Pioneers is a series dedicated to the women who pushed forward the evolution in women’s wrestling. Diva Dirt staff will highlight women with spotlight pieces all March, in honor of Women’s History Month.
If any woman in the history of wrestling deserves to be called a pioneer, it is surely Josephine Blatt, the first-ever women’s wrestling world champion. In fact, the historical record generally agrees that Blatt was the first world champion of either gender. She won her belt sometime in the 1890s, while George Hackenschmidt, recognised as the first world heavyweight champion, claimed his title in 1905.
Most contemporary records of Blatt come from the National Police Gazette, a sensationalist magazine that was part lifestyle magazine, part sports magazine and all tabloid. Much of its reporting exaggerated real events to move papers, and it was itself the awarding body for Blatt’s title, so it certainly had a financial incentive to aggrandize her. Nonetheless, historians such as Jan Todd, of the University of Texas at Austin, have found the broad narrative of Blatt’s life as described in these sources to be largely credible.
Josephine Blatt was born either in Germany or in the United States to German parents, either in 1865 or 1869 and her maiden name was either Wahlford or Schauer. Blatt took to weightlifting at a young age and began her career as a strongwoman when she was recruited by the man who would become her husband, strongman and professional wrestler Charles “The Professor” Blatt. She adopted the stage name “Minerva” as she toured North America, performing in circuses and vaudeville, where the art of what we now call professional wrestling was in its nascence.
Blatt started competing as professional wrestling was transitioning from a legitimate sport to the performance art that modern audiences are familiar with. Results were becoming more scripted, and more focused on drawing a crowd through a narrative rather than through pure wrestling prowess. Wrestling was one of the most popular sports in the world then, at least for men. Women’s wrestling wasn’t just undervalued as in recent times, it was actually outlawed by sport associations. While men wrestled in legitimate public venues, women wrestled in the back rooms of seedy bars. The secretive nature of these matches is why historical records are so sparse, but, thanks to an international reputation built on her undeniable prowess, Blatt became widely recognised as the first women’s wrestling world champion.
That said, her title was not undisputed. Her contemporary Alice Williams also claimed the championship, though few took her seriously. The point became moot when Blatt lost the belt to Williams sometime before Williams herself lost it to Laura Bennett in 1901, according to Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy’s Sisterhood of the Squared Circle. From there, its lineage is well-recorded, up to its retirement in 1954, following a two-out-of-three falls match between champion June Byers and former champion Mildred Burke, which ended in a no-contest following interference from NWA officials. Byers became the inaugural NWA World Women’s Champion, a title still held today by Jazz. Burke refused to accept the decision and proclaimed herself as world champion from her own promotion, the World Women’s Wrestling Association. The WWWA World Single Championship subsequently became the top women’s title in All-Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, until that promotion shuttered in 2005.
Josephine Blatt truly paved the way for every woman who followed her into the world of professional wrestling. Though she was forced to defend her title in unsanctioned matches behind closed doors, she still earned and maintained the respect and recognition of both her peers and the fans. She was the first women’s wrestling world champion, and as true a pioneer as ever lived.