It's February 23, 2015 and nearly 20,000 people have packed into the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee to catch the fallout from WWE's Fastlane pay per view on Monday Night Raw. With Emma and Paige ready and waiting in the ring, the Bellas make their way down the ramp for some tag team competition. But just as quickly as the match begins, it's over. In a three-hour show which saw their male counterparts compete in five out of the six matches on the card, these four women were given a mere 30 seconds in the ring, and fans weren't happy about being short-changed once again.
Taking their frustrations to Twitter, the fans started #GiveDivasAChance, which trended on Twitter for three days straight. "That was the catalyst for how we started to rewrite our television programs to feature our women and to give them more opportunities," explained Stephanie McMahon, the WWE's chief brand officer. A battle cry to the head honchos, the social media demand for longer matches and complex storytelling for their women competitors captured a groundswell that was already bubbling up within the organization itself.
While WWE writers embraced criticism and incorporated the movement into an on-air storyline with McMahon assuring fans that change was coming, they were only able to do so because behind the scenes, the stage was already set. McMahon's husband Triple H, a future Hall of Fame wrestler, had spent three years laying the groundwork for a massive shift within the women's division. After transitioning from full-time wrestler to backstage executive who oversaw the company's developmental talent and recruiting in 2011, Triple H established NXT as the WWE's official training league. By 2012, NXT had a state-of-the-art facility in Orlando, Florida and more importantly, an influx of new female talent.
"I [didn't] understand why we weren't just recruiting the best athletes in the world. Forget look. Forget body structure. Let's look for the best athletes in the world just like we would with the guys," said Triple H. "I'm always looking for people that can take things to that next level, no matter what the role is. It doesn't matter who they were, where they're from, whether they're male, whether they're female. [If] they can do the job and can take this thing to another level, then I want them here and working with us," he added.
That meant adding elite athletes to the roster like Sasha Banks, a long-time WWE fan who wanted to be more than what she saw growing up. "I always wanted to be in the WWE but I never wanted to be what I saw on TV - someone who just did bikini matches or are only there for their looks," she said. "I came in wanting to change the definition of what it was to be a diva in the WWE."
Triple H didn't just recruit women on stage, but also behind-the-scenes: In 2012, he hired the WWE's first female trainer, an indie sensation by the name of Sara del Rey. A renowned wrestler in her own right, del Rey offered up a much-needed female perspective when coaching the women — something the company had been severely lacking.
"She understands what we go through," said Banks. "She never gave up on us. She taught us everything she knew. She's been such a great supporter of this women's division, [and] helped it grow to what it is today." Fellow wrestler Charlotte Flair added, "Having a woman in the meetings saying, 'Hey, they need more time'... [She gave] us our own separate classes. Being in the ring for four, five hours a day versus being in the ring for four, five minutes every day makes a huge difference."
With del Ray's expertise and Triple H's support, Banks, alongside Flair, Becky Lynch, and Bayley, delivered show-stopping performances that would earn them the moniker of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, a nod to the legendary Four Horsemen of the WWE. Competing in brutal matches like the first-ever Iron Woman match between Banks and Bayley in October 2015, a battle to see who could land the most pinfalls in 30 minutes, they changed the audience's perception of WWE's female talent.
"Every time I gave them the opportunity to do it, they would knock it out of the park. They were having these long matches and main eventing things, and setting the NXT world on fire," said Triple H.
But while the Four Horsewomen were lighting up in the minors via NXT, similar opportunities weren't opening up in the big leagues: SmackDown and Raw. The main roster of women stood at 10 athletes all competing for a three or five-minute match on two-hour and three-hour shows. Compared to the men's division, with 40 wrestlers who consistently appeared in eight-minute-plus matches that advanced storylines, it was clear to fans that WWE's major leagues needed an overhaul stat.
"Trish and I were involved at a time when our opportunities were almost happenstance or circumstantial. [We were] quietly earning these opportunities," explained Lita, a high-flying punk rocker who was one of the few women granted consistent televised opportunities during the '90s Attitude Era. She and her cohort, fitness model-turned-wrestler Trish Stratus, became the first ever women to headline the main event of Raw in 2004. Lita won the fierce matchup — an event so legendary that it's still talked about today — but it would take another decade before two women again stepped into Raw's main event ring solo.
"We were like, 'Cool, nobody said anything. Maybe we'll get another little opportunity, so just mind our business over here and in another couple months, we'll get to do something cool.'" said Lita.
