It’s been a long time coming, but the women of WWE are finally beginning to get their due in terms of solidly booked matches, storylines that aren’t pure excuses for T&A, and the ability to show off impressive in-ring skill. Women’s wrestling has been going on since the 30s, though. How did it come to its nadir, and what’s with the current renaissance? And will we ever get a better looking belt than the butterfly monstrosity they use currently?
Before we can trace it back, we need to start with the now.
Recently, several women from WWE’s developmental program NXT broke onto the scene in the main roster, and their arrival has caused a storm of interest in women’s wrestling, and in WWE’s product. What WWE is calling the “Divas’ Transformation” is reshaping the division, in very good ways.
(Highlights from Charlotte vs. Brie Bella last Monday night)
The Transformation is the baby of Stephanie McMahon and her husband Paul Levesque, whom you might know as HHH. On screen they have taken the role of company faces from Vince McMahon, the company’s owner, and backstage they are taking on more responsibilities as well. WWE is a family business, after all, and Vince knows he’s mortal. Best to start handing the reigns over to his daughter sooner rather than later.
But with a transformation, you have to be coming from something. What was women’s wrestling before the current shake up?
Prior to 2008, the butterfly belt at the top of the page didn’t exist. There was only the Women’s Championship. More on that in due time. Part of the change is branding. WWE hasn’t called its performers “wrestlers” in a very long time, and it hasn’t called its women anything but Divas for an equally long time.
The Divas Championship debuted exactly seven years and one week ago. It wasn’t the golden age by a long shot, but for a time it offered a second championship option for the women wrestling for WWE - especially now that women winning the occasional men’s championship was unlikely due to the WWE’s more PG, family-friendly approach to TV.
(Natalya Neidhart and Michelle McCool wrestle in the first Divas Championship match)
During this time period, the Women’s Championship also existed, up until 2009 and the unification of the titles. Matches in this period were not bad, though often nothing spectacular. It was something of a holding pattern between the golden era (the Trish and Lita years) and what Trish Stratus says might become the platinum age (what’s on the horizon, if everything goes well). This era saw the emergence of some women like Beth Phoenix and Aja Kong, who could have gone on to be the Chynas of their generation had they not retired. This era had the dubious honor of having the last of WWE’s infamous “Bra and Panties” matches - dubious in the sense that we can all be glad they’re gone, but we need to drink to forget that they also existed in the first place.
(Michelle McCool and Melina unify the Women’s and Divas Championships in a lumberjill match)
The Golden age really gets underway in 2004 when the Lita-Trish Stratus rivalry got pushed to the front (they had had matches, even for the title before, but it wasn’t until 2004 that they became the main show). These were the years where, after a very long dearth, fans could finally watch the women put on matches of quality. Characters were built, storylines beyond the basic “You stole my man!” got airtime (although stuff like that still happened, as did the less than admirable continuation of bikini contests and bra and panties matches and the Quarter-Million Dollar Raw Diva Search), and new ground was broken. Every woman to win a men’s title, except for Chyna, did so during this era.
(Trish vs. Jazz for the Women’s Championship, turns into a free-for-all for the Hardcore Championship)
This was a time when WWE began to really take its women performers seriously. They competed in hardcore matches, street fights, and got to perform far more dangerous stunts than what they had previously done (Chyna excepted, as she was previously the only one who did so). Before the Lita-Trish years, Trish and Victoria dominated and gave viewers a taste of this new flavor of women’s wrestling which would only ramp up during the later years of this golden age.
But before every golden age, there’s a time that we don’t speak of. Or, if we have to, we don’t dwell on it much.
You may have noticed the absurdly sexist commentary in many of the videos above coming from the mouth of one Jerry Lawler. This is where all of that began, and where it’s at its worst. As WWE has taken women’s wrestling more and more seriously, it has scaled back the sexism somewhat.
This era got its start when Jacqueline Moore became the first African-American women’s champion, winning it upon its reinstatement after a three-year vacancy on September 21, 1998 in a match against Sable. You may recognize Sable’s name from the fact that her WWF career catapulted her to the cover of Playboy.
Women’s matches were for much of the late 1990s an afterthought, designed almost exclusively to titillate. There were bikini contests, along with numerous variations on stripping and/or mud wrestling. At the Armageddon pay-per-view in 1999 the title was defended in a four-way Evening Gown Pool match. That is, the winner was the one who could remain in her gown the longest, while “wrestling” in a swimming pool.
