisance lawsuit. I thought it was put in place so she could get her release. It was the negotiating chip she needed to walk.”
On the way out of WWE, Sean Waltman (X-Pac) defecated in Sable’s bag. Marc Mero confirms this in the above interview, and they would later joke about it. He also shared how Sable tried her hand in movies, but a few years later, she called Vince McMahon out of the blue. It left Mero dumbfounded, as he told her she couldn’t go back to a place like that. Part of the agreement, if she came back, was that she had to apologize to some of the top stars.
The story of Sable is detailed, and not one we’ll continue with here. However, its place in the evolution of women’s wrestling is paramount. Without Sunny, the sex factor in the WWF may not have been where it was for Sable. Going in to the Attitude Era without Sable, the landscape would have looked way different. The women’s title wouldn’t have returned when it did. Management was content in having barely a handful of managers to compliment their male stars. Sable, despite not being a wrestler, played her part to perfection.
She was not trained, yet she got in the ring within a year against what she felt was right. Many criticize and parrot what others have said, that she was entitled and a primadonna. Her ego may have been off the chain, yet her contributions are still unrecognized. Sable is not in the WWE Hall of Fame, although that’s probably more on her not wanting anything to do with it. While she set a precedent for the years to come, it got women back on television challenging for a title. The lawsuit encouraged WWE to have more control over every aspect of its performers, for better and for worse.
Enduring the lewd programming, opened the door. Sable paved the way and wasn’t the only one being asked to perform in a sexual manner. The Attitude Era arrived, and with it, a bunch of Hall of Famers who remain some of the most talked about stars in women’s wrestling history.
The Attitude Era was filled with many hot segments. I was a teen, so naturally I was loving it. After all, most people didn’t have the internet back then, and it’s not like you could find images or videos of naked women hanging from trees. If you were young enough, strip matches were as good as it got. Yet, it never occurred to me they didn’t enjoy this. Looking back, you can tell the reluctant from those who didn’t mind. Ivory just wanted to wrestle, and I’m sure Jacqueline felt the same. Mae Young didn’t care. She’d get her kit off any day for anyone. Like always, Moolah just wanted to get paid for doing hardly anything. Debra & Terri were terrible in the ring, so they knew this was their bread & butter.
I genuinely felt like Tori wanted to be more, but she couldn’t match what she did as Terri Power. Then there’s The Kat, who let’s face it… she did exactly what Vince wanted Sable to do. She was the first woman to display nudity on WWE TV on purpose. Naturally, being married to Jerry Lawler ensured her a job, so long as she ticked the box marked sexy. She was atrocious in the ring, but still defeated Ivory to become the women’s champion. People say Sable was bad, but she wasn’t any better. We entered the new millennium with The Kat as women’s champion. Let it be known in the year 3000 that this is how far women’s wrestling had come.
Did you know? By the end of 1999, Japan had at least six all-women wrestling promotions, while America had none. It was all about eye candy and rolling around in mud.
Now, we could say that women being sexual on TV is empowering, or demeaning. If given the choice, a select few using their sexuality would naturally hold an advantage over those who aren’t. Even more so in those days. It means those who don’t really want to do it feel compelled to go along for the ride to get more airtime and matches. It was different for men, because they were judged based on their look, charisma, and work rate. For the women, it was all about the look, being sexy, and everything else was secondary. A women’s revolution can’t be formed on that basis.
Trish Stratus was WWE’s godsent replacement for Sable. Only this time, Trish was working a character and improving in the ring. However, something fans seem to forget is that Trish was very green in the early days. She was originally the manager for T & A, Test & Albert. Although Trish grew up as a fan, she had been through little training before making her wrestling debut. Years later, after becoming champion, she still wasn’t a great wrestler. She got pretty good near the end, but from 2000 to 2002, it was painfully obvious how others were carrying her.
Stratus was initially getting over as a manager. What sent her over the top, though, was the sordid relationship with Vince McMahon. Her character work was amazing, and they had great chemistry. Yet, one of the most controversial segments saw her being ordered to bark like a dog and get on all fours. While politicians have used this against The McMahon’s, I always saw it as Vince reaching deep in to his maniacal character. It was Mr. McMahon in a nutshell. Had it not happened, the audience wouldn’t have felt sympathy toward Trish, and we needed it for the storyline with Linda McMahon. The payoff at WrestleMania, when Trish turned on Vince and helped Linda get revenge, is the single biggest moment of her career. Without that, she would have struggled to get over.
Taking this moment into account, she still got the (baby face) Roman Reigns treatment. The fans knew WWE was forcing her and many resisted it. Some got behind her as a baby face, while others didn’t. It was easier when she played heel, because everyone could hate her for whatever reason. Luckily, Trish had many skilled wrestlers and storylines to keep her busy. WWE never got her back to the same heights as when she was with Vince McMahon, but she was at the forefront of the revived women’s division. Although she didn’t do it alone.
Doing It Like The Guys
Amy Dumas was truly unique. She wasn’t just another typical blonde bombshell. Lita was like… that cool skater tomboy who would crash, burn, pick herself up, and carry on. She showed how women could be strong in a different light. She didn’t need to be popping her boobs out or shaking her body seductively. All Lita needed to do was be herself, which was refreshing. Teaming up with The Hardys was like putting on an oven glove. It’s a perfect fit. She could fly around like any of the Hardys and take out their opponents. Lita was one of the first women to get involved with tables, ladders, and chairs.
It’s a shame what happened later in her career, but we’ll cover that in another volume. Still, I wouldn’t say Lita was a great wrestler, but she was at least very good. Chyna was similar, only she had the power to take on many guys single handedly. Think about what Chyna achieved, like taking part in the Royal Rumble and winning the Intercontinental title. No other woman had ever come close to doing what she did. Combine Lita & Chyna, and you get a duo which showed the world how tough women can really be.
They did so much to change the perception of women’s wrestling, especially in the early 2000s. We still got strip matches, but we also saw more actual wrestling. Only five years prior, women’s wrestling was almost non-existent in America on television. The Attitude Era changed all of that, with Chyna & Lita showcasing what women can do if given the opportunities. On August 21st, 2000, during an episode of Raw, Lita & Stephanie McMahon became the first women to main event a WWE show. Lita defeated Stephanie to become the women’s champion for the first time. This came almost five decades after Jess or Vincent J. McMahon founded the company in 1953.
In a 2005 WWE Divas Uncovered book, there is a line I’d like to share:
“Being a WWE Diva means being appreciated for our beauty and strength, and having unique abilities.”
We began the series looking at how women’s wrestling struggled with shady bookers. How they were treated unfairly and labelled as boring. Fans saying that women fighting isn’t feminine. Worries about showing too much skin. Japanese wrestling being ahead of the curve, and finally, how it disappeared altogether.
This time, we have seen it come to life in all-women’s promotions. Global brands finally bringing it back, only for it to devolve in to what the previous generation assumed would happen. Some fans will call it the glory days, when women were winning matches by stripping each other down to bra & panties. If that happened today, there would likely be uproar.
By the 2000s, we’re finally seeing progress for women’s wrestling, but there’s still a long way to go! And I feel this series will be longer than expected. I won’t feel right skipping things before we get to the conclusion, although I’m sure you may already have formed your own.
Next time, we’ll be looking at the 2000s and Divas’ arrival. The debut of new all-women’s promotions. Also, no promises, but we may get to the decline of the Divas Division. It’s important we get through this, so by the end we can fully appreciate the rollercoaster ride women’s wrestling has been on through the decades. It’s an interesting story, one which I hope to finish by the end of the month. Cheers for sticking with me! Thanks for reading.