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Wrestling: Before Bra & Panties; A Brief Look at Historical Women’s Wrestling (April 2013)

There seems to be a misconception of what women’s wrestling used to be. It seems to be a commonly held fallacy that women’s wrestling in North America has only been about gorgeous women with sex appeal for the last 15 years or so since 1995. So, as we’re talking women on the page today, I thought I’d give a look back at Historical Women’s Wrestling and why wrestling in North America has always been about sex appeal combined with actual wrestling, and during its boom periods, the sex appeal has often taken primary focus: Women’s wrestling is noted as first appearing at carnivals as sideshow attractions, much in the same fashion as their male counterparts. Josie Wahlford is often cited as the first women’s champion in history and is noted by historians as being quite an accomplished wrestler in her own right… Let’s take a look at some Historical Women’s Wrestling, from the early 1900s and beyond.

From there the title is laid claim to by several women and doesn’t come back into focus until Laura Bennett captured the belt in the early 1900s. At the turn of the 20th century, the business would be taken to another level when there would be often matches contested either Woman Vs. Woman or Woman Vs. Man held at burlesque theatres. Quite often the women would also take part in boxing contests. It has been noted that they were legitimate contests, but with theatrics involved, more so in the wrestling bouts than the boxing. Holds which would place the participants in provocative positions would be held for longer and played up to, to an extent in hopes of enticing the audience. It’s very easy for the history to be taken out of context, what has to be remembered is… when the promoters were booking the women on these shows, it was at the same time acts such as Mae West was taking off, it wasn’t just a wrestling movement, it was a social movement that demanded to see these scantily clad women doing battle.

Of course, wrestling is often dictated by the changes in society with the business falling in line with them as can be seen repeatedly in the history of this great industry. Following a good few years in the limelight of the burlesque shows women’s wrestling fell back down to the carnival circuit shortly, until Cora Livingston (Paul Bowser’s wife) won the championship in 1912. With Cora’s victory for the first time, women’s wrestling was seen as a legitimate sport, with dignified athletes and thus the female wrestlers received a more lucrative line of work, competing in high-class venues. This would only benefit the elite of the women though as the majority continued to work on carnival shows or lower down at burlesque shows. Cora would hold onto her championship without losing until she retired in 1925. Following her retirement, women’s wrestling completely fell back into obscurity. Then the depression hit America in the 1930s and promoters could not draw with their male wrestlers. For the first half of the ’30 Clara Mortensen was the top woman in wrestling, but she was still relegated to carnival shows.

Historical Women’s Wrestling: Mildred Burke leads the Revolution

It would not be until Mildred Burke turned up that women’s wrestling hit the big time. I won’t go into the story of Mildred Burke, but it is fascinating if you ever care to know more about her and women’s wrestling in general, Jeff Leen composed a fantastic book on her life called, ‘Queen of the Ring‘. With Mildred on the scene, she realised what women’s wrestling was all about. She always maintained her femininity outside of the ring wearing luscious fur coats and only the largest of diamonds. For her and her partner, Billy Wolfe saw that whilst men enjoy watching women wrestle, the sight of two beautiful women grinding against each other in next to nothing was what they wanted. It was still a forbidden fruit at that time and society was still very uptight about this kind of thing everywhere, but, a wrestling ring. It was for this reason some state athletic commissions would not grant licenses for women’s wrestling, including in New York City for many years. Mildred Burke would go on to reign into the 1950s, and made a lot of money through this combination of being a very attractive lady, but who also looked like she could kick anybody’s rear end. She shocked the media when she posed in a two-piece bikini in a now-famous photo shoot.

It all seems so normal now for a woman to pose like that, but back then it was a big deal. Following Mildred Burke’s reign women’s wrestling would continue through various promotions in North America, but it never really took off again for a long time. For the main part, it was used as a feature attraction rather than serious competition. For the next 30 years women’s wrestling just ticked over, with a few names being established along the way, some of which are remembered as great wrestlers, and rightfully so, others have been wrongfully immortalized as great wrestlers when they just had the personality that carried them along the way. But none of them managed to capture the mainstream population’s attention again.

Historical Women’s Wrestling: Experiments with Sex Appeal leads into the 1980s

In the 1960s & 1970s, Mildred Burke cropped up once again on the North American scene experimenting with selling partial and fully naked wrestling featuring Women Vs. Women and Men Vs. Women. Once again showing her faith in how important she felt sex appeal was to her success, this is something she had also written about in her biography, how she was aware of what the audiences wanted.

As we push forward into the 1980’s we start to see somewhat of a revival in women’s wrestling with different roles, yes, they still wrestled, but they were allowed to show a bit more character as well moving into the managerial or valet position with male wrestlers. This turned out to be the perfect blend, as men still got to look at the gorgeous women whilst they played an often integral role in storylines. I’m sure anyone who grew up in the latter half of the 1980s or the early 1990s would have had an indecent thought of Miss. Elizabeth, Sherri Martel, or Missy Hyatt and do you think this was by accident?

Then women’s wrestling all but faded from wrestling in North America apart from a couple of short stints with Alundra Blayze/Madusa. Then towards the end of the 1990s women started to compete again, but not only did they compete, but they were also downright hot doing it. In the WWF/E especially during the Attitude Era, it had one of its biggest booms ever. There would also be appearances from the more technically sound Japanese women’s wrestlers sporadically used throughout WCW & WWF in the 1990s, however, this never really seemed to take off properly.

Historical Women’s Wrestling: Post-Attitude Era

Depending on your stance on modern wrestling, depends on your stance on whether it was good or not, but by modern standards, it was good wrestling. Where are some of it exploitative? Sure, but no worse than being in a burlesque theatre in the early 1900s, or Mildred Burke filming naked wrestling. Women’s wrestling has just moved with the times, the overall society standard of what is expected from women has changed and therefore wrestling changes with it. By no means am I saying the Diva’s division is good right now, I don’t like any women’s wrestling from North America, I’m a Japanese guy?

However, my point in writing this is, that WWE is not dropping the ball by trying to hire athletic women who are very attractive, they are merely following what the history of the business tells them to dictate. And when one of the biggest booms in women’s wrestling involves four, maybe more, Playboy models, why not continue that. Women’s wrestling has had dips and dives through history, as has wrestling itself. Women’s wrestling isn’t dead. It’s just dormant while the new attractive and athletic women can come along and make it fresh and enjoyable again.

– By Jimmy Wheeler

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