According to the executives in World Wrestling Entertainment, women within the sports entertainment industry have finally started getting their due. More than that, they’re claiming that a full-on women’s wrestling revolution has begun, and it's indeed true the female gender is receiving more spotlight inside the squared circle these days than ever before. With that said, to pretend women’s wrestling went from almost nothing to a global sensation almost overnight would be one of Vince McMahon’s many exaggerations of the truth, to say the least.
The reality is, women have been involved with pro wrestling pretty much since the day it was invented. Sports entertainment found its first genuine female superstar way back in the 1930s when Mildred Burke successfully defeated hundreds of men while only suffering a single loss. Even before that, the first World Championship in wrestling was actually female exclusive and was held by Josephine Blatt, predating the male counterpart by as much as a full decade. If women’s wrestling was once so prominent, and yet today needs to be revolutionized anew, that must mean something happened in the past century causing the genre to die off.
Believe it or not, the McMahon family alone are hardly responsible for this, as female wrestlers had trouble succeeding in or out of the WWE Universe for many years until quite recently. For every incredible female wrestler to come along and stand as an equal to her male coworkers, there has also been a woman so terrible at wrestling or vicious in her politics, she managed to destroy what all those other ladies had strived toward. Luckily, in the present era, it seems like the cream is rising to the top, but history has proven this trend may not last if the wrong wrestler gets too much power. Keep reading to learn about 8 women who advanced pro wrestling for their gender and 7 who set it back.
15 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Chyna
More than simply advancing the idea of women’s wrestling, Chyna was amongst the first females of the modern era to suggest separating the women from the men was an unnecessary move, to begin with. Quite frankly, the world at large probably wouldn’t accept it if men and women squared off on Raw each and every week, yet exceptions could certainly be made for any female packing Chyna’s considerable punch. Looking the way she did, a mixture of pure muscle and surgically exaggerated feminine features where appropriate, it was wholly believable a woman like Chyna could defeat men, or possibly even win the Royal Rumble, which she was the first female to enter, earning massive applause. Ironically, the one area Chyna might have hurt her gender came when she won the WWE Women’s Championship and left the company rather than lose it fairly. Ending with a whimper rather than a bang hardly takes away her accomplishments, though.
14 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: Eva Marie
Truth be told, Eva Marie receives a pretty unreasonable amount of hatred from the WWE Universe in respect to her relatively low standing in the company. Having only been around a couple years, Marie has barely had a chance to prove herself as a wrestler or performer, and yet, fans are already booing the hell out of her, and websites like this one claim she’s setting back her gender. How could such a seemingly minor character be responsible for this much attention? Surprisingly, the problem started before Eva was even hired, as she was discovered by WWE in a way that meant fans may never be able to take her seriously. While most other women these days are putting in hard work to get noticed in the ring, Marie was hired out of a modeling catalog, and for that matter, was entirely uninterested in sports entertainment until she got the call. Practices like this need to end for women to get taken seriously.
13 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Charlotte Flair
The introduction to this list made a sweeping generalization about modern women’s wrestling, arguing that for the most part, female WWE superstars today belong in the good half of things. It would take too long to list them all individually, so Charlotte Flair was selected as a representative of NXT’s Four Horsewomen and their many other contemporaries putting on the best women’s matches in company history. In addition to Flair, WWE has Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Asuka, Nikki Storm, Alexa Bliss, and plenty of others. Other currently MIA names like AJ Lee and Paige also deserve mention for helping set things back in the right direction some two or three years ago. Charlotte has arguably been the best of all, though, and the fact that her father happens to be two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair might be why Vince McMahon was willing to take her seriously, so her influence cannot be understated.
12 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: Sable
Sheer popularity alone doesn’t necessarily mean something has a positive effect on society, and no time period in wrestling made this clear quite like the Attitude Era. Almost without rival, Sable was the highest profile female in WWE pretty much the entire time she worked for the company. This was true even before she became the first woman with a WWE contract to pose for Playboy, and that particular move obviously just made her more popular with the male audience. Despite her massive popularity, Sable absolutely couldn't wrestle, and that isn’t a matter of opinion -- she genuinely had almost no training in the sport, and her contract explicitly stated she couldn’t take bumps. Typically, if a person can’t wrestle, they don’t win titles, but Sable was too popular not to win the Women’s Championship, even if her doing so was merely another death knell for the belt considering she could never defend it properly.
