By EMILY THURLOW
For the Advocate
A woman dressed in pajamas walks into a Cottage Street bar and challenges a random stranger to an arm-wrestling match.
The circumstances sound like the set-up of a joke. It’s not.
That woman is Rose Lynch of Easthampton, and over the next few weeks leading up to the so-called “Pulaski Pull Down” fundraising event on Saturday, Jan. 27, she will often be found doing just that: walking her dog, Ripley, and stopping by local watering holes for what she calls practice.
“I challenge men in bars to arm wrestle,” she said. “Sometimes it takes two hours, sometimes it takes 15 minutes.”
Lynch is an organizer with the Western Mass Arm Wrestling League and has been a member since its founding. The group, which is also known as WeMAWL, is a self-described radical feminist collective dedicated to raising money and awareness for nonprofits in the Valley through brute strength with a side of theater and fun.
WeMAWL was created in 2016 by then-roommates Maida Ives and Heather Beck in 2016 with one of the first meetings taking place at their kitchen table.
Ives, who previously arm wrestled with a Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers while at college in Upstate New York, told Beck about her past experience and how she thought it would be a great concept to bring to the Valley.
When Ives participated in the New York branch, it was one of more than 20 throughout the country at the time. The first CLAW was founded in 2008 in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a mission to “empower women and strengthen communities through theater, arm wrestling and philanthropy.”
Once Beck made a post on Facebook about the new group, which was originally named Western Mass Arm Wrestling Ladies, the idea took off and the first arm-wrestling event took place at the Word War II Club in Northampton.
Lynch likens each event to that of a play or performance with each arm wrestler playing a different part.
“Everyone brings all of this energy to the table not only because it’s fun, but because it’s going to charity. Every cent,” she said.
The inaugural event raised $660 and all of those proceeds went to support women entering substance abuse recovery programs at the Watershed Recovery Center in Greenfield.
Since then, the group has swapped “ladies” for “league” to be more gender inclusive as WeMAWL strives to empower women, trans and nonbinary people through their theatrical and philanthropic arm wrestling fundraising events. Other recipients have included the Salasin Project in Greenfield, which provides services for individuals as well as their family members whose lives have been impacted by domestic violence; and The Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network, a border-abolitionist mutual aid network supporting trans and genderqueer asylum seekers.
Creating a character
Before any kind of smackdown in the ring, one of the most exciting parts of WeMAWL’s events is seeing the performers channel their creativity into made-up characters clad in colorful getups.
“The way that they come out. They all have different entourages and costumes — it’s something you gotta see,” said Donald Carberry, who has provided volunteer security for the group’s outside events.
Jarrett Man, who has served as one of WeMAWL’s core organizers, is tasked with setting the mood: with music. Over the years, he has worked with performers as they develop their intros to pick out the appropriate song to accompany their entrance.
“I try to pick the most exciting part of the song to create that moment and then work backwards from there to when their introduction is being read,” said Man. “Their song should build up and then crescendo around the time when they actually come out onto the custom-built stage. Then they’re announced, and then everybody cheers.”
And similar to televised professional wrestlers, these performers do not shy away from trash talk. Many will also be accompanied by a posse of hype people, who help gain the crowd’s attention.
On more than one occasion, Ives has both wrestled as and served as referee under the persona, “Jackie O’Nasty,” a nod to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, clad in large sunglasses, a pillbox hat and a cream-colored suit. Another name favorite was “Judge Ruth Maida Ginsburg.”
In patriotic red-white-and-blue ensembles, Beck donned the identity of “Uncle Slam.”
In her early matches, Lynch went by “Amelia Scareheart,” but has since chosen a moniker she shares with her late grandmother, “Virginia from West Virginia.”
Donning overalls baring the name and a bandana on her head like Rosie the Riveter, Lynch says its been fun to play a character that’s deeply personal to her.
“I was a mess when I got here (to Easthampton) until I found WeMAWL. It was just something fun to do with people I trusted,” she said.
Her grandparents met while working at Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. Due to hearing loss and diabetes, Lynch’s grandfather quickly became the night supervisor for the entire factory at 19 when the rest of the company was shipped off to war. Her grandmother was one of several women who were bussed in from small rural towns to help sustain the workload.
