“We say things like ‘women’s wrestling’ and ‘women’s revolution’. I hope one day it’s not ‘a good women’s match’. I don’t want the women’s wrestling part. I just want to be equal to my partners. Why can’t we be treated equal?” -Sasha Banks
Hello! Today, we begin a mini-series of articles looking at the women’s revolution in wrestling, and who deserves the utmost credit. There’s a lot of moving parts to this subject, so I feel it’s better to split it across a few volumes. I will not be giving my answer to the title until the last article, but if you like, feel free to come to your own conclusions. Let’s start by looking at what inspired me to discuss the women’s revolution in wrestling. During a recent interview on Sippin’ the Tea with Ariane Andrew, Brie Bella had the following to say about being criticized for their Hall of Fame induction:
“I do have to say you know, the one incredible thing that hit Nicole and I like really hard with the whole women’s movement is when they started to bring up John Cena’s name and The Rock, and then they’d say, ‘and the Bella Twins.’ I think that’s why Vince inducted us into the Hall of Fame. I know some people were like, ‘I can’t believe they got inducted.’ But we did something outside of wrestling for the women and I think that was like the big movement, too, was mainstream fell in love with women’s wrestling.
You started seeing more females and young girls come to the shows because of Total Divas and Total Bellas. But then mainstream started to look at not just The Rock and John Cena anymore, they started to look at the women and now you’ve seen the women going into Hollywood which is crazy. You see all these women wrestlers now going into Hollywood and for us, over anything, that’s incredible. Because it’s nice to see women have something after wrestling because women’s careers are shorter than men’s.”
Sometimes, I like to respond to news reports with my own comments. I was surprised by the amount of upvotes thrown at me from our Disqus users. Here’s what I said:
“I always find it dumb how WWE takes credit when promotions like Stardom, Shimmer and TNA were knocking it out of the park for women’s wrestling long before they thought of doing anything with their eye candy. They only changed because AJ Lee called Stephanie McMahon out on her crap on Twitter, along with the #GiveDivasAChance forcing their hand. WWE management was content to give them 1-3 minute matches forever, but it took other promotions and their own talent to force them to change. Now they brag about starting this ‘Women’s Revolution’ despite treating their only women’s PPV Evolution as an afterthought.”
I think there’s more to it than that, but the comment summed things up in to a singular statement. We’ll be expanding on this in the next few volumes. Not only with how women’s wrestlers are/were treated in WWE, but the challenges they have faced elsewhere.
Originally, I was planning on writing five reasons WWE unduly credits itself for the women’s revolution. However, I feel this would have placed me in a biased position out of the gate, so I backtracked to look for neutral ground. After all, we have many WWE fans visiting the site, and as one of them since the 90s, it’s only fair we give them a chance to show how it has positively contributed to equality in wrestling.
To lay the groundwork, it is crucial we look way back. Not just twenty years ago, but back to a time when women struggled with equality in all aspects of life. When most countries were negotiating women’s suffrage, women’s wrestling was being led by Mildred Burke as early as 1937 (possibly sooner). Despite this, it remained a side act in the United States of America and other countries for decades, with Japan being the exception as it blossomed in to something more.
Japan is the only country to feature women’s wrestling promotions as far back as the 50s. It also produced the first female box office act. All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling served for 37 years as the longest running promotion in the world. In 2005, it lost its TV deal and closed its doors. AJW was originally formed to support the myriad of women’s promotions which sprang up after the legendary Mildred Burke toured Japan with her WWWA promotion.
Following in the footsteps of 70s and early 80s stars Mach Fumiake, Jackie Sato, Maki Ueda, Jaguar Yokota and Devil Masami, the promotion struck gold with the tag team “Crush Gals”. Chigusa Nagayo & Lioness Asuka became arguably the biggest box office draw in the history of women’s wrestling while feuding with Kaoru “Dump” Matsumoto and her Atrocious Alliance. This is important because it led to the first cross-promotional Joshi Puroresu super card in the Tokyo Dome in 1995. Manami Toyota, Aja Kong, Bull Nakano and more became stars of this period. They are still mentioned today, among the best of all time.
