Dr. Janet Davis, circus society expert and associate professor in the Department of American Studies at University of Texas Austin, chronicles the historical significance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights by bringing to life the posters featured in the ‘Ladies of the Ring’ exhibit, running through Feb. 2nd at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL. This article was created as a reflection of the current exhibit, with help from the Ringling Museum of Art and the ‘Tibbals’ collection.
On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of female Barnum & Bailey circus performers gathered around a baby giraffe at Madison Square Garden and ceremoniously named her “Miss Suffrage.” The christening heralded the creation of a new women’s suffrage group, the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. Veteran bareback rider Josie De Mott Robinson spearheaded the organizing drive with Beatrice Jones, a member of the Woman’s Political Equality Union. After the women elected their society’s officers, De Mott Robinson capped off the event with a rousing recognition of women’s rights: “You earn salaries. Some of you have property. You have a right to say what shall be done with it. You want to establish clearly in the mind of your husband that you are his equal. You are not above him, but his equal. You are not slaves.”[i] De Mott Robinson’s energetic speeches, in tandem with her fabulous photo-worthy presence atop a rearing horse at suffrage rallies, brought reliable media attention to circus women’s participation in the movement.[ii] Less spectacularly, women performers also joined petition drives and handed out suffrage literature when they weren’t wire walking, lifting grown men, flying on a bicycle, tumbling atop a galloping horse, or clowning in bloomers.
As the nation’s most popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century, the traveling circus was an ideal location to advance female suffrage. The arrival of a large railroad circus, such as Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, temporarily swelled a town’s population as thousands of people, including suffragists, streamed in for “Circus Day.” On the Fourth of July, 1912, members of the Wisconsin Woman’s Suffrage Association traveled by automobile to the Ringling Brothers show grounds in Racine, where they handed out informational pamphlets with the circus’s blessing.[iii] Suffragists took their circus experiences to heart by incorporating spectacular circuslike elements into their own rallies, including canvas tents and colorful parades.[iv] At a mammoth suffrage parade in Spokane, Washington, in 1909, a young boy loudly realized (within earshot of a journalist) that the circus was not in town: “Aw, why don’t that circus parade come along?”[v]
The marriage of suffrage and circus was most effectively conveyed through the performers themselves, who embodied a bracingly modern image of strong, independent womanhood. In 1895, English acrobat Josephine Mathews performed as “Evetta, the Lady Clown,” with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Wearing whiteface, which enhanced—rather than disguised—her features, a towering white wig, and puffy bloomers, Evetta embraced “all of the new woman’s fads,” such as bicycling and swinging Indian clubs, that is to say, “everything a man does to keep herself in proper trim.”[vi] She brashly sat next to male audience members, playfully teased children, and flopped around acrobatically “like a rubber doll” during performances. In press releases, she succinctly stated her commitment to gender equality: “I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man.[vii] While it is often difficult to distinguish the words of a clever circus press agent from those of an interviewee, Evetta’s public persona illuminated a wider sea change in the ways that female big top performers were portrayed and celebrated in news media and in circus posters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “New Woman numbers” in which performers wore bloomers “of the most trim fittings, advanced new women dress reform pattern,” were advertised to appear in every big top job: ringmaster, object holders, and grooms. One press release mischievously claimed, “No man is allowed to occupy that sacred ground of territory…”[viii] In addition to generous publicity, popular big top women received the same salaries as their male colleagues.[ix]
Yet while women had worked and prospered at the American circus since the 1790s, early showmen deemphasized their presence. During the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840), evangelical ministers and purity reformers viewed virtually any public display of the female body as prurient. In a society that prized women’s domesticity and spiritual refinement, the working female circus athlete challenged cultural norms. Moreover, while body-hugging tights and leotards were not worn before the Gilded Age, antebellum women performers wore stockings under knee length skirts, a daring spectacle of leg in an era of normative neck to foot women’s dress.[x] (A poster of equestrienne Miss Katie Stokes performing with P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1878 illustrates this older style of costuming.) Intemperate displays of the body, coupled with the droves of pickpockets, brawlers, and grifters who flocked to the circus, compelled Vermont and Connecticut to ban the circus during the antebellum era.[xi] The antebellum circus woman made a significant leap towards greater respectability among purity reformers when an enterprising showman named Joshua Purdy Brown added an animal menagerie tent to his circus in 1828. Charging dual admission (fifty cents for entry to both, or twenty-five cents apiece), Brown helped transform the cultural status of the circus because exotic animals imparted an indisputable educational dimension to the show.[xii] Those who previously had avoided the circus wholesale now became paying customers at the menagerie.[xiii] This newly consolidated entertainment broadened the appeal of the circus to spectators that might have otherwise rejected it.[xiv]
