wrestling / Columns

From Mildred to Lita: Women’s Wrestling in the US

April 18, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka
Trish Stratus and Lita - Royal Rumble Poll

Hello hello 411Manianauts, my name is J Onwuka and it’s about time I said some more stuff. This week is somewhat of a longread so get your drink and your pipe. This week I’m going to visit a subject that was on a recent episode of the World Champions Podcast, but focusing more on the entire story, especially how women’s roles in wrestling have changed over the years.

Super J Column rules!!!! See banner >>

The mantra of the man in the marketer’s chair is ‘Sex sells’. It is a flawed concept. Having Nicki Minaj sling Pepsi isn’t going to make me more likely to buy Pepsi. I think most people would say the same. But here we are, watching attractive people using their attractiveness to push products.

In the world of professional wrestling, ‘sex sells’ was the reason that women were initially recruited to step between the ropes in the United States. The road from there to the Divas’ Revolution and the reborn WWE Women’s Championship has not been an easy one. Throughout it all, the stigma women have had to face in wrestling has been about sexuality: their own, that of their promoters, that of society. Those few who did make the journey into pro wrestling often faced unending exploitation.

I will not say that ‘the love of the sport’ kept many early women in it. There were those who were more or less trapped in the life once they’d begun. But it was those women who did love wrestling who persevered through these vile circumstances to make themselves more than a sideshow.

Briefly, before I begin, I would like to say that I do not want to make this piece seem as though I am speaking on behalf of women or, for that matter, speaking on behalf of anyone else. I’m approaching this from a historical perspective first, bringing up details that aren’t often discussed. That said, I am not simply writing a history of women in wrestling. I want to talk about the definite ways that women have been kept from real success in wrestling, from the beginning up into recent years.

In the earliest days of any professional-style wrestling — that is to say, wrestling conducted in front of crowds for money — weightlifters-stroke-bodybuilders were the stars. There were several women who plied their trade this way, such as Sandwina (Kate Brumbach) in Europe and Minerva (Josephine Wohl), and achieved some fame. This was in the days when Greco-Roman (aka French) wrestling prevailed and that’s what the muscle-types excelled in. The greatest (male) bodybuilder-stroke-wrestler was Georg Hackenschmidt, the first person to claim the world wrestling championship. Unfortunately there was no female equivalent of Hackenschmidt. In Europe and America at the turn of the 21st century, women playing sport were a no-no.

Pro wrestling developed in America. I’m sure it has that feel about it to most people wherever they are. The first female wrestler to gain a reputation was Cora Livingston in the 1920s. She married promoter Paul Bowser of Boston and, as such, that became her stomping ground. That pattern pretty much held for the few female wrestlers there were: whatever success they got came whether their husbands were willing to get out there and promote them, as no one was going to negotiate with a woman for her own wrestling appearances. There was no belief that people (men, really) would go see a woman wrestling, especially not woman vs woman. Livingston and several women who followed her, like Virginia Mercereau, Betty Ware, and Clara Mortensen went a lot of their careers wrestling matches against men, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. The problem was that this wasn’t seen as real competition no matter how many wins a woman got. A woman who could wrestle was an oddity in those days, not an athlete. They were booked as such.

That said, these women were all skilled and certainly made an impression on those who saw them. They set the stage for the explosion of a woman who would almost single-handedly transform the perception of women’s wrestling to something that was worth watching, if done well. This woman was Mildred ‘Cyclone’ Burke. She also had a worse, evil half. His name was Billy Wolfe.

Mildred Burke got her start in the early 1940s. Whatever female wrestlers were in the game basically did so alongside their husbands or boyfriends, as in the years before. Burke had wanted to wrestle since her early years (born with the last name Bliss) and had convinced Wolfe to train her. Wolfe, a first-class bastard, first tried to get a barely-trained man to rough her up in the ring. Instead, the untrained Burke upended the man. From there her story wrote itself. Nearly undefeated throughout her career, one of the premier performers in the world, said to be an inspiration on legions of women who followed her, many wrestling adherents in Japan, and the bonafide legend (and personal friend) Gorgeous George. She did what no one else before her had: she established the women’s world wrestling championship. No longer could you just claim to be the women’s champion. The first question anyone would ask you would be: ‘Yes, but are you as good as Mildred Burke?’

