A Warts and All Look at 150 years of Women’s Wrestling

As GLOW gets a second look on Netflix and a group of new women wrestlers grab attention in the WWE, Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy celebrate the female performers who paved the way.

With Netflix’s fictionalized series on GLOW (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) set to debut in late June, and with women’s wrestling matches being featured more prominently on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) programming, Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy’s broad look at the history of women’s wrestling feels well-timed. GLOW began in 1986 and ran for four seasons.

Wrestling fans look back at it mostly as a novelty intended to capitalize on the pro wrestling media boom of the mid-‘80s. As was pointed out when several of the GLOW performers were honored at this year’s Cauliflower Alley Club reunion for retired performers, though, the women who performed on GLOW were as under-paid, vulnerable to exploitation, and exposed to the possibility of injury as any male wrestler. Indeed, GLOW has an awkward place in pro wrestling history, and that Laprade and Murphy include it in their history of women’s wrestling speaks to their intention to cover the subject as thoroughly as they can.

The book looks at performers from over almost 150 years, from American carnivals and European nightclubs to the Barclays Center. At more than 400 pages and with entries for more than 100 performers, from turn of the 20th century wrestlers Cora Livingston and Clara Mortensen to current female performers both on the independent circuit and with WWE, where wrestlers can perform for tens of thousands of fans, the book feels nothing if not thorough. It largely consists of brief profiles for each performer, ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages.

Longer sections are dedicated to general developments in women’s wrestling; female African-American wrestlers from the ’50s, women’s wrestling in Japan, efforts to make women’s wrestling legal in the United States and England (female wrestling was banned in New York until 1972), and Shimmer, a Chicago-based promotion that was founded in 2005 and built its business on brisk DVD sales of recorded matches. These longer sections, along with the profiles where Laprade and Murphy stretch out and show their knowledge of wrestling history, are the highlights of the book.

Watching a contemporary match with one of the WWE’s main female performers, like Sasha Banks, Bayley, or Charlotte Flair, can be a dazzle of loop-the-loop motion, bodies and hair careening in every which direction. But the roots of women’s wrestling are ugly to look at, and Laprade and Murphy don’t airbrush them. Whether it’s intentional or not, the underlying narrative of the book’s first 200 pages is about women dealing with exploitation and their struggles inside a power structure that gave them little control.

Mildred Burke, who features in much of the book’s early section, became the women’s wrestling champion in 1937. She was featured in Life magazine and is said to have earned over $50k at the height of her fame in the in the late ’40s. Burke was married to her promoter, Billy Wolfe, and Wolfe beat her savagely and would ultimately take much of her fortune. Wolfe ran a school for women wrestlers that Burke biographer Jeff Leen called “a scene where sex could be traded for power… Only Hollywood moguls and their casting couches in sunny Los Angeles, and a few years later Hugh Hefner and his Playboy bunnies in Chicago, could compare to the operation Wolfe had established in, of all places, staunchly Republican southern Ohio.”

Lillian Ellison, who wrestled as the Fabulous Moolah and who controlled women’s wrestling for over 30 years beginning in 1956, was an improvement only by degrees. She is said to have happily exploited her students, drawing unreasonable percentages of the fees they earned. Rumors persist that she turned a blind eye as they were sexually exploited by wrestling promoters. “[Moolah] could have changed things,” wrestling historian Tim Hornbaker tells Laprade and Murphy, “by running an honest syndicate, training and booking women on the level. She could have broken the patterns established by Wolfe. She chose not to. Maybe it was just too deeply ingrained.” Her obituary in the New York Times presented Moolah as an almost lovable imp; Laprade and Murphy make it clear that the truth was much more complicated.

Laprade and Murphy have both written extensively about wrestling and their knowledge shows. They have a clear passion for women’s wrestling and have as much interest in modern wrestling as they do in classic wrestling, so the book will appeal to younger fans. While it’s easy for non-wrestling fans to pooh-pooh these kinds of books, getting down the names and dates and facts related to professional wrestling is important. Through the ’80s, wrestling was performed under an intentional cloud of secrecy that discouraged record keeping of any kind. A book like this simply could not have existed a decade or so ago. Without these books now being produced, the careers of these performers, many of whom spent their careers performing across their respective countries to large crowds, would go unmentioned.

As with many books about wrestling, if you aren’t already steeped in wrestling’s lingo the writing can sometimes be hard to follow. Sisterhood of the Squared Circle covers a huge cut of wrestlers. Keeping up with names, especially when a performer’s ring handle and real name are switched without warning, can be challenging. But Laprade and Murphy have a thorough handle on their subject and have produced a valuable resource for anyone interested in the complicated and still changing world of women’s wrestling.

RATING 6 / 10

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