The Women’s Revolution: A War 65 Years In The Making

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Paige Photo (WWE), Gail Kim (Impact Wrestling)

Over the past year, one topic of great debate has been concerning WWE’s Women’s Revolution. While WWE has at times put the launching point for the Women’s Revolution either at the debut of Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks on Raw in 2015 or the debut of Paige a year prior, many fans will argue that the real Women’s Revolution began with the TNA Knockouts Division launching in 2007 and its formative years. While both certainly hold merit for the legitimizing of women’s wrestling in their respective brands, the revolution is not something that started in the last 20 years, but rather a long interconnected process that began 65 years ago in 1953. And it’s more than a revolution, or even a rebellion – it’s been a war. A war to reclaim a legitimacy that it had initially obtained, through a series of different events and promotions around the world, that has finally brought women’s wrestling back to the main events where it once it had been a regularity.

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: THE EARLY DAYS

Josie Wahlford, aka Josephine Blatt and Minerva

Women’s professional wrestling has been around for far longer than most realize, only decades after the male version popped up in the mid-1800s. By the 1870’s, all-women’s wrestling was a featured attraction on the carnival circuits of the day. One of its earliest stars was the 6 foot amazon Grace Hemindinger, who challenged (and defeated) both women and men. In the 1890’s, Josie Wahlford was crowned the first Women’s World Champion, pre-dating the original men’s World Championship title by nearly a decade – George Hackenschmidt became the first men’s World Champion in 1905. In 1913, Cora Livingston won the title and became one of the longest reigning World Champions in history, reigning for 22-years until she retired in 1935. Clara Mortensen would take over as the new face of wrestling, but in 1937 she would lose to one of Livingston’s proteges, Mildred Burke. With Burke as the new face of women’s wrestling, her husband Billy Wolfe became one of the most influential promoters in North America, with a stranglehold on women’s wrestling. Women’s wrestling often headlined large shows across the country, and in some instances, outdrew some men main events. The future looked bright for women’s wrestling.

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: THE COLLAPSE

While he scored a lot of influence with bookers around the United States, Billy Wolfe was a terrible person. He was constantly engaging in sexual flirtations and encounters with new recruits, cheating on his wife (and star) Mildred Burke. By 1953, Burke had had enough, and left Billy Wolfe and his promotional group to forge on her own. Unfortunately, Wolfe still held too much power in the industry and Burke was all but blackballed from many of the top promotions. The NWA stripped Burke of any World title claims and refused to recognize women’s wrestling. Wolfe died in 1963, but in his place a new leader of the women’s wrestling scene in the United States emerged, in former Wolfe pupil The Fabulous Moolah. A rival of Burke, she maintained Burke’s ostracizing and began to change women’s wrestling into more of the hair pulling and cat fights that the catch and shoot style that had dominated women’s wrestling for nearly 75 years already by that point. Moolah’s new style would begin to handcuff women’s wrestling in the United States and ultimately lead to it’s water downed spectacle of being more of a sideshow attraction than a main event, in many ways leading the charge of “sports entertainment”.

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: BIG IN JAPAN

In the late 1940’s, women’s wrestling in Japan was beginning to take off, but it was still lacking true direction. There were multiple small women’s wrestling groups – called joshi puroresu – including All Japan Women’s Wrestling Club in 1948, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that joshi found it’s footing. In November of 1954, Mildred Burke – now essentially blackballed from working in the NWA and most parts of the United States – traveled to Japan for a tour of the country’s promotions. Burke’s hard hitting catch style became a huge influence on joshi in Japan. Thus was created the All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Association in 1955, to manage all the joshi promotions, but infighting over the management caused it’s collapse in the early 1960s. In 1968, All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Corporation (AJW) was created, scoring a TV deal in the process, and would become arguably the largest influence of women’s pro wrestling over the next several decades. Mildred Burke had gone bankrupt following her return from Japan, as her booking availability was all but destroyed. In the mid-1960’s, California legalized women’s wrestling, allowing Burke to jump back into the game, with her own World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) back in operation, and in 1970, she sent her WWWA Champion Marie Vagnone to Japan to defend it against AJW’s Aiko Kyo. Aiko won “The Red Belt” in that contest, which began AJW’s use of Burke’s titles as their main championship, a tribute to Burke’s influence in joshi.

