Iron-Jawed Angels: Circus Suffragists and the Fight for the Vote

By Rebecca Hopman

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.

photograph of Josephine DeMott Robinson riding her horse

Josephine DeMott Robinson at her riding school, showing some of her pupils how to vault a horse while in motion. Source: Narratively (Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

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]

lithograph of women trapeze artists performing at circus

Female acrobats on trapezes at circus, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress [Public domain])

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 fresh-baked cookies.

Photograph of Zazel the human cannonball

Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer when she was 14, 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons (London Stereoscopic Co. [Public domain])

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.

poster of Evetta lady clown

The Strobridge Lithographing Company Barnum & Bailey: Evetta the Only Lady Clown, 1895. Source: Circus Now

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.

photograph of circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina holding three men in the air

Katie Sandwina, “The Lady Hercules”. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bain News Service [Public domain])

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]

black and white line drawing of Katie Sandwina

Imaginative sketch by Marguerite Martyn of strongwoman Katie Sandwina, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Marguerite Martyn [Public domain])

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.


Resources


Notes

[1] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday,” New York Times, April 1, 1912.

[2] Most women employed by circuses were white, with the exception of women in sideshow acts. This seems to extend to the membership of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, although there isn’t a full list of members included in accounts. One reporter mentions several Japanese women in the group, but all the performers mentioned by name were white.

[3] Kat Vecchio, “Barnum & Bailey’s Forgotten High-Flying Suffragists,” Narratively, December 27, 2017.

[4] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday.”

[5] “Suffragettes in Circus,” New-York Tribune. April 1, 1912.

[6] Afton Woodward, “Suffragette Circus,” The Virtuoso, March 1, 2016.

[7] Janet M. Davis, “Ladies of the Ring,” Circus Now, January 6, 2015. 

[8] 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): 79.

[9] Davis, “Ladies of the Ring.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Debbie Foulkes, “Katie Sandwina (1884 – 1952) Circus Strongwoman,” Forgotten Newsmakers, December 14, 2010.

[12] Marguerite Martyn, “The ‘Lady Hercules’ Tells Marguerite Martyn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 1911.

[13] Ibid.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Roaring Lesbian Subcultures in New York City

New York City has long been known for its liberalism and borough-specific socioeconomic demographics; however, one community during the 1920s often overlooked by historians is the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village. In this article, “lesbian” will be used very loosely to describe women-loving-women. Due to the term’s limited use until the mid-twentieth century, retroactively labeling women of the early 1900s as lesbians would not be accurate. However, there were a handful of known Greenwich Village women who lived openly lesbians lives and others who married gay men in order to preserve a heterosexual identity in public life. 

Frequently noted for bohemianism and the free love movement during the 1920s, Greenwich Village was home to many middle-class, white liberals who were seeking careers as artists, writers, and activists. Beneath the white liberal populous, gay and lesbian cultures flourished. Lesbianism began to gain visibility, bolstered by the free love movement and feminist collectives. One such example was The Heterodoxy Club, which was active in Greenwich Village from 1912 through the 1940s. This collective is a unique example of a feminist organization, due to the fact that they were generally more accepting of other women regardless of sexuality. While members were almost entirely white and most came from a middle-upper class, educated background, the sense of comradery they held for one another meant openly lesbian women, such as Katharine Anthony, were able to be active members in the feminist community. Aside from Judith Schwarz’s 1986 publication, Feminists of the Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940, very little information is available about The Heterodoxy Club. Nevertheless, this group of approximately one hundred women provides a small but important window through which through which it is possible to examine the emergence of lesbianism in the 1920s.

It is important to acknowledge that Greenwich Village was not the only community in New York City with an underground gay and lesbian culture coming to life during the early twentieth century. While the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village was rooted in privileges such as whiteness, middle-class status, and a college education, Harlem’s working-class residents – mostly people of color – fostered a different world of queer culture. Due to Harlem’s socioeconomic status, underground gay and lesbian communities were often exploited by affluent white folks from other boroughs. Still, night scenes in both Harlem and Greenwich Village funcitoned as social spaces for lesbians to meet and became part of the foundation of homosexual subcultures.  

