When someone thinks of professional wrestling, they either mention Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or the Rock. This is not just a man’s sport. Women have participated in professional wrestling for at least half a century. Many do not classify professional wrestling as a sport, but rather sports entertainment. The sole purpose is to amuse an audience. Stunts are performed and the matches are scripted. This should not be confused with Greco-Roman wrestling that is seen in the Olympics. However, professional wrestling takes a level of strength and skill. Women have often been ignored in this sport. There were women wrestlers that were active before modern sports entertainment.
Women did participate in professional wrestling as far back as the 1950s. One wrestler that gain some notoriety was Mildred Burke. Her career lasted form 1935 to 1955 and she was the World’s Women’s Champion. Early on she did have dreams of becoming a wrestler. The interesting aspect to all of this is that she did wrestle men. Her start in wrestling involved her wrestling men at carnivals. This was not unusual at the time considering many circuses, carnivals, and vaudeville houses had strong woman acts. These women would perform feats of strength to entertain audiences and challenge volunteers in the audience as part of their acts.
Mildred Burke (1915-1989) was physically impressive. At only 5’2 and a 138 pounds she packed power into a small body.
Mildred Burke was very muscular and athletic prior to entering wrestling. This strength came in useful against her opponents. It was alleged that she wrestled close to about 200 men and was only defeated once. Even with such great talent, she still faced discrimination. The National Wrestling Alliance did not allow women to participate in their conferences. As the 20th century progressed women did see more opportunities than their predecessors.
Around the 1980s and 1990s American professional wrestling entered a golden age. Due to the efforts of Vince McMahon and talented professional wrestlers sports entertainment became a popular part of television. The WWF ( now WWE) delighted millions of viewers with amazing stunts and outrageous storyllines. One woman who captivated audiences was Joan Laurer, better known as Chyna. Like Mildred Burke, she was not afraid to wrestle men. She did this on a regular basis. Chyna had a size advantage that she utilized in matches. Before entering wrestling she was active in bodybuilding. She mostly competed in the fitness division, while working numerous jobs to support her self. Chyna would have her first wrestling match in 1995 when she was on the independent circuit. Chyna has the distinction of being the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble and King of the Ring events.
Chyna became a very popular wrestler for the WWF ( World Wide Wrestling Federation). She wrestled for the WWF from 1995 to 2001 and had a lasting impact.
Chyna appeared in numerous television shows, films, and other media. This in some way brought a strong and muscular woman paradigm to a mainstream audience and the response was positive. Chyna became so popular that the WWF’s rival for viewership the WCW attempted to imitate their success. Christe Wolf was hired by the WCW to wresle under the name Asya. She also had a background in bodybuilding and strength sports and took these talents to the wrestling ring. Just like Chyna she would wrestle both men and women and perform stunts. One opponent she challenged was Midnight. Her real name was Anne Marie Crooks who was also notable in bodybuilding circles. She was of enormous stature and was very skilled. As much as the WCW tried, it could not fully get the upper hand with it WWF competitor.
The stage name Christe Wolf adopted was clearly trying to be the the WCW version of Chyna. This ratings rivalry between the WWF and WCW did provide great entertainment.
Even though this was fake, with matches be predetermined the hits and stunts were real. This environment allowed women to demonstrate their strength without ostracism. Audiences would watch and attend matches faithfully. Women throwing punches and tossing people around did not generate questions about their femininity. Many women even in the present era are still scrutinized by a narrow gender social construction. Women were given their own wrestling division and championship belt. They were proving that they were just as capable as their male counterparts.
Women did not just wrestle, but appeared as announcers, managers, and valets. Soon the WWF divas became very popular. Eventually the WCW would dissolve and the WWF would change its name to World Wide Wrestling Entertainment. Like any form of entertainment, it is subject to criticism. Parents complained that wrestling was to violent for their children. Fans complained that by the mid-2000s wrestling storylines became redundant and repetitive. Another argument is that current divas really do not have wrestling talent at all. The criticism is that the WWE is hiring models to just be “eye-candy” for the male audience. Even with these challenges there are still talented women willing to pursue professional wrestling. The golden age has pasted, but professional wrestling still has high ratings on television.