4x WWWA Champion Toyota Manami

AJW continued to rise during the 1970s but in the 1980s it reached near hysteria levels of popularity in Japan, with the rise of singles stars like the legendary Jaguar Yokota, Mimi Hagiwara and Devil Masami, as well as the tag team Crush Gals, featuring Lioness Asuka and Chigusa Nagayo. Crush Gals also became pop idols in Japan, with the release of multiple charting singles, fueling the groundswell of mainstream popularity in Japan. But in the ring, the women of AJW were creating innovations in offence and technique that are still being felt in the indie circuits around the world, for both women and men. One of AJW’s biggest stars of the 1990s was the iconic Manami Toyota, whom many consider one of the best pure talents in the history of the sport. Many of the high flying and aerial moves that many top male aerialists are doing today were being done by joshi wrestlers in AJW in the early 1990s. AJW folded in 2005 and in 2010, the final WWWA Champion, Nanae Takahashi, would join with joshi wrestler Fuka Kakimoto and promoter Hiroshi “Rossy” Ogawa (both from JD’Star) to create World Wonder Ring Stardom (also just referred to as Stardom), which has become the msot popular joshi promotion in the world. Stardom’s World of Stardom Championship, it’s top singles title, features a red leather strap in homage to Burke’s WWWA title and her influence on joshi wrestling in Japan.

2x World of Stardom Champion Io Shirai (Photo: Stardom)

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: SOUTH OF THE BORDER

La Dama Enmascarada, the first Mexican National Women’s Champion

Women have been wrestling in Mexico since the 1930s, but up until the 1950s, it was usually women brought in from traveling companies from the United States. In 1955, the first Mexican National Women’s Champion was crowned, La Dama Enmascarada, but the victory was bittersweet. A few years later, and Mexico City banned women’s wrestling, effectively ceasing women’s involvement in any of the major promotions. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that this ban was lifted. Since then, both CMLL and AAA have created their own Women’s titles, but the National title is still a title of great prestige.

Lady Apache, 3x CMLL Women’s Champion, 2x AAA Reina de Reinas Champion, 2x Mexican National Women’s Champion

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: FALL, RISE AND FALL OF THE WWE WOMEN’S DIVISION

Photo: WWE

Women’s wrestling in the United States never fully reclaimed the main event status it had achieved in the 1940s, with matches being more sideshow spectacles throughout the 1950s to 1970s in the various NWA territories. When Moolah finally went to the WWF full time in the 1980s, the WWF experimented with their own women’s division, pushing Wendi Richter briefly as their World Champion. While it flourished in the AWA in the 1980s, with the likes of Candi Devine, Sherri Martel and Madusa Micelli, in the WWF the flame went out nearly as quick as it started. By 1990, the WWF Women’s Championship was deactivated and the division closed. It had a brief reprieve in 1993, when WWF brought in Madusa under the name of Alundra Blayze, but following Alundra’s jump to WCW in 1995, the title and division were once again mothballed. A third attempt was started in 1998, as they tried once again to rebuild the Women’s division, when they introduced wrestlers like Jacqueline and Ivory to a mix that had previously revolved around Sable, Debra McMichael and Terri Runnels. It was a slow build, and sadly still focused on degrading gimmicks like Bra & Panties matches. By 2000, the WWE had rebuilt its women’s division around wrestlers like Trish Stratus, Lita, Molly Holly, Victoria and others, resulting in women’s matches main eventing Raw and scoring legions of new fans around the world. But by the mid-2000s, the WWE Women’s Division made way for the Divas era, with the WWE focusing more on signing models with athletic backgrounds instead of actual wrestlers. In 2008, a second Women’s title, called the WWE Divas Championship, was created as the World title for Smackdown during the Brand Extension. By 2010, it was unified with the Women’s title, keeping the Divas Championship title in the process. Women’s wrestling in the WWE, which had done so well in the early days of the Ruthless Aggression era, had once again been reduced to a novelty.