Establishments in Greenwich Village, like Polly Halliday’s restaurant on MacDougal Street where The Heterodoxy Club gathered, often served as meeting places for activists, gays, and lesbians. While lesbian subculture became an integral part of Greenwich Village’s reputation and the free love movement, they still faced discrimination and dangerous circumstances such as incarceration in women’s prisons. Establishing economic independence and stability as a lesbian during the 1920s was no easy feat and many were eventually forced to marry men due to societal and financial pressures. Economic independence was a common topic of discussion among straight and queer women of The Heterodoxy Club. For example, Katharine Anthony and Elisabeth Irwin, lesbian partners and members of The Heterodoxy Club, struggled to support themselves and their adopted daughters. Financial strife should not come as a surprise due to the prominence of misogyny and homophobia during the 1920s, which imposed intense experiences of oppression among lesbians. Although many lesbians in Greenwich Village during the 1920s were middle-upper class and white, they still experienced difficulty affording housing as well as job security. Such obstacles to sustainable and accessible living sometimes resulted in sham weddings to gay men which were safer than open partnerships with women.

Ultimately, lesbian and gay subcultures which took root during the early twentieth century grew into social revolutions decades later. During the 1920s, lesbianism began to emerge as a tangible and visible aspect of women’s sexuality and gender expression in New York City boroughs like Greenwich Village and Harlem. Today, we may look to icons from the mid-to-late 1900s, such as Audre Lorde, who made history as queer women. However, we cannot forget those who were blazing the raging lesbian trail during the roaring twenties.

Sources

Audre Lorde biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde

Elisabeth Irwin biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Irwin

Katharine Anthony biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Anthony

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

"Articulating the Feeling is Hard": Women and the Emo Revival

By Marian Phillips

During the 1980s, the first wave of emo music was born. An offshoot from Washington, D.C. hardcore bands, the musical genre introduced the world to traditional punk stylistic elements mixed with emotional vulnerability and poetic lyrics. Most notably, emo’s roots can be traced to Rites of Spring, making them the fathers of emo. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Midwest became the nation’s powerhouse for all things emo with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, and American Football. As the new millennium began, so did the third wave of the genre. At the same time, the lines of what qualified as emo blurred and gave way to elements of pop-punk, punk, and hip-hop to intertwine with it. Thus, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Jimmy Eat World became the figureheads of the third wave. Then Myspace appeared. 

The social media website opened the door for emo to go mainstream with bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore. As a result, “mall emo” [1] formed and gave the genre more negative attention than it had before. The term emo was never truly accepted by anyone in the scene or outside of it, no one truly knows what the definition of emo is, and whether or not it’s a fashion choice or a musical genre at all. Regardless of the complexities and confusion that comes with emo, 2008 witnessed the fourth wave, more commonly known as the “Emo Revival,” and it’s still going strong to this day. But this time there are critical differences. You may have noticed that almost every band listed above are fronted by men, that is not the case anymore. Today, we are seeing more women at the forefront of this revival than we have seen previously and the  amount of people welcoming the word emo into their lives is increasing. 

If you were to ask anyone about women in emo bands during the 2000s, more times than not, you’ll either hear Hayley Williams (Paramore) or an “I don’t know.” Today, the answers are entirely different. You might hear Zoë Allaire Reynold (Kississippi), Brianna Collins (Tigers Jaw), Alex Menne (Great Grandpa), Julia Steiner (Ratboys) or Rachel Lightner (Nervous Dater). Growing up during the third wave of emo in the early 2000s, I constantly sought bands that were led by women or even included a woman in their line-up. Pre-teen me would find Paramore, Hey Monday, and Eisley, but that was pretty much it. The third wave is marked as the most sexist years of the genre, so the lack of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals does not come as a surprise. 

