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.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Thousands of cassettes, open reels, CDs and MiniDiscs are sitting in archives, museums, libraries and in people’s homes all over the UK. All kinds of unique live music, radio and conversation are recorded on these tapes and discs. We’ve already lost many of the people captured on them. And the British Library estimates that we have fifteen years to preserve the sounds themselves.

Unique sounds held on physical formats risk being lost as the carriers degrade over time and the equipment to play them is no longer produced. If we don’t transfer the tapes from analogue to digital now (and get the data from the discs onto backed up storage) we many never get the chance again.

The Manchester Studies oral history collection at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre

That’s why the British Library has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to establish Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, an exciting new national project to save thousands sounds which are at risk of being lost forever.

Archives+ is the hub partner for the North West region, which covers Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside. We’ll be digitising around 15,000 recordings on 5,000 cassettes, reels and optical discs held all over the region here at Manchester Central Library.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library

The collections proposed for digitisation range from the oral histories of seafarers, dockers and football fans in Liverpool, to mill and hospital workers in Lancashire, to the stories of mountaineers from the Mountain Heritage Trust, immigrant stories from Tameside and Cheshire lives captured by the Chester Archaeological Society. Not to mention dialect poetry from Lancashire to the Lakelands. And local BBC radio recordings from all over the region, as well as output from pioneering independent radio stations like Piccadilly Radio. Plus live music recordings including 1960s folk gigs on the Wirral, Royal Northern College of Music student performances, Irish traditional music and, of course, loads of brass bands!

So far we have started digitising three collections held at Manchester Central Library. The first is an eye-opening open reel collection called Voice in the Crowd, broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester in the mid-1970s. In it you can hear ordinary people describe their often extraordinary lives. Here’s the BBC Radio Manchester news team, some of whom put Voices in the Crowd together.

BBC Radio Manchester Newsroom, 1970 (m06300)

Listening to some of the interviews brings home how much things have changed since the 1970s – and not just in the Newsroom! Here’s a vegetarian talking about how she explains her ethical beliefs to other people.

Explaining vegetarianism to other people (RMAN/1121 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Meanwhile a sword-swallower explains why it’s not a good idea to eat curry or drink cola before a performance…

The diet of a sword-swallower and foods to avoid (RMAN/1155 © BBC Radio Manchester)

The second collection is a classic local oral history project recorded on cassette by BBC Radio Manchester journalist Alec Greenhalgh, who applied his journalism training to find out about the childhood experiences of elderly people around Manchester. Here’s an anonymous woman from Greenfield, born in 1893, describing her mother’s delicious sheep’s head broth…

Our third collection is the North West Film Archive’s oral histories. These capture memories of all kinds of cinema and film experiences across the region, from the projectionists to the punters. Frank Molyneux was twelve-year-old chocolate boy at the Thatto Heath Empire when he got his big break into the projection room…

The British Library will archive the digital sound files and provide access to a proportion of them online; the rest will available to listen to locally. We’ll be creating a sustainable centre of excellence in digital audio preservation here at Manchester Central Library, recruiting volunteers and involving new audiences in engaging with their audio heritage in innovative ways.

Follow this blog for much more from the project team and volunteers – including lots more voices from the archives, project updates, and advice on caring for your own sound archives.

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.