Generations of women found themselves restricted by this old-school way of thinking over the years including Alundra Blayze, Jaqueline, Michelle McCool and of course, Trish and Lita themselves. Every one of them was a star in their own right, but perpetually conscious of the fact that they couldn't take up too much space otherwise their opportunities would go from a trickle to a full stop.
"It's a different mentality now," said Lita. "It's like, be proud of being able to push forward as opposed to quietly trying to crack open the boy's club door."
This is the same mindset from which #GiveDivasAChance sprang. "The system was in place. The girls were there. The fans were there for it and they wanted to see it, and we gave it to them," said Triple H. In this perfect storm, the women's division of the WWE was finally starting to grow both in numbers and in terms of their presence on Raw and Smackdown.
In April 2016, at Wrestlemania no less, the WWE took a huge step forward when it retired the Diva's Championship — a pink butterfly belt heavily maligned for looking like a child's accessory — and replaced it with the Raw and Smackdown Women's Championships. From then on, women wrestlers were no longer branded as divas and instead, were referred to as superstars just like the men. And these superstars were swelling in number: that same year, WWE split Raw and Smackdown into separate entities, expanding both rosters to include fresh talent from NXT. The women's division now had an arsenal of about 15 trained women available for matches and storylines each week — the most in the company's history.
Shifting away from the '90s portrayal of female talent as bikini babes who might be able to do a few cool moves, women in the WWE big leagues were now being seen as fully-realized competitors ready to throw down in the ring. On Raw and Smackdown, female athletes were competing in longer matches and taking on more complex storylines. This meant never-before-seen, historic opportunities like the Women's Money in the Bank Ladder Match in July 2017, in which one among five competitors needed to climb a 20-foot ladder (fighting off their opponents in the process) to retrieve a briefcase that contained a future title match opportunity.
"Now, it's really great because these women [are] women that young [girls] can aspire to be. And they're just portrayed as these strong athletes chasing after their dreams. That's what they're focusing on more as opposed to the Attitude Era that was heavy on the sexual aspect of the women," Lita explained. "It's interesting to see that shift and not have everything be about, 'Oh, I'm gonna have a feud on who's prettier.' No, I'm concerned about kicking ass on this show that kicks ass, and I wanna show you that I can do that. I love seeing that."
Things came to a head at the 2018 Royal Rumble pay per view when the WWE pulled off one of its most emotionally impactful main event matches to date: the first-ever all-woman royal rumble. The hour-long brawl featured 30 women spanning decades of wrestling including Natalya, Molly Holly, Hall of Famer Beth Phoenix and Banks, who wore Wonder Woman-inspired gear for the big event. Even Lita, who hadn't wrestled in ten years, took part in the match because she knew how important this moment was not just for her, but for every woman who came before and after her. "I was called just a couple days before and I was grossly unprepared. But it was like, you either wing it or you miss out on this historic event. And that wasn't an option," she recalled. "That moment was bigger than any one person's career or anything that we were doing individually...To feel the unity and support amongst the women of all those generations at one time, it was super powerful."
The Hall of Famer also honored the women who couldn't participate in that historic match by sporting a Time's Up shirt and writing the names of Luna Vachon, who passed away in 2010, and Chyna, who died in 2016, on her arm. "I wanted to represent the women that weren't able to see this day come to fruition, and the contributions and sacrifices that they have made," she said of the gesture. "They're still a part of it."
But despite all this progress (2018 continues to see groundbreaking matches like Wrestlemania's inaugural Women's Battle Royal), there's still a long way to go before women have equal footing in WWE. "I think we're just getting started," Banks acknowledged. "Right now, we get more storylines, [more] time. But I want storylines just like the guys, [where] if women are main eventing Raw and Smackdown, that's just normal."
She continued: "I want people to invest in [us] and really care. I want fans to buy tickets just to see our storylines. There's so much more room for improvement, that's all in due time. We've done and accomplished so much just in the last couple years. We're gonna get where I want to get because I'm not gonna give up on this division."
Banks isn't alone in that sentiment. With huge behind the scenes support from people all the way at the top like Vince and Stephanie McMahon, to wrestler-turned-producer Fit Finlay, and superstars like Paige (who literally called for a revolution in 2015), the women's division of WWE is on the rise.
"I couldn't be more proud of the fact that the WWE is at the forefront of this movement and that girls and boys are seeing women that are powerful, strong, confident, smart and beautiful," added McMahon. "In every aspect, no matter what their body type: This is a culture of embracing diversity across the board."
Now, when the next generation tunes into the WWE, which currently boasts more than 30 uniquely talented women across Raw, Smackdown and NXT, they can finally start to see wrestling as something for everyone — not just the boys.