Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Strong Women in History: Mildred Burke

By Olivia Lennox - Mildred Burke is hailed by many as one of the greatest ever female wrestlers. She was certainly a pioneer, with a level of muscle development unusual in her time, and a strong determination to popularise women’s wrestling.

Early Years
Mildred Burke was born Mildred Bliss, in 1915 in Coffeyville, Kansas. At the age of seventeen, she agreed to marry her then boyfriend, and they moved to Kansas City together. There, Mildred saw her first wrestling event, and her lifelong passion was born. In Kansas, she later met Billy Wolfe, who was the Missouri state wrestling champion, and trained wrestlers at the local YMCA. She pestered Wolfe to teach her to wrestle, and eventually he let her in the ring, but he chose one of his best male fighters to take her on. Her body slammed her hard, but Mildred body slammed him back, pinning him down in the ring. From then on, Mildred knew she wanted to be a wrestler, and Billy Wolfe knew that he wanted to train her. The pair ended up marrying, and having children together.

A Star is Born

Mildred Burke was a star almost as soon as she began wrestling, with a incredible level of ability, beating both women and men. She wrestled around 200 men during the 1930s and only lost to one of them. Her real achievements, though, were in women’s wrestling. She worked hard to establish the sport and get it accepted. Before Mildred came along, few women wrestled. Some states even outlawed women’s wrestling taking place in front of an audience. Mildred Burke’s tenacity and professionalism encouraged others in to the ring. 

Mildred held the women’s wrestling world championship title for fifteen years, becoming the first women’s champion in 1937, beating Clara Mortensen to the title. She began to tour both the US, and the world, entertaining many crowds and making some serious money in the process. By 1951, she was making $50,000 dollars a year. At the time, the average annual salary was around $2,500. For women, it was less than $1,000. Mildred Burke was an unquestionable success.

Mildred attributed her success to her unique ‘alligator clutch’ move. This move, she claimed, won her around 4,000 matches. Despite her success, Mildred was not a large woman. She stood around 5’2” and weighed around 138 pounds. She was the first female wrestler to develop some real, powerful muscles. At one time, the Los Angeles Police Department had a poster of her up in their offices, to remind their police officers to stay in shape. Her figure and appearance were much admired in general too, and she appeared in several magazine features, scantily dressed, pouting provocatively and flexing her muscles. She was voted one of the decade’s best dressed women in the 1940s.

Agony and Ecstasy
Despite her success, Mildred Burke’s life was filled with plenty of personal tragedy and public difficulty. Billy Wolfe was a womaniser who kept company with many of the other female wrestlers he trained. Their marriage broke up in 1952, and Wolfe tried to keep hold of their promotional company and out of the National Wrestling Alliance promotional organisation. They eventually cut a deal, and Mildred started her own company. In return, she waived all alimony, and Wolfe agreed to stay out of wrestling promotions for five years. He didn’t, and more legal wrangling ensued before Mildred’s company went bust in 1953. In 1954, she lost the title in an acrimonious grudge match against another Billy Wolfe protege, June Byers. 

Mildred Burke had two children, Violet and Joseph. Violet sadly died aged eighteen, in 1951, while competing in a wrestling match herself. Mildred knew the dangers of wrestling all too well, and suffered serious injuries throughout her career. She had several broken bones, had her thumbs ripped out at the joints, and had all of her teeth knocked out. At one point, she suffered temporary blindness because of wrestling. There are plenty of dangerous jobs around, like being a fire-fighter or carrying out asbestos surveys, but few careers lead to as many serious injuries as Mildred Burke suffered during hers. Despite the physical battering she took, Mildred fought for two decades, for six days each week, for 50 weeks each year. She died from a stroke in 1989, aged 73.

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