This is part 2 of a multi-post essay on the legislative history of the ban on women’s wrestling in New York State. Part 1 may be read here. Part 3 will be published next week.
Sources not linked or mentioned in text are numbered and can be found at the bottom.
The postwar economic boom, the growth of the middle class, and the expansion of television broadcasting introduced professional wrestling to a vast new audience: housewives. Women who would not have previously attended matches in armories and smoke-filled arenas were sitting in front of their black-and-white televisions, cheering their favorites and cursing those they hated.
Weekly wrestling programs by local promotions, like Wrestling From Chicago and Wrestling from Hollywood, were aired across the country and gave women opportunities for excitement, emotional connection and, for some, ideas for employment. Women wrote to fan-run newsletters and asked how to enter professional wrestling as performers and managers; others questioned why women’s wrestling was banned in their states — not because it was something they wanted watch. It was something they wanted to do, a way of participating in the economy in the matter of their choosing (1).
It is not noted in the New York State Athletic Commission’s meeting minutes if a glut of women started applying for professional wrestling licenses in the early 1950s or if there was a growing fear that they might. Whereas the 1934 decree prohibiting women from obtaining licenses in the State came on the heels of Vera De Grasse’s failed bid to become a licensed boxing manager, the Commission’s ruling on June 25, 1952, came swiftly and suddenly, without discussion, deliberation or debate in the surviving record.
“The New York State Athletic Commission has ruled that effective at once licenses will not be issued to women wrestlers.”
Despite (or in spite of) cultural norms and legal restrictions, women outside New York continued their walk to the ring, even if it meant breaking the law. On October 25, 1955, in Clackamas, Oregon, Jerry Hunter, “then and there not being a person of the male sex… did then and there unlawfully and willfully participate in a wrestling competition and wrestling exhibition” a crime that was “against the peace and dignity of the State of Oregon.”(2) She sued on the basis that the law violated Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment:
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Oregon court ruled in 1956 that the State had the right to bar women from the ring because “By nature citizens are divided into great classes of men and women, and the recognition of this classification by laws having for their object the promoting of the general welfare and good morals does not constitute an unjust discrimination.”(3) Hunter, it was found, did not have a constitutional right to participate in wrestling exhibitions because the sport had “long been licensed and regulated by penal statute… the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not protect those liberties which civilized states regard as properly subject to regulation by penal law…”
The presiding judge very clearly explained the Court’s decision in his ruling:
“We believe that we are justified in taking judicial notice of the fact that the membership of the legislative assembly which enacted this statute was predominantly masculine. That fact is important in determining what the legislature might have had in mind with respect to this particular statute…Obvious is intended that there should be at least one island on the sea of life reserved for man that would be impregnable to the assault of women. It had watched her emerge from long tresses and demure ways to bobbed hair and almost complete sophistication; from a creature needing and depending on the protection and chivalry of man to even asserting complete independence. She had already invaded practically every activity formerly considered suitable and appropriate for men only… in all of which she had become more or less proficient, and in some had excelled. In the business and industrial fields as an employee or as an executive… she had matched her wits and prowess with those of mere man, and, we are frank to concede, in many instances had outdone him. In these circumstances, is it any wonder that the legislative assembly took advantage of the police power of the state in it’s decision to halt this ever-increasing feminine encroachment upon what for ages had been considered strictly as manly arts and privileges? Was the Act an unjust and unconstitutional discrimination against woman? Have her civil or political rights been unconstitutionally denied her? Under the circumstances, we think not. (4)
That bears repeating: In 1956 Oregon, it was considered legally (therefore, socially) acceptable to deny a woman the opportunity to participate in the athletic, performative, or economic forum of her choosing — that was legal for men — because doing so encroached upon traditionally male domains. Men, according to Judge Asshole, needed their safe spaces and the ring, be it for wrestling or boxing, was their refuge.
Conversely, the State of Illinois found that rejecting an applicant for a wrestling license on the basis of gender did violate the applicant’s constitutional rights. The same year that Hunter fell afoul of Oregon law by being a woman in the ring, Hesseltine v. State Athletic Commission was heard in Illinois (5). Rose Hesseltine, who wrestled under the name Rose Roman, applied for a wrestling license in Illinois and was summarily rejected because of her gender. She lawyered-up, appealed, and won. Her victory was appealed by the State Athletic Commission, but the decision was affirmed.
