In time for Labor Day, the very long-form version of my post on gender-based discrimination and its role in the legislative history of the women’s wrestling ban in New York.
A hundred years ago, on February 29, 1916, “Battling” Hildredth Whitehouse, a woman bantamweight boxer, stepped between the ropes at Grupp’s Gymnasium on 116th Street in New York City. Whitehouse claimed to be “the First Lady to have received a permit to fight in a licensed club” (1).
Her opponent, Jack Atkinson, was a man. The match was stopped in the second round when a police detective rushed the ring and put an end to the proceedings. “In the name of the law. This brutality must cease!” the New-York Tribune quoted a Detective Lynch as saying. “The Boxing Commission shouldn’t have done it.”
On August 19, 2016, another intergender bout — a wrestling match in Brooklyn held a century later — was also interrupted. Not by an officer of the law stopping a match that violated his own beliefs, regardless of approvals, permits, or legality. Instead, the match between Jessie Brooks and Marc Hauss was stopped by a New York State Athletic Commission deputy who was ignorant of his own agency’s rules and regulations; he believed such a match was illegal under current Commission guidelines.
He was wrong. So very, very wrong. And the match went on.
Intergender matches are barred under the rules of boxing. Not wrestling.
The New York State Athletic Commission has, historically, discriminated against women wrestlers (and boxers) — it has also, historically, displayed a lack of awareness of its own rules, regulations and, sometimes, the reality of the world it operates in.
But first, a brief history of the Commission and its predecessors.
Regulation of the New York fight scene started in 1911 with the passing of the Frawley Bill. It was not a popular bill, as it was thought to have legitimized the negative pall that settled on the sport. An editor at the New York Times decried the new Commission and its role: “It is, however, one thing to fight for glory or box for amusement… while it is quite another to get up clubs, so called, the single purpose of which is the attraction of paying crowds to see boys pummel each other with their fists for a scanty wage” (2).
By 1913, the State sought to contain wrestling in its grasp, promising to “…raise the standard of the sport in the estimation of many followers of athletic contests who now have no guarantee that many of the scheduled matches are ‘on the level’” (3).
In 1921, the “State Boxing Commission,” as it was known, was replaced by the Simpson-Brundage State Athletic Commission Bill to rein in and “remove the abuses that have marred two good sports” (4) and the New York State Athletic Commission, as it is known today, was formed.
A contemporary pundit wrote that “Boxing conditions in New York are pecular [sic]. The “sport” is so mixed with politics that it is hard to separate them. Not only the matchmaking, the control of the “industry,” and the very championships themselves depend largely upon politics…” (5). The mat game (wrestling), which at the time shared promoters (as well as referees, judges and participants) with the fight game (boxing) had its own system of fixes and fixers. Both sports were wrangled under the umbrella of the new commission because “only sports unable to control themselves needed state control.”
When the New York State Athletic Commission was created, it was given an immense amount of power. According to its Rules and Regulations:
The commission shall have and hereby is vested with the sole discretion, management, control and jurisdiction over all such boxing, sparring and wrestling matches or exhibition to be conducted, held or given within the state of New York, and no such boxing, sparring or wrestling match or exhibition shall be conducted, held or given within the state except in accordance with the provisions of this act. (6)
In short, the Athletic Commission could enact and enforce any and all laws pertaining to the ring in the State of New York without the State Legislature’s approval or interference — including the licensing of boxers and wrestlers.
In 1930, the Commission ruled that all professional wrestling matches in the state be deemed “exhibitions.” The decree came from Commissioner William Muldoon (an ex-wrestler who’d “…traveled nearly all over the world and beat all opponents at a time when wrestling had no “trust” to arrange a list of winners” (7)) after watching a card at Madison Square Garden. “I saw some good exhibitions but they were merely that. There was a lot of lofty tumbling, which anyone familiar with the sport knows was unnecessary. It was a fine exhibition of physical achievement but at no time was it a real wrestling match” (8).
