Book Review: Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940, Katherine H. Adams & Michael L. Keene (2012)

October 16th, 2013 12:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

Challenging Gender Roles from inside the Big Top

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

From 1880 through 1940, the circus was the main form of entertainment in America, and the most common live form of entertainment. The circus brought the exotic and transgressive to big cities and small towns alike, exposing Americans to the strange, unusual, and death-defying: trapeze artists and tightrope walkers, equestrians and lion tamers, clowns and magicians, strong men and tattoo artists – and scores of women who challenged gender roles on multiple fronts. Sometimes these subversive acts proved as simple as displaying one’s “freakish” body in public; other times they involved highly skilled and dangerous stunts which required years of training to perfect.

Bearded women, tall women, fat ladies, and other “born freaks” challenged traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, while daredevil performers such as female equestrians, sharpshooters, animal trainers, hot rod tricksters, and human cannonballs claimed masculine realms as their own. Likewise, skeletal and short men – particularly when paired with their feminine opposites – also toyed with viewers’ perceptions of masculinity. “Manly” women were sometimes presented as the logical conclusion of feminism (i.e., women with facial hair are the next step in the evolution of the New Woman).

As women began to make up more and more of the circus audience after the Civil War, their roles in the circus changed, becoming more frequent, visible, and varied. Unlike actors, circus performers lived their roles; it was who they were. Women often got to “play the hero” – a role not usually open to them in the larger world. In many ways, a life in the circus afforded women greater independence and more opportunities for self-expression than women could find in the outside world. By 1910, women made up 1/3 to 1/2 of circus acts; as early as 1880, female aerialists earned more on average than men. Many of these were family affairs, with family acts immigrating to the U.S. to join more prestigious outfits. In this way, the circus was truly a microcosm of the “American Dream.”

Yet, neither was the circus a progressive feminist utopia for its female employees. Many of the jobs open to women, such as ballet girls, tableaux artists, and magician’s assistants, entailed nothing more than standing around and looking pretty. Even more skilled performers had to field demands for increasingly sexy and skimpy outfits. Some acts were more or less closed to women altogether: for example, there were so few female clowns during this time that some historians overlook them altogether. (Female clowning was sometimes presented as a shocking feminist choice, since clowns engage in copious displays of self-deprecation – the assumption being that women are too vain for such public, exaggerated self-mockery. In reality, the public just wasn’t ready to accept women as “open satirizers of American traditions.”) While women were eventually allowed to work with trained animal acts, it remained a well-kept secret that the women trained the animals themselves (rather than simply appearing onstage and striking a pose with them). Additionally, definitions of freakishness were often gendered; one very rarely saw a female skeleton, for instance, because women could never be “too thin.”

Perhaps most egregiously, women had to submit to more onerous contracts than did their male costars. With morality clauses that prohibited women from, among other things, divorcing their husbands during the circus’s run; appearing in public without a male chaperone; staying out past curfew; engaging in “flirting and boisterous conduct”; and entertaining male companions, even when not on duty, these contracts governed the most private aspects of women’s lives. Remember that the criminalization of spousal rape didn’t occur in the United States until the mid-1970s; only in 1993 did it become a crime in all 50 states. In order to obtain and keep a job in the circus, then, many women were forced to endure unhappy marriages, in which their husbands could violate them with impunity (although allegations of rape, if it did occur, do not appear here).

In Women of the American Circus, 1880-1940, Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene (both English professors) examine the role of women in the circus, as well as how circus women were portrayed in popular culture. This is an extension of their previous work: “In four earlier books […] we have explored the interaction between the visible culture of the United States in the critical period of 1880 to 1940 and the available and emerging roles for women at that time. […] We generally ask ‘what images of women are available?’ and ‘how are they evolving and changing?’”

Part One explores the stories told in the media (newspapers, press clippings, children’s books, novels for men and women, and film) about circus people. In Part Two, the focus shifts to the circus performers themselves; how did they characterize their experiences working in the circus? Part Three concerns the unfolding of the circus narrative as it arrives in town; among other things, the authors consider advance posters, the unloading of the caravan, the opening of the parade, and the stories told under the big top and in the sideshows. Last but not least, Part Four involves the circus women, “ranked and seen” – from no-/low-skill jobs such as ballet girls and “stationary freaks” to more skilled performers, the authors offer an overview of the positions open to female performers in the circus.

The result is a mostly-enjoyable read that’s sometimes lacking in detail. At just 206 pages, Women of the American Circus is a rather slim volume, especially considering the amount of ground covered. Many of the sections feel unnecessarily brief. Part Four (my favorite), in particular, could easily generate its own book. On the positive side, Women of the American Circus is academic but largely accessible to lay readers, with the jargon mostly kept to a minimum. I appreciate the authors’ feminist perspective, which resulted in a discussion of both the pros and cons of circus life for women. Still, readers interested in a more detailed book about female circus performers should look elsewhere; this is more of a general cultural studies volume.

Another, more specific critique I have is the authors’ failure to distinguish between the experience of more skilled performers – those who passionately wanted to pursue a career in the circus, and endured years of grueling training to do so – and some of those “born freaks” who ended up in the circus because they had few other options. Some of these individuals were even considered circus property – slaves, if you will. Most likely they viewed their time in the circus quite differently than those who actively sought to become a part of the community.

Also, as someone who cares deeply about nonhuman animals, the sections on animal acts were especially hard to stomach – particularly as the authors paid little attention to their welfare, let alone the larger ethics of animal acts (though a series of quotations from big cat trainer Mabel Stark does allude to her male colleagues’ more aggressive and violent training styles). To be fair, this was hardly the focus of their study – and yet I couldn’t help but cringe when I read that, in the course of her suffrage efforts, one female circus performer led a procession with a baby elephant. “We are all part of a great sisterhood,” indeed.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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