11 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Madusa
Before the women’s wrestling revolution gradually built into an entire army of hungry female grapplers, Madusa made it her mission to pretty much accomplish the same goal of advancing the sport for her gender all by herself. Of course, she couldn’t literally do the job solo, and indeed, many of the women Madusa met in Japan were invaluable in training her for the task. Unfortunately, when she returned to her native USA, the pickings were, as they say, slim. Without any viable opponents, Madusa was left pretty much alone in both WCW and WWE. Each company did their best to build a division around her to no avail, but at least in WWE, there were enough decent matches against Bull Nakano. It was obvious Madusa, or Alundra Blayze as she was then known, nonetheless did everything she could to make women’s wrestling a viable medium in America.
10 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: Stephanie McMahon
In contrast to every piece of history mentioned throughout this list, we’re pretty sure the McMahon’s answer about when the women’s wrestling revolution began is the same as it was prior to us writing it (like they’d even read it). Ask Stephanie, specifically, and there’s a solid chance she’ll say the biggest moment for women in modern WWE history came when she introduced Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Bayley, followed by blatantly declaring the revolution had begun. What actually went down was McMahon undercutting those women’s successes and taking all the credit for herself. From then on, whenever she appeared with her female employees, every effort was made to make Stephanie look bigger, stronger, and in more control than her underlings, regardless of the fact that she no longer gets in the ring and actually wrestles. Working out of the family handbook, Stephanie is ruining a good thing by demanding she be the focus.
9 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Trish Stratus
In many respects, the career trajectory of Trish Stratus serves as a microcosm for how WWE has treated women’s wrestling in general. At first, Stratus managed T&A and was almost entirely silent and forgettable, aside from the fact she was strikingly gorgeous and thus impossible to ignore. Before long, Stratus started talking, instantly proving she might be a better actor than anyone expected at first glance. The next step was getting in the ring and establishing the same was true of her talents as a wrestler. No more than two years after she debuted, Stratus was WWE Women’s Champion and improving at a rapid rate, having gone from eye candy to one of the most well-rounded female wrestlers in history. There were six more Women’s Championship reigns after that, followed by a WWE Hall of Fame induction, all cementing Stratus as the true Godmother of the (current) Women’s Revolution.
8 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: Naomi
For all the great female wrestlers currently populating the WWE roster, it has to be said that the Women’s Revolution hasn’t exactly gone perfectly. A case in point is the current SmackDown Women’s Champion, Naomi, who feels more like an expat from the much-maligned Divas era than someone ready to change the business for her gender. In all fairness, Naomi has clearly been doing her best with what she’s given, and there has been a marked improvement over her dancing days as a Funkadactyl. On the downside, just about every single one of Naomi’s coworkers has more to offer in the ring or on the microphone than she has, and making her the face of the division feels like a big step backward. That the McMahon family apparently still can’t see the difference between a truly great female wrestler and a mediocre one doesn’t speak well for how long the revolution could last.
7 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Lita
As this list has repeatedly contended, women’s wrestling has gone through ups and downs over its long history, and yet, some things pretty much stay the same no matter what. From the very beginning, there were pretty much three kinds of female wrestlers: monstrous She-Hulks, bleach blonde beauty queens, and generic nobodies who lost to those first two categories. Simply by having red hair and dressing with an alternative style, Lita already stood out as different, and that she had the move set to actually earn a push meant things would have to change once and for all. While it’s a bit of a negative that Lita’s career was largely defined by the men she dated -- her relationships with Matt Hardy and Edge made her a huge solo star in her own right in an era where women were barely promised five minutes of airtime -- Lita was a big enough star to main event Raw on numerous occasions.
6 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: The Glamour Girls
Back in the 1980s, the state of women’s wrestling in WWE was so dire even the concerted efforts of two extremely talented female superstars weren’t able to fix things. Those two equally skilled ringers from Japan called The Jumping Bomb Angels were brought in to help The Glamour Girls make women’s tag team mainstream in America somehow didn’t help matters in the slightest. While Judy Martin or Leilani Kai both could've been decent stars in the solo division, for whatever reason, it was combining their forces that made them borderline historic. Every televised match for the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championships was years ahead of its time, with Martin and Kai casually using moves their male contemporaries could never have pulled off. Unfortunately, The Fabulous Moolah trained both women, meaning she also controlled their contracts, leading to The Glamour Girls' downfall when Moolah feared they could eclipse her.
5 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: Mae Young
Writing a list like this is often asking for controversy, and there are surely WWE diehard fans out there already lighting the pitchforks at the idea Mae Young set women’s wrestling back. On the other hand, there are also millions of people who watched her “give birth to a hand” on live television. Yes, Young accomplished a great deal inside the ring throughout her impressive five-decade career, some of which may have indeed advanced grappling in one way or another. However, she threw it all away in an instant with a joke few humans have yet to fully understand. Not only did a legendary female wrestler allegedly giving birth to a hand set women’s wrestling back decades, it might have also been so tasteless as to set women’s rights in general back to the Stone Age. To wrap things up with a bad Jerry Lawler joke, at least Young was familiar with the scenery.
4 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: The Fabulous Moolah
Depending on how much one enjoys drinking WWE’s Kool-Aid, seeing The Fabulous Moolah being named as someone who not only set back wrestling for women, but in fact, also nearly destroyed the genre forever, might come as a bit of a shock. The company line on Vince McMahon’s lifelong friend is that she reigned as Women’s Champion for almost three decades, representing the peak of her gender’s in-ring abilities along the way. On paper, that’s almost true (despite an exaggeration of her technical skills), but it leaves out the horrible details of Moolah the politician, not to mention Moolah the talent agent nor Moolah the trainer. These backstage versions of The Fabulous One were vicious and vindictive, ensuring she stayed on top for three decades by refusing to let her students become stars on their own. Seeing women’s wrestling nearly make a comeback in the late ‘90s, Moolah returned to WWE and killed it again by winning the Women’s Championship in her late 70s, once again making the idea of her gender getting inside a ring a complete and total joke.
3 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Wendi Richter
Above all else, Wendi Richter momentarily saved women’s wrestling in America by finally ending The Fabulous Moolah’s 27-year reign with the WWE Women’s Championship. At the time, Moolah was in her early 60s and refused to let go of the spotlight, damn near killing women’s wrestling forever in the process as this list just detailed. Absolutely anyone who finally convinced Moolah to give it up would be a blessing, and that Richter was charismatic and wildly popular was only a bonus. So beloved was Wendi that some polls argued she was the second most famous wrestler in WWE at the time, behind only Hulk Hogan. In all honesty, Richter wasn’t that much better in the ring than her predecessor, but she was at least youthful and willing to try things senior citizens were physically incapable of doing. Unfortunately, seniors remained great at being friends with the McMahon family, and so Moolah was able to edge Richter out of the business before she could do much good.
2 SET WOMEN’S WRESTLING BACK: The Bella Twins
With two reality shows based on their lives so far, watched by far more than just the regular WWE audience, it could be argued Nikki and Brie Bella are the two highest-profile female wrestlers in the world today. Unfortunately, that’s where the problem begins, as neither of the two are particularly skilled inside the ring. Granted, neither of them are utterly hopeless, and the unique nature of twins made it a given Vince McMahon would at least give them a chance. However, basing so much media around two women who most true wrestling fans, as opposed to Bella/reality TV fans, accept aren’t as talented as the majority of their coworkers kind of presents the wrong idea about the industry in general. For many viewers, the Bellas' mediocre matches are the only women’s matches they’ll ever see, and compared to a Charlotte Flair or Sasha Banks match, that’s downright regressive.
1 ADVANCED WOMEN’S WRESTLING: Mildred Burke
Although it was Josephine Blatt who first earned recognition as the Women’s World Champion, it wasn't until Mildred Burke came along that men really started paying attention to the new niche sport. After spending a few years wrestling men, Burke and her husband, Billy Wolfe, took the idea of women’s wrestling global, touring the world and defending her title wherever she went. Built like a brick house and capable of snapping off body slams with ease, Burke dominated the industry for two decades. Unlike her successor, The Fabulous Moolah, she didn’t destroy any of her rivals' careers in the process. On the contrary, Burke’s own career was ruined when her marriage with Wolfe fell apart, and he vindictively claimed control over her contract and women’s wrestling in general. Burke split apart from her ex to form her own all-female promotion, but Wolfe combined with Moolah pretty much did away with all the progress Burke had made.