The Commission’s power grew under Muldoon’s watch. Boxers, wrestlers, judges, referees, promoters, managers, seconds, announcers, and even ushers, ticket takers, and venue security guards had to have the Commission’s seal of approval before working fight night. Prior to hosting a boxing or wrestling contest or exhibition, venues were allowed to obtain temporary group permits covering its employees for that night. All for a fee, of course, as each and every license and permit meant money in the Commission’s coffers.
In wrestling, everything from match time to the holds allowed and forbidden were set in stone by the Commission. The removal of certain actions from a performer’s moveset isn’t just a gripe of the modern wrestling fan.
A 1946 New York State Athletic Commission memorandum circulated among promoters, wrestlers and referees set a stern disapproval of “certain facts now taking place in wrestling exhibitions” and promised a 15-day license suspension to any wrestler who leaves the ring during a match, “mixes with spectators” or “deliberately pushes aside a referee and thus causes the lowering of the dignity of an official of the New York State Athletic Commission.” Such actions, feared the Commission, would incite the crowd in attendance to riot!
“If such a riot should occur, the promoter of such exhibition will be held directly responsible to the New York State Athletic Commission.“
This fear of a riot — the notion of agitating the status quo of the existing social order — is what kept women off the mat. Both the literal and figurative fear of feminine encroachment upon the ring, and how the male-dominated sport and its fans in male-dominated society might react to it, lead to the Commission’s refusal of women applicants and the eventual legal ban on women in the ring, both the three-roped kind for wrestling and the four-roped one for boxing.
Although women had been working fixed boxing and wrestling matches on the vaudeville, burlesque, and carnival circuits, the first battle for licensing came from boxing.
In 1911, Mrs. Gus Ruhlin (married to boxer and occasional wrestler Gus Ruhlin) applied for and was denied a “boxing club license,” though officially the reason was due to the glut of existing clubs and not the fact that she was a woman. But that did not stop her from previously promoting a “prizefight for suffrage” that she said would feature “lady wrestlers.” Without the license, however, she put herself and those on her card at risk of being fined.
The denial of a license meant the denial of legitimacy, the denial of opportunity, and the denial of employment.
In the late 1920s, women were increasingly participating in boxing exhibitions in America and throughout Europe. A French-American woman, Jeanne Le Mar, who boxed in Europe and in 1927 claimed to be “the only female boxing champion in the world,” made an attempt to apply for a license in New York. Her lawyer argued that “If women can replace men in all sorts of occupations in time of war, and beat them to a frazzle on tennis courts in time of peace, why shouldn’t they be permitted to engage in professional prize-fights?” Le Mar told an interviewer that “There is no law against women boxing professionally… and I don’t see any ground for banning me” (9). She was right — there was no law and there were, outside of social bias, no grounds.
Two African-American women boxers, Emma Maitland and Aurelia Wheeldin, planned to apply for licenses and seek matches against Le Mar if the Commission approved of the French woman’s application (10). Both started as theatrical performers who included boxing in their act, but the women eventually became serious pugilists. A short film on Maitland and Wheeldin can be seen on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e67Z-Zza2vM. For a great read on early black woman boxers, check out Cathy van Ingen’s Seeing What Our Frames Are Seeing:” Seeking Histories on Early Black Female Boxers).
Neither Le Mar, Maitland nor Wheeldin received New York State boxing licenses.
During the summer of 1934, Vera De Grasse applied for, and was refused, a New York State boxing manager’s license. The Commission, for the first time, went on record as being opposed to women managers, boxers, and wrestlers.
The Commission’s minutes did not include debates or deliberation on the matter, just a simple sentence and nothing more was committed to print for posterity: “On the motion of Commissioner Wear, it is hereby ordered that no license be issued to any females in the future.”
A writer for the New York Herald Tribune called it “an icy blast of disapproval” from the “rajas of ringdom,” (11).
The rajas’ decree meant that Mildred Burke, the undisputed queen of the ring who traveled from town to town across America taking on all comers while draped in diamonds and gold, never had the opportunity to wrestle inside Madison Square Garden.
