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

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

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.”

(More below the fold…)