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.

Women’s Voices in the Crowd

Vicki Caren reflects on some of the women’s voices she has catalogued so far…

I am the Cataloguing Manager for the North West Hub, based in Archives+, Central Library, Manchester. My role involves carefully documenting each collection, from looking at the physical items (reels, cassettes and MiniDiscs) before digitisation to describing the recorded content in more detail once we have digital copies.

One of the first collections we decided to work with was the BBC Radio Manchester broadcasts. This material consists of a range of documentaries, news and interviews covering popular culture, history and politics. In the mid-1970s local producers and broadcasters, Alex Greenhalgh and Eric Purnell, created Voice in the Crowd, a series of short interviews with people from all walks of life; from aged 5 to 91.

Voice in the Crowd booklet

I was keen to see how women were represented and whether their interviews would reflect the gender stereotypes of the time. To some extent they did; such as make-up girl and model. However, there are interviews with women who ran their own business (for example marriage bureaux and fish wife) and interviews with those who worked in what was seen as male dominated professions, such as the probation officer and educational psychologist. Both talk about how the job has changed over time.

I enjoyed listening to the interviews with women who were perceived as leading different lifestyles from the ‘norm’ (whatever that means) and their attraction to their chosen way of life. The pearly queen not only gives an insight into the history of the pearly culture, but also recounts their charitable donations. While the fairground woman describes her caravan and its interior decoration, along with the gold leaf and paint used on the fairground rides. Not forgetting the interviews with those who have simply followed their passion, flying in the face of popular convention; quite literally in the case of the trapeze artist. I was fascinated in hearing how a young teenage girl left home to join the circus and start aerial training.

How trapeze artist got her job (RMAN/1140 © BBC Radio Manchester)

One of my favourite interviews comes from the other end of the age spectrum. The flapper recalls the birth of this rebellious movement after WWI as a reaction against authority. These revolutionary young women sent shockwaves through society for both their looks (shorter haircuts, clothing and jewellery); as well as their behaviour, including pranks such as decorating statues in Piccadilly, London. The latter reminded me of more modern day political protests, although such behaviour is clearly not new.

Description of the birth of the flapper movement as a reaction against authority (RMAN/1198 © BBC Radio Manchester)
Flapper describes the wild behaviour of her contemporaries (RMAN/1198 © BBC Radio Manchester)
Reels, including interview with Flapper, from the BBC Radio Manchester collection

With recent commemorations of the Representation of the People Act 1918, giving some women the right to vote, I was excited to see a suffragette included in the list of interviewees. She talks about how she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union after hearing about the treatment of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The interviewee describes how she became more politicised and wanted to learn more about issues surrounding the campaign of votes for women. She talks about attending street corner meetings, and meetings in Deansgate.

What made interviewee join the suffragette movement (RMAN/1133 © BBC Radio Manchester)
What the the suffragette was fighting for (RMAN/1133 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Around the same time that I was listening to and cataloguing these interviews climate change protests were taking place across central Manchester, including in St. Peter’s Square. On a number of Friday afternoons throughout March and April students would gather in the square, which is located just in front of Central Library. These rallies saw groups of young people and families gathering with homemade placards and banners urging political leaders to tackle climate change and hear their voices.

For me there was a parallel with what these students were doing and what the suffragette was describing in her interview. I was also reminded of the flapper and the groups of young women who were keen to continue working and did not want to return to their pre-war life. That spirit of rebellion, defiance and a sense of justice is as alive today as it was 100 years ago. I would like to think that the news and social media coverage of the recent climate change protests will be preserved for future generations to look back at to see the feisty, fighting spirit of their ancestors.

Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

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.

Voices in the Crowd

BBC Radio Manchester began broadcasting almost 50 years ago and at that time it was the biggest local radio station in the country. One of their programmes in the early 1970s was called Voice in the Crowd which featured interviews with a wide variety of different people with interesting jobs, hobbies and lives. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, broadcasts from this programme are being digitised so that they can be enjoyed more easily.

There are over a hundred interviews with people ranging from a witch to a pirate, a taxi driver to a nurse, a suffragette to a Hell’s Angel. Most of the recordings start and finish with the sound of a crowd of people which emphasises that the individuals being interviewed, who are generally anonymous, are part of society and that everyone has a story to tell that is worth hearing. These short interviews give a snapshot of life in the 1970s including funny stories, memories and insights into what attitudes were like in the past.

You can also get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into experiences not many people ever have. One of my favourite recordings is an interview with a man who lived at Belle Vue when there was a zoo there. He talks about how his wife liked feeding the animals and having to walk past the lion enclosure every day on his way to the office!

Jason the lion gets stuck up a tree (RMAN/1152 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Many of the people interviewed in these recordings were chosen because what they did was unusual. Some of these, like a sword-swallower, we would still think of as unusual while others, such as a vegetarian, are characteristics that are much more common now. It is particularly inspiring to listen to the voices of people who pushed boundaries in different fields and to hear them describe in their own words why they chose to do those things.

There are several themes that run through the collection around different aspects of life so you can get a proper feel for what life used to be like and the jobs people used to do. You can also find glimpses of Manchester’s past and how different areas and buildings in the city have changed. A visiting American is interviewed who spent some of his childhood in Manchester in the early 1900s and he describes how the city has changed in that time. He is very complimentary about Mancunians who show true local hospitality and give him directions when he gets lost!

An American finding his way around Manchester after many years away (RMAN/1114 © BBC Radio Manchester)

The interviews allows us to take a long view of history by seeing it through other eyes. The older people in these interviews were a generation apart from the younger ones, who are themselves a generation separate from the present. Many interviewees talk about generational differences and how the changes that have happened in their lifetime mean that younger people have different attitudes to them. Its just like how the papers today complain about millenials!

In one interview, a man from Stockport who was in his 70s talks about changes in the standard of life and the difference it makes to have an old age pension, which his grandparents never had. He also describes the the games he used to play as a child and here he talks about how children didn’t ride bicycles when he was young.

Change in learning to ride bicycles (RMAN/1126 © BBC Radio Manchester)
Original sound reel and description (RMAN/1126 © BBC Radio Manchester)

The interviewees also offer advice from their own life experiences about how to get into a similar career and whether they would recommend it, but also on more personal matters. For instance, a man who has been married for 72 years shares with us the secret of a happy marriage.

The secret of a happy marriage (RMAN/1129 © BBC Radio Manchester)

This blog post was written by Naomi Hall, an MA Library and Information Management student at Manchester Metropolitan University, who is currently on a work placement with Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

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.