For instance, lyrics of abusing women or adamently denying homosexuality swarmed the third wave. In 2005, Fall Out Boy wrote “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” which included Patrick Stump singing “so wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down/I’ll watch you choke.” [2] The lyrics are caked in jealousy and anger towards an unknown woman that they are having an affair with. Furthermore, in 2017, Jesse Lacey – frontman for the popular third wave emo band Brand New – was accused of preying on underaged fans. Which comes as no surprise when you look at the lyrics Lacey wrote for the song “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” from the 2003 album Deja Entendu: “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans/My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent/Bring you back to the bar/Get you out of the cold/My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.” He sings “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do,” [3] giving himself the image of predator and women as prey. [4]

As I reached the age of sixteen in 2012, bands like Pity Sex, Adventures, Bully, and Tigers Jaw entered my heavy rotation playlist. Today, we are witnessing such an impecable growth of women fronted punk, emo, pop-punk, and hardcore bands that make options almost endless. Considering that the image of emo historically looks very white, cisgender, heterosexual, and solely for men, we are also seeing more LGBTQIA+ individuals and women of color making space for themselves in the Emo Revival. For instance, the band She/Her/Hers calls out this image in their song “Kill the Boy Band,” “So you started a band?/Well, let me guess who’s in it/All-straight all-white able-bodied cis men/Say you don’t know many female musicians/Why the fuck would they want to be part of a scene with people like you in it?” [5] The women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color that participate in the Emo Revival reject the expected norm of what emo has historically looked like. 

Tigers Jaw (left to right: Brianna Collins, Ben Walsh, Teddy Roberts, and Logan Schwartz) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author. 

The importance of emo bands have always been their ability to articulate to a group of people that they are not alone in what they are experiencing or feeling. The lack of women in the genre up until this point, in my experience, felt isolating. These women of the Emo Revival are making space for more diverse demographic to participate in the genre. For instance, while living in Lawrence, Kansas from 2014-2018, I had the opportunity to watch the DIT (Do it Together) community nurture the growth of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals in every genre of music. I watched eyes light up, and felt my own do the same, when someone I could identify with walked on stage and melted away the isolation I felt in my teenage years. We weren’t listening to a man whine about a girl not wanting him back or breaking his heart, we were hearing emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment with an unjust system, patriarchy, and the mistreatment of women at large. 

It was at this point, during the 2010s, that another wave of Riot Grrrl punk bands emerged and began to merge with emo. In fact, most of the bands I have listed that are women led are, more often than not, considered punk bands. The two genres tend to meld together when a mixture of emotional vulnerability, a fast tempo, and sharp vocals with contrasting melodies are performed. Lyrically, they can sound the same, depending on the band and musician (for example, the Canadian band PUP is considered both emo and punk). Yet, emo often uses more abstract language to articulate a point, while punk may just get to the point in a forthright manner. Regardless of the differing stylistic elements between the genres, the Emo Revival includes bands that we would probably consider more punk than emo, but are also listed under that moniker. 

Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Crevy at the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York February 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author. 

I wrote this piece when I thought of all of the women fronted emo, punk, pop-punk, alternative, and indie bands that have gone under the radar in favor of the played out figurehead of a man who’s whining about a girl. These bands are just as deserving of the scene’s attention. Their presence in DIT bars and venues, clubs, concert halls, and basement shows impact communities in a larger way than we usually consider. Girls Rock Camps are popping up in almost every city, and women musicians are actively nurturing the growth of women and young girls in music, no matter the genre. In short, this piece isn’t simply about where emo was or what it is now, this is about where the future of music is going, and the increasing presence of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color in every genre of music and their capability of fostering a supportive and welcoming community. 

2020 will see Paramore’s Hayley Williams do a solo project, Halsey’s Maniac on January 17th, Poppy’s I Disagree on January 10th, a new album from Soccer Mommy, and rumors of Tigers Jaw’s upcoming album coming in 2020 have recently surfaced. 


Notes

[1] Tom Connick, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Evolution of Emo: NME,” NME Music News, Reviews, Videos, Galleries, Tickets and Blogs | NME.COM, April 30, 2018, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/emo-wave-guide-evolution-2302802.

