by David Beard, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, UM Duluth
The history of women in wrestling was given a brief overview in Chris Kelly’s August 10th essay in The Washington Post “Lifestyle Section,” “The Women Wrestlers of WWE Have Created a Movement. Is it Built to Last?”
But the history is partial, only reaching back as far as the memory of Generation X and Millennials. Kelly starts the story “when Hulk Hogan helped turn the WWE (then called World Wrestling Federation) into a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s.” The story runs through the “sexualized sideshow” of the 1990s, into the 2000s and Divas. It culminates in a sea change in 2012, in changes in the WWE NXT system. As Kelly puts it, “the Divas’ Revolution gave way to the Women’s Evolution.”
Given that the story appears as a feature in a newspaper, it’s welcome that the piece addresses history at all — most likely, I think, to use the history as a foil. The older ways of thinking about women in wrestling, as models and divas, has changed, and that change is what’s news.
But the history of women in professional wrestling is older than that. That history could be traced, for example, back to the Mildred Burke [whose career started in the 1930s]. If we prefer a history organized around promotions instead of wrestlers, the World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) is a touchstone of the 1950s.
I’m interested in drawing attention to this The Washington Post article. But at the same time, if you are interested in the topic, pick up works like The Revenge of Hatpin Mary: Women, Professional Wrestling and Fan Culture in the 1950s by Chad Dell — the history goes back further, and there may be some value to seeing the resurgence of women in wrestling as-wrestlers in terms of the work of these pioneers.