Female wrestling near 1900 in a „Tingeltangel" (popular music hall) in Paris. By a German collector - from Werner Sonntag's collection
Since the turn of the twentieth century wrestling started being very common form of performance on Russian circus rings. Wrestling matches had held before but just since that time Russian, European and world championships in "French wrestling" started taking place (other names for this form are "Greek-Roman" wrestling or "classic" wrestling where holds below the belt are prohibited). Wrestling competitions were organized not only in circuses but also in summer theaters, skating rinks and even on zoo gardens. One of the advertisements in Tbilisi said: "Opening of the international men's wrestling championship". The word "men's" was not accidental there because women wrestlers were regular members of many circus troupes.
Mobile circus wrestlers in training. 1900s
It’s not surprising that when feminism movement was in the embryonic condition attitude toward female wrestling was skeptical and condescending, sometimes with sarcastic irony. One of the newspaper titles sounded like this: “Chicken cackled and pinched each other’s weathers”. That’s what a reporter told about ladies wresting matches (citing from the book “The circus in Russia” written by the famous Russian circus historian Yuri Dmitriev): “Female wrestlers are very poorly trained, they demonstrate very unskilled and non-finished moves. In fact, instead of watching nice wrestling moves we see very ugly petty cares between two disheveled female creatures, who remind witches from Shakespeare's “Macbeth”. It reached the point when male and female wrestlers participated in one tournament in Yaroslavl where they wrestled each other”. Dmitriev concluded: “Of course, it was openly obscene. That’s how circus wrestling got more and more vulgarized in order to satisfy bourgeois audience’s taste.” From the today’s day position such an opinion seems to be a male chauvinism manifestation... There are lots of evidences of successful appearances of female wrestlers on circus rings.
Probably the most famous (and probably the most mysterious) female circus wrestler was the Masha Matlos (born Maria Poddubnaya), the sister of the great wrestling champion Ivan Poddubny. Before 1910, she was a six-time women’s "world wrestling champion". (Matlos is the modified married name for circus bills - from Matlash). Circus bills advertised her as inviting all comers into the circus ring to try their luck in wrestling against her after she had disposed of her fellow troupers.
Maria Matlos (Poddubnaya) at right at the wrestling ring in Hamburg
In 1901 in the city of Blagoveschensk (the far east of Russia) madam Yudina was famous. She had showed heroism during defending the city from Chinese. Eccentric madam Yudina started surprising people by challenging for a "duel" a female power circus performer Gren who was touring over Russia. The circus owner was happy that people overcrowded the circus. The match was arranged as a real duel.
German strongwoman Katie Brumbach (Sandwina) probably was the most famous strongwoman of the epoch, she had outstanding physical parameters: 184 cm of height; 85 kg of weight; 44 turn cm of biceps; 20 turn cm of wrists and 67 turn cm of thigh (see the photo at right). She managed to surpass the famous Eugene Sandow (enthusiast in bodybuilding and powerlifting) himself in strength test – he was her idol and her nickname “Sandwina” was the female derivative of “Sandow”. During years, Kate participated in circus spectacles with her family, and the most exciting point was when her father offered 100 marks to any man in the audience who would capable to defeat his daughter Kate in wrestling. According to the legend, nobody earned the 100 marks. Her future husband (they were married for 52 years), Max Heymann, was one of those daredevils who accepted the earn money I have ever had. All the sudden, these thoughts were interrupted and the only thing I recall is my sudden rotation in the air with the flashing blue sky in my eyes, and then free falling down. Eventually, I found myself on the floor panting and semi-unconscious, while the girl bent down to me and said, "Have I inflicted any damage to you?” Then she grabbed me in her arms as a dummy and carried me to her tentchallenge and according to his own words, the following had happened with him: “As I have entered the ring I started thinking that if I earned the 100 marks it would be the most extravagant way to."
Sandwina with her husband
Tbilisi's newspapers (Georgia) in May 1911 reported about female wrestling championship in the circus “Modern”. Famous female wrestlers from all over the world participated in the event: English Reuter, Ukrainian Shevchenko, Russian Morozova (nickname “Female Epic Hero”), Norwegian Rosing, Polish Yankovska, Austrian Offenbacher, Scottish Celt and Spanish Girald. Two world champions wrestled in the tournament: German Frida Damberg and Swedish Pederson. We should notice that almost all matches lasted unusually long. For instance, Russian wrestler Morozova defeated four her opponents: Offenbacher for 18 minutes, Yankovska for 10 minutes, Reoter for 8 minutes and Shevchenko for 5 minutes. After 20 minutes of stubborn struggling in the match Morozova vs. Girald a draw was announced because the both wrestlers were about the same strength and skills. Upset Morozova attacked the referee and "wrestled" him down so actively that he hardly stood up…
The world champion Frida Damberg was especially popular among Tbilisi's spectators - she had excellent French wrestling skills and was very graceful at the same time. The two her victories were especially noted between her numerous victories – spectacular pinning Reoter and Celt. Local media avidly described the match between Damberg and Girald. “Two the tallest and strongest ladies came out to the ring who used wrestling techniques with great skill. Furious bout lasted for 15 minutes and ended with the victory of the German who pressed the robust Spaniard to the mat. The audience got in ecstasy about that. The result was that Frida piled up all wrestlers on the floor.”