[2]  Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” From Under the Cork Tree, Island Records, 2005, track 5. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/5nkUSlIhtoJZMOUlB0sNCp?highlight=spotify:track:6HJzCcSMggn7Ultxs48dAe

[3]  Brand New, Jesse Lacey, “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” Deja Entendu, Triple Crown Records, 2003, track 8. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/6vDiMhyfSnTn18OY99BSQX

[4] Jenn Pelly, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2017, pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/.

[5] She/Her/Hers, Emma Grrrl, “Kill the Boy Band,” Grrrl Angst, 2018. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/1joEVEBQ4YuxikhoClLGBP


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies. She will present “‘Activists, Punks, Freaks, and Rebels’: Queercore’s Grassroots Activism from 1980 to the Present” at Sarah Lawrence College’s 22nd Annual Women’s History Conference on March 27-28, 2020.

How The Feminine Mystique Dismantled 1950s Domestic Life

By Rebecca Rranza

The quote “no woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor” comes from Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique was a widely read and influential work for middle-class white women of this time and it helped contribute to the Second Wave Feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Second Wave Feminism drew attention to many issues regarding cis gender women such as domestic violence, abortion rights, and pay equality. At this time, feminism in America was multifaceted and fought for on many different platforms such as consciousness raising groups and the Miss America Pageant protests of 1969. Betty Friedan cofounded the National Organization of Women (NOW), along with Shirley Chisholm, Muriel Fox, and others. NOW, which has a liberal feminist agenda with goals such as promoting equal rights, is still running from its founding in 1966. Friedan’s activism and writing were well known in the Second Wave Movement and her book was the culmination of research and testimonials of real women focusing on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Friedan uses personal anecdote, social science, psychology, sexuality, etc. as different lenses that her work sees these women through. 

While The Feminine Mystique had a profound influence on how women thought about feminism during the 1960s and 1970s, it is critical to acknowledge its shortcomings in terms of intersectional analysis. Much of Friedan’s analysis focuses on elite white, cis, heterosexual women which excluded working class, trans and queer women of color. The limited scope of Friedan’s feminist perspective meant that the women her work reached were predominantly privileged. 

Prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the 1950s ideal woman was a white, ablebodied, cisgender, heterosexual American housewife and mother. The “problem with no name,” coined by Friedan, describes the need for more than society and their families is offering them. These housewives want to exist for more than a household and their desperation grew from silence into anger. From the 1950s image of an American mother and housewife to the social movements of the 1960s, the lives of women who had the socioeconomic agency to be feminists began to change. The book starts off with this iconic quote from the first page,

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” [1]

Women read that passage and realized it didn’t have to be all. They realized they could be multifaceted people. The groups women had formed, like NOW or the more radical feminist groups, like the Redstockings, were spaces they could exist and speak freely. By examining Friedan’s text from a contemporary lens, one finds that despite necessary criticism to the text and to the movement, it is clear this text had an impact on society at the time and on the minds of women. Once they were more informed, they were ready to use their knowledge to impact change in their lives and other’s lives. It was significant to history even years later. Millions of women who read the book, or did not, heard its message of anger and discontent in many women’s lives and lasted through the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Feminine Mystique led to real change in the lives of people then and now. 


Notes

[1] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. 1.


Works Cited

Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 10, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.


Rebecca Rranza is a first-year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

An Uprising of the Uterus: Pussy Riot, Politics, and Performance

By Rachael Nuckles

Performance art or protest collective? Punk rockers or political activists? However you label them, Pussy Riot has become a well known name outside of their home city of Moscow in Russia. Based on their wide range of performances and media appearances, it’s hard to define this group under one neat label. Right now, I like international punk scholar Kevin Dunn’s choice to use the translation “an uprising in my uterus.” Pussy Riot’s English-language name is not fully translatable into Russian, so this phrase represents an admirable attempt. First gaining international notoriety with their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pussy Riot has remained a global phenomenon due to their guerrilla-style performance activism and brightly-colored-balaclava brand. Their displays have resulted in many arrests, including the 2011 charges of “hooliganism” for their Punk Prayer performance. On-site demonstrations are central to Pussy Riot’s activist brand; from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the World Cup Final in 2018, they rely on media coverage and social media-savvy citizens to spread their imagery and messages. They utilize music to reach a broad audience in a renewal of Riot Grrrl era punk ideology about the gendered body and political space. Most recently, they released “Hangerz,” released December 6, 2019 tackles abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy.

