Women's Division: Evolution of women's wrestling in WWE over the years

Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch will meet inside Hell in a Cell.
Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch will meet inside Hell in a Cell.
Nicholas A. Marsico

With the confirmation that Sasha Banks will compete against Becky Lynch in the second-ever Hell in a Cell match between two women, which will also be Sasha's second, (after her spectacular match with Charlotte Flair in October of 2016), it's prudent to discuss just how far women's wrestling has come in the past few decades.

Medusa, who was entered into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2015 as her WWE personality Alundra Blayze, infamously trashed the title belt on an episode on Monday Nitro in 1995, WWE decided to put the Championship back to sleep only 2 years after it had been brought out of the mothballs. It would be a non-entity until it returned in late 1998 and has been part of WWE's Championship lineup ever since.

The Championship has featured a lot of ups and downs in the last twenty-plus years, being defended in "evening gown" matches, to hardcore matches, and everything in between. The same can be said for the women of WWE, who for many years were treated as objects, even into the mid-2000s, when them being treated as 'eye candy' in segments was considered more important than Women's Championship defenses.

However you, as an indivdual fan, may feel about women's professional wrestling, there is a lot of great talent across the world, and there has been for many years - from Japan to back all the way across the planet to North America. In WWE, the Women's Evolution (or, originally, Women's Revolution) has been prevalent for just over 3 years. There's no sign of it slowing down. WWE now has gone back to the two-title formula (one for RAW and one for SmackDown, which was the case from 2008 through 2010 when the Divas Title was created) and they crowned Women's Tag Team Champions in early 2019. Women's wrestling is alive and well in WWE. Let us proceed with a brief history lesson to show just how far the women have come.

The early years (Fabulous Moolah and Early WWF)

Wendi Richter, who famously defeated Fabulous Moolah in 1984.
Wendi Richter, who famously defeated Fabulous Moolah in 1984.

In 1956, The Fabulous Moolah began a so-called 28-year-long championship reign when she won a battle royal for the vacant NWA Women's Championship. She was crowned champion and would defend the title over the next nearly 3 decades. Moolah did indeed lose the title on a few occasions, never for more than a few weeks, and in modern history (since Vince McMahon bought the WWF from his father, essentially) those title changes have been expunged from the record books in order to claim that Moolah held the title, uninterrupted, for 28 years.

Moolah, though her public image has been tarnished since her death due to many allegations of the abuse of other wrestlers coming to light, has been held up as the standard-bearer for women's professional wrestling. She did some great things, most notably becoming the first woman to wrestle inside Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1972. You would have to do some searching to find that her opponent that night, therefore rightfully sharing that honor, was Vicki Williams.

Vince McMahon integrated Moolah's Women's Championship into the WWF in 1983. Thanks to the efforts of the outstanding young wrestler Wendi Richter, alongside famous wrestling Manager "Captain" Lou Albano and popular (then, and now) pop singer Cyndi Lauper, the title gained mainstream popularity alongside the WWF, and, despite some controversy, spent the next few years as a fairly popular championship thanks to wrestlers such as Richter, Sherri Martel, Leilani Kai, Velvet McIntyre, Rockin' Robin, and others. It would be vacated, and went inactive, in 1990 when then-champion, Rockin' Robin, left the WWF.

The return of women's wrestling, sort of (1993 to 2000)

Sable: 1-Time Women's Champion, 3-Time Playboy Covergirl.
Sable: 1-Time Women's Champion, 3-Time Playboy Covergirl.

When the WWF Women's Championship was resurrected in 1993 after current WWE Hall of Famer Alundra Blayze won a tournament to crown a new champion, a very short-lived revival of women's wrestling began in the WWF. Outside of Blayze, who held the title three times in the 20 months of its existence, the only other champions were Bull Nakano and Bertha Faye.

Exactly 2 years to the day that Blayze won the championship (December 13, 1993, aired December 26), shortly after Blayze left the WWF and joined WCW as Medusa, she would throw the physical Women's Championship belt in a trash can live on Monday Nitro on December 13, 1995. The WWF decided that the title would not make a return after the embarrassing moment, and it was deactivated until late 1998.