As Lynch tells it, her grandfather was often met with flirtatious behavior from several young women — except for her grandmother. When he’d come to check on her, she’d shoo him off.
Over time, he eventually won her over.
“It means a lot to me,” said Lynch. “It’s been really fun to tell my grandmother’s story and do a little research about her too.”
For many, seeing is believing. After attending her first WeMAWL fundraising event, Andrea Stanley saw her own potential and began participating in future events. Stanley, who is the co-founder of Valley Malt malthouse and Ground Up Grain flour mill in Holyoke, tapped into her job occupation in creating her arm wrestling identity as the Green Reaper. Each time she entered WeMAWL’s arena for the night, she walked in to the musical stylings of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.”
She also started an offshoot arm wrestling event at the annual Craft Brewers Conference.
“When I first started getting interested, I found groups in the region in New Hampshire and outside of Boston that had arm wrestling practices … where I could learn some techniques from others,” she said. “I’ve learned, as a shorter person — I’m 5-foot-2 — how to leverage my weight and wrestle people that are mostly bigger than me.”
Typically, competitors will wrestle one round using their right hand, one using their left, and then a third round using their right hand again as a tie-breaker.
Although admittedly a very competitive person, Stanley says the events aren’t necessarily about feeling powerful, they’re more like a time to step into a character and channel her inner theatrics. Seeing people’s reactions to the events also rank pretty high on her list as well as most people will say that they’ve never seen anything like it.
And once someone becomes a member, they tend to stick around as the camaraderie with the group tends to be strong and helps make more causes visible, says Man.
“WeMAWL has continued to be a source of good, solid community building,” said Man. “And it’s super fun. It’s like, let’s have fun being who we are.”
Pulaski Pull Down
The next WeMAWL event will take place on Saturday, Jan. 27, at 6 p.m., at the Pulaski Club at 79 Maple St. in Easthampton, with proceeds shared among three different organizations: Pulaski Club Scholarship Fund Easthampton, Shriners Children’s New England and Western Mass Hospital Equipment Loan Program.
The Shriners Children’s in Springfield is one of 22 locations in three countries that’s dedicated to providing pediatric specialty care regardless of the families’ ability to pay. According to Carberry, who is the membership chair for the Melha Shriners, the Springfield Hospital treated 19,000 children this year. They’re also currently flying in children from all over the world who need treatments.
The Western Mass Hospital Equipment Loan Program, also known as Western Mass HELP, is a nonprofit organization that provides hospital equipment such as crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, benches, hospital beds and more to residents of western Massachusetts for free. The initiative was launched in 2021 by the Mount Moriah Masonic Lodge in Westfield.
This fundraiser comes on the heels of their most-successful event ever, raising $8,400 in 2022 to benefit the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.
One of the newest competitors to join the league is Courtney Medeiros, who manages Se7ens Sports Bar and Grill in Easthampton. In a practice run, she beat Lynch with her left arm, so she’s feeling pretty confident about her potential chances of taking home bragging rights as this year’s winner.
In the meantime, she’s been lifting weights and readying herself as the fierce arm wrestler, “Service with a Scowl.”
The decision to compete was a no-brainer to Medeiros. Se7ens, she says, regularly participates in charitable endeavors, including current efforts like collecting the tabs from soda cans for the Shriners as well as food and coat drives for the Easthampton Community Center.
“I think it’s important to me and Se7ens (to participate in these charitable events) because we’re a community and we all need to work together,” she said. “I drive that point home to my regulars, whom I refer to as family, and they’re overwhelmingly amazing. The generosity of this community truly is overwhelming.”
For those that are considering stepping into the spotlight, but are feeling a tad bit apprehensive, arm wrestling veteran Stanley says not to worry. Physical strength doesn’t necessarily have to be a qualifier, she said.
“It’s more just about if you’re willing to put together a fun costume, create a backstory, gather an entourage … and just be willing to perform. We definitely have people that are not fashioning themselves as athletic or strong and are doing it to be a part of the experience and to help out the organization we’re raising money for,” said Stanley.
For more information about this upcoming event or joining the group, message WeMAWL on Facebook or email Lynch at email@example.com.