As the 1960s began, the prevailing views towards gender that found Jerry Hunter guilty of invading the last remaining island for men in the sea of life were being dismantled by the federal government.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July 1964, barred employment discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex and national origin by employers, employment agencies, and unions. Since state athletic commissions were neither employer, employment agency, nor union, they could not technically be held to it.
On September 11, 1964, two months after Title VII was enacted, the New York State Athletic Commission discussed a request from Shari Lee to allow women to wrestle in the state. Lee was identified in the minutes as the secretary and treasurer of the World Wide Women Wrestlers Association. The original communique was not preserved.
(The World Wide Women’s Wrestling Association was the name of Mildred Burke‘s Los Angeles-based stable of women wrestlers. A woman by the name of Sharon Lee is listed in The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend, a biography of Burke by Jeff Leen, as one of “Millie’s Girls.” (6))
The commissioners briefly discussed the topic. Legal counsel James P. Fusscas mentioned the Hesseltine decision and noted that “there is no comparison between the powers of Illinois and New York.” Commissioner James A. Farley said he was against it. Commissioner Raymond J. Lee was apathetic: “I don’t care one way or another. However, I will go along with the majority.” (7)
Chairman Melvin L. Krulewitch called for a memorandum on the subject to be forwarded to the Secretary of State (8), which is interesting because the Athletic Commission, while an agency of the Secretary of State, had sole authority over boxing and wrestling in New York. Neither the 1934 nor 1952 commandments banning the licensing of women were noted as having been forwarded to the Secretary of State. The Athletic Commission did, however, submit an annual statement to the Secretary of State, but that was more of a statistical report than a heads-up warning or request for approval.
Fusscas commented “there is no comparison between the powers of Illinois and New York” (9) because the New York State Athletic Commission had sole jurisdiction over the sports in its purview. As Chairman, Krulewitch would have known — should have known — that his Commission, from its very beginning, was THE decision-making body for boxing and wrestling and there was no need for the Legislature’s awareness or approval.
A few months after Lee’s request was eschewed, the Commission received an application for a professional wrestling license from Ethel Whitehead, of Buffalo, New York. She received a denial on November 16, 1964, on the basis of Commission Rule 205.15: “No women may compete in any wrestling or boxing contest or exhibition, and no women may be licensed as a boxer, wrestler, manager or second.” (10)
Neither the passing of Title VII nor the legal implications of gender discrimination had been, up to this point, entered into the Commission’s minutes nor had any inference to the federal law and what it meant for the changing winds of society been transcribed. The legality of the ban was finally discussed at the Commission’s January 15, 1965 meeting, when Deputy Commissioner Harry J. Cohan relayed a conversation (11) he’d recently had:
I was walking to the Legislature a week ago Wednesday and Mr. Siegfried of the Attorney General’s Office called me. He brought up the question of lady wrestlers. There are 45 states out of 50 which license women wrestlers. Our rule in not licensing women wrestlers is invalid. We have no alternative — either we license them or not. In Illinois ruling there has been no repercussions with women wrestling. With regard to lady wrestlers, they treat them like men wrestlers. The women are planning to go to the Governor’s office. We are depriving them of a livelihood. The Attorney General does not want to give an opinion that is detrimental to the State Athletic Commission.
An official from the State Attorney General’s office, the top law enforcement body in New York, acknowledged the invalidity of the rule denying women professional wrestling licenses. The Athletic Commission was made aware of this by its own legal counsel, yet it continued to deny women their right to engage in the legal economic venture of their choosing.
Commission Chairman Krulewitch answered that question with his response to Cohan’s statement: “If the Attorney General invalidates our rule with reference to women wrestlers, we would have to license women boxers under the law. Public opinion would be against it.” (12)
The ban on women’s professional wrestling in the State of New York was, in essence, a barrier to protect, as the presiding judge in State v. Hunter wrote, “… at least one island on the sea of life reserved for man…” (13) from the rising tide of women seeking equal opportunity.