For anybody who was a WWF fan at the time or knows some history, it is needless to say that women's wrestling (at least Vince McMahon's version) was not at its peak in the late 1990s. A loose timeline would show that starting around 1995 (when Sunny joined the WWF), women got very little time on television (in non-suggestive roles). This continued for 5+ years. In 1998, Sable and Miss Jacqueline were involved in a feud that revolved around Sable's husband, Marc Mero, betraying her and becoming Jacqueline's main man. The feud mostly consisted of catfights and both women intentionally losing clothing. The Women's title was brought back, arbitrarily, in September 1998 when Jacqueline won the belt on an episode of RAW, defeating Sable with the help of Mero.

Sable won the title at Survivor Series the next month and spent the rest of her time in WWE (about 6 months) barely defending it at all. When she did, it was usually part of a feud based on the pettiness and cattiness of the women, and ridiculous ideas like an "evening gown" match to determine the champion. The law of the land from late 1998 until approximately late 2000, was suggestive in nature. Evening gown matches, catfights, contests to determine who looked best, matches that ended in pools and mud puddles, and women having their clothing torn at (or just doing it themselves) was mostly what you saw as a WWF fan in the first couple of years after the Women's Championship returned.

The trend very slowly started turning the other direction in late 2000, about 2 years after the championship made its return, but the years to come were not exactly great for the women of American professional wrestling.

The beginning of a new era, but still a long way to go (2001 to 2006)

WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus.
WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus.

Trish Stratus debuted in the WWF in 2000 as a valet. She was more of a mantle piece than a person. In just a short period of time, she would become a great character and a fixture in the company. After gaining freedom from Vince McMahon in early-2001, Trish started to become a serious competitor, and she improved at a very fast pace. When Chyna left the WWF in 2001, the Women's Championship was vacated. Capitalizing on her burgeoning in-ring ability and her extreme popularity, she would win the vacant Women's title at Survivor Series in a six-pack challenge with 5 other legitimate wrestlers.

These women were Jazz, Jacqueline (who was a good wrestler despite the antics of the late 90s), Ivory, Lita, and Molly Holly. While the Championship wasn't recognized the way many true fans of women's wrestling would have preferred, the title had begun to start meaning something. Still, most matches were short, and outside of a few outstanding exceptions were very bad at worst, and average-to-pretty good at best. The main cast of women in this time period was Trish Stratus, Jazz, Molly Holly, Victoria, Gail Kim (very briefly), Lita, and at the tail end of the era, Mickie James.

There were some very memorable matches during this stretch. Some that immediately come to mind include Trish Stratus vs. Victoria in a Hardcore match at Survivor Series 2002 (they had a number of very good matches including a Street Fight in 2003) as well as the historic Lita vs. Trish Stratus match in the main event of RAW on December 6, 2004 (featuring Lita's scary suicide dive). Trish Stratus vs. Mickie James at WrestleMania 22 and Trish's farewell match later that year against Lita at Unforgiven 2006. In case you were wondering, Trish was really good.

That's not to say that many other women didn't have good matches during these years, but the title was still treated as one of, if not the, least important belt in the company, and often the talented women were given very little time to show off their considerable talent.

The long way to go (2000 to 2006)

Women often wrestled in schoolgirl outfits instead of wrestling attire.
Women often wrestled in schoolgirl outfits instead of wrestling attire.

In the period of approximately 7 years from 2000 through 2006, things were particularly rough for the women of World Wrestling Entertainment. The horror-show of the late 1990s has already been discussed, but it was often just as bad, and sometimes worse, as the 2000s began. There were photoshoots for WWE's website and DVDs (trips to the Bahamas and other exotic locations where the women were filmed in skimpy clothing, mostly on the beach). But that's not the heart of the matter.

Whether or not you were a fan of those PG-13 style photo and video shoots, it's understood that stuff like that -- purely risque, made for the eyes of young men, and with no actual relation to wrestling -- would not be well-received in today's atmosphere -- at least not to that extent. That kind of stuff certainly sells, and plenty of male and female wrestlers of today use their looks to sell t-shirts, 8x10 photos, and the like.