Fortunately WWE has left that sort of match behind. Now if only its only other national competition, TNA Wrestling, could learn to do the same. The only times it ever worked were as comedic segments where the competitors were men, and this only ever happened twice.
The later part of this period saw the debut of Lita and Trish Stratus, a seven-month reign by Chyna, and the beginnings of what would eventually become the golden age.
In December of 1993, WWF re-introduced the then-vacant Women’s championship for the first time in over three and a half years.
It was a brief window of relative quality. A lot of the wrestling was still rest holds and hair pulling moves, mixed with a bit of inventiveness from the women of the time. It was moving in a positive direction, though, away from the hair pulling that would characterize the the early part of what came when the women wrestled in the late 90s.
So what happened? Why did the title go vacant, and why did women’s wrestling get set back so far as a result? Part of the problem came from Alundra Blayze herself. When she accepted a new contract with WCW, she was still the champion in WWF, and promptly left the company while still champion. And then she did this.
This simple action torpedoed the women’s division in the mid-90s, kicked the Monday Night Wars into high gear, and sparked a paranoia in Vince McMahon that other performers would do the same if they were champions at the time their contracts expired and they were enticed to join WCW, resulting in one of the most famous moments in professional wrestling history: the Montreal Screwjob.
It’s only during and since the recent golden age that the effects of this incident have begun to wear off.
Prior to the late 80s, professional wrestling was exceptionally regionalized in the United States. WWF was once upon a time the company for the Northeast while WCW grew from being a Southern company. Wrestlers would be signed to contracts with their company or with independent promoters who would travel the country in troupes, hiring wrestlers out to the promotions in order to fill their cards.
One of the most important of these was The Fabulous Moolah. Prior to 1983, Moolah literally owned the Women’s Championship. I don’t mean that she won it and proceeded to be booked to successfully defend it. I mean she invented it, owned the rights to it, booked the championship matches and nearly all of women’s wrestling in the country herself. If a promotion wanted to feature women, and most promotions didn’t have women of their own under contract, they had to negotiate with Moolah.
If you look on WWE’s website, you’ll find that Moolah has a very whitewashed history. Her time is portrayed as clean and above board, but the reality is that Moolah was a horrible boss.
The women working for her saw huge chunks taken out of their pay as promoter’s fees by Moolah and her husband Buddy Lee, up to half of the wrestler’s contracted payout. Wrestlers weren’t allowed to have their own bank accounts, and gimmicks were assigned in as insulting a way as possible. Sweet Georgia Brown (Susie Mae McCoy), the first African-American woman professional wrestler in South Carolina and a pioneer for women of color in pro wrestling, was booked by Moolah with the gimmick that she was basically a recently-freed slave fresh from the South’s “tobacco and cotton fields.”
According to her son and daughter, she was also given drugs and made into an addict in an attempt to render her controllable, and repeatedly raped on the road. As her son tells it, when he went investigating into who his father was, Buddy Lee’s widow (he left Moolah for a former student of hers), hinted that Buddy Lee was his father.
Numerous other women have revealed similar stories about Moolah. Luna Vachon reports feeling taken advantage of when she was underage, while Sandy Parker reports that Moolah would forbid her lesbian students from going to gay bars, try to push her nephews on them, and suggests that Moolah would do everything she forbade of her lesbian students.
Mad Maxine says that Moolah pimped her students out, and that she once called one of Moolah’s clients in Arizona and confirmed it. Debbie Johnson gave an interview where she called Moolah evil and that she felt like a slave when she was training, describing how Moolah kept her trainees from earning money. The following quote circulates anonymously, but some attribute it to former wrestler Penny Banner:
“It’s wrong to speak bad of the dead, but the comments in the mainstream press and even AP wires come dangerously close to making Moolah seem like some kind of saint, and from a pro-wrestling point of view as some kind of legendary tough shooter. That’s utter bull♥♥♥♥. I want to clear up a couple of points, while taking nothing away from Moolah’s ability to have a strangehold on women’s wrestling from mid ‘60s to mid ‘80s in North America.
Lets get this out of way first, so I don’t have to dance around the subject - Moolah was a pimp. From her sprawling 42 acre estate in Colombia, South Carolia, Moolah would send out her half-trained underage female-wrestlers to “photo shoots” that would by the standards of today be considered pedophilia and pornography. She sent trainees to wrestling promoters in set numbers. Renting them out to promoters in bulk, with the understanding that the girls would have sex with the promoter and all the wrestlers on the roster who wanted them. Promoters liked free sex, but what they also liked is for boys not to go outside looking for it and possibly running into trouble. Sex on a road with a steady and pliant group of semi-attractive women in return for money, that is what Moolah offered. The women that were sent out on this tours were not told of this “arrangement” ahead of time. They found out about it on the road. Those that refused to have sex with promoters and wrestlers, were raped. (see: Luna Vachon’s, Sherri Martel’s, and Susie McCoy’s shoot interviews).