The popularity of Joshi Puroresu was such that Mexican promotions CMLL & AAA made their own women’s titles to feature Bull Nakano, Xóchitl Hamada, Akira Hokuto and more. It wasn’t long before Mexico put their own spin on it. From their talent pool, Mexican-born stars like Lady Apache, Faby Apache, and Marcela dominated their divisions. In the 2000s, AAA opened up to featuring current American stars like “La Wera Loca” Taya Valkyrie (aka Franky Monet), Tessa Blanchard and Deonna Purrazzo. They all hold the achievement of reigning as Impact Knockouts and AAA Reina de Reinas Champions simultaneously.
UK TV Bans Women’s Wrestling
In the late 30s, the government banned all professional wrestling in London. Come 1952, the ban on men’s wrestling was lifted, while women’s wrestling remained so until 1987. Women could wrestle on TV outside of the capital, but it depended on local councils letting it go ahead. There was a mixed reception to women’s wrestling, as some felt the “fairer sex” was gentle and shouldn’t be fighting. Also, there was a worry of outfits being too revealing.
Female wrestling fans weren’t all in for it either. Some thought it wasn’t feminine, while others said it made a change, but it was “boring” compared to men’s wrestling. Other fans appreciated it. While they acknowledged women not having the same athleticism as the men, they saw nothing inherently wrong with the act. In 1965, journalist Fyfe Robertson was a spectator at the newest sporting craze in Halifax, West Yorkshire. It’s important to watch this, as it shows how far women’s wrestling has come in the past 56 years.
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) January 26, 2021
Despite how alien it was to audiences, Klondyke Kate became a legend of women’s wrestling. She began her career in 1977 at 14, and was trained in the same facility as William Regal. She was one of the first women to wrestle both men & women in the UK, and also served as a manager for box office mega star Big Daddy Shirley Crabtree.
Miss Mitzi Mueller was another who made a name for herself. In this 1985 interview, she tells us how it’s a lot of rubbish how UK TV networks banned women’s wrestling. It’s not dangerous for women, and it makes little sense. Mueller gets in the ring with the presenter, and while he initially makes jokes, he quickly stops when she throws him over her head. She had been wrestling for twenty years. As a veteran of the ring, she wasn’t letting anyone embarrass her profession.
The decision to ban women’s wrestling from TV was overturned two years later, along with the near fifty year ban on women wrestling in London. In the opening bout of a show at the Royal Albert Hall on April 24th, 1987, Mueller wrestled her farewell match, teaming with Rusty Blair against Nicki Monroe & Klondyke Kate. Mueller & Blair were victorious by 2 falls to 1, and in doing so, began a new era of women’s wrestling in the UK. Almost twenty years later in March 2016, the Pro-Wrestling EVE promotion made history by bringing the first all-women show to London.
British wrestling has come far since the old days, although it still hasn’t enjoyed its own women’s revolution. Most stars on the independent scene work their way up to WWE or other global promotions. Notable British stars include: Paige, Layla, Katie Lea Burchill, Tegan Nox, Nikki Cross, Kay Lee Ray, Doudrop, Bea Priestley, Xia Brookside, Jamie Hayter, Sweet Saraya, Nina Samuels & Jinny.
Other non-British stars who made names for themselves on the UK scene (Sheamus, Becky Lynch & Finn Balor Are Not British) are Republic of Ireland stars: Becky Lynch, Velvet McIntyre, Aoife Valkyrie and Session Moth Martina.
Next up, we will look at the most influential man in the early years of women’s wrestling. After Billy Wolfe’s second marriage failed, wrestling drew him to a young woman called Mildred Bliss, who would later be called Mildred Burke in the ring. What began as professional tutoring became personal, and the pair were soon married. By 1937, Burke became the inaugural NWA World Women’s Champion. With her featuring as his biggest attraction, Wolfe began signing other women’s wrestlers in to his stable. By 1949, Wolfe sported a team of 30 wrestlers to offer the NWA and other promotions.
However, while his work got them bookings, the father figure of the stable was also a womanizer. Knowing the power he held, Mildred Burke could not object to his sexual relations with others in his stable. He reaped the rewards and lived a life of luxury. As a rich and married man, he would use his power to get what he wanted. This unhealthy dynamic continued until 1952, when Burke parted ways with him professionally and personally.
She turned to John Pfefer for help. To reconcile and work together in the future, Wolfe agreed to compensate Burke $30,000. They also agreed to waive alimony, and Wolfe not to compete for 5 years. However, Wolfe ignored this a few months later by promoting wrestling in Ohio, and he had to give 75% of proceeds to his wrestlers. Burke challenged his initial 50% offer with 60%, so he was forced in to this.