The sport of gentlemen and moral order as those gentlemen knew it had to be protected from female usurpation via the state’s squared circles!
(It must be stated that the notion of boxing as something to be protected persisted through the 1970s. Edwin B. Dooley, Commission Chairman from 1966 to 1975, refused to license women professional boxers because it “‘would at once destroy the image that attracts serious boxing fans’” and the “‘manly art of self defense.’” (14))
Unwilling to accept the Commission’s rejection, Whitehead filed, in February 1965, for court order directing the Commission to issue a license. She argued that denial based on sex was a civil rights violation. Her petition was denied.
The court found that her rights had not been violated by the Commission and that the Commission had sole power to establish qualifications for licensing: “…the court was of the opinion that it should not substitute its discretion for that of the Commission in determining the physical and other qualifications of participants in wrestling matches.” (15)
The presiding judge’s decision also included several reasons why women would be denied the “privilege of public wrestling”:
*Insert audible sigh here*
Whitehead later appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division.
In the Athletic Commission meeting minutes, one can occasionally see the transcribed statements of boxers, managers, and promoters testifying in the presence of the Commission at application reviews or disciplinary hearings. Their voices — male voices — were heard and recorded, and are able to be read today. The words of Ethel Whitehead were not recorded at the meeting when her application was reviewed (if they were given at all), nor do we see an invitation for her to plead her case in person or in writing. There wasn’t anyone in the room who would speak, on the record, on behalf of the woman’s (and the women’s) cause.
That is, until Pedro Martinez, a male wrestling promoter from Buffalo, New York, submitted a complaint to then-Senator Robert Kennedy about the ban on women’s wrestling that was forwarded to the Commission on March 1, 1966. “There is a State and Federal law that says you cannot discriminate because of sex,“ he wrote to the Senator. “There is a group of two hundred lady wrestlers in forty states. Wrestling is an exhibition in New York State. The ladies have applied for a license in New York State and have been turned down.”
“Their civil rights are being violated…This lady, Ethel Whitehead, and two hundred other lady wrestlers, are being deprived of earning a living in New York State.” (16)
Chairman Krulewitch’s response to Senator Kennedy was recorded in the Commission’s minutes: The Whitehead case was under review by the courts and he would keep the Senator updated. There was nothing else said on the matter of women’s wrestling in New York. (17)
In May 1966, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Fourth Department, unanimously affirmed, without opinion, the lower courts decision regarding Ethel Whitehead’s application for a wrestling license. And discussion of women’s wrestling ceased for the year.
At the Commission’s March 31, 1967 meeting, Pedro Martinez once again stepped up to bat for women wrestlers:
“There is a Cuban girl wrestler. Her lawyer is going to proceed with it legally… The girl wrestler is applying for a license.”
The history continues in part three.
(1) Dell, C. (2006). The revenge of Hatpin Mary: women, professional wrestling and fan culture in the 1950s. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
(2) State v. Hunter 300 P. 2d 455 – OR: Supreme Court 1956. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from Google Scholar.
(5) Hesseltine v. State Athletic Com’n, 126 NE 2d 631 – Ill: Supreme Court 1955. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from Google Scholar.
(6) Leen, J. (2009). The queen of the ring: sex, muscles, diamonds and the making of an American legend. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
(7) New York (State). State Athletic Commission minutes, September 11, 1964. New York State Archives.
(10) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, November 14, 1964. New York State Archives.
(11) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, January 11, 1965. New York State Archives.
(13) State v. Hunter 300 P. 2d 455 – OR: Supreme Court 1956. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from Google Scholar
(14) Dooley defends ‘manly’ image of pro boxing. (1975, Feb 05). The Hartford Courant. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from ProQuest
(15 ) Whitehead v. Krulewitch. 25 A.D. 2d 965 (N.Y. App Div 1966). New York State Library.
(16) New York (State). Athletic commission meeting minutes, April 8, 1966. New York State Archives.
Sorry for wonky APA styling. And for crappy archives citations. It’s been a long while.