Fight Like a Girl

“She just asked me one day…‘would I like to wrestle?’”

In the BBC Radio Manchester ‘Voice in the Crowd’ series, broadcast 8th April 1972, Eric Purnell interviewed an anonymous wrestler about her working life. We learn about her travels in Europe, the fear of getting into the ring for the first time, and the endurance it takes to train to fight at this level. However, somewhat predictably, we also hear her response to several sexist lines of questioning.

Over the last couple of years there has been a greater spotlight on female-led wrestling fandom and participation. With the success of the Netflix show G.L.O.W. dramatising the actual 1980s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling ensemble’s lives and their cable TV show, there is now greater consideration of the barriers women wrestlers have fought to overcome misogyny and sexism and their reasons for fighting in the first place.

The UK currently has its very own DIY feminist wrestling comunity with the podcast Grap Grrrlz and EVE Pro Wrestling, based in Bethnal Green London, described as ‘a grassroots feminist movement which celebrates women of all shapes and sizes [whereby] wrestling quality is an important aspect, alongside a DIY attitude and a desire for change’ (Metro). Within the mainstream, this prevailing trend continues with the feature film Fighting with My Family (2019) starring Florence Pugh, currently on general release. This film is based on the 2012 documentary about WWE wrestler Paige (Saraya-Jade Bevis) and her wrestling family.

Image of audio recording RMAN-1082 digitised at Archives+ as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’s North West HUB.

This 1/4inch magnetic tape recording, held at Archives+ based at Manchester Central Library, was only the second recording out of five thousand to be digitised in-house as part of the three year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The interview is from Voice in the Crowd BBC Radio Manchester series, selected as one of the most at risk audio collections to be digitised at the project hub for the North West of England.

In this BBC radio interview the anonymous wrestler (who later reveals her first name as Helen) describes how at 18 years of age she was still at school and ‘unable to do a handstand’ but after just a fortnight’s training took the place of a wrestler who was ‘too scared’ and had dropped out. Advised that she couldn’t let the public down, Helen stepped into the ring for her first bout:

Extract 01 (First time in ring)
EP: What did it feel like when you stepped into the ring for the first time?
H: Oh!… Every time I get into the ring… I’m frightened to death..every time [extract continues]
Image of Hulme Labour Club, Manchester (m25540)

Helen wrestled in her local area, at venues including Hulme Labour Club and Holdsworth Hall (both in Manchester) and had frequent international appearances across Europe. She speaks of the daily training required and the ultimate necessity with all wrestling training, to learn how to fall:

Extract 10 (Learning wrestling moves)
EP: How do you learn, as a woman, the wrestling game? All the forearm smashes, all the leg locks, this kind of thing.
H: You go to the gymnasium…[extract continues]

FANDOM

Wrestlers often perform as a ‘heel’ (villain) or a ‘face’ (hero), both of which can inspire a passionate following. Here, Helen speaks of wrestling fans that love to hate you:

Image of wrestling fans c.1965 (m07762)
Extract 02 (Ripped up photo, sealed with a kiss)

…or are too scared to talk to you:

Image of wrestling fans c.1965 (m07763)
Extract 03 (Approached on the bus verses the street)

Helen describes how wrestling with her own name wouldn’t attract fans. Keeping with the series title of being an anonymous ‘voice in the crowd’ sadly Helen doesn’t reveal her wrestling identity and instead lists the names of her peers that she admires such as Orchid Emmanuel, Spanish Gypsy and Klondike Kate:

Extract 11 (Choosing your wrestling name)
H: … if I’d seen a bill out… and I’d seen the name Helen… Helen could be anybody…[extract continues]

Image of BBC Manchester Radio announcer’s script to introduce this episode of Voice in the Crowd, 1972.”…This week in our crowd is a rather attractive young woman, who is a wrestler…”

SEXISM

Listening to this 1972 interview today, in the context of the current growth in feminist wrestling is striking. What follows is something of a bingo playlist of questions female sportspeople, musicians, authors, scientists, anyone in the public eye often still faces when lazily questioned within an assumed male norm:

Extract 04 (Not ladylike, rubbish!)
EP: What would you say to women who say it’s not ladylike to be wrestling?
H: Rubbish! [extract continues]
Extract 05 (Kinky vs. women’s liberation)
EP: Isn’t there something rather kinky about two women grappling away in the ring?
EP: Do you think women’ wrestling is really part of the whole process of women’s liberation?
Extract 08 (Eric’s assumption of what boyfriend’s think)
EP: Surely it can’t do much for the romantic side of life for you? A boyfriend may run a mile if he gets to know you’re a wrestler.
H: Boys think it’s fantastic [extract continues]
Extract 09 (My wrestling clothes have been burnt so many times)
EP: If you ever have a daughter of your own would you mind if she went wrestling?
H: If that’s what she wanted [continues]
EP: What do your parents feel?
H: Well they don’t like it [extract continues]

At one stage the interviewer even questions whether she knows all the holds and asks about hair pulling, with Helen simply pointing out that the rules for wrestling are the same no matter your gender:

Extract 07 ( Holds and hair pulling)

Who is Helen?

I enjoyed the forthright and matter-of-fact responses Helen gives. Imagine how tiring it must be, not only to answer to this, but to exist as a professional wrestler within such a persistently sexist culture.

I wonder who Helen was? What was her wrestling name? Where else did she wrestle and who with? Did she have her own gang, as seen in G.L.O.W., who supported one another and met any side eyes she darted? (If you know the answer to any of this please get in touch!)

I’ll leave you with Helen’s explosive answer to the age old question as to whether wrestling is fake and also to her hopes for the future of women in wrestling:

Extract 06 (Is wrestling fake? Are you telling me or are you asking?!)
EP: A lot of people say that wrestling anyway is a bit of a con… what do you think?
H: I don’t think… I know it’s not. How can Wrestling be a con?
EP: Well you get together in the dressing room and you talk over the tactics… [interrupted]
H: [Loudly] Are you telling me or are you askin’ me? [CONT….]
EP: Well it certainly seems to be catching on these days do you think it will become more popular over the years?
H: Well I’m hoping so.

——————————

You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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