It got more complicated when Burke formed the company Attractions Inc, which would oversee her own stable of women wrestlers. It soon went in to bankruptcy, and eight months later, James Hoff, the receiver of the company, he & judge William Bryant appointed Wolfe as the administrator. In August 1953, Wolfe sent out a memo stating he was in control of her stable of 27 women. Burke disagreed a week later and said he was in breach of their agreement. After further meetings, the Alliance & NWA refused to recognize women’s wrestling.
Wolfe continued to discredit Burke by saying she would only accept wrestling one opponent. Burke disagreed by listing 12 wrestlers she would face. However, the NWA were more willing to believe him, so she was gradually frozen out. In August 1954, Burke wrestled June Byers in what turned in to a shoot. As the daughter-in-law of Wolfe, Byers would get preferential treatment. Wolfe ensured the referee would call the match in her favor. Byers did not pin Burke twice to make her lose the title. There was no ending to the match, but many media outlets reported Byers winning. Because of this, June Byers was named the new NWA Champion. Wolfe’s girlfriend, Nell Stewart, later became the US Champion.
Still calling herself the World Women’s Champion, Mildred Burke left the NWA and took her World Women’s Wrestling Association promotion on tour. Burke introduced women’s wrestling to almost every state of the United States. After that, Canada, Cuba, Mexico and some parts of the Orient: Japan, Hong Kong, Macao and the Philippines. She spent the rest of her career with an escort protecting her, in case Wolfe or anyone associated with him tried anything. In the 70s, AJW bought the rights to the WWWA World Championship and continued Burke’s legacy after her retirement.
The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame later inducted her in 2002. The WWE Hall of Fame as a legacy inductee in 2016. In August 2018, Billy Corgan acquired Burke’s original title and presented it at NWA EmPowerrr two years later. Despite Wolfe’s best efforts, the NWA recognizes Burke’s legacy and refers to its World Women’s Championship as the “Burke”.
In her autobiography, The Fabulous Moolah labelled Billy Wolfe as a chauvinist. She also knew him for being terrible with finances, and a sexual deviant before, during, and after marrying Burke. All the horror stories about Wolfe brought about better success for Jack Pfeffer and Moolah, as they were more ethical. Later in life, Wolfe suffered many personal tragedies, which Moolah said made her feel great sorrow.
Aside from the negativity surrounding Wolfe, he made women’s wrestling profitable. He also introduced tag team titles and African-American wrestlers to his stable. With a black mark against his name, Billy Wolfe still played a pivotal role in the evolution of women’s wrestling. You could say he started his own women’s revolution. Check out the above link for more details on Wolfe’s contributions, courtesy of Chris Bournea’s channel.
The Fabulous Moolah
There has been much said about The Fabulous Moolah since WWE tried naming their WrestleMania women’s battle royal after her. She is controversial for being the most dominant champion ever in American women’s wrestling by questionable methods. Was she as bad as Wolfe? Probably not. May she have inherited some of his controlling methods? Most likely. Did she keep women’s wrestling in the spotlight? Yes… but did she also halt the overall progress of women’s wrestling in the United States? I believe so.
I don’t want to go in to this too hard, because I already talked about her in August 2020. In a Dark Side of the Ring episode review about her career and treatment of students, the subject was so broad I had to split it in two. If you haven’t checked those out before, you can find them here:
In 1988, during the 502 day reign of Rockin’ Robin, the WWF deactivated the Women’s Championship. This happened a year after the UK had finally overturned the ban on women’s wrestling on TV. Four years after, CMLL introduced their first title in Mexico. Japan’s Crush Gals had just split up the year before, but the next decade would be very profitable for Joshi Puroresu. It took over five years for the WWF to bring back the title, immediately putting Alundra Blayze at the forefront. Noticing the popularity of Bull Nakano, they brought her in to defeat Blayze. However, the company never seriously capitalized on the popularity of women’s wrestling in Japan.
The Women’s Revolution still had a long way to go. As explained in the intro, we have yet to touch on the answer to the question of who deserves credit for the women’s revolution in wrestling. We will get there, but we must remain patient and understand how important it is to know the history of women’s wrestling. By doing so, we better understand the context of the steps that were made to get us to where we are today. I will post the next volume later in the week, and it will focus on more history. We’ll go over the Attitude Era, early 2000s, Divas era, along with highlighting the progression of women’s wrestling outside of WWE. Cheers for your understanding, and thank you for reading.