History has often overlooked the roles and experiences of women. More so in sports and especially in sports entertainment, aka professional wrestling. Women wrestlers have been viewed as afterthoughts, playthings, or bathroom breaks. This notion is changing — rapidly — but still pervades the minds of those in and around wrestling, as well as those outside that sphere.
Vox Media recently published an article highlighting this Sunday’s WrestleMania, an annual WWE event that, for thirty-two years, has been Christmas and New Years rolled into one for wrestling fans throughout the world. The article, while thoroughly explaining the history and importance of the event and its impact on wrestling, neglected a key aspect of Sunday’s card: the triple-threat match between women wrestlers Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte, the reigning “Divas” champion.
This match is not between models known for screeches and hair pulling, but trained athletes who can and do put on stellar performances that rival men’s matches in terms of technicality and entertainment value. It isn’t a fight over slighted comments, the affections of a man, or to see can keep the most clothes on at the end of the show. It is to determine the best woman wrestler on the roster.
But that didn’t stop this particular writer from ignoring their presence on the card. Nor has their talents prevented the Powers-That-Be in the WWE from reducing their female workers to sex objects.
At WWE’s 2016 Royal Rumble, wrestling legend Ric Flair, ringside to support his daughter, Charlotte, grabbed hold of Becky Lynch, Charlotte’s opponent, and forcibly kissed her. There was outcry among fans online who reject sexual assault and harassment as forms of acceptable entertainment. For others on wrestling forums, it was okay and complaints were shouted down because he’s Ric Flair! The ladies man! Space Mountain! He can take what he wants — Wooo!!
The roots of this behavior and its acceptance — in stories played out in the ring and by fans at home — extends beyond the butterfly belt and the Divas name; way before the Playboy covers of the aughts and hair-pulling screech-fests of the 80s and 90s. In society and in the squared circle, the non-consensual harassment and objectification of women has been overlooked for so long that it has become a normal — expected, even –part of the show.
Many new wrestling fans (and more than a few older ones with a bent towards rosy nostalgia) aren’t aware of how far back this behavior goes or even who to blame for enmeshing this exploitation in the fabric of wrestling.
No, this isn’t a “blame Vince” piece. This started long before Junior got shipped off to Bangor to promote his first card. He simply continued the tradition.
New York City in the early 20th century was the epicenter for all things related to the ring. From this base, the men who ran the wrestling business, the “Trust,” spread their wings across the United States. The group included Jack Curley and Toots Mondt, among others — ballyhoo men in the grand tradition of Tex Rickard and P.T. Barnum who knew how to draw a crowd and shared an honor among thieves view of business.
A contemporary left out of the group was a man by the name of Jack Pfefer. He wasn’t a part of the Trust, but he held enough power to mold the prototype that today’s wrestling is based on. Those who say sports entertainment is a modern construct never heard of Jack Pfefer.
To clap back at the Trust for his exclusion from the alliance, he gave an interview in 1934 to the New York Daily Mirror and told about the inner machinations of professional wrestling, confirming the predetermined nature of the game. His business philosophy, much divergent from the norm, was published by Colliers in 1938:
Freaks I love and they’re my speciality. I am very proud of some of my monstrosities. You can’t get a dollar with a normal-looking guy, no matter how good he can wrestle. Those birds with shaved, egg-shaped heads, handlebar moustaches, tattooed bodies, big stomachs — they’re for me!
Among Pfefer’s sideshow attractions were his coterie of women wrestlers, introduced to boost the spirits of men during the Great Depression. Looks were prefered over athletic talent — though a good number of these women could really fight — and he promoted women’s wrestling in the US into the 1940s using the bank of female talent held by Billy Wolfe. Mildred Burke was their champion.
Although Wolfe was married to Burke, the vetting process for new additions to his stable included bedding potential stars. According to The Queen of the Ring, Jeff Lean’s biography of the women’s champ, “sex with him [Wolfe] appeared to be the initiation fee for any woman who wanted to wrestle for him..” Gladys Gillem is quoted by Lean as having said: “He wanted to try all the girls. He’d go from one room to the other. If you went to bed with him, you got a good booking.”
The Trust was long gone by the time the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was chartered in 1948. Wolfe and Burke split in 1952, but he stayed with Pfefer and the NWA, sending his girls to promoters throughout the territories. In Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, author Jim Wilson cited a 1960 claim made to the FBI that, in addition to booking their matches, Wolfe was also trafficking them out to promoters for sex.
Women were not just in the ring to titillate the men watching from the stands and at home on television; they were there to please the men in the ring, as well. This is the foundation on which today’s sexism and sexual expectation of women in professional wrestling in America was built. It appears as if they are there to be exploited because they were.
One of the women under the training and tutelage of Wolfe was Lillian Ellison. Jack Pfefer bestowed the name “Slave Girl Moolah” upon her, but Vince McMahon, Sr., made her “Fabulous.” She eventually ended her business relationship with Wolfe and Pfefer to strike out on her own with her then-husband, Buddy Lee. Moolah and Lee trained women, promoted women’s wrestling, and didn’t diverge far from the blueprint set by her former mentors.
In 2006, the Free Times of Columbia, SC, published the story of Susie Mae McCoy, a former wrestler by the name of Sweet Georgia Brown. It outlined the African-American woman’s rise in professional wrestling as part of the Ellison-Lee stable (she was shuttled into towns in the trunk of a car to avoid the ire of the KKK) and what she’d endured on her path to becoming the Texas Negro Women’s Champion — drugging and rape; being passed around like a play thing for the boys and beatings when she did not comply. Money and power make for a strong yoke around the neck of those desperate and determined to succeed.
The NWA controlled wrestling until the 1980s and Fabulous Moolah, with her decades-long connections and literal ownership of the women’s championship title, was at the pinnacle of women’s wrestling. Despite her misdeeds, obscured through the honor among thieves mentality that eschewed talk of the darker side of the trade, women flocked to her expansive South Carolina property to learn.
In a 1962 piece on African-American professional wrestlers that featured Sweet Georgia Brown, Ebony magazine noted the “hair pulling, biting and scratching” style of women’s wrestling. These were signatures of the Moolah style promulgated through her training and remained a benchmark for women’s wrestling for decades.
Many women who trained under Moolah reported sexual harassment, exploitation, exorbitant training fees, and the withholding of pay. In her 2002 shoot interview, the late Luna Vachon spoke of being sent by Moolah to pose for clothed, but illicit, photographs when she was only 16 years old. Mad Maxine, another of Moolah’s students, reported that trainees were regularly pimped out by the trainer — an echo of the claims made in the story on Sweet Georgia Brown.
The technically underwhelming style of wrestling combined with the promotion of women as objects of male affection and ownership, in need of their rescue and rescue from them, all but set women’s inferiority in stone. And it was accepted by the promoters, producers, tv executives, observers, and fans.
Overlooking women and their exploitation in professional wrestling did not start with a writer ignoring a women’s match at WrestleMania or Ric Flair’s assault on Becky Lynch at the Royal Rumble nor did it begin with Fabulous Moolah’s human trafficking ring. It is the mountain regarded as a molehill that women’s wrestling has been built upon for decades.