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‘Sisterhood of the Squared Circle’ by Dan Murphy Review: An eye opening journey

Women’s wrestling goes back further than the Divas Revolution. The work of women in professional wrestling altogether has gone on longer than the WWE’s been alive. Behind women like Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Nikki Bella, there are stars such as Chyna, The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young. And behind them are pioneers such as Mildred Burke and June Byers. Dan Murphy and Pat Laprade’s ‘Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling’ takes a look at the yesteryears of women’s wrestling, detailing its origins and chronologically deciphers the history of the ladies of the squared circle.

We start the book off with a foreword by former WWE Divas champion and current SmackDown Live competitor Natalya Neidhart. The WWE Superstar comments on her time growing up with the iconic Hart family. She discusses what it was like working in the Hart dungeon as well. Whilst hearing about Neidhart’s history is interesting, it gets even sweeter when she discusses the women that inspired her throughout her career. From Beth Phoenix to Charlotte Flair, we hear short but sweet mentions of Natalya’s time as a wrestler thus far.

The rest of the book is sorted out into relevant sections. We start from the very beginning of women’s wrestling in carnivals. And through a set of descriptive moments, we work our way up. From carnivals we go to Cora Livingston and Clara Mortenson, finding out about their difficult but poignant dominance of the small world of women’s wrestling. Pretty soon after that, we go on to one of the most important chapters of both the book and subject: the life of Mildred Burke. This is a very gripping and revealing part of the story. Murphy and Laprade dive in deep, listing the difficult times of Burke’s life, including her competition with other women, as well as the hardships of her relationship with Billy Wolfe. Each moment of Burke’s life is also tied in with a sub-section related to a female wrestler that she bumped into along the way.

However, there is an issue throughout this section.

Many of the women, all of whom are white, get their own sub-section of this chapter, detailing parts of their lives that were relevant to women’s wrestling. Some also get mentions that include Burke. But then there’s another sub-section that rubs me wrong the way; “The African Americans”.

Whilst women such as Penny Banner and Ida Stewart get multiple pages to themselves, those in the “African Americans” section are made to share pages. Ethel Johnson and Martha Scott have such a small amount of information about them that they both fit on the same page – whilst a few lines from Babs Wingo and Louise Greene’s parts also make the cut. The final two black women, Kathleen Wimbley and Ramona Isbell, also share a page in which all of their information fits – with their portraits sitting at the top, sharing the same amount of space as the words. Whilst the book is informative, this section proves the lack of care put into these women for multiple reasons. Not only are they placed in a sub-section of a sub-section, but they have such little details that it’s easy to forget that they’re even spoken about. Due to the lack of opportunities for women of colour, there’s no doubt that information on these ladies was hard to find. But there are details about their lives that exist. There’s more to these women than their nicknames and physical attributes, but five or six lines is what some of these women are given. And it’s not enough. I would have loved to had known about their love lives, children and how they’d gotten into the industry. Although parts of their stories are saved for another section, there is definitely more work that could have been done here – starting with not labelling them as “The African Americans.” [Editor’s note: The authors selected to group these women together as they were frequently booked together, particularly as pro wrestling was largely segregated at this time – DM]

Moving forward with the book, we get to what is arguably the most important bit: the life of The Fabulous Moolah. We find out how she got into the business, as well as some details on her relationships (of all sorts). A poignant moment is when we dip into the controversy surrounding the late talent. I was surprised to see the level of detail that was used to discuss what made Moolah so infamous, but it also feels somewhat defensive. We hear some information, but the thought of we don’t really know what happened is brought up, despite multiple sources indicating that we do know what happened. But alas, the information is there. It isn’t entirely sugarcoated, it just has some lines of defense threaded in. So do with that what you will.

The rest of the book then follows its own pattern. We get details of life as a women’s wrestler in the 80s, with Wendi Richter, Alundra Blayze and the original 80s ‘GLOW’ being some of the biggest highlights.

As most people that read this book will probably be fans that got into wrestling from the 2000s onwards, this first half is very intriguing. We get to hear about the origins, and hear many names that would typically go unnoticed. The level of grittiness is immense for a lot of these women, though some do feel like a quick inclusion for the sake of adding more entries. But after that, things get pretty repetitive.

When we reach the “Attitude Era” section of the book, things that wrestling fans of today would be very much aware of are scattered across the pages. We hear about the Trish Stratus and Lita main event, the history of Chyna, as well as a discussion on Playboy during certain women’s sub-sections. These categories do offer a few small bits of details that the average wrestling fan wouldn’t know of, but for the most part it is common knowledge amongst the women’s wrestling community.

Something I do appreciate about the book however is the attention to detail for all of the eras. Although the “African Americans” in the third chapter get snubbed, we end up hearing a good level of information about later eras. The “Diva” era has an entire section in which the blatant and hidden sexism is brought to the forefront. Women like Naomi are shown as being inspirational and excessively talented, whilst normally overlooked stars such as Michelle McCool and Melina get a huge spotlight. This second half of the book doesn’t offer a lot of insight to the average women’s wrestling fan, but it showcases the women on a pedestal, depicting them as stars that paved the way for today’s talent.

For the modern women’s wrestling fan, something that may really stick out however is the section on the international wrestling circuit. Though it is limited to a single chapter (albeit the longest chapter in the book), the wrestlers competing overseas in Japan, the United Kingdom and more get a good amount of attention here. Saraya Knight has a key inclusion, whilst the likes of Bull Nakano, Sexy Star and women you may not have even heard of are also highlighted. This is a particularly interesting part of the book as the differences in careers are fascinating, and we do go into a decent level of detail.

We also see a bit of the book dedicated to some of the women making their way around the independent circuit, highlighting the ladies of SHIMMER. This bit does fall flat, though, as the independent circuit proves to be far too large to be covered in this book. But some back stories that many fans may not be aware of are brought to light, and women that aren’t usually discussed end up being spoken about.

However, whilst the book attempts to cover all corners of the world of women’s wrestling, it doesn’t quite reach the potential it could obtain. Murphy and Laprade’s work does discuss the history of women’s wrestling in detail, but it feels like a Wikipedia article. Each sub-section comes across as though facts were spread across the pages, rather than a story being told through collected pieces of information. Many of the pages are filled with dates and forgetful names, so it does become tedious to read even a few chapters in one go. However, if it is one thing, it is informative.

Despite its problems, ‘Sisterhood of the Squared Circle’ doesn’t shy away from discussing the truth. We hear about how so many of the women went through abusive relationships (including both sexual and physical encounters), had issues with their families, were abandoned by loved ones, starved and were in desperate need for money. It’s fascinating realising just how much these women had in common, and how many times men were the root of the problems between them.

The book, overall, is informative. It isn’t something I’d recommend attempting to read front to back as there is a lot of bits to get through, which isn’t aided by the writing style. However, if you want to know where women’s wrestling started, or a few extra details about some former champions, do pick up the book and read the sections individually. If you aren’t familiar with the world of women’s wrestling, then this book is definitely a great place to start. It will eradicate your ignorance and keep you up to speed with modern day fans – and maybe even push you a little further ahead. For fans of women’s wrestling, you may know quite a bit of the information shared. But there will be parts of each chapter that you will find interesting. The authors attempt to give us all some new pieces of the jigsaw that is women’s wrestling. And though at times it fails, it does do the job of telling the history of the sport.

‘Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling’ is out now and can be purchased on Amazon here.

Have you read the book? Will you be buying it? Let us know your views in the comments below!

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