The part that is difficult to get past, and what is a giant hurdle for all women, especially during that time period, was the content that was featured on weekly TV. Wrestlers like Trish Stratus, Molly Holly, Gail Kim, Ivory, Victoria, Lita, and so on -- were proving themselves inside the ring with the limited time they were given. At the same time, those very women were also featured in on-air contests to determine who looked better, evening gown matches (just re-named with a much more lewd title), fights in the mud, and participated in other demeaning activities.

Trish Stratus, on many occasions during her reign as Women's Champion, would wear clothing that eccentuated her attractiveness just to show that she was more attractive than one of her opponents (especially the women portrayed as prudish, such as Ivory and Molly Holly). Lita defended her title in the lewder-named evening gown match. The treatment of women in WWE (and everywhere in pop culture) is well-documented, but think about it solely from the standpoint of how that made the Women's Championship look -- it made the belt seem worthless.

WWE's women were working extremely hard to be taken seriously, and they put on some tremendous professional wrestling matches when given the opportunity. But while they were doing that, they were still subjected, on worldwide television and pay-per-view, to actions that completely contradicted what they were trying to achieve.

Light at the end of the tunnel (2007 to 2012)

Beth Phoenix was the embodiment of "strong and sexy", being called The Glamazon.

Trish Stratus and Lita both retired in 2006, barely 2 months apart. That left a huge void in the women's division, but WWE had plenty of highly talented women to fill it. They weren't necessarily utilized spectacularly, but it was a far cry from the egregious sexuality that overwhelmed the actual wrestling for the past decade.

Mickie James was, for all intents and purposes, the successor of Trish and Lita, both of whom helped make her a star in 2006. In fact, Lita's last match as a full-time roster member was a loss to Mickie James. The other top wrestlers in this period were Beth Phoenix, Natalya, Candice Michelle, Eve Torres, Melina, and the Bella Twins. It wasn't quite as solid a lineup as the women who were held back during the majority of the first half of the decade, but solid enough to build a foundation. WWE's women had long been portrayed as "strong and good looking", but in this era, WWE added more emphasis on the word "strong" than ever in the before.

Candice Michelle was the biggest surprise of the bunch, going from a participant in the original Diva Search in 2004 to one of the best female wrestlers on the roster by the beginning of 2007. Sadly her run was cut short when she broke her clavicle twice in less than six months (October 2007 and March 2008). She would return in the latter half of 2008 but was let go by WWE in early 2009. She had the potential to be the second coming of Trish Stratus before the injury sadly cut her career short.

This time period also saw the birth of the Divas Championship. RAW was the holder of the Women's Championship for the first 6 years of the original draft, and in mid-2008 WWE decided to change that. A tournament was held to crown the first-ever Divas Champion and was won by Michelle McCool. The title immediately gained a negative reputation due to its look that was a little too similar to the stereotypical lower back tattoo that shall not be named here. The belt was moved to RAW a year later while the Women's Championship was moved to SmackDown, and in September 2010 it became the lone championship in the women's division when it was unified with the Women's Championship. The aforementioned women held down the ship pretty well before a new crop of talent would appear.

You say you want a revolution? (2012 to 2015)

AJ Lee, the woman who many fans consider the real leader of the
AJ Lee, the woman who many fans consider the real leader of the "Women's Revolution".

The Divas Championship was the only title for the women from September 2010 until it was retired in April 2016. It was held by women you might consider more "diva" than "wrestler", such as Maryse, Kelly Kelly, and Alicia Fox. Women considered on the "wrestler" end of the measuring stick include Beth Phoenix and in the belt's final stretch, AJ Lee, Paige, and Charlotte Flair.

Near the end of 2010, WWE did an all-female edition of their NXT competition series. The two women who made the biggest impact were AJ Lee and Kaitlyn. The latter would win the competition, but the friends would both soon join the main roster as a team. As time went on, Kaitlyn would become a fixture in the women's division and would win the Divas Championship in early 2013. Kaitlyn and AJ, who had become "frenemies" as time went by, entered a real feud later that year. AJ Lee would turn on Kaitlyn and, shortly after, beat her for the Divas Title in June 2013. AJ Lee would not look back.