No woman would step between the ropes in the most hallowed of halls in all of ringdom until 1972.
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 (12).
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.”(13) 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.”(14) 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. (15)
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 (16). 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.” (17))
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.” (18)
Chairman Melvin L. Krulewitch called for a memorandum on the subject to be forwarded to the Secretary of State (19), 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” (20) 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.” (21)
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 (22) 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.” (23)
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…” (24) 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.’” (25))
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.” (26)
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.” (27)
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. (28)
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.”
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” (29) 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. (30)
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.” (31)
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 (32). 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 (33):
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.”(34), evolved from his previous stance and declared (35): “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.” (36) 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” (37) 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.“‘ (38)
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 (39), 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 (40) and the federal government already deemed gender-based discrimination a violation of civil rights (41).
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.
The New York State Athletic Commission’s history of records management contains as many twists and turns as anything seen in a wrestling ring. Commission meeting minutes, from 1920 to 1977, went missing from the agency’s office in the late 1970s and eventually appeared in the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s collection about a decade later. Neither the Commission nor the State of New York knew about it until 1998.
These records contain the discussions, debates, and deliberations that regulated and legislated professional and amateur boxing and wrestling in New York from the beginning of the twentieth century until the mid-1970s. It can be argued that a good deal of the history of ringdom itself was printed upon those papers.
And they were gone.
According to reports retrieved by a January 2016 Freedom of Information Law request, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, Edward Brophy, obtained the collection from the family of a former Commission secretary who ‘saved’ it from destruction and stored it in her garage until a relative donated it to the nascent boxing museum in the 1980s (42). The Commission, however, was reportedly unaware of this and only learned of the missing minutes during a 1998 records assessment conducted by New York State Archives and Records Administration personnel (43).
The State had rules establishing New York’s ownership of the collection and a records disposal policy for the Commission was created in the 1950s (44), but the papers still managed to slip through the public’s grasp and into private hands.
In 2009, New York State regained physical custody of the surviving Commission minutes. Processing the records revealed an unexplained gap in the collection between December 12, 1969 and March 27, 1973 (45).
What happened in that time period? Which agenda items and discussions might have been found in those minutes? In 1970, a federal court forced the Athletic Commission to reinstate Muhammad Ali’s boxing licence. In 1971, the Fight of the Century between Joe Frazier and Ali took place in Madison Square Garden. In 1972, the Athletic Commission allowed female reporters to sit in press row at boxing events and conduct interviews in locker rooms (so long as a Commission official declared the gentlemen inside properly attired (46)); the federal government passed Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally-funded programs; and women were finally allowed to obtain employment as professional wrestlers in the State of New York.
There is no way of knowing exactly what spurred the Commission to finally allow women grapplers to ply their trade on the State’s squared circles. Without these minutes, we do not know if the commissioners ended the ban due to an evolved point of view or a forced hand and egg on their faces.
It’s not just meeting minutes that were lost. License files generally had a short retention period (five years after the license’s expiration date), but materials on boxing and wrestling champions and other important figures under the Commission’s purview — Ali, Frazier, Jake LaMotta, Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan — were to be retained. The 1998 assessment included the following in a footnote (47):
It is unclear why files for these significant individuals have not been retained. Staff report that it was past Commission practice to retain files for major figures in boxing and wrestling history when it destroyed obsolete license files. However, office rumor has it that a previous Commission chairman subsequently ordered staff to destroy all such retained files for unknown reasons.
Despite the absence of Commission records, the legislative history of women’s wrestling in New York is not completely lost. Holdings of the New York State Library include a March 7, 1972, State Assembly bill to end the ban on women’s wrestling that was submitted by Vander L. Beatty (54th District, Brooklyn) (48). The measure would repeal the Athletic Commission’s existing gender-based regulation and replace it with “No person shall be prohibited from engaging in a wrestling match or exhibition on account of sex.”