Burke herself attributes her success a great deal to the fact that she cultivated her sexuality in a very careful manner. She made a point to wear white so as to accent her body, she wore fantastic robes, she strutted, she posed for pictures that were thought by many to be indecent: the famous shot of her sitting while wearing a two piece bikini, scandalous in the extreme. But these elements simply elevated her from the ordinary to the extraordinary. She changed the cheaper sort of sexuality-as-endless-availability that had always been peddled in arenas before. She was classy, untouchable, unmatchable. She would outshine you, whoever you were. That was a province which had previously, especially in the world of wrestling, only belonged to men.

See, it’s tempting to say that women were used to bring sexuality into wrestling, but it was always there. On the one hand, certainly there was awe and attraction from some of the few female fans who could watch male wrestlers. ‘The Golden Greek’ Jim Londos was touted as the first real male sex symbol in pro wrestling, drawing women to shows in numbers far exceeding those who came before him. On the other, though modern men don’t often like to admit it, a good physique is impressive. And there are those men who are attracted to men in the first place. Hackenschmidt himself owed his early intensive weight training to a time spent living with a man rumored to recruit attractive male bodybuilders for that which they built.

Sex has always been a part of what wrestling presented. But in terms of the men it was possible for them to be dignified. For women, for a long time, it wasn’t. Clara Mortensen, one of Burke’s early rivals, dressed like a high school boy in a baggy tanktop and shorts; she was known as a good wrestler but to get that recognition she made herself be seen not as a woman but as a wrestler, as if the two were exclusive. Burke was one of the first to chase success and be as confident about her body as the most successful men were.

Yet in all this she was still attached to Billy Wolfe. A ‘womanizer’ — almost certainly a rapist, definitely a manipulator and a child abuser — who had built his entire operation off of Mildred Burke, but who had the connections himself to get around in wrestling. She hated him. He forced her to marry him and she agreed, purely a business decision. She often wrote of her regret about that decision. She regretted many things about Wolfe. However, from everything she’s said I believe that Burke was proud of her career, proud of everything she had accomplished. It was Wolfe who smelled the possible stardom in her and determined to exploit it, but it was Burke who determined how far they could go. She became a top draw around the country and, bit by bit, she opened up markets which had closed themselves off to women’s wrestling: Missouri was only one state which first closed off women’s wrestling when she came through as a rookie, then re-opened it once she’d become a sensation.

But the towns she worked in were the towns Billy had contacts in. As part of the National Wrestling Alliance, he soon had contacts everywhere. That presented a problem for Burke who, as I said, hated his guts. After Wolfe had driven his own son to alcoholism, blamed Burke for a car wreck which that alcoholism had caused, isolated her from the rest of the troupe, and beaten her yet again, Burke was determined to leave. She sleepwalked through a divorce in order to get it over with and came out with control of the women’s wrestling circuit. On paper. The old boys’ club of the National Wrestling Alliance conspired with Billy Wolfe as soon as he whispered and, first in a trickle but then all at once, he’d ripped the circuit away from Burke and shut her out of bookings entirely. She’d barely run things for a year before she was out as a promoter, and soon enough she’d been run out of the ring as well.

In the United States, Burke’s legacy would not live on. It did in Japan. At the same time that Burke’s career was winding down, professional wrestling in Japan was beginning in a huge way. Mildred Burke, accompanied by a hastily-compiled troupe of wrestlers that included WWE Hall of Famer Mae Young, went on her first tour of Japan in 1954 and was treated as a sensation. She dearly loved her time there as she was finally truly respected for her skill. She made a few tours of Japan and trained many female wrestlers who would first make their mark there, including Rhonda Singh who wrestled in the WWE (then WWF) as the ‘big country girl’ Bertha Faye but had first enjoyed a tremendous career in Japan as Monster Ripper. Not only this, it was her skill and influence which inspired the women’s wrestling scene of Japan which was always taken as seriously as men’s wrestling. One evidence of this is that, though Japan still stuck to the separation of men and women wrestling, Japan had set up women-only wrestling leagues from the start. American promotions by-and-large include women’s wrestling as an also-ran attraction to the ‘real show’ of men-only wrestling, not as its own full-blown competition.

