Circus is an arena where women experience greater freedom, physicality and equality than other workplaces, challenging outmoded perceptions of a ‘weaker sex’. Historically, circuses moved around the country drawing crowds and employing women in roles that required physical and mental strength, courage and creativity.
From the late 1700’s, female American circus performers prospered as they defied cultural expectations of women as domesticated, pure and passive creatures. Liberation manifested in clothing as increasingly daring acts meant leotards and bloomers were more practical and safer options than restrictive corsets and dresses.
In 1912, together with Beatrice Jones of the ‘Women’s Political Equality Union’, bareback rider and circus performer Josie De Mott Robinson created the ‘Barnum and Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society.’ A talented and respected performer in her own right, Josie was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights declaring: ‘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.’
Josie was an advocate of rigorous exercise for women, embracing both bicycle and horse-riding as effective and appropriate fitness regimes. Suffrage meetings often contained spectacular elements, for example with Josie addressing rallies on horseback.
Some speculate that Barnum and Bailey’s acceptance and promotion of the Women’s Suffrage was part publicity stunt. However, the women themselves were unquestionably strong, independent and fiercely committed, proving equality sheer talent and skill, with salaries to match By 1920 American women had secured the right to vote as equals with men, whilst Britain lagged behind with a restricted vote until 1928.
Acknowledgements: ‘Ladies of the Ring’, Professor Janet M Davis, posted on line January 6th 2015 in ‘Women and Circus’. The Circus, Noel Daniel, TASCHEN, 2008
Extract from ‘Champion’, 2018, :
I used my gifts for leading, for stirring up the crowd, I rode my horse to rallies, urged women to speak out.
I gave my life to circus, to the politics that vex, proved to our accusers, we are not the weaker sex!