No one called it a Divas Revolution when Mildred Burke and June Byers collided for the women's championship in the main event of a four-bout card at Florida's Gable Armory in 1951. But the surging popularity of women's wrestling of that time is much like what the WWE has tried to create today.
Burke and Byers were key figures in their own revolution. They blazed trails while grappling on wrestling mats across the country, fighting a succession of talented women in the ring while also fighting against the perception that they didn't belong in the industry.
Both a pin-up and a powerhouse, Burke had dominated what was known then as "lady wrestling" in the 1940s and spent much of the 1930s wrestling men in carnivals. She held tight to the National Wrestling Alliance's World Women's Championship for nearly 20 years straight, per Wrestling-Titles.com.
She was equally famous for her toughness as her well built physique. Elliott Almond wrote of Burke in the Los Angeles Times, "the Los Angeles Police Department once displayed her poster in its offices to shame the officers to stay in shape."
Byers, her opponent that night in 1951 and the woman who eventually replace her as world champ a few years later, furthered what Burke had already begun to build.
Her top-notch technical skills helped legitimize women's wrestling. Her charisma and star power brought added attention to what was still considered a novelty of the industry.
For the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, Norman Roy wrote of Byers, "She was responsible for opening Milwaukee, Indianapolis and St. Louis for women to wrestle, proving to the commissioners that women wrestlers were ladies and athletes—not a lewd carnival sideshow."
The combination of striking looks and hard-hitting strikes that both women delivered is essentially the marriage that the WWE is trying to create with its women's division today. After so many years of the WWE focusing far more on women's sex appeal rather than skill, fans have since demanded women's wrestling take the place of Divas simply providing eye candy.
The WWE has ample inspiration to do just that. It can flash back 60 years to see what a thriving women's wrestling scene looks like.
Byers and Burke main evented shows on a regular basis. In 1950 in Miami, Burke headlined against Dot Dotson. Three years later, Burke faced WWE Hall of Famer Mae Young in the main event in St. Petersburg, Florida. Byers headlined against Ruth Boatcallie, Cathey Branch and a host of others.
There was no need to dress up their place on the card with talk of a revolution, either. The St. Petersburg Times' preview for the 1951 Byers vs. Burke battle in Florida focused more on the stakes than the gender of champion and challenger.
It noted, "Miss Byers will be out to win the championship Miss Burke won 13 years ago and never relinquished."
And when the women clashed in the ring in the '50s, their bouts weren't the truncated, blink-of-an-eye affairs that too often impede WWE's women's division of late. Take Byers' battle with Violet Vann in the Chicago International Amphitheatre, for example:
The foes ground each other into the mat, used rough-and-tumble offense to impress the crowd and had plenty of time to do it.
This is the kind of match that happened often and sat at the top of the card. A surplus of talent allowed that to happen. That so many compelling performers occupied the women's wrestling ranks is what inspired promoters to showcase them.
In addition to Burke and Byers, the PWHF boasts six women wrestlers who competed during the '50s boom:
- Penny Banner
- Mae Young
- Fabulous Moolah
- Judy Grable
- Cora Combs
- Ida Mae Martinez
Moolah is a name WWE fans most recognize. She stretched her career into the '80s as an active wrestler and past the Attitude Era as a comedy act. In the '50s, though, Moolah began her dominance as champion.
She fought off 12 other women to claim the vacant Women's World Championship, a title she would hold for years on end en route to a Hall of Fame career.
Combs moved from singing country music to bringing opponents down with headlock takedowns. She was well traveled during her career, wrestling everywhere from Nigeria to Cuba.
As F4WOnline noted after her recent death, "She headlined all over the world during the end of the Wolfe's stable heyday, and main evented with a significant push in Tennessee."
Young's career began well before the '50s. When World War II erupted, she took advantage of the space left on the wrestling stage voided by the men who left to fight. She helped introduce the audience to the idea of women in the ring.
Banner was a pioneer herself. Her PWHF profile states she was "the first girl to wrestle tag matches in three cites: St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago. The first girl ever to wrestle in Indianapolis and Milwaukee, and the first girl to wrestle a black girl in Texas."
This kind of spearheading of change was everywhere. Combs, Banner, Young and others dropkicked down doors that were previously closed to females.
It feels odd, then, that some six decades later, a narrative of women having to prove that they belong in the ring is popping up. The WWE often frames the success of Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams as a new phenomenon of women athletes flourishing.
Women succeeding in wrestling, though, is clearly nothing new. These wrestlers hooked the crowd and filled the seats.
Ella Waldek used to collide in blonde-against-blonde battles with Nell Stewart. Their rivalry was indicative of this era in that it created buzz aplenty.
Waldek recalled these matches, per Slam! Sports: "Every time I ever worked with her, we always had the people standing. After we had a match, I can't remember ever looking at a sports section, anyway, that wasn't covered with pictures of her and I."
A 1950 headline from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune read, "Record crowd sees Burke keep title." A year prior, a large crowd piled into the arena to see Dot Dotson and Ellen Olson lock horns. The Kentucky New Era speculated, "No doubt the appearance of the lady grapplers boosted the the number of fans."
Byers' popularity led to her appearing on game shows such as What's My Line?
Burke raked in money. She "earned $50,000 in 1938—while the average major league baseball player made $6,000," as Keith Elliot Greenberg noted in his book, Pro Wrestling: From Carnivals to Cable TV.
But even though crowds made it clear they enjoyed and pined for quality women's wrestling, and even though promoters often had a stockpile of excellent female wrestlers to showcase, Byers, Burke and company had more than their fair share of obstacles.
Some markets banned women's wrestling for decades. Promoters often demeaned these athletes.
Women had to push back against stereotypes each night. In an interview with Slam! Sports, Jeff Leen, author of The Queen of the Ring, said Burke's era was "an age when women were supposed to stay in the background and not break a sweat."
They also had to deal with sexism from those supposedly in their corner. Billy Wolfe, the man who trained and managed several big stars of the period, reportedly tried to force Moolah to sleep with him. This was part of a bigger issue with him. As David Shoemaker put it in The Squared Circle, "Wolfe was a truly legendary chauvinist."
Today, Paige, Sasha Banks, Charlotte and the promising crop of female talent don't have those same obstacles ahead of them. Instead, a company not trusting in their ability remains the blockade in their way.
The WWE has talked a great deal about a revolution that it hasn't quite acted on. The company's women aren't afforded the opportunity to main event as the wrestlers from the '50s did. The women are shortchanged when it comes to ring time and storyline development.
In order to make progress, WWE is going to have to borrow from the past and relive the '50s all over again.