I’d like to take a moment to comment on a book which has compiled a great deal of these facts: The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen. As a record it’s thorough, perhaps even overly thorough as regards to details. In terms of insights the book is often insulting. It takes pains to criticize her lack of ‘fight’ during the divorce proceedings yet does not criticize Wolfe for rigging the game entirely (Burke’s lawyers would, within a year of the divorce, be top Wolfe cronies). He spends far more time talking about her sexuality than about her skill as a wrestler, when it was precisely the fact that she combined the two at such a high level that made her a star. In every story she tells he is quick to disbelieve her, and even though in many cases it is warranted (as it would be with nearly any wrestler) he does not do so as if trying to find out the truth, only to dig up another evidence that she is not to be trusted. As a good account of who Mildred Burke was to someone who had no idea I would not recommend it.

Why do I bring this up? Well, yes, vindictiveness. But there is a point to it. As someone who has dug into the history of professional wrestling, and into its long frauds (such as the reliability of the ‘tell-all’ Fall Guys), I feel confident in saying that it was Mildred Burke’s ambition and ability that made her into the legend she was. Wolfe was a bum before she came around and after she left him his business collapsed. It’s true that Burke couldn’t promote herself but this was entirely because Wolfe sabotaged her at every stage. Yet from the finish you would still be tempted to believe that there was some ‘genius’ in Billy Wolfe or that Burke’s appeal was due to men gawping and not to her grappling.

I bring it up because when someone says ‘I want to promote women in wrestling’ it’s important to understand exactly what they’re talking about. Do they want to do what Burke did and put on serious wrestling with tough women seeking to be the best? Or do they want to act like the Fabulous Moolah, the woman who did her best to erase Burke’s legacy and who perpetuated our idea of women in wrestling.

Moolah had gotten her start under Billy Wolfe, but she didn’t like him because he tried to sleep with her, and after he beat up her friend Mae Young the two of them left his group. She became one of the first full-time valets, working with ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers until she split with him, again to avoid a sexual relationship. These early years were certainly not easy on Moolah. Yet she managed to climb until she was working out of the Northeast. When New York City finally re-opened for women’s wrestling in the 70s, it was the Fabulous Moolah who was on the card.

Her claim to the women’s title did not mention Burke at all, but at the same time, it’d be hard to claim she wanted to be better than Burke. Several wrestlers she worked with claimed she was no good. To say what Moolah did have as a performer as someone watching from today is difficult. In my opinion, it was her act with Buddy Rogers which made her known and her association with the McMahons which enabled her to build herself up as a power in women’s wrestling. She could claim to be the women’s world wrestling champion because, bit by bit, the McMahons came to own the world of wrestling. Nothing got done in big-time women’s wrestling without her say so. If that had been all, she might have been creepy but not immoral. That wasn’t all.

The story of Sweet Georgia Brown has been around for some time now. It tells of a young black woman who was recruited to be a wrestler under Moolah. In that time, Georgia Brown was fed drugs by Moolah in order make her an addict, she was forced to allow men to rape her, and more than likely she was raped by Moolah herself. The digging of a half-orphaned young man for his mother is what tells us the stark details about Georgia Brown, but others have claimed that Moolah pimped her girls out, stole their money, and forced herself on them. Billy Wolfe’s evil tactics repurposed.

More should be written about this but it’s difficult to find details. Moolah’s influence meant that many haven’t felt comfortable even talking about her. By not spending time on this I don’t want to imply it’s not important, but I am trying to show the development of women’s wrestling in the US, not dissect Moolah’s life.

But the Fabulous Moolah also drove down the standards for women in wrestling a phenomenal degree. Unlike Burke, Moolah was a rough wrestler but without any particular or unique flair. Further, she was known for sabotaging the careers of those who had a more appealing character than her, like the Road Warrior-inspired Mad Maxine, or who were simply better wrestlers than her, like Leilani Kai and Judy Martin. A really good wrestler will always catch the eye of a wrestling audience. Moolah made sure that everyone thought she was the most fabulous by simply forcing out anyone who opposed her. Billy Wolfe had seen that Mildred Burke wasn’t in wrestling and, with no one else presenting women’s wrestling on a large scale in the United States, what Moolah said went. In her position, Moolah could have cultivated a great scene for women’s wrestling. Instead, she laid the foundation for the WWE divas.