An article published May 9, 1972 (49), quoted Beatty as saying “One of my constituents who is a wrestler wrote me and said she can wrestle in Massachusetts, but not in Brooklyn. She is being denied the opportunity for employment.” The bill, approved by a vote of 117-15, died in the Governmental Operations Committee (50, 51).
A New York Times article indicates that the ban was overturned “[…] by a recent ruling by the New York State Athletic Commission.” (52) After all, it did have sole authority to regulate the sports in its grasp. A 1974 Milwaukee Journal article (53) set the date for the change as June 5, 1972.
With the ban officially over, the first women answered the bell at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1972. Fabulous Moolah and her protege, Vicki Williams, stepped through the ropes in front of an audience of “19,512 quiet fans” (54) .
Fabulous Moolah is credited (rather, credits herself (55)) as having broken down the barrier, but it was Ethel Whitehead and Silvia Calzadilla who took the New York State Athletic Commission to court, Betty Niccoli who took on the Commission in the press, and Shari Lee, on behalf of Mildred Burke’s World Wide Women Wrestlers Association, who fired the shots in the battle to end the ban on women’s wrestling in New York. Pedro Martinez, too, gets a nod as having been the only man from the wrestling world in the Commission’s surviving records to have supported licensing women.
News outlets that picked up the story of Niccoli’s application cited the backing of the “Women’s Lib Movement” (56), but no one named Fabulous Moolah or Lillian Ellison, her legal name. Going by surviving Commission records, she does not appear to have had a role in overturning the ban on women’s wrestling in New York; her name is not mentioned in any hearing or petition regarding the matter.
Moolah was interviewed by a New York Times reporter for a piece on the historic first match and, at the time, did not claim any role in the end of the ban; the author gave sole honors to the Athletic Commission (57). Nevertheless, as the owner of the women’s championship and the booking agent for the largest stable of women wrestlers in the country (58), Moolah had the world of women’s wrestling (and its history) in a stranglehold. By controlling the legend she claimed the title of ground-breaker for herself.
One-hundred years apart, “Battling” Hildredth Whitehouse and Jessie “Bone Saw” Brooks had their respective matches stopped because someone did not believe they had the right to engage in their professions as they pleased. One a boxer, the other a wrestler, both comrades of the canvas in a century-long bout for equality in New York’s squared circles. A fight that saw its unfair share of trials, erasure and ignorance regarding the rights, history and legalization of women in the ring.
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(41) Title VII, Executive Order 11375
(42) Backman, P., Culver, M., Lorello, D. (2007). Unpublished site visit report. Received via January 2016 FOIL request.
(43) McConnell, B. (1998). Unpublished State Athletic Commission records assessment. Received via January 2016 FOIL request.
(45) Email correspondence with Tom Ruller, New York State Archives, April 25, 2016.
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(48) New York (State). Legislature. Assembly. (1972). An act to amend chapter nine hundred twelve of the laws of nineteen hundred twenty […] in relation to sex of participants (A 11008). *
(49) N.Y. OKs ‘mat’ women, says no ‘coed’ matches. (1972, May 09). Chicago Daily Defender. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from ProQuest.
(51) New York (State). (1972). 11008 BEATTY. New York State Legislative Record and Index, 1972. **
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(53) Porterfeld, W.R. (1974, December 5). And, in this corner, the Fabulous Moolah. Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from Google Newspapers.
(54) Pincus, A. (1972, July 2). 19,512 quiet fans see women wrestle for first time in state. New York Times. Retrieved 7/2/2016 from ProQuest.
(55) Ellison, Lillian. (2002). The Fabulous Moolah: First goddess of the squared circle. New York: Reagan Books.
(56) Femme fatale tries mat law. (1970, October 29). Chicago Daily Defender. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from ProQuest.
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(58) Leen, J. (2009). The queen of the ring: sex, muscles, diamonds and the making of an American legend. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
*Oh my god how the hell does one cite microfilmed legislative bills?!?!? GAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!
** I swear, I used to know how to cite stuff properly. Honest!