Photo: WWE

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: A SHIMMER OF HOPE

Sara Del Rey, SHIMMER Champion

Following the demise of both ECW and WCW, the early 2000s saw a rise in independent promotions as a new option for wrestlers to work – either veterans who were not wanted by the WWE or as a developing platform for emerging stars. Ring of Honor, CHIKARA, PWG, and TNA all began to open around 2002-2003, but women’s wrestling was still barely making the bills. Granted, the matches that did make the cards were more directly influenced by the joshi style that AJW had created, but it was still harder for women to break into the business and thrive in North America. That is, until SHIMMER Women’s Athletes came along in 2005. Formed by former IWA Mid South personality Dave Prazak and Ring of Honor women’s wrestler Allison Danger, the Illinois based promotion became a lightning rod for women’s talent, not just in the US, but from Canada, the UK and beyond. It was a mainstay for the likes of Sara Del Rey and Sarah Stock (who are both now trainers at WWE’s Performance Center), and launching pad for the careers in the US for the likes of Cheerleader Melissa, Mercedes Martinez, Serena Deeb, LuFisto, Awesome Kong and so many more, including WWE Superstars like Beth Phoenix, Natalya, Bayley, Asuka, Ember Moon and more. SHIMMER continues to thrive, having recently held it’s 100th event over WrestleMania weekend, and is still one of the most important promotions for women’s wrestling in the world.

SHIMMER Roster, November 2016 (Photo: SHIMMER)

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: ANARCHY IN THE UK

Saraya Knight

In the United Kingdom, women’s wrestling was also still very much on the same trajectory as women’s wrestling in mainstream North America, despite having some great talent. One such woman was Sweet Saraya Knight, who along with her husband Ricky Knight, had created World Association of Wrestling (WAW) in the early 90’s in Norwich, England. A tough competitor and a mentor to many women’s wrestlers, Knight would create World Association of Women’s Wrestling (WAWW) in 2005, to help push women’s wrestling in the United Kingdom. In 2012, it was rebranded as Bellatrix Female Warriors. Due to Saraya’s early involvement working with SHIMMER, WAWW (and Bellatrix) have had a strong relationship with the US promotion throughout the years.

Britani Knight (Paige), the first Pro Wrestling EVE Champion (Photo: Sarah Barraclough)

The UK women’s scene got an added shot in the arm in 2010 with the creation of Pro Wrestling: EVE in Suffolk, England by Emily & Dann Read. In 2011, the first ever Pro Wresling: EVE Champion was crowned in young phenom Britani Knight (daughter of Saraya and Ricky Knight, who would find greater fame as WWE Superstar Paige) and EVE officially became the strongest women’s promotion in the country. While it temporarily went on hiatus from mid-2013 until 2016, it still remains the leader of women’s wrestling in the UK. Due to the strength of its roster and promotion of women’s wrestling, it’s lead to other UK promotions like PROGRESS and ICW to create strong women’s divisions of their own.

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: THE IMPACT OF THE KNOCKOUTS

Photo: Impact Wrestling

When TNA was born out of the demise of WCW, it also sought to bring back meaningful women’s wrestling. While women’s matches were sporadically a part of early TNA programming, it wasn’t until the creation of the Knockouts Division in 2007 that TNA finally found it’s place on the map. Built around former WWE Women’s Champion Gail Kim and a cast of indie women’s stars like Awesome Kong, Angelina Love, Velvet Sky and ODB, the Knockouts division became the first mainstream wrestling promotion in the US to treat women’s wrestling as more than a “bathroom break” and treated the craft with the respect it deserved. Gail Kim and Awesome Kong’s feud in the mid-2000s remains one of the greatest feuds in women’s wrestling history. And it couldn’t have come at a better time – as the Knockouts Division was gaining momentum, the WWE was turning the heat off their own Women’s Division, transitioning it into the much ballyhooed Divas Division. The Knockouts Division has remained a consistent platform for women’s wrestling in North America over the past decade, with such stars as Madison Rayne, Mia Yim (Jade), Rosemary, Taya Valkyrie, Su Yung and Allie continuing the standard set in 2007.

