Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy (ECW Press, 2017)
History is political. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re doing Ancient Egypt in primary school, but it’s true. The body of sources available to us have survived the physical processes of decay as well as thousands of individual decisions – what do we record? What do we choose to ignore? Who gets to do the recording and who are they doing it for? Which voices, experiences and events are worth remembering and passing on? And if you’re one of the people who has access to these sources (and how did you get it?), how and why do you present them to an audience?
There are plenty of histories of individual sports and art forms. Within these, there’s a small pool of histories of professional wrestling. It isn’t a huge field, probably because wrestling is still somewhat of a curio that doesn’t attract a mass audience. It is, however, like so many fields of historical study, overwhelmingly male in both its authorship and its focus. Enter Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, which is written by two men but seeks to redress the balance.
Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy have done a huge amount of research. Their work is essentially an encyclopaedia of women who have climbed through the ropes, relatively light on commentary, though this is present at the start of broadly defined sections which show how one ‘era’ evolves into the next. You can’t begin to tell the story of women’s wrestling without knowing how Mildred Burke and Billy Wolfe’s tempestuous marriage shaped the industry, for example, or trace the art form to its origins without an understanding of carnival sideshows.
All of this is absolutely vital, and Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is probably the most important guide to the early years of women’s wrestling that we have. In particular, it is heartening to see time and space given to the women of colour who were brought in to work for Wolfe in the 1960s, although sad to see them brought together into one short section.
Names such as Clara Mortensen and Cora Livingstone, and even Grace Hemdinger in the 1870s, are being resurrected by these authors, and treated with the same level of respect for their accomplishments as any man in any pro wrestling history. That in itself is important, whether the depth of analysis is there or not. To learn about Babs Wingo and Judy Grable alongside WWE-beloved talents like Mae Young feels significant. As a woman who loves women’s wrestling, I’m grateful this volume exists.
That said, it isn’t without flaws. It’s heavily weighted towards US promotions. A 400-page book covers Japanese wrestling in 50 pages; Mexico and Australia get far less; for a British reader, reducing the UK to a three-page entry for Sweet Saraya Knight felt particularly egregious. There’s a limit to what any individual book can cover, and hopefully this leaves the door open for others to pick up where the authors leave off.
In addition, once it enters the period you remember, you may find yourself fact-checking. AJ Lee’s entry says her final match was at Wrestlemania 32. It wasn’t; she performed on Raw the following night to a chorus of CM Punk chants. That was the night when nearly every woman in the ring was subject to obscene chanting about who they were dating. Why miss that out? At best under-researched and at worst misleading, it’s enough to make you question some of the ‘facts’ elsewhere in the book.
It hints at a broader problem with the sections focusing on more recent events: there’s the occasional admittance that crowds didn’t really get behind the women’s division until the #GiveDivasAChance trend, but it feels like Laprade and Murphy look at the past three or four years through rose-tinted glasses. Even in summer 2016, as this book was being finalised, everybody knew there was a long way still to go. Everybody, it seems, except for the authors.
Ultimately it boils down to being too nice to WWE and the versions of events that it makes for itself. Although the book goes a long way towards breaking down the narrative WWE is trying to sell its audience – the real wresters were Moolah, Mae Young, Sherri, Alundra Blayze, Trish, Lita, and nobody else until Paige – it doesn’t really engage with some of the genuine problems that have held back the company’s presentation and treatment of women. It’s easy to talk about the move from hiring models to actual wrestlers, but harder to handle topics that the Fed isn’t already selling to anyone willing to buy.
This problem is visible from the moment the authors approach the Fabulous Moolah, who is still beloved of the Fed but widely believed to have been an even worse person than she was a wrestler. Laprade and Murphy accept that her legacy is “complicated”, and rightly assert that she is an important figure whether the allegations against her were true or not.
The dark heart of the Moolah scandal is that if it’s true, everybody knew about it. I would have appreciated some acknowledgment of the problems this causes, especially for the McMahons and Moolah’s best friend, Mae Young. But then, I’m asking for more than anybody in the industry is willing to give, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect from a book devoted to positive portrayals of women wrestlers.
It makes sense that WWE gets off comparatively lightly. The company is still the biggest player in the game, with the greatest media exposure, contacts and resources. It controls access to many of the women mentioned in the book, including Natalya, who writes its heartfelt foreword. It’s perfectly possible this book would have floundered, or at least taken a very different form, if WWE took a disliking to it.
Maybe in a few years, someone will write a sequel that needs the Fed less and gives a more balanced impression of the #DivasRevolution. But at its strongest, when dealing with the women who never knew or needed a McMahon, Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is an essential entry in the historiography of women’s wrestling, breathing new life into voices that could all too easily have been lost.