Back in the days of its conception, professional wrestling was pretty reserved for men. It was a testosterone-filled performance where the strongest and the most capable of male specimens displayed all of their skills along with some interesting storylines. Today, there are almost as many female pro wrestlers as there are male ones. So, how did this transition happen? Who are the pioneers that led to the evolution of female pro wrestlers? Let’s take a look at some of the first and most important female pro wrestlers in the history of the sport.
We’ll start off with one of the true pioneers of female pro wrestling – Mildred Burke. Her real name was Mildred Bliss, but she probably didn’t want to be seen as a blissful, but fearful opponent. She became interested in wrestling when she was barely 18 and her newlywed husband took her to see one of the shows. Although it didn’t work out with him, she came to love wrestling and decided to make it her career, debuting in 1935. She really took off when Billy Wolfe, a well-known trainer took her on after she body-slammed one of his male wrestlers. As Mildred Burke, she won a number of championships and went into history as one of the first significant female wrestlers of all time.
The Fabulous Moolah
Many credit her as the first modern female pro wrestler, as she was the first woman inducted in the wrestling Hall of Fame. Mary Lillian Ellison, better known by her stage name of the Fabulous Moolah, made her wrestling debut in 1949 and continued to perform until 2004, even earning the title of the oldest champion when she won the title in 1999, at age 76. Born in South Carolina, Ellison lost her mother when she was young and it made quite an impact on her. To help her get through it, her father took her to wrestling matches, where she first saw the amazing Mildred Burke and fell in love with the sport. Again, it was Billy Wolfe who helped her get through and she made her debut in 1949. All the way to the late 90s, she was a prominent figure in wrestling, as an NWA champion and WWF’s longest title holder. She died in 2007, aged 84.
One name that comes hand in hand with the Fabulous Moolah is, certainly, Mae Young. This female wrestling legend started training in a boy’s wrestling club in high school and her brothers helped her with it. One time, when Mildred Burke came into her town to wrestle Gladys Gillem, Mae Young stepped up and challenged her in a match, but the promoters didn’t let her. They did, however, allow her to wrestle Gillem, which she used to show just how good she was. After defeating her in a matter of seconds, Billy Wolfe (of course) took her on and made her a wrestling star. She won a number of championships and, after 1999, appeared often with Fabulous Moolah as a comic relief. Young is perhaps best known to the newer generation as the old lady that flashed the audience at the Miss Royal Rumble 2000 and won the bikini contest.
We’ve mentioned Gladys Gillem as the wrestler whom Mae Young beat so easily when she was starting off, but Gillem’s wrestling path was much more turbulent. She went into the business after seeing Mildred Burke wrestle (which goes to show how Burke was an amazingly influential figure), and went to perform in carnivals. What set Gladys apart from other aspiring wrestlers was the fact that she not only wrestled women and men, but also dangerous animals like bears and alligators. She stopped doing it when Billy Wolfe discovered her and put her to work. Together with Burke and other female wrestlers, she became a significant figure in the sport. She retired early, in 1962, but was certainly one of those who paved the way for other women in wrestling.
Ida Mae Martinez
The final place on our list belongs to Ida Mae Martinez, who was not only one of the pioneers of female wrestling, but also someone who changed the public’s perception of women in this line of work. Many believed that female wrestlers lost all of their femininity, that they were too masculine, but Martinez tried to break that stereotype. Although active only for 9 years (since 1951 to her second marriage in 1960), she still made quite an impact and everyone remembers this voluptuous female wrestler that was Ida Mae. Even after retirement, she continued to promote the sport and female participation in it, ultimately receiving recognition from the wrestling Hall of Fame for her work.
There are a number of other female wrestlers that initiated or were a part of the evolution, but we simply had to draw the line somewhere. It is also necessary to pay tribute to the trainer Billy Wolfe who, in spite of often being sexually promiscuous with his athletes, he still propelled them all to fame and did a lot for the female wrestling.