AJ sparked what some call the "true" beginning of the Women's Revolution, pitting herself as a wrestler among a group of "Divas" who didn't belong in her division. Her target was the cast of WWE's hit reality show on the E! Network, Total Divas. It started a true discourse among wrestling fans as to what "real" women's wrestling was, even though the storyline itself was a bit awkward and had AJ lead her oddly named "True Divas" against the "Total Divas". Without naming names, the 7-on-7 Survivor Series match in 2013 featured only 5 women that most wrestling fans would actually consider "true" wrestlers. 3 of them were on the "Total Divas" team that AJ was rebelling against.

She ultimately lost that feud, but held onto the Divas Championship. Her final successful defense of the title marked the first time the belt was ever defended at WrestleMania, after being left out for the first 3 years of its existence.

Meanwhile, down in NXT (the wrestling show, not the game show), a number of young women were preparing, pun very much intended, to begin a takeover. This started with 21-year-old Paige, who, while still the reigning NXT Women's Champion, made a surprise debut on the RAW After WrestleMania XX. She would defeat AJ in her first main roster match that night, and the pot, as it were, had officially been stirred.

Paige relinquished the NXT Women's Title a few weeks later (don't worry, it was in good hands -- Charlotte won the tournament to crown a new champion, which also included Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Alexa Bliss). AJ Lee would retire a year later, in April 2015. Paige would stick around, and the women who were preparing for a takeover were ready to begin the war.

The Women's Revolution and the Women's Evolution (2015 to Present)

Becky Lynch, Bayley, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks: The 4 Horsewomen of WWE
Becky Lynch, Bayley, Charlotte Flair, and Sasha Banks: The 4 Horsewomen of WWE

While AJ Lee and Paige were attempting to bring some semblance of prestige to the women's division on the main roster, the women in the developmental territory, NXT, were doing their best to make the competitors for the Divas Championship look like untrained amateurs. The collection of women wrestling in NXT from early 2013 until the Stephanie McMahon Officially Sanctioned Divas Revolution in mid-2015 was unbelievable. Paige, Emma, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Bayley, and Becky Lynch were the notable stars, only one of whom didn't succeed on the main roster.

When Stephanie announced the Revolution in July 2015, three of the four women dubbed the "Four Horsewomen" made their debuts. Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch joined the main roster all at the same time, sparking something of a gang warfare storyline. Becky and Charlotte teamed with NXT alumnus Paige while Sasha aligned herself with Tamina and the up-and-coming Naomi. Nikki Bella was the much-maligned Divas Champion (the top star whom AJ Lee railed against in 2014), and she teamed with her sister, Brie Bella, as well as Alicia Fox.

Nikki was in the midst of what would become her record-setting second reign, as she would hold the belt for 301 days before losing it to Charlotte in September 2015. It became a main facet of the storyline, as Charlotte, Paige, and Becky (along with the other women and the fans, but mostly those three) fought tooth-and-nail to keep Nikki from becoming the longest-reigning Divas Champion. They would ultimately fail, as Nikki would end up holding the belt for about a week longer than previous record-holder AJ Lee. The storyline epitomized one of the main reasons the Women's Revolution existed -- people wanted "real" wrestlers, not divas parading as wrestlers, fighting for the highest prize for women in the pro wrestling industry.

Charlotte's victory was a huge win for herself and the fans, and it signified that WWE was getting ready to really pull the trigger. The three factions fell to the wayside as time went by, with that storyline over in under 6 months, but the framework for the end of the Divas Title and the re-emergence of the Women's Title was in place, and, just moments before WrestleMania 32 went on the air on April 2, 2016, Lita unveiled the new Women's Championship belt, symbolically throwing the Divas Championship, and the "diva" name, in a trash can. The women were now Superstars, just like the men, and their wrestling matches showed it. Charlotte won the triple threat match between the three members of the Four Horsewomen who were on the main roster and became the first WWE Women's Champion of the current era. The fourth horsewoman, Bayley, had lost the NXT Women's Championship only 24 hours earlier and would join her sisters on the main roster later that summer.

It was a long journey, but finally, 30 years after Vince McMahon brought women's wrestling to the WWF, the women began receiving the treatment that they had fought for and earned.

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Edited by Anirban Banerjee


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