These are a few other messages from Russian local media:
In 1895, just on alleys of Egarev's "Russian family park" (former Demidov garden) women competed in wrestling but spectators were not too excited about that ("Hercules", Saint Petersburg, 1912)
"Ladies French wrestling championship has been held last week in the circus." (Local newspaper, Ekaterinburg, Ural, 1911)
"In our circus the first-rate ladies wrestling championship has been held where 12 female wrestlers and athletes participated. The trainer is Estonian wrestling and athletics professor Alex Muller (Miller)." (Local newspaper, Chelyabinsk, Ural, 1916)
"September 19. The first international female championship was opened for French and national forms of wreslting. Ten female wrestlers participated in the championship." (Omskiy Vestnik, Omsk, Siberia, 1917).
In 1912, Irkutsk hosted the Ladies International French wrestling tournament. Local press was very excited and unprecedented stir was made in the city. You bet! Town folks looked forward to seeing ladies in such an exotic for the weaker sex performance.
The championship was opened on April 21 in the circus tent and ten female athletes came out into the ring. They were considered the strongest female wrestlers of that time. The very first athlete appeared on the scene was English champion Ms. Reuter who handled the British national flag. Then the host announced the rest of ladies – one after another.
- German championess Frau Damberg! Austrian championess Frau Offenbacher! Greek championess madam Gastilos! Holder of all powerlifting world records, Scottish wrestling championess Ms. Celt! Romanian championess madam Vasilescu! Norway championess madam Nelson! Kuban Cossack Ms. Shevchenko! Polish championess Pani Yankovska! The only woman in the world who is wrestling bulls, Spanish championess señora Garaldi!
Two days later a famous strongwoman, Russian and European championess madam Morozova joined the tournament.
After the open ceremony, the first pair came out to the mat to entertain the audience – it was German Damberg and Austrian Offenbacher. The match lasted just 3 minutes until the skillful German caught at the opportunity and effectively pinned her opponent using technique ‘tour de tet’. Next match took longer: Gastilos and Celt wrestled for 15 minutes until the Greek grabbed the opponent’s arm, turn her on the back and then pressed her till final victory. This scene of action drove the spectators into ecstasies.
Next day the circus was jam-packed with people. Boisterous Kuban Cossack Shevchenko had the intention of defeating Englishwoman Reuter. She has not achieved that but she managed to amuse the audience by spicy jokes about her opponent and paid the price. Ms. Reuter finished her at the 13th minutes buy the technique ‘bra roule’.
Despite the defeat to Reuter, the Kuban Cossack became a favorite. In the next fight against robust Celt doubling her in weight, Shevchenko managed to stand her ground and the draw was pronounced. In what follows, Romanian championess Vasilescu distinguished herself in actions. She got the nickname “Brave Panther”. Russian she-bear madam Morozova shined out with deadly techniques – front belt and double nelson. If these didn’t help, she just broke her opponents as it befits a real Russian bear.
The fight between Giraldi and Damberg was distinguished by fine techniques and skills which are rare among male wrestlers. In order to keep audience interest high, the entrepreneurs organized a benefit performance for Spanish wrestler Giraldi. The poster said that an orchestra would play a flourish being located on the breasts of Mlle Giraldi; then smiths would break red-hot iron on her breasts. Besides, it was announced that she would wrestle against a read Andalusian bull.
Actually, it was a practical joke but the spectators didn’t feel hurt and came to the performances in crowds. Another trick which even more increased attendance consisted in mixed wrestling contests between men and women. In the circus tent, two matches were held on a bet. Male challengers were invited to go against a female wrestler. Local wrestlers challenged the tournament participants. A certain Sitnikov wrestled against Giraldi. Although the Spanish wrestler a few times turned him down and was close to victory, after 20 minutes of stubborn struggle, a draw was pronounced.