The Punk Prayer can be read in a variety of ways, but the role domesticity in this performance have not been acknowledged at length. At its core, this protest dismantled Russian gender tradition in a physical, visual way. To understand how radical this protest actually was, it must be contextualized in terms of cultural domesticity. There are a couple of ways we can accomplish this. First, the role of Putin-era (beginning in 2000-present day) politics on gendered ideology and expectations must be considered. Second, the Russian Orthodox Christian church’s views on “morality” have also helped to construct the landscape in which Pussy Riot is operating. 

Part of the reason Pussy Riot is such a threatening force in Russia is due to the ways they challenge traditional gender expectations. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget note that in the post-communist state of Russia, “gendered citizenship…was entirely determined by the state.” Women’s roles in the Stalin-era (approximately 1922-1953) were guided by motherhood and work only if it helped to stabilize the patriarchal social structure. Therefore, this work was mostly domestic and located in the private sphere. This mode of understanding gender privileges cisgendered and heterosexual experience. Queer identities are outliers according to this ideology, and therefore have significantly less visibility in Russian culture. Also of note is the role of the Orthodox Church in constructing widely-held beliefs about gender roles and morality. A conservative organization, the Orthodox Church in Russia privileges the traditional heterosexual family unit alongside the Russian Family Code which holds the family accountable for a child’s “moral upbringing.” Currently, the Orthodox Church is concerned with designating acceptable standards of appearance for “true” Christians. The Cathedral now has dress requirements, with “security officers…ready to check the appropriateness of the attire of those entering.” 

Political Science scholar Janet Elise Johnson and Psychology researcher Aino Saarinen suggest that Vladmir Putin brought “a more restrictive regime” which limited both women’s freedoms and ability to participate in feminist activism. In post-communist Russia, some feminist scholars conclude that Putin’s rule ushered in a “neotraditional gender ideology in which women were reassigned to the private sphere and men to the newly empowered public.” Motherhood and domesticity have become central to women’s social role under Putin’s reforms. This neotraditional gender ideology makes sexist policies and institutions possible. Sexist language is normalized by Putin, who brings private male “locker room talk” into the public sphere and, to some, make it a legitimate expression of Russian masculine identity. Derogatory language about women, paired with masculine empowerment, forces Russian women further into the domestic, private sphere which limits their ability to be public activists.

Though public activism isn’t always achievable, women activists working within countries ruled by authoritarian governments tend to use domestic traditions in their protesting. Using cultural norms and appearances helps women to “avoid being seen as political and threatening.” Thus, utilizing the traditions associated with motherly domesticity, such as appearance, can be a significant tool for remaining invisible while organizing. In the case of Pussy Riot, utilizing the acceptable clothing of the Orthodox Church helped them to gain access to the Cathedral for their Punk Prayer performance:

Appropriate attire allowed them to smuggle in both their brightly colored costumes and a guitar unnoticed. Because they achieved this invisibility, their performance was arguably even more shocking to churchgoers. In this way, Pussy Riot “made visible the Church’s nested frames of exclusion by violating them.” Performing such bold dancing in attire deemed too revealing for the church was doubly problematic for “tradition.” While not all members of Pussy Riot are cisgendered and heterosexual, (membership is often fluid and anonymous) the women involved in the Punk Prayer were. So, these participants were working from their privilege to call attention to flaws within Russia’s strict systems of understanding. Their protest challenges the cultural belief that women’s place is at home, in the domestic sphere only as mothers, and the Church’s belief about feminine modesty and self-discipline which directly opposed feminist thought.

