If any one person in wrestling was a particular thorn in the side of the New York State Athletic Commission in the mid-20th century, it might be Pedro Martinez. Not only did he argue against the Commission regarding its policies towards professional wrestling, he also challenged them on the women’s wrestling ban and specifically called it a violation of civil rights.
In the early 1950s, Martinez owned the Manhattan Booking Agency, a “clearing house” (1) for promoters who wished to contract professional wrestlers for matches in their companies; a “theatrical agency” is how the Commission Chairman, Robert K. Christenberry, understood it. Along with Ed Don George (a Buffalo-area promoter), he petitioned the Commission at its June 6, 1952, hearing to ease the regulations on professional wrestling in New York, arguing that wrestling exhibitions did not need the same level of control and oversight as boxing contests. The rules for one were not only unnecessary but a hindrance to the other. (2)
One month earlier, in March 1952, the Commission violated its own edict and condescended to grant a license to a woman — but only because the commissioners knew her husband. “The Commission approved the request of Mrs. Barney Williams to engage in the activity of promoting a wrestling club for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. This question was entertained in view of the fact that Barney Williams is a Commission Judge.” (3)
In case anyone thought it was creeping towards modernization and equality, the New York State Athletic Commission decreed a few months later that no women would receive wrestling licenses.
By the time he spoke out against Commission rules in 1966, Martinez was promoting wrestling shows in Western New York and struggling to stay afloat financially. He complained to Senator Kennedy about the ban: it violated women’s civil rights and — just so you know this wasn’t an entirely altruistic act — kept money away from his business (4). While attending a Commission hearing a year later to discuss unpaid bills, he stressed that his economic situation could be helped by legalizing women’s matches (5):
PEDRO MARTINEZ: I could raise the money if I used women wrestlers.
CHAIRMAN DOOLEY: We don’t do that.
PEDRO MARTINEZ: I could get $50,000 in three months if we had the women wrestlers. I am not ashamed of anything I have done. I did the best I could.
COM. LEE: Commissioner Dooley, are you for women wrestling or not?
CHAIRMAN DOOLEY: In our rules women wrestlers are barred.
ARMAND STARACE: That includes, managers and seconds as well.
PEDRO MARTINEZ: There is a Cuban girl wrestler. Her lawyer is going to proceed with it legally. New York City does not need it. We need it. If you could, license it on a trial basis for three months, it would help.
CHAIRMAN DOOLEY: We have to weigh it very carefully. Perhaps, legal action is the best way to get it. It would compel us to do it.
PEDRO MARTINEZ: Chicago, Illinois, California licensed girl wrestlers. You don’t need it in New York City but throughout the state, you do need it.
CHAIRMAN DOOLEY: We will take it up at some future time.
The Chairman’s statement regarding legal action confirms the Commission’s obstinance regarding women in the ring. Their comfort in (and with) discrimination would — much like other agencies throughout the United States in the 1960s — only be shaken by the courts.
Martinez referred to women’s wrestling as “burlesque” that would generate funds. Chairman Dooley called it degrading. Deputy commissioner Daniel J. Dowd admitted it was worth trying. Armand Starace, the executive secretary, acknowledged that “It is clearly discriminatory.”
Commissioner Raymond J. Lee, who in 1964 said “I don’t care one way or another. However, I will go along with the majority.”(6), evolved from his previous stance and declared (7): “I was always in favor of it. They should be allowed to wrestle. If they allow women to appear topless in restaurants, I cannot see anything degrading in women wrestling.”
The “Cuban girl wrestler” mentioned during the Martinez hearing was Silvia Calzadilla, also referred to in court documents as Silvia T. Calzadilla and Silvia Torres, from Revere, Massachusetts. In early 1967, Calzadilla applied for — and was denied — a New York professional wrestling license. She subsequently took the state to court to overturn the decision.
Calzadilla’s legal team submitted evidence that included letters from athletic commissioners and police officials in states where women’s wrestling was legal. Each attested that, no, women in the ring have not caused riots or moral upheaval of any kind.
Also included was a memo from a doctor refuting the notion that women wrestlers were at particular risk of illness (breast cancer, specifically) due to their gender.
