On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of women gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden to inaugurate a new group: Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. These circus suffragists – among them aerialists, equestriennes, strongwomen, and tightrope walkers – had joined the fight for the vote. At the meeting, well-known bareback rider Josephine DeMott Robinson reminded attendees, “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.”1
She and her fellow performers – most of whom were white – were uniquely positioned to spread the message of suffrage as they traveled throughout the United States engaging with audiences.2 They joined petition drives, handed out suffrage literature, and Robinson was even known to ride her horse at rallies.
Suffragists celebrated women circus performers. Movement leader Inez Milholland stated that they “exemplify one phase of the ability of women to earn their own living.” Elizabeth Cook agreed: “There is no class of women who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women, who twice a day prove that they have the courage and endurance of men.”3 But when it came to supporting the new society, Milholland was a little more hesitant. She had promised to attend the event, but did not show up. Instead, Beatrice Jones from the Woman’s Political Equality Union joined the group as they celebrated by christening a baby giraffe at the menagerie “Miss Suffrage.”
The press got wind of the event and were gleefully condescending in their coverage. Jones, according to a New York Times reporter, was surrounded by “women and girls, modishly and sedately gowned, so that you would never dream it was their daily lot to bound about, blithe and bespangled.” And Miss Suffrage? By the end of the evening, the giraffe – not “previously being consulted” about its new name – “couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.”4 The New York Tribune joked that the lions “moved uneasily about their cages” and the hyenas “grinned and grinned.”5 A writer for the Sacramento Union reported that “Alexander Sebert, husband of Lillian Sebert, a bareback rider, projected himself into the meeting, took his wife and her sister, Jennie Byram, and hustled them out of the menagerie room … Sebert shouted that he didn’t intend to let his wife take part in such nonsense.”6
But women circus performers were not daunted by this commentary. They were used to it: their profession put them in a radical position, and they had to strike a delicate balance between their roles as showwomen and the public’s demand for respectable entertainment. Although they wore leotards and demonstrated acts of strength and power in the ring, performers and promoters portrayed them as proper, domestic women, more concerned about cooking their husbands dinners than their acts. The fact that the majority of women circus performers were white (at least those under the big top) also helped to shape their image as respectable, middle-class citizens.
Rossa Matilda Richter, who performed as Zazel, the first human cannonball, was an expert at the tightrope, trapeze, and high dive. But off the stage, Richter spoke to reporters about her fellow showwomen and their commitment to traditional gender roles, “complete with tales of women commandeering the railroad dining car to bake a cake.”7 Richter stated, “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.”8 Circuses had strict rules for women performers and emphasized the presence of male family members, which helped assuage any suspicions of the public. However, writes historian Janet M. Davis, “they also unintentionally eclipsed the larger historical significance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights.”9 They hid their radical performances behind high-necked dresses and freshly-baked cookies.
While Richter put forward her domestic ideals, English acrobat Josephine Mathews advanced a different narrative. She performed as “Evetta, the Lady Clown” and embraced “all of the new woman’s fads,” including bicycling and swinging Indian clubs.” Mathews boldly stated, “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.”10 Both Richter and Mathews’ public personas were likely shaped by circus press agents, showing the contradictory ways women in the circus were depicted.
Katherine Brumbach, a strongwoman who performed under the name Katie Sandwina, was at Madison Square Garden as an inaugural member of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. At five feet nine inches tall and 210 pounds with a muscular frame, she did not fit the physical standards for feminine beauty at the time. But doctors declared her the “perfect female specimen” and others described her as “beautiful and feminine.”11 She earned up to $1,500 a week, which amounts to roughly $40,000 in today’s money. As part of her routine, she regularly lifted her husband, Max Heymann, above her head. Brumbach’s appearance, abilities, and the fact that she earned a wage were at odds with the ideal woman.
Reporter Marguerite Martyn emphasized Brumbach’s divergent qualities in a 1911 article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing, “At the moment she was twirling her husband about in dizzy circles above her head … Carelessly, laughingly, she tosses her husband about as though he were not flesh and bone, but merely an effigy of inflated rubber. And he is no insignificant husband, either.” No “normal” woman would be able to lift and twirl her husband, especially with such ease. (Although some might like to, including the woman Martyn overheard exclaiming, “Gee! Wouldn’t I love to be able to bat a man around like that!”)12
In an accompanying illustration, Brumbach appears as large as a giant, holding the very properly-dressed and diminutive Martyn in one hand while preening for the crowd in a form-fitting leotard. In the next panel she has returned to more normal womanly activities, standing over a stove cooking dinner for her husband and son. “There are enough duties in her own home for any woman if she would make her family healthy and strong and wise,” Brumbach told Martyn. “I think I should be content to devote all my strength to my household.”13
Whatever her feelings about housework and home life (or those she expressed as a part of her public persona), Brumbach was an eager participant in the fight for the vote. She became the vice president of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, joining Robinson, equestrienne May Wirth, wire-walker Victoria Codona, bareback rider Victoria Davenport, and many others in committing herself to the cause.
While it is unclear how long the society lasted or how much of an impact their actions had on the suffrage movement, Robinson, Brumbach, and their fellow performers arguably made their most convincing case under the big top. Their costumes, skills, and ability to outearn many male circus performers proved to those who watched their shows that women were capable of being more than just angels at home; they were iron-jawed Amazons worthy of the vote.
A version of this post was originally published on the Re/Visionist on December 16, 2019.