Broader social, cultural, and economic changes also raised the circus woman’s status during the Gilded Age. With the explosion of the post-Civil War industrial economy, unmarried women increasingly labored outside the home as factory workers, schoolteachers, clerical staff, social workers, and missionaries. Women participated in expanding reform movements in addition to suffrage, including temperance, child welfare, conservation, birth control, and trade unionism. Growing numbers of middle-class women postponed marriage to attend college, where they enthusiastically participated in new physical education programs, which defied Victorian ideals of weak, neurasthenic womanhood. In this transformative environment, the nineteenth-century ideal of separate spheres for women and men began to crumble and female performers became a prominent feature in circus advertising campaigns.[xv] In 1881, for example, Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson’s circus vividly advertised its feature equestrienne Adelaide Cordona (also known as Codona), who performed a spectacular flaming zone hurdle act wearing red tights and a matching curvaceous leotard astride a galloping horse.[xvi] The circus poster contained an inset portrait of Cordona next to scenes of the flame-filled equestrian act, her face framed by proper high ruffled lace collar, her expression somber and courageous. In another display of big top women deftly handling horses, strongwoman Madam Yucca, “the champion American female Hercules,” lifted a horse on a platform while wearing a knee-length skirt during Barnum & Bailey’s 1892 season.
Impresarios capitalized on women’s growing participation in public life as a form of salable novelty—just as they seized the opportunity to showcase technological innovation, exotic animal acts, and extraordinary new talent of all stripes to keep their shows fresh and competitive. While late eighteenth and nineteenth-century circuses consistently featured fantastical displays of horsemanship in an animal-powered world (such as Cordona’s flaming zone hurdle act), the latest forms of transportation, such as bicycles and automobiles, were readily incorporated into women’s big top acts. The safety bicycle, named for its effective brakes and pneumatic tires of equal size, first entered America’s mass market in the 1890s and immediately ushered in a national “bicycle craze.” Dressed androgynously in knickers, button-down shirts, and bow ties, women members of the Great Kaufmann Troupe, “the World’s Greatest Bicyclists,” performed hand and foot balancing stunts, pyramid formations, and acrobatic maneuvers with their male colleagues atop moving bicycles in 1895. The gasoline-powered automobile immediately became a form of circus spectacle shortly after entering the American marketplace at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1905, Mauricia de Tiers, “the fearless young and fascinating Parisian,” combined automotive tricks with another new technology—flight—in the thrilling “L’Auto Bolide,” or “Daring Dip of Death,” in which she raced down a chillingly steep track, performed a free-falling somersault, and then landed upright on a new track.[xvii] It should be noted that race and class also tacitly shaped these representations of big top women, who were overwhelmingly white and were depicted in press releases as respectable, industrious, sober, and middle class.
Circus impresarios freely celebrated female power, but they also recognized contemporary cultural fears regarding the specter of female equality. To temper the subversive potential of the scantily clad, independent female big top star, showmen produced abundant press releases stressing circus women’s domesticity. Zazel, a cannonball stunt artist, otherwise known as the “champion of the world” during her 1881 season as “the human projectile,” was married to Barnum & Bailey press agent George O. Starr. In interviews, she lauded circus women’s commitment to marriage and home, complete with tales of women commandeering the railroad dining car to bake a cake: “The domestic instinct is very strong among circus women, for the reason that they are deprived of home life a great part of every year.”[xviii] Showmen freely publicized conduct rules for female employees, including curfews, off-duty dress requirements, and prohibitions against flirting and alcohol consumption.[xix] Further, they stressed that most women big top performers were members of circus families, such as aerialist Jennie Rooney and equestrienne Emma Lake. They also highlighted the presence of family members—notably husbands and brothers—who kept a watchful eye on their female relatives. These normative strategies helped the circus escape the wrath of a new generation of purity reformers; however, they also unintentionally eclipsed the larger historicalsignificance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights.