The crux of Calzadilla’s argument, however, was not that women do not damage the fabric of society by stepping through the ropes; it was that the ban arbitrarily discriminated against women and violated her 14th Amendment rights.
While Calzadilla’s case made its way through the New York court system, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 in the fall of 1967, expanding a 1965 order that prohibited sex-based discrimination in federal employment and by contractors working for the federal government. The order did not pertain to the Athletic Commission and its licensing of women wrestlers, as it was neither a federal employer nor employment agency nor contractor. The order did, however, state that women should have the same economic opportunities as men. It set the tone for the rest of the country and signaled a major shift in society.
That shift, however, was not felt by the New York courts. The 1968 ruling on Calzadilla’s case found she had no such right: the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did not require that all persons be treated alike, but that persons within a certain class be treated alike, the presiding judge wrote. “It recognizes that a State may classify its citizens but mandates that the classification should not be arbitrary and that all persons within a class be treated equally.” (8) As all women in the State of New York were, as a class, equally denied wrestling licenses, it cannot be said that the Athletic Commission was violating the 14th Amendment.
In August 1970, it was reported in the New York Times that Winona Green wanted to be a second in her professional boxer husband’s upcoming match. Along with Edith Edwards, she submitted her license application ahead of the fight. Dooley said the Commission would deliberate on their applications at the September 17 meeting — two days after the fight. When made aware of the need for a more expeditious hearing, he said they’d “act on it” (9) that week.
“‘Privately, Dooley said there was no chance for approval. He cited a recent court case in which a Buffalo woman had sought to become a licensed wrestler. ‘The courts upheld us in refusing her,’ he said. ‘Let the State Legislature allow women in boxing and we’ll okay it.“‘ (10)
But the Legislature did not need to allow women in boxing. Or wrestling. The Athletic Commission had sole power to determine such laws and the lawsuits that upheld the Commission’s refusals stated that clearly. As mentioned in the judge’s ruling shown above (11), it had sole power to license as it wished.
The State Legislature did not intercede in Commission business nor was it supposed to. The current iteration of the Athletic Commission was not created in the early 1920s with a clause that regulations must be approved by the State’s elected legislators before becoming law, nor were any amendments added to that effect (read part one of this series for more on this). The Commission (via the Chairman and the Chairmen that came before) simply had no interest or wish to see women’s wrestling (or boxing) in the state. They would only act if the Legislature forced the issue — even though the legal counsel had already alerted them to the invalidity of the rule in 1965 (12) and the federal government already deemed gender-based discrimination a violation of civil rights (13).
The next woman to try her hand at a New York wrestling license was Betty Niccoli, an established professional wrestler from the midwest. Unlike Whitehead and Calzadilla, Niccoli’s push for a license included courting the press. She submitted her application for a professional wrestling license to the New York State Athletic Commission amid a flurry of publicity, with papers across the country advertising her case. Her application was submitted for deliberation at the October 1970 meeting, but the commission refused to address it, sitting on Niccoli’s request and agreeing to pick it up in the following month.
We have no idea if they ever did.
There is no evidence of Niccoli’s application at the October or November 1970 meetings in the Commission’s executive files and minutes. Not because of the New York State Athletic Commission’s desire to ignore the growing call for women’s rights or equality in access to the ring.
There’s no evidence of further discussion in the minutes because the minutes simply aren’t there.
Part four can be read here.
(1) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, June 6, 1952. New York State Archives.
(3) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, May 16, 1952. New York State Archives.
(4) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, April 8, 1966. New York State Archives.
(5) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, March 31, 1967. New York State Archives.
(6) New York (State). State Athletic Commission minutes, September 11, 1964. New York State Archives.
(7) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, March 31, 1967. New York State Archives.
(8) Calzadilla v. Dooley 29 A.D.2d 152 (N.Y. App. Div. 1968). New York State Library. The judge’s decision can be read here.
(9) Goldpaper, S. (1970). Women’s lib invades boxing for place in fighter’s corner. New York Times. Retrieved 11/8/2015 from Proquest.
(11) New York (State). Department of State annual report, 1968. New York State Library.
(12) New York (State). State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, January 15, 1965. New York State Archives.
(13) Title VII, Executive Order 11375