It has to be said, of course, that the McMahons hold a great deal of blame here, principally Vince Jr. He clearly saw women’s wrestling as not much more than a sideshow. One that could make money, sure, but not one he was prepared to spend a great deal of effort developing. He was mostly content to contract out to Moolah for this and accept whatever she was providing. If Vince had been proactive about giving the fans a good women’s wrestling competition then he might have made better choices. As it was, because he and those around him didn’t really care, there was no reason to challenge Moolah’s business-killing decisions.

And she did kill it. Mildred Burke had proved that there was an audience for women’s wrestling. But just like any sport, spectators come to see the elites. With Moolah and her ilk around, who was to be elite?

WWF/E didn’t take women’s wrestling seriously for a long time and, with Moolah as their flagship, they never could. Sherri Martel (who had got her start between the ropes but turned manger full-time in WWF), Elizabeth, Sunny, Sable, that was the sort of female talent hired at WWE: not hired for their wrestling talent, hired for their sex appeal. Alundra Blayze made splash but her run was limited and she only had a small handful of opponents. Mostly, if women got into the ring it was in a farce match to show off their bodies. Throughout most of the Attitude Era this was still true, but not entirely so. There were some great women wrestlers in that time period: Ivory, Jacqueline, Molly Holly, Trish Stratus, and Lita could definitely go between the ropes. Yet they also all took part in overly sexualized storylines as a matter of routine. They also all dropped falls to whichever lesser-skilled hottie was on a roll that week. Their talent shone but it also resulted in the creation of the Divas’ Championship, the butterfly belt that was an open wound on many fans’ TV screens, an adornment more fit for an imaginary unicorn than a tried-and-tested athlete.

But again, it’s not as though there was no great women’s wrestling in WWE after the Attitude Era either. Top wrestlers like Gail Kim, Victoria, and Mickie James lit up screens, and then when the Divas’ Championship did come into being, we got to see Natalya, Beth Phoenix, and AJ Lee in some good contests. Still, women were stuck in the perception of ‘bathroom break’ matches, just out there to get the audience drooling. The rise of the Knockouts pushed women’s wrestling further than it been in years and introduced the world to Awesome Kong, but especially in its early years TNA was an edge-riding product and over-sexualization was the name of the game.

Now, again, the WWE has a Women’s Championship. Is it so they can reclaim an audience for women’s wrestling that has been paying attention to the Knockouts? Is it because they’re following the trend of the UFC who promoted big fights with Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, and Miesha Tate? Were the women in WWE just fed up with the term ‘diva’? It’s not clear what pushed it, or if it was only one thing. What is becoming clear is that WWE wants us to see it as pushing ahead serious women’s wrestling. Competition over titillation. There will be those who, regardless of what evidence is brought up, still view women in wrestling as a sideshow. This change is important, though. For the first time in the WWE, people are starting to view women in the ring as a serious thing to watch, a main event. Maybe it’s a woman’s attractiveness that makes the skeptic stay and watch her wrestle that night. Kick the other girl’s head off, give her a really good fight, wow the crowd. Guarantee you that skeptic comes back to buy a t-shirt.

On this episode of the World Champions Podcast hear about the other side of the social divide and explore professional wrestling’s history with racism. Europeans and their descendants almost exclusively made the early history of wrestling but, to a large degree, it was because they forced non-white people out of consideration. Early black grapplers like Viro Small showed that black people had the ability, but racial prejudices held them back. Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians also struggled under the racial ideas that prevailed in pre-war America. Not only did two such stars earn the nickname “Black Panther” — Jim Mitchell, a black man, and Enrique Torres, Hispanic — and another would become renowned for his exceptional skill and toughness, the sleeper legend Luther Lindsay.

Check out episode #14 Two Panthers at worldchampionspodcast.com or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

Subscribe on iTunes
Subscribe on Stitcher

You can also follow me on Twitter @_nearzone and on Medium.

If you want to hear more about Mildred Burke, remember to check out WCP #14: Fair Play. Also, if you want to read another long piece I wrote, check out my fantasy book of the Young Bucks on top of ROH for KayfabeToday.

If you’ve got a comment or a question, leave it below. Thanks to all you Super J readers, hope to see you back next time.