As the evolution of women in professional wrestling continues and we approach WWE’s first all-women pay-per-view, Evolution, this weekend, RondaRousey.com continues to look back at how we got here.
After the Classic Era, wrestling had its biggest boom period with the Attitude Era of the late 1990s. Women were often used depicted as eye candy, highly-sexualized as their matches (and any wrestling skills) were rarely prioritized. However, some of these women were portrayed as badasses and even held their own in matches against men. So while the Attitude Era was known for its raunchiness, it was also known for its many memorable characters, and it produced some beloved female stars that influenced the next generation of talent.
Chyna, billed as the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” debuted as Triple H’s bodyguard in 1997. By the time she retired, she had been a founding member of D-Generation X, the first woman to compete in a Royal Rumble match, the first woman to compete in King of the Ring tournament, number one contender to the WWF Championship, and the only woman to win the Intercontinental Championship (which she won multiple times). Her impressive physique opened the door for her to compete with the men, most notably Jeff Jarrett and Chris Jericho, but she also dominated the women’s division.
Jacqueline came up in the territory days of professional wrestling and did a stint in WCW in the ’90s, but she is best known for her time in WWF/WWE from 1998-2004. She started as a manager-girlfriend for Marc Mero and feuded with his estranged wife, Sable. This particular rivalry could serve as a microcosm for women’s wrestling in the Attitude Era—while popular, it included in a bikini contest in which Sable infamously wore body paint instead of a top—and it actually culminated in the re-establishment of the WWF Women’s Championship. Jacqueline was the promotion’s first black Women’s Champion and, in the company’s next era of programming, the only woman to hold the WWE Cruiserweight Championship.
Another woman who had previously made her name in the territory days, Luna Vachon first worked for the WWF between 1993-1994 as a valet, manager, and—when the women’s division was initially revived—a rival for Alundra Blayze.
She returned to the company to play similar roles in the WWF’s much more over-the-top atmosphere from 1997-2000, as she was a key component of Goldust’s edgy “The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust” phase, participated in evening gown matches (won by stripping the opponent out of their dress, to their underwear), and was featured as part of the freak show-themed Human Oddities stable. During this time, Luna Vachon was considered the great rival and contrast to another Attitude Era star—one who became a household name—Sable.
When Sable—a former model—started working for WWE in 1996, she was one of the company’s first Diva character types. In fact, she was the Diva type.
At first, Sable managed her real-life husband Marc Mero, only to become even more popular on her own while he was injured and out of action. She began wrestling as a part of a feud with Luna Vachon and Goldust and eventually became the WWF Women’s Champion, but her bread and butter when it came to matches and segments was the idea of sex selling. And with Sable, it absolutely did: When she turned Hollywood on the WWF fans after posing for Playboy in 1999, she became the archetype for the Diva villain fans would see for years to come. In fact, Sable summed up that type of character with her catchphrase:
“This is for all the women who want to be me and all the men who want to see me.”
Ivory had wrestled for GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) in the ’80s, but she debuted in the WWF in 1999… as one of the Godfather’s hoes. Like most of her contemporaries, Ivory started out attached to the men (as she went from working for the Godfather to being a valet for Mark Henry and D’Lo Brown’s tag team) but then transitioned into having a place in the women’s division. She won the Women’s Championship in her first year with the company, but the title was nowhere near elevated; her feuds were often centered on slut-shaming, she lost the championship to the elderly Fabulous Moolah (though she eventually won it back), and she was booked to defend the title in sexualized gimmick bouts like the Four Corners Evening Gown Pool match.
However, Ivory finished the Attitude Era far differently (except for the slut-shaming) from how she started it when she joined the Right to Censor, a villainous alliance of conservative wrestlers. As part of the RTC, Ivory wore much less suggestive ring attire and wrestled with her hair pulled back—and she took issue with women like Lita, for her attitude and alternative style, and Chyna, for posing for Playboy. Though her new character was a parody of critics of the raunchiness of Attitude Era-programming, less focus on Ivory being sexy actually ended up coinciding with her have less gimmicky matches, ones that hold up much better in terms of straight-up wrestling.
Lita—one of this era’s most beloved performers—debuted with male wrestler Essa Rios but initially gained popularity as part of Team Xtreme with The Hardy Boyz. However, Lita soon became a star in her own right, as her punk style and attitude, willingness to take risks inside the ring, and her rivalry with Trish Stratus contributed to her being one of the Attitude Era stars most cited as an inspiration for today’s female wrestlers.
Molly Holly came to WWF from WCW at the tail end of the Attitude Era. Her first storylines saw her as a team member and on-screen cousin to Bob and Crash Holly in 2000. But she absolutely charmed fans for a number of reasons all her own, whether it was her star-crossed romance with Spike Dudley (while The Dudley Boyz were feuding with the Holly cousins), her role as The Hurricane’s superhero sidekick “Mighty Molly,” or even just her innovative Molly-Go-Round finisher.
After leaving The Hurricane, Molly became a full-time singles wrestler and, similar to Ivory in the Right to Censor, played a prudish villain character who opposed the hyper-sexualization of women in WWE.
Though Sable was the first Diva, Trish Stratus was arguably the ideal of this type of wrestler. (Be on the lookout in the coming weeks for a RondaRousey.com Wrestler of the Week feature on Stratus.) Despite being was hired off of her fitness modeling work rather than her wrestling experience, Stratus very visibly became better in the ring and at cutting promos every time she performed. After a period as “just” an eye candy manager and eventually a love interest, she rose to become one of the biggest female stars of the Attitude Era and an even bigger one in the subsequent phrase of WWE programming, dubbed Ruthless Aggression…