The Women’s Evolution started with a hashtag: #GiveDivasAChance. After years of WWE using the women’s segments as a bathroom break, fans tired of watching the company underuse, underpay, and under-appreciate talented performers. A 30-second match between the popular Bella Twins and ex-NXT darlings Paige and Emma used up every last bit of fan patience. The hashtag trended on Twitter and garnered attention by mainstream media, which is the best way to get the ear of WWE.
A few months later, Stephanie McMahon stood in the center of the ring to proudly let us know that the Women’s Revolution(™) had begun! Conveniently eliding that her own family was the cause of the problem, she ushered in this era by calling up three of the Four Horsewomen from NXT: Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks. (The missing Horsewoman, Bayley, was sidelined due to injury.) Suddenly, after years on the back burner women in the company had some hope.
A month later, while Bayley was still in NXT, she and Banks had what most wrestling experts considered to be the match of the year at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn for Sasha’s spot as the NXT Women's Champion. They followed that up by main eventing an Iron Man match at NXT Takeover: Respect, which was also considered to be a contender for match of the year. Women main eventing even an NXT Takeover was a Very Big Deal. This was more than hope, Bayley and Banks took two big steps into a brave new world (wrestling entertainment).
That all happened in 2015, a year that saw the US military open all combat roles to women, Hillary Clinton emerge as the favorite to become the 45th President of the United States, and Saudi Arabian women win the right to vote. In 2016, the Divas of WWE would be called “Superstars,” in line with the approved name for the male wrestlers, and the Diva’s Division would be renamed the Women’s Division.
All around the world, it seemed women were taking back what was rightfully theirs.
Fast forward to the present and the promise of the past few years is harder to find. Donald Trump is preparing to enter his third year as President in January, transgender members of the military have been banned from serving, and, likewise, women were banned from participating in the two pay-per-views in Saudi Arabia—The Greatest Royal Rumble and Crown Jewel—while WWE pocketed millions of dollars for the events.
In a clear attempt to circumvent the bad press of this financial arrangement (Little did they know at the time how disastrous the coverage would be), WWE announced the highly anticipated, first all women’s pay-per-view, WWE Evolution. As the preparation for Crown Jewel and Australia’s Super Showdown live event overtook weekly WWE programming, it became clear that Evolution, while touted as a major milestone, was an afterthought.
The performers were applauded for fantastic performances, but the overall event was mostly panned for having abysmal storyline build up and promotion. Evolution was supposed to be another major step forward for the women of WWE. Instead, it proved to be two steps forward, one step back.
It's a trend we've seen across the entertainment and sports industries. Earlier this year, Blumhouse Productions founder Jason Blum's gaffe about the lack of qualified women horror directors—which he since apologized for with back up from women proteges—caused a stir on twitter. Serena William’s catsuit, specifically designed to prevent blood clots she suffered after a difficult pregnancy, was banned from the French Open. While WWE Evolution wasn’t the home run WWE hoped, more women were featured at a WWE PPV than represent their states in the US Senate. Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation process showed that a woman’s word will always be taken as less than a man’s and that hard-fought rights are not set in concrete.
There is hope, however. A record amount of women won seats in the US House of Representatives during the 2018 midterms, women creatives are getting landmark deals, and WWE Smackdown Champion Becky Lynch, one of the original Four Horsewomen of NXT, is the most popular person in wrestling. Not the most popular woman—most popular person.
She does this while calling herself “The Man,” not as a way to distance herself from the rest of the women’s division, but as an homage to Ric Flair’s legendary promo. "To be the man, you gotta beat the man," and Becky is The Man.
Many are rushing to call 2018 the Year of the Woman. If past years in both WWE and the world at large have taught us, it’s that we have to stop making these declarations about the progress of women as though it’s immutable. Politics, sports, and culture are ever evolving, and that evolution isn't always linear. We know sometimes there will be a step back, so we cannot get complacent and we always, always have to keep pushing those two steps forward.