The international championship finished on June 21, and lasted exactly a month. These are its results. The big golden wrath and the title of Eastern Siberia championess were awarded to German wrestler Frida Damberg. The second place and a big golden medal were awarded to madam Morozova from Russia. Austrian Offenbacher got a big silver medal and the title of Irkutsk championess. The best three wrestlers shared the prize of 2000 francs.
We have already mentioned wrestlers and strongmen who were favorites in St. Petersburg early in the XX century. However, it was also the time of struggle for women’s equality in all realms. No wonder, metropolitan ladies claimed their rights to practicing wrestling which had been considered as a men only activity.
In May 1903, The "First women wrestling championship" was held in the Krestovsky Garden in St. Petersburg. It lasted more than a month and finished with a grand prize awarding. In fact, St. Petersburg’s public was ironic toward the unknown show and spoke of it disdainfully.
Sketches from the "First women wrestling championship" in the Krestovsky Garden in St.Petersburg. 1903"
“Wrestlers’ appearance is not too impressive”, wrote a prominent contemporary. “Quite the contrary, the most of them look skinny and feeble. Lack of excitements and ecstasy inherent in male wrestlers was visible straight away. The women wrestled softly, gently and tenderly as if they wouldn’t inflict each other any pain. During wrestling matches, one or another lady dropped combs and hairpins which were immediately picked up by a fussy manager. It was accompanying with roar of laughter in the audience. In fact. It is difficult not to laugh at sight of creatures of the fair sex having ugly postures, crawling on all fours and rolling over floor.
Cigarette block "Ogden". 1902г
Nonetheless, women wrestling downright excited metropolitan public. Some considered this show hideous making women similar to animals whereas others, on the contrary appreciated wrestlers’ flexibility. Moreover, some even wouldn't mind inviting a wrestler for dinner.
The “Petersburg Gazette” performed a public opinion poll among metropolitan artists: “Does it do for women practicing wrestling?” Well-known then artist N.N. Karazin answered: “I have never been at wrestling shows; it is ugly. It all the more true for women because a woman must be graceful whereas wrestling like a scramble preclude any grace.” Another artist S.S. Egornov also was against women’s wrestling: “The appearance of women higgledy-piggledy disturb each other can disgust or inspire with laugh. There is nothing bad in men’s wrestling but women’s wrestling makes an impression of something uncivilized and savage.”
Nevertheless, organizers of those shows have achieved what they strived for: the scandalous spectacles attracted crowd. Soon after the championship in Krestovsky Garden finished, another championship began on the stage of the popular St. Petersburg’s garden – “Aquarium” (“St. Petersburg News”).
Spectators of circus wrestling performances deserve to be attended too. Especially female ones. The well-known Russian writer Valentin Kataev in his memoirs book “My diamond crown“ recalls that watching ecstatic female spectators on circus wrestling sometimes was much more fascinating that wrestlers themselves who simulated and yielded to opponents ordering by entrepreneurs. But ladies-spectators being bewitched by men’s single combat didn’t care about such details. They ecstatically cheered wrestlers and in culminate moment they timidly yelped and threw handkerchiefs (and sometimes, other ladies assessors) into the ring. They daydreamed about wrestler’s relief torsos and biceps. They awaited wrestlers at the circus exits as famous tenors and turned fingers toward them for a kiss. At the same time, female spectators reportedly demonstrated hostility toward female wrestlers appearing on the circus ring. They cursed out and hissed female wrestlers calling them “ragged pussy-cats”.
Four female wrestlers posing outside their stall at St. Giles' Fair, watched by a large crowd, 1909.
Photo by Henry Taunt. The Bridgeman Art Library
While in the Russian capitals they poked fun at female wrestling, in province an attitude toward it was completely different.
All the same, a woman-wrestler on a circus ring or beyond it was a rural exception and was consider by the most of people as circus trick, something like a counting horse. Or even worse, as a disgusting show. For instance, that’s how French journalist Max Viterbo describes a women’s wrestling match in the Rue Montmartre in 1903 in Paris: "The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and obscene swearing gnaws our ears. Female wrestlers flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes, they fiercely tore each other’s flesh apart, and you saw just hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet." That time there was no tradition of women sports in general and of women wrestling in particular. There were developed nether female athletic clothing, neither women protectors nor wrestling rules for women. Yet the society of that time considered a woman differently from how we consider her today. Caring about her health and well being they exaggerated her helpless and weakness at that time.
Contemporary development of female wrestling and including this sport in the next Olympics program closed the books on the discussions whether of not women are able to wrestle for real.
Title page of "Police Gazette" as of December 25, 1897 with the report about a female wrestling match
and depiction of the strongwoman Minerva from the article "Muscle mamas" in a 1913 paper issue
Repring from Orrin J Heller