Lady Arm Wrestlers battle For Good in Sarasota

Their manners may be questionable at best, but their mission is straightforward: Support Women. Support Equality. Support Freedom of Expression. Save the World.

The league of misfit superheroes known as the Sarasota Lady Arm Wrestlers (SLAW) puts muscle behind nonprofit organizations in the Sarasota-Manatee region by placing a boisterous spin on traditional philanthropy models.

By day, the eight "Goddesses'' of SLAW Nation are mothers, educators, students, STEM professionals -- there's even a mild-mannered journalist among the bunch -- but place a regulation arm wrestling table in front of them, and these women are all bicep, brawn and trash talk: for the greater good. 

SLAW and their CLAW USA contemporaries believe that saving the world begins locally -- and can be achieved through the power of audience-interactive spectacle where every penny raised benefits a nonprofit within the community.

SLAW uses a democratic process within the league to determine a beneficiary for each bout and, with the beneficiary's consent, throws a theatrical showdown where personalities like Jersey She-Devil, Florida Woman, Reyna 'Terror' Torres, and mad scientist Poly Dexter Rose wrestle for the bragging-rights glory. In the end, one Goddess takes home the bedazzled champion's belt and one nonprofit brings home a few thousand dollars.

Per superhero code, the Goddesses of SLAW and their progenitors from the national Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW USA) prefer to remain cloaked in anonymity. They agreed to speak with 83 Degrees using their wrestling personas.

Democratizing fundraising

"I believe that humor is a very healing source, and a very powerful tool," says Madame VonDrumpfanator, who presents on stage as the foul-mouthed, bullwhip-wielding dictatorial ringleader of SLAW. Florida's first philanthropic arm wrestling league emerged from a series of "Arts Matter'' themed salons she hosted in her home following the 2016 presidential election.

"I was initially really focused on the fine arts community, which is my primary community. We were trying to find a way to start
The upcoming SLAW bout at Cock & Bull Pub on October 14 supports UnidosNow, an organization working to help low-income, first-generation Latinx immigrants pursue higher education.
 dialoguing about how we could use our talents to counter potential loss of support in key areas we felt could be under duress," says Madame V.

"How do you make philanthropy accessible to someone who has 10 dollars in their pocket that they're willing to give away; who wants to have a good time with like-minded people while supporting a cause for something they care about?"

Madame V. placed a call to arms, recruiting four wrestlers, a ref, ring boys and a volunteer support crew for the inaugural SLAW 'Backyard Brawl' in March, which raised just under $2,500 for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida. The second SLAW brawl in June -- a benefit for Sarasota-based LGBT peer support organization, ALSO Youth -- raised $5,300 during the two-hour, eight-wrestler showdown.

"We're democratizing fundraising -- and I really do believe that we're saving the world," says Madame V. 

The upcoming SLAW bout at Cock & Bull Pub on October 14 supports UnidosNow, an organization working to help low-income, first-generation Latinx immigrants pursue higher education. To learn more about UnidosNow and get tickets (a $10 donation to UnidosNow) for the SLAW bout, visit the organization's SLAW Fundraiser page

Big picture: CLAW USA 

SLAW is the latest league to emerge in an underground tradition that began in 2008 with a friendly bet between friends -- moms with performing arts backgrounds exchanging gym banter over who had stronger baby-lugging biceps. The resulting phenomenon, Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers, inspired a wrestling ripple effect across the nation, eventually propagating CLAW USA in 2011 -- a collective that is today more than 25 leagues strong.

Though each league operates independently, Charlottesville league veteran and CLAW USA board member, The Ringleader, explains the basic tenets of CLAW.

"It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be women-centered, it needs to involve arm wrestling, and it needs to be philanthropic. For me, what's most important is this community we've built all over the country," she says.

CLAW USA hosts biennial "Super CLAW" events in which wrestlers convene from across the nation in a brawl to raise money for an organization in the host city. The next Super CLAW will take place in Los Angeles on Feb. 24; beneficiary TBA.

"There are definitely differences between the leagues, but above our differences, there's so much inspiration coming from a bunch of badass women who are doing phenomenal work in their communities across the country," says CLAW USA board member and Durham league stage personality, Lady Trauma. 

"CLAW has helped me realize you can approach activism in a lot of different ways; that there are a lot of specific ways I can help improve my community even when I'm frustrated. … The idea of having difficult conversations with family members or co-workers used to be stressful, but I've been empowered and inspired by the women I work with to initiate those conversations," Lady Trauma adds. 

When national tragedy hit her doorstep in Charlottesville VA last month, The Ringleader, who works in the nonprofit sector and holds a doctorate in education, says her years of involvement in and "street cred" connections with CLAW largely shaped her response -- beyond her "institutional cred.''

"We've been doing community support, educating businesses about their rights, de-escalating scenarios on the streets -- and all of that is something CLAW gave us practice for. Early organizers of CLAW ... are working to get together resources to people so that they know how to deal with things beyond "day of'' in these events: If there are lawyers calling you, do you know how to deal with them? Do you need an accountant to help with your GoFundMe, legal or medical funds? We're equipped to help with that.

There's a form of activism born in the absence of government entities providing those services -- and that, to me, is what CLAW gave me the confidence to do. We can fundraise; we can provide services without being formal nonprofits -- and we don't have to ask permission from anyone."

Spoken like a true Ringleader -- and a woman bent on saving the world.

Full disclosure: That 'mild-mannered journalist' on the SLAW wrestling team mentioned earlier in this article? That's me, Jessi Smith: aka Florida Woman.

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Jessi Smith is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor living in the historic, colorful Gillespie Park neighborhood of downtown Sarasota. A Florida native, Jessi spent her childhood exploring the mangroves along the riverbanks of the Manatee River, and to this day refuses to live anywhere that is not within walking distance of a body of water. She received her BA in Art History from Florida International University prior to moving to Sarasota, where she channeled her passion for the arts into a writing career and found yoga to counteract the effects of hunching over a keyboard for days at a time. Today, when Jessi is not writing or teaching, she enjoys traveling, thrifting and indulging in the Bay area’s distinctive culinary and craft brewery scenes.
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