Photo: Impact Wrestling

WOMEN’S REVOLUTION: THE PIPE BOMB, PAIGE AND NXT

Photo: WWE

When WWE’s developmental system moved from Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) to NXT in 2012, it continued it’s recent trend of signing indie wrestlers instead of models. Indie wrestlers like Davina Rose, Mercedes KV, Rebecca Knox and Britani Knight were all brought in and became Bayley, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Paige respectively, signalling a start at the WWE’s grassroots level to improve the quality of its women’s wrestling. Other international stars like Japan’s KANA (Asuka), Australia’s Tenille Dashwood (Emma), Jessie McKay (Billie Kay) and KC Cassidy (Peyton Royce) and Scotland’s Nikki Storm (Nikki Cross) were also brought in over the years to compliment the growing roster of women’s talent. With the demand for women’s wrestling to evolve past the Divas division of the climate, a former NXT talent, AJ Lee, dropped a pipe bomb of her own on Monday Night Raw a year later, echoing the sentiment of women’s wrestling fans around the world, where she degraded the Divas (and Total Divas in particular) and the state of how WWE portrayed women.

Less than a year later, Paige joined the main roster, still the active (and inaugural) NXT Women’s Champion, winning the WWE Divas Championship in her first match off of AJ Lee. Paige’s brash approach to women’s wrestling was a refreshing change of pace, that was only solidified when more of NXT’s emerging stars, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks, were brought to the main roster a year later in 2015. By early 2016, it became apparent that the Divas division was a step backwards in the promotion of women’s wrestling as a serious platform in the WWE and at WrestleMania 32, Charlotte Flair retired the Divas title and a new, rebooted WWE Women’s Championship was created, with Charlotte as its inaugural champion. Since then, the WWE has continued to push women’s wrestling closer to the fore front, with Raw and Smackdown Live main events, plus first ever women’s Hell In A Cell, Money In The Bank, Elimination Chamber and Royal Rumble events.

Charlotte vs. Asuka, WrestleMania 34 (Photo: WWE)

There will always be a debate about when and where the Women’s Revolution first took place, or who fired the first shot. And depending on the angle you’re going for, their are arguments to be made for each stop along the way. But if it wasn’t for the strength of Mildred Burke to leave her abuse promoter husband Billy Wolfe in 1953 and forge a path of her own, taking to her Japan, then we may still be having Bra & Panties matches instead of Royal Rumbles. A Revolution cannot win unless there is a war and a war cannot be won without many battles and with great sacrifice. This women’s war is still far from over, but there have been many battle victories in the past 65 years, all thanks to one woman’s determination to keep proper woman’s wrestling alive.

RECOMMENDED READING AND VIEWING

This historical narrative is far from complete. Throughout the past 65 years, there have been many more stops along the way, but space constraints simply would not allow a more thorough examination of many other players in this revolution, including the multiple other joshi promotions that sprung up throughout Japan following the impact of AJW, the rise of other women’s promotions in the United States like SHINE, Queens of Combat, Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU), nor the impact of such promotions as ECCW in Canada. It also doesn’t mention the full impact of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) – while GLOW wasn’t exactly the kind of pro wrestling like AJW that influenced technique and style for generations after, it’s influence on young girls to enter the world of professional wrestling is warranted. Here’s some further reading with more details on the many more soldiers and movements that have helped women’s wrestling.

Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy, with a foreword by WWE Superstar Natalya, 2017

The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend, Jeff Leen, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009

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Jamie Greer is the Managing Editor and lead writer for Last Word on Pro Wrestling. A lifelong wrestling fan who started with the WWF in the early 80's, he now follows everything from the smallest indie to WWE. He's also written for WrestleZone, The Windsor Star, Windsor Independent and other publications. He lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, with his wife and son.

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