Interestingly, two of the members of Pussy Riot arrested for the Cathedral performance are also mothers. This further complicates their critique of roles and spaces available to women in Russia. Being a mother and feminist activist simply does not align within the close-knit social structures of Putin’s rule and Orthodox Christianity. A woman’s “function” is to be a mother in Russian society, and her motherhood should be inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. How could one be a “good” mother under the patriarchal system if she does not submit to the domestic sphere as expected? How could women so brash and outspoken also be mothers? Why would a mother choose such bright, attention-seeking clothing? How could these women be connected in any way to the ideals embodied by the Virgin Mary?

Because Pussy Riot challenges deeply-held beliefs regarding women’s social position, they are no longer able to be read as non-threatening domestic beings. Ultimately, this disconnect between gender, motherhood, and the public sphere seems to be the major motivation for arresting the group on charges of “hooliganism.” By infiltrating an infamous location to critique both the church and state, Pussy Riot dismantled two of the most prominent institutions enforcing traditional domesticity in Russian culture. In the west, we might laugh at such a charge as “hooliganism.” Though, when considering it through the lens of domesticity, it makes a bit more sense. To control gender expression, imprisoning outliers might help to keep them silent. In the case of Pussy Riot, it seems to have only sparked international attention and discussion regarding topics such as gender inequality, separation of church and state, and corruption in government institutions. As the collective has proven, even imprisonment cannot silence the oppressed. 


Bibliography

Dunn, Kevin C. “Pussy Rioting.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 2 (2014): 317-34. doi:10.1080/14616742.2014.919103.

Isupova, O. G. “The Social Meaning of Motherhood in Russia Today “Only You Need Your Child”.” Russian Education and Society 44 (2002): 61-80.

Johnson, Janet Elise, and Aino Saarinen. “Twenty-First-Century Feminisms under Repression: Gender Regime Change and the Women’s Crisis Center Movement in Russia.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 543-67. 

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234-60. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.974644.

Link to “Hangerz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZymIIAUJk

Link to Punk Prayer Performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Stepping into the Spotlight: Women Itinerant Glassworkers

By Rebecca Hopman

The orphans from the Home of the Friendless filed into the Metropolitan Rink in orderly rows, staring at the wonders displayed before them. Glass sparkled from every surface, shaped like ships and birds and little men and women. A steam engine made of colorful glass spun and whirred next to a model of a derrick bobbing for non-existent oil. In the center of it all stood Madam Nora and her troupe of itinerant glassworkers, spinning, twisting, and blowing glass into all sorts of marvelous shapes. They were there to show the children all the wonderful things that could be made from glass, and to give each child a toy to treasure long after the show was over. To thank the glassworkers for their gifts, the orphans sang them a song. It was the perfect end to the troupe’s two-week stay in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in March 1887. More importantly, it garnered Nora and her troupe a slew of free publicity and praise, as well as an open invitation to come back again. It paid to be a marketing-savvy woman in show business. [1]

sepia photograph of two itinerant glassworkers behind a table of their goods

Mrs. and Mr. Frank. A. Owen. Glass exhibition featuring spinning wheel and glass steam engine, 1904? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 131372.

Itinerant glassworkers were lampworkers who toured cities and towns entertaining and educating audiences from the 17th century through 20th century. [2] They demonstrated glassmaking, blowing glass bubbles, spinning glass thread, and shaping flowers, baskets, and figurines. They created intricate models like skeletons and steam engines and covered tables with trinkets for sale. The trade was dominated by men, but there were quite a few women who performed too, including some of the most prominent and popular itinerant glassworkers of the 19th and early 20th century.

By stepping outside the home and entering the public sphere, these women transgressed the standards set for women. They traveled across countries and continents, demonstrating glassmaking for royalty, government officials, and members of the public. They made their own living, and some of them counted their male family members as employees. Women like Madam Nora and Madam J. Reith ran their own troupes and became popular performers. Details about their private lives are few and far between, but as public figures they were breaking down ideas of what women could and should be at that time.