A big thank you to Ringling Museum of Art for providing the images, courtesy of the ‘Tibbals’ collections.
Janet M. Davis is Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, she spent the majority of her childhood and young adulthood in the Upper Midwest—with intermediate stops on study abroad programs in Germany and India. In addition to fellowships from Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies in Hindi; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the American Association of University Women; and UT-Austin, Dr. Davis is the winner of a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award and the Robert W. Hamilton Book Award. She has earned the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award and the Eyes of Texas Excellence Award. Dr. Davis is the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top, as well as the editor of Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Life of Tiny Kline. She is currently finishing her third book, The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Dr. Davis’s article, “Cockfight Nationalism: Blood Sport and the Moral Politics of Empire and Nation Building,” recently won the 2014 Constance M. Rourke Prize for the best article published in American Quarterly.
[i] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday,” New York Times, April 1, 1912, 7, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/; “Equal Suffrage in the Circus,” Arizona Republican, September 19, 1912, 5, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020558/1912-09-19/ed-1/seq-5/.
[ii] Josie De Mott Robinson, The Circus Lady, (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1925), 276-277.
[iii] “Ringling Bros. Help Wisconsin: Wives are Members of Suffrage Society–Allow Campaigning on Circus Grounds,” Woman’s Journal, July 13, 1912, citation courtesy of Susan Traverso.
[iv] “California Votes on Amendments to Constitution,” Bryan Daily Eagle (Texas), October 10, 1911, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86088651/1911-10-10/ed-1/seq-2/; “Suffrage Question not Downed by War,” Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), August 16, 1914, 4, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1914-08-16/ed-1/seq-14/.
[v] “The Irony of It,” Spokane Press (Washington), June 28, 1909, 2, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88085947/1909-06-28/ed-1/seq-2/.
[vi] “A Very New Woman,” unidentified newspaper clipping, 1896, Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin (CWM).
[vii] “A Very New Woman.”
[viii] “Barnum Talks of the Shows of His Grandsons,” unidentified newspaper clipping, L. T. Lee Barnum & Bailey Scrapbook, Todd-McLean Physical Culture Collection, (hereafter, TMPCC),University of Texas at Austin 1896, L. T. Lee Barnum & Bailey Scrapbook, Todd-McLean Physical Culture Collection, University of Texas at Austin.
[ix] Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 67.
[x] Thayer, Traveling Showmen: The American Circus before the Civil War (Detroit: Astley and Ricketts, 1997), 94.
[xi] Thayer, “The Anti-Circus Laws in Connecticut, 1773-1840,” Bandwagon 20 (January-February 1976): 18; “Legislating the Shows: Vermont, 1824-1933,” Bandwagon 25 (July-August 1981): 20.
[xii] Thayer, Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1860 (Seattle: Dauven and Thayer, 2000 ), 76, 99.
[xiii] See Fred Dahlinger, Jr., “The American Circus Tent,” in Susan Weber, Kenneth L. Ames, and Matthew Wittmann, editors, American Circus, (New Haven and New York: Yale University Press and Bard Graduate Center, 2012): 201-231.
[xiv] Janet M. Davis, “The Circus Americanized,” in Weber, Ames and Wittmann, editors, American Circus, 29-30.
[xv] Janet M. Davis, “Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakers, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America,” in Kristin Spangenberg and Deborah Walk, editors, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company (Cincinnati and Sarasota: Cincinnati Art Museum and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, February 2011): 75-84
[xvi] William L. Slout, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus (San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1998), 53.
[xvii] Davis, The Circus Age, 103-104.
[xviii] “Life as a Woman of the Circus is Not All Glitter: Hard Work and Discipline Her Lot,” New York Evening Telegram, August 27, 1902, quoted in Davis, The Circus Age.
[xix] Davis, “Bearded Ladies,” 79.