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Women in Wrestling

“I think eventually there’s going to be more girls [wrestling] and everybody’s going to be okay with it. It’s not going to be weird or uncommon—but that’s going to take a while.” 

Even though women wrestling may seem like a recent phenomenon, girls and women have actually been wrestling since ancient times. Early inscriptions suggest that Spartan girls wrestled during Roman and Byzantine rule. In African tribes, girls often wrestled as part of their ritual initiation into womanhood. Among the Yala of Nigeria and the Njabi of Congo, men and women wrestled one another. In the Diola tribe of Gambia, adolescent boys and girls wrestled, but not against one another. The male champion often married the female champion.

In the thirteenth century, Tahitian priests introduced the huna religion in Hawaii, which involved various ritual martial art practices. Working class men and women participated in hand-to-hand combat such as boxing and wrestling in games known as mokomoko.

In the middle and late nineteenth century, Parisian artists sketched local women wrestlers and photographed them in their costumes. In the early twentieth century, American women wrestled against one another in public demonstrations and bouts for entertainment. These displays were the predecessors of modern-day televised “entertainment wrestling” such as WOW (Women of Wrestling) and GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling)—franchises that have given women’s wrestling an undeservedly bad reputation as a circus-like spectacle full of mud and Jello.

  • There now are about 3,500 girls who compete in wrestling nationally on the high school level, compared to about 250,000 boys.
  • Texas leads the nation in the number of girls who compete in high school wrestling. 941 girls are wrestling at Texas high schools, while 121 schools in the state have girls’ wrestling teams.
  • In 1987, only nine nations participated in the first Women’s World Wresting Championships. In 2003, 41 countries participated.
  • Wrestlers from 54 nations attended the women’s qualification events for the 2004 Summer Olympics, with 21 nations qualifying.


There are currently about 5,000 American girls who compete nationally on the high school level, compared to about 250,000 boys. Texas leads the nation with approximately 1,500 girl wrestlers, although Texas and Hawaii are the only states that do not allow girls to wrestle boys at the high school level. In 1996, the Texas Wrestling Officials Association voted to disband rather than officiate at matches where girls would wrestle boys. In reaction, the Texas University Interscholastic League has ruled that girls can only wrestle other girls at this level, potentially further limiting the possibilities for girl wrestlers to compete.

In 1987, the first Women’s World Wrestling Championships were held in Norway. (The United States sent its first team to the 1989 tournament.) Women’s wrestling finally made its Olympic debut at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, where women from 21 nations competed in four freestyle weight classes. Medals were awarded to wrestlers from around the world, including athletes from Ukraine, Japan, China, France, Russia, Canada and the United States.


Chronological History of Female Combat Before XX Century:
Female Single Combat Club Athens 2004—In Depth: Women’s Wrestling

A drawing of two Polynesian women, dressed in skirts, beginning to wrestle.
Polynesian women in battle (13th century)

An archival photograph of a German women’s wrestling team, standing in their uniforms (similar to bathing suits) with sashes across their chests.
German wrestling team (early 1900s)

 Two Official Wrestling covers: One features two women wrestling each other as a male referee looks on in horror, another features a woman in a pink wrestling suit and high heels flexing her arm muscles.
NWA Official Wrestling magazines (1950s)

One woman wrestler throws another one to the ground.
Burke vs. Weston (circa 1970)

woman wrestlers struggle against each other in the preliminary rounds.
World Freestyle Championships, Women's Preliminaries (2003)

One woman wrestler pins another one at the Olympic trials.
U.S. Olympic Team Trials (2004)

Photo sources

1950s images:
Cantankerous 50's and beyond
German team postcard:
Werner Sonntag collection
2004 Olympic trials and
World Freestyle:


Girl Wrestler