The earliest-known woman itinerant glassworker was a Mrs. Johnston or Johnson, who was active in the mid-18th century. In December 1740, she performed at the Robin Hood tavern in Dublin, Ireland, making “curiosities such as, men, women, birds, beasts, swords, scabbards, and ships” out of glass. She also used a wheel to spin glass thread, as much as “ten thousand yards of glass in half an hour.” [3] A few years later she had traveled north to demonstrate in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here she won herself an admirer who was so impressed by her performance they composed a poem in her honor. [4]

More women followed in Johnston’s footsteps, often performing alongside their spouses or families. Signora Murch demonstrated with her husband in Devonport, England, in 1825. The two demonstrated their lampworking skills, “Modelling, Blowing, and Spinning Glass, of various colours.” They offered to make the “Likeness of any favorite DOG” in glass and teach women the “Art of Flower Making.” The Murches made many items for sale, including “Glass Feathers, Pens, Baskets . . . and other Curiosities too numerous to mention.” [5]

portrait of a young Madam Nora

Detail Madame Nora’s original troupe of glassblowers, 1876?Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 132079.

Nora Allen (a.k.a. Madam Nora), the performer whose troupe put on a show for the orphans of the Home of the Friendless, was one of the most popular American itinerant glassworkers of the 19th century. Her troupe – Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Workers, and Spinners – included her second husband, her son, and her daughter-in-law, Adalorra Allen. They toured the East Coast and the Midwest in the 1870s-1890s, spending most of their time in New York and Pennsylvania. Her name was listed at the head of every advertisement, and her portrait was featured on broadsides and a newspaper published by the troupe.

By demonstrating for the orphans, Nora was performing “respectable” womanhood. Many women performers of the late 19th and early 20th century did the same, or were marketed by their managers as respectable women. They dressed conservatively, spoke about how much they loved to cook dinner for their husbands, and showed their interest in traditionally feminine pursuits like knitting and sewing. They did so to avoid public censure and to continue making a living as performers. Because their profession put them in the public eye, they could easily be labeled as disreputable and their acts as inappropriate for women and children to attend. So, while Nora may have truly wanted to give the orphans a fun day out, her actions also helped prove to locals that hers was a reputable show proper for all audiences to attend.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were several well-known families of lampworkers, including the Howell family. All of the women in the family demonstrated glassmaking: matriarch Ethel Maude Howell, daughters Grace Howell and Nona Deakin, and daughters-in-law Marie Howell and Verna Howell. Grace in particular found success demonstrating at festivals, for scouting troops, and making appearances on TV variety shows. She was perhaps best known for dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus each December and demonstrating lampworking at the Manhattan Savings Bank during the 1960s. [6]

black and white photograph of the Howell family of itinerant glassworkers

Nona, Ethel, and Grace Howell are pictured here alongside their male relatives. Howell family of Chelmsford, 1937-1945. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 151522.

These are only a few of the many women itinerant glassworkers who performed for crowds. They, alongside circus performers, actresses, lecturers, singers, vaudeville stars, and other women working in the public eye proved that women had a right to be in that space. Each time they appeared in front of an audience they broke the boundaries, putting themselves in the spotlight instead of staying at home.


Resources


Notes

[1]  “Workers in Glass,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 16, 1887; “Entertaining the Children,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 24, 1887. I’ve taken a little poetic license with this description, but it’s based on newspaper accounts of Nora Allen’s show in Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere.

[2] Lampworking (now often referred to as flameworking or torch working), is a technique used to make objects from rods and tubes of glass that have been softened in a flame. Most itinerant glassworkers would have used a lamp fueled by oil or paraffin together with foot-powered bellows to create the flame in which to work the glass.

[3] Mary and Peter Francis Boydell, “Eighteenth Century Curiosities,” Glass Secrets of Ireland no. 4 (1994): 9.

[4] Paul Engle, “Mrs Johnston, 18th Century Fancy Glassblower,” Conciatore, November 8, 2019.

[5] Rebecca Hopman, “Glass blowing and working in miniature,” Notable Acquisitions 2017, ed. Richard Price (Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 2018), 21.

[6] Rebecca Hopman, “‘Only Mrs. during the month of December’: Grace Howell’s holiday glass gig,” Gathