GLOW, the new series from Netflix, explores in entertaining fashion a fascinating chapter in the history of women and pop culture. But while the real-life, glittery, campy Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling certainly popularized the idea of women in the ring, they weren’t the first.
The history of women’s wrestling predates the 1980s by decades; in fact, what’s been dubbed its “Golden Age” was—somewhat incongruously—the conformist late ’40s and 1950s. According to the Los Angeles Times, that era informs the TV show GLOW as well—in doing their research, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch read up on characters like postwar pioneer Mildred Burke, who helped carve out a women’s wrestling circuit. While this tradition was largely focused on local live events rather than national mass media—it took cable to really mainstream wrestling generally and women’s wrestling specifically—multiple generations of female wrestlers persisted despite skeptical male colleagues, tough working conditions and the framing that what they were doing was a carnivalesque novelty act.
Diving deeper is Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, a recent release that landed on my desk with very fortuitous timing. An encyclopedic chronicle of the women who’ve been involved in the business, it traces the craft’s history through personalities like Mildred Burke and “the Fabulous Moolah.” And so I talked to one of the book’s co-authors, Dan Murphy, about what came before the 1980s and GLOW, as well as the business today. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jezebel: I’m curious to get a little more historical context on women’s wrestling. I think people are watching the TV show and they don’t necessarily know that there’s this earlier era. So I’ll just jump right in—when did women actually begin wrestling?
Dan Murphy: The New York Post just did an article the other day about G.L.O.W and mentioned that they were the true pioneers of women’s wrestling. And, you know, it’s not true—there was 80 or 90 years worth of women’s wrestling before the 1980s.
Really, pro wrestling in itself began on the carnival circuit. You’d have amateur wrestlers and carnies and everything else. They would do little contests where they’d have a traveling carnival, who could stay in the ring with the champion for the longest bit of time. And some of the carnivals began having women in that role. Either strongwomen, or they would work the audience. There’d be a mark in the audience that would be the woman’s husband who’d come and in lose to the woman, and people would place bets. It was spectacle, it was entertainment. People thought it was real for the most part, and then the carnival would move out of town. That happened through out the 1890s and early 1900s.
But it wasn’t until Billy Wolfe began to build up a stable of women wrestlers that would challenge Mildred Burke, who was his wife at the time, in the 1930s up until the 1950s—the stable of women wrestlers he built up became really kind of his own personal harem through the years, and there’s a lot of crazy details and back-biting and politics going on with them—but together they captured the attention of the country. Mildred Burke was very attractive and very muscular for the era. She was a very outgoing wrestler, a very outgoing female athlete, in an era long before there were any female athletes. She and Billy Wolfe would just drape themselves with diamonds and mink coats and really were the celebrity “it” couple in pro wrestling. It was an attraction. People just wanted to see her and it built women’s pro wrestling up around her.
That’s what you would think of as the golden age of women’s wrestling, right, with Mildred Burke and Billy Wolfe?
That would definitely be it. It was post World War II, and you had the nation looking for some type of entertainment, and it was just this very odd thing at the time. It was empowering to some women, it was titillating to some men—whatever the case may be, it was something that really caught the public’s attention. And it became a very big movement. A lot of other women were inspired to get into it, because here’s Mildred Burke traveling the world, going to Japan, and you had other women who, what can you do after you’re 18 or 19 other than get married and have kids and stay home? It just presented a very exciting new world look that a lot of people didn’t have up until that point.
So what’s the size of this enterprise? What kind of venues were they booked into? What are the crowds like? You said it started out in that carnival circuit—what do these matches look like in this era?
Well, it varied. They were not on the same shows and the same events as the men, because a lot of the men thought that it would ruin the credibility of pro wrestling to have women doing it. It took Billy Wolfe working with some of the different promoters and saying, listen, this is hot, this is big, we want to have women’s matches on shows with the National Wrestlers Alliance, which was then the premiere group of wrestling promoters throughout the country. Lou Thesz, the greatest NWA champion of that era, would refuse to be on a show if he walked into a building and saw that there was a women’s match on the show, because he thought it hurt the credibility of the title, it hurt the credibility of the promotion. But eventually, the promoters saw that the women brought fans in. They captured the public interest. And eventually, Lou Thesz and the other traditionalists lost out and women were on the same shows in the same arenas with the men.
In the TV show, one of the characters has a dad who’s a legendary wrestler, and he tells her that it’s a freak show, basically. To what extent were they considered a novelty or still had that carnival feel?
That was very accurate in GLOW. The series got a lot of things right, actually. The women wrestlers were, like they said, treated like the midgets, in that they were a good little novelty match. It was kind of a rest break or a bathroom break, a popcorn break, whatever you want to have. Just something for everyone in the show. You had your normal wrestlers who had their own territory—they would work a certain circuit, you know, Monday night this town, Tuesday night here. They thought they would burn out the crowds if they showed the women too much, so they would book them for a few weeks in an area, then they had to go down to another area and they had to rotate. Billy Wolfe and Mildred Burke would coordinate that and then later the Fabulous Moolah would take over that side of the business. But they would just bring the women in for a short period of time as a little novelty and attraction. Because they didn’t think that they would have staying power. They thought a match or two here and there is fun, but you can’t build around women wrestlers. At least that was the thought.
To what extent are they kind of showing up in the national media consciousness? In the ’50s and onward, what’s their relationship to pop culture, as opposed to being local traveling acts?
Well, in the ’50s it was a lot of sex appeal. But especially Mildred Burke, who’s a very hard working athlete, she thought of herself as an athlete more than an entertainer, and she wanted to make sure that the women she was in the ring with made everything look good too. She insisted on you have to be in shape, you have to know what you’re doing, you can’t just be an untrained pretty person out in the ring. They insisted that the fans might be interested in the idea of seeing a women’s match, but they’ll really be won over if the women can actually outperform the men. So that’s what they tried to do. They tried a lot of times to do a lot of moves that were flashier and bigger than the men were doing, more acrobatic moves. Because basically they were trying to impress every time they went out, and the guys were just doing another show on the circuit.
In the ’50s, it was still a novelty. In the ’60s and so forth, there’s a bit of a downslide. The wrestler, trainer and promoter Fabulous Moolah took over and Moolah, basically she would only book women that she trained and she would charge them a stipend and a booking fee for all of her matches and a lot of times she would have them move onto her compound in South Carolina and charge them rent. So these women who were working for Moolah in the ’60s, ’70s, into the early ’80s, might have only been bringing home 40 to 50 percent of what they earned because Moolah was taking everything off the top. But they had no other alternatives—that was the only game in town.
Things changed a little bit in the 1980s. If you remember the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection with MTV, starting out, the first thing that MTV really focused on was a women’s match. It was Fabulous Moolah, who was by this point in her late 50s, against Wendi Richter. And Wendi Richter was managed by Cyndi Lauper, who’d just had “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and was a very big name on MTV. So they aired a women’s match and it got huge ratings, and that lead to the first Wrestlemania.
So, basically the very first Wrestlemania was started by the Fabulous Moolah/Wendi Richter. That was a definite high point for women’s wrestling. Less than a year later, Wendi Richter was not getting paid the royalties she thought she deserved and left the WWF and women’s wrestling fell into a complete lull in the mainstream, which is where GLOW jumped in.
GLOW at the time was really considered to be more of a parody of pro wrestling. It was like Benny Hill or Hee Haw. It was kind of silly, intentionally cheesy and campy. In looking back, the new series kind of gives it a little more athleticism and wrestling than they utilized at the time. But it was a success—it was definitely something that got mainstream attention and inspired a lot of women who went on to become pro wrestlers who were just little kids at that time.
I was going to ask you where G.L.O.W. fits into this longer history of women’s wrestling, because from the book, it seems like there’s this tradition and G.L.O.W. as almost this joke, like, “Would it be funny if there was Wrestlemania but with women?” So it doesn’t connect to that earlier history. But then it ends up inspiring today’s generation of women wrestlers to some extent.
Yeah, a lot of the traditional wrestlers at the time when GLOW came out thought it was a complete joke. In fact one woman wrestler I talked to in the book, she had a GLOW Girl that came up to her and said, “We’re not wrestlers, we’re making fun of wrestlers.” Which made this woman—who took it very seriously—furious. But they were just trying to do a TV show. And you had women wrestlers who came up, they’d learned how to fall, they’d put six, eight months in, then they were touring around the country working for these small dollar amounts. The GLOW Girls were all actresses who basically just kind of came in, did some paid things for a couple of weeks and that was it. It’s almost—if you want to compare it to The Monkees versus The Beatles or something like that, with a pre-manufactured band. That’s what GLOW was.
But the thing is, it’s held up fairly well and it was something that no one else had done.
So tell me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like a lot of women’s wrestling was born out of live events, and then G.L.O.W is meant to be on TV. But traditionally it’s a live performance. Right? Or like a live contest?
Absolutely, yeah. One of the things with pro wrestling in general is the wrestlers would come up and they would do what’s called call it in the ring. You go in and the outcome is predetermined, but how you get to the outcome is up to the wrestlers. It’s kind of performance art. They’ll see what’s working with the audience and what story they want to tell and put it together on the fly. GLOW was this thing where everything was choreographed. It was a dance routine. That really rankled some of the people who considered themselves true professional wrestlers.
What’s the place of women in wrestling now? How do women fit into the world of professional wrestling?
There was an era in the 1990s where pro wrestling was very—it tried to push the envelope. And women’s wrestling, it was all really eye candy, they had a lot of what they called bra-and-panties matches, where the entire idea was just to strip your opponent down to her underwear. It was very salacious and it was just trying to get a quick TV rating. What’s happened in the last few years—and this is why I’m very happy that the book came out when it did—is the WWE is the biggest wrestling company in the world, and they are making a real effort to promote women’s wrestling. The idea being that, seeing the success that Ronda Rousey had on pay-per-view with the UFC, the success with, say, Venus and Serena Williams and getting ratings, the women’s soccer team a couple years back, they decided instead of objectifying women, why don’t we really try to get behind them as legitimate athletes. And they had these women who had come up through the independent wrestling roster—promotions like Shimmer in Chicago, that brings out the best young unsigned women for three or four days worth of shows a year—they signed these women and really gave them the ball and said, we’re going to let you go out there and wrestle your hearts out. Last year WWE for the first time ever main-evented one of their pay-per-views with a women’s match. And since then, women have been one of the focal points of their TV. It’s no longer just T&A, to be honest. It’s really designed to let them showcase themselves as athletes and as characters, and a lot of the women have become some of the most popular performers in WWE.
So as opposed to over the history, women were treated as a carnival act, it’s finally gotten to a point—
They went from the carnival act to the main event.
How campy is women’s wrestling traditionally, especially as compared to men’s wrestling? The show gives the impression that it’s like—and not to call it that disrespectfully, but the glitz, the glamour, the performance, and all of those types of qualities that really paint this imaginative world in women’s wrestling in the golden age and up through the ’80s, is it more like that than men’s wrestling? Or are they equally like that?
It kind of varies. It’s a complicated question. It’s probably a more complicated question than you would think it would be. But it’s maybe like pop music. Pop music goes through different changes, especially over a 50 or 60 year span, and in different areas pop music is totally different. There’s a different sound in Seattle than there is in Athens, Georgia, or whatever. In some areas it can be very campy. The original G.L.O.W. TV series, I mean they had the Farmer’s Daughter. It was very intentionally campy. They had little segments where they had to see the G.L.O.W. physicians and they were named Dr. Feel and Dr. Grope. That’s what it was. It was decided to be like a PG, PG-13 kind of silly campy show.
What they’re doing now is there are women who are taking incredible athletic dives off the top of steel cages and doing really phenomenal things. In fact I talked to the stunt coordinator for the G.L.O.W. series a couple of weeks ago, and she said what they tried to do in teaching the actresses and the cast how to wrestle, they wanted to teach them the basics and the things that they would do in G.L.O.W. at the time, but also begin to update it with some of the things the women are doing today, to have that wow factor.
Traditionally I think yeah, you’re right, the women are promoted a little bit campier than the men have been. Even if it’s just because of the audience expectation. You’ll read these articles from the ’40s and ’50s talking about the title fight and then on the undercard it’s like, oh, the housewife was upset when her man was—they’d put in these silly little back stories to try to give it color. So there’s always been a little bit of that element to women’s wrestling.
How you describe modern wrestling, it reminds me less of pure camp than ballet or something, where you’re using your physicality to tell a story.
That’s absolutely true. It’s performance art. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. You can be a great wrestler without ever winning a match. It’s knowing how to tell that story and come up with a story that the audience buys into. That’s really the art of it, and it’s the same for men as it is for women.