The reason women’s pro-wrestling in North America was and still in large part today considered a joke and just an opportunity to oggle at tits and asses is largely in part thanks to the way Moolah trained her girls and how Moolah wrestled. Moolah was not a good worker. Her wrestling style considered of hair pulling snapmare, headlocks, clotheslines and nothing else. Those that argue that women’s wrestling was always like that and Moolah did nothing to change it are ignorant. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, female wrestling employed shooters and they wrestled in the traditional sense of the term. Tits and asses were used to advertise and get them in the building, but the girls worked longer and more technically sound matches than today. The champion was always a shooter, and the matches for the championship and leading up to the main event had to be high caliber. The reason Japanese women’s wrestling was light years ahead of North American’s is because of one person and one person only - Moolah. Mildred Burke, the original women’s champion, popularized female wrestling in the world in the ‘30s. Japan, Canada, Mexico and America can trace women’s wrestling directly to her. She used a hard hitting style and outside of being an attractive woman, her matches were no different from the men’s matches of her day. Moolah was inspired by Burke, but could not work as well as her. Moolah was not a good worker and so the style she passed onto her trainees once she took over women’s pro-wrestling in North America was Moolah-based. Moolah was never a shooter.”
Before the Montreal Screwjob, Moolah gave the world the Original Screwjob, colluding with Vince McMahon to take the women’s title from Wendi Richter in an unscripted moment all because of contract disputes. She also torpedoed the existence of the WWF Women’s Tag Team Championship, near as I can tell from Leilani Kai’s account because the champions would have gotten a big payday and exposure at Wrestlemania.
(Leilani Kai gives her thoughts on many subjects, including Moolah)
Prior to Moolah, the biggest women’s wrestling promoter was a man named Billy Wolfe, and his wife Mildred Burke was the dominant Women’s Champion of her era.
(Mildred Burke vs. Mae Weston, c. early 1950s, complete with old timey sexist commentary)
This was the era in which women’s wrestling began to emerge as something other than a side-show (something which Moolah’s control of the division would send it right back to being until the 1990s). Billy Wolfe controlled women’s wrestling at this time, and he innovated heavily, helping to establish respectability for women as wrestlers in their own right.
Billy Wolfe was also not an admirable man. If Moolah was a pimp, she learned it from Wolfe. Wolfe would “encourage” his wrestlers to have sex with other promoters in order to increase their chances of getting work, and Moolah is known for having refused. He left his wife penniless when they divorced, and former wrestler Freddie Blassie talks about how Wolfe took Mildred Burke’s money and how everyone saw Wolfe as a pimp.
The history of women’s wrestling is a very sordid affair, and looking back to the early parts of the 20th century, it’s hard not to see why. The entire division was practically run by pimps for fifty years, and while at first the wrestling was good, it settled into a steady mediocrity so Moolah could keep herself at the top. In the process of establishing the myth of Moolah, Mildred Burke has largely been forgotten.
Moolah’s influence was long-lasting. It wasn’t until the mid-late 90s that women emerged on the scene who had been trained without her influence, but by then the damage was well past done. With the trashing of the Women’s Championship on WCW and Vince’s concerns, all hope for a renaissance of women’s wrestling seemed lost. Jacqueline Moore winning the Women’s Championship in 1998 could have been a bellwether reign - she was athletic, worked hard, and could wrestle well when given an opponent who wasn’t utterly incapable of being carried. The championship quickly became a way to promote Sable, beginning an era where the title seemed to pass to whomever Vince felt looked most fuckable (and rumors of Vince’s harassment of female talent abound).
It wouldn’t be until nearly the middle of the 2000s that the Women’s Championship became something more than an excuse for undisguised T&A. Many still haven’t taken it seriously, treating women’s wrestling like an excuse for a bathroom break, even during the golden age. But now we’re on the cusp of a potential platinum age, and I think that Mildred Burke, the true pioneer of women’s wrestling, would be proud of what’s finally, if belatedly, in store for the division.
Image courtesy of WWE.com
Image courtesy of Playboy.com
Image courtesy of Mendy Wolfe Coy, Mildred Burke’s great-granddaughter