Women’s wrestling has certainly grown and prospered in recent years. All the talk of the Women’s Revolution is very real, as we are now seeing more and more women in high profile matches and even main eventing big shows. Before we can talk about the current crop of female talents, we must first look back into history to find the true trailblazers of women’s wrestling. This is wrestling history….this is wrestling HERstory.
As much as women contributed to the history of professional wrestling throughout the years, there was a time where the sport of pro wrestling banned women from participating. It was all due to the growing amount of riots that were breaking out during matches….primarily by male wrestlers and spectators. Lawmakers made the decision that women wrestlers were in greater danger if a riot were to break out.
Of all the states in the country, only a handful believed that women were at greater risk to be hurt or maimed by rioters and in pro wrestling altogether. States like California, Illinois, Ohio and New York all banned women’s professional wrestling for years. The most stubborn state being the one with the largest market…New York. While male wrestlers were reaping the rewards of competing on the biggest stage, women were completely blocked from making the same kind of financial means in the state.
The ban in New York remained in place for years, practically uncontested…that is until a wrestler named Ethel Whitehead applied for and was denied a wrestler’s license in the state in 1964. Whitehead decided to fight her denial and took the New York State Athletic Commission to court. In 1965, Ethel Whitehead argued that denying her a wrestler’s license based on her sex was a civil rights violation. The decision of the court sided with the New York State Athletic Commission citing that the Commission had the sole right to deny anyone a wrestler’s license that they deemed unfit to compete in such a physical manner.
Whitehead was determined to get that license and she appealed the courts ruling and took her case to New York’s State Supreme Court. Unfortunately not one person was willing to stand up and defend Whitehead and once again her appeal was denied. A former wrestler and promoter named Pedro Martinez decided to fight for women’s rights to wrestle and took his plea not only to the Commission, but to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Martinez argued that women could wrestle and handle the pressures of the business and by New York denying females from wrestling, it caused his promotion based in New York state to suffer financially.
Next in line was a Cuban wrestler named Silvia Calzadilla. She applied for a wrestler’s license in New York in 1967 and was subsequently denied. Calzadilla took the commission to court and was prepared with statements from wrestlers, police and commissions from other states where women’s wrestling was legal stating that women were in no more danger than their male counterparts. She argued that being prevented from wrestling in New York due to her sex was a clear violation of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment states… No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Despite her arguments, Calzadilla was denied the right to wrestle in New York by the courts.
In 1970, yet another female wrestler took New York to court to get her wrestler’s license. Her name was Betty Niccoli and she was a successful wrestler from the Midwest portion of the country. Niccoli tried something a bit different from the others who tried and failed to get women’s wrestling to New York…she involved the media. Betty Niccoli wanted to make the entire case against the New York Athletic Commission into a media circus and that is exactly what she got. With the growing amount of press surrounding the women’s rights movement…the story was picked up nationally.
Despite the growing pressures from other states for New York to get with the times…Niccoli’s bid for a New York wrestler’s license was also denied. The media attention the case received, got some politicians in New York to take notice. One in particular was Vander L Beatty who was a member of the New York State Assembly representing Brooklyn, New York. He eventually became an advocate for women to have the right to wrestle in New York State.
The decision by the New York State Athletic Commission eventually changed their rules and allowed female wrestlers to compete in the state. In June of 1972, the rules were officially changed and women were allowed to compete in New York. That July, Fabulous Moolah and Vicki Williams were the first women to wrestle a match at the famed Madison Square Garden. A battle that lasted for years was finally won thanks in large part to female wrestlers Ethel Whitehead, Silvia Calzadilla, Betty Niccoli and help from promoter Pedro Martinez.