Women’s Roller Derby, 1940 – 2011

If you thought that you had practically heard and knew of every big sporting event around, then let me ask you this, had you ever heard of Roller Derby before now? I personally did not know much about the event until recently but perhaps I am in the minority. One thing I do know for sure is that the British are much more in the dark about Roller Derby than everywhere else. In fact, were pretty clueless. Fascinated by this “unknown” event but more importantly upon finding out that it is in fact a women’s contact sport, I simply had to find out more!

Women and Roller Derby

Upon researching the sport, I was especially surprised to discover that it originated as far back as the 1880’s. This completely shocked me as my preconceptions had me believing that up until the mid-late 1900’s, women weren’t aloud to do much except be housewives and to be loyal to their husbands. Especially undertaking something as physical as sports.

Image of a woman driving a taxi in the 1960’s. USA car hire was acceptable along with driving taxi’s and owning their own vehicles. Source.

In actual fact, the reality is that women really came in to their own by the 1940’s. After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, women really had to step up and take over where the men had left off. Without women building bombers, tankers and ships, taking over industry and sending out supplies, the war would have been lost. A huge symbol of this became one popular image of the American woman which was that of “Rosie the Riveter”—the strong, independent woman defense worker, wearing overalls and doing her part to help the United States win the war.

Rosie the Riveter


American women followed Rosie the Riveter out of the kitchen and onto the shop floor. By the end of the war one in every four wives was employed. For the very first time women everywhere were being treated as near equals to their men counterparts. With more freedom and social acceptability, women everywhere began to take on new challenges such as sports.

What is Roller Derby?

Women’s Roller Derby originated in America. It is primarily a contact sport which revolves around two opposing teams roller skating around an oval track. Sounds pretty easy huh? Maybe when we add that this is a contact sport does it become clear that it can be quite aggressive (within the rules obviously) and is extremely fast paced.

Roller derby in action


Each team selects a designated scoring player known as a “jammer”. It is their job to lap member of the opposing team thus, scoring points. The rest of the team works to protect the jammer from the opposing team so offence and defense are continuously happening at the same time. Roller Derby is definitely a dangerous sport.

An advertisement for Roller Derby.


This piece of advertising reads, “proof that women can kick some ass and look good doing it”.

Joan Weston, 1971

Joan Weston became one of the most famous women in the sport playing a record number of games throughout her career as one of the Bay Bombers, America’s favourite Roller Derby team. Source.

Most Roller Derby leagues play by a set of rules developed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). They stipulate things such as;

– Roller derby takes place on a circuit track, on which players usually travel counterclockwise.
– The two teams each send five players onto the track — one jammer (scorer) and four blockers (defense), one of which counts as a pivot (a blocker who may become the jammer later in that jam).
– Helmet covers are used to display the players’ positions: a cover with two stars is used for jammers, a striped cover is used for pivots and no cover is used for blockers.
Read more.

You can watch some women’s Roller Derby in action via this video here.

It should also be noted that there is a men’s Roller Derby Association also. In November 2007, three northeastern men’s roller derby teams formed the Men’s Derby Coalition (MDC). The MDC was renamed the Men’s Roller Derby Association in 2011. The skaters in the MRDA are all men and skate by WFTDA-based ruleset.

The rise of the Roller Derby

Roller “Derbies” originated as either amateur or paid roller skating races which remained popular up until the 1920’s. According to Wikipedia, “ a popular, multi-day touring exhibition of such races began in 1935, simulating cross-country races by professional two-person male-female teams. Soon thereafter, the teams were restructured, a point-scoring system was enacted, the endurance aspect was abandoned, and forms of contact were allowed, creating the basic format of contemporary derby”.


Roller Derby grew rapidly as a spectator sport which saw the skating team criss-crossing the US and racking up thousands of miles along the way. Matches were held in fifty cities in 1940, for more than five million spectators, some of whom formed fan clubs and newsletters.  In the late 1940’s, Roller Derby became televised.


The sport was fast paced and often extremely violent. The Roller Derby managed to distract people from The Great Depression at the time.


By the 1970’s, the hype of the sport was over and it began to see a decline. It took on more of an entertainment focus much like wrestling today with a staged nature and predetermined outcome. It lost a lot of it’s athletic and sporting credentials. At one point they even tried to introduce a crocodile pit in the hopes of gaining back interest but to no avail.

Roller Derby Today

Nowadays, only small number of non-profit organisations, largely consisting of veterans from earlier revivals, continue to host one off matches in America using paid skaters. The majority of leagues are all female, self organised and formed in an independent circuit. There is certainly plenty of DIY spirit in the derby’s today. The leagues still deploy traditional roller skates however, most tracks are now completely flat.

Roller Derby Team Today


Nevertheless, it is believed that a revival is occurring amongst women with a focus on athleticism as it once was. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) currently notes 77 clubs on its books. Roller derby has spread beyond its American roots, with leagues extant in the likes of Australia, Brazil, Canada,Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom and more than 400 clubs are believed to have been formed around the world.

Perhaps some of this revival is down to the actress Drew Barrymore who write and directed the 2007 release, “Whip It”. It’s certainly where I first learned of Roller Derby as a completely women lead, heavy contact sport and where I began to want to learn more about the sport and it’s history.

The Roller Derby team in “Whip It”, 2007.


I think the film has definitely made mass audiences aware of the sport which can only be a positive thing. Although Women’s Roller Derby does not have the sporting world spotlight as it did in the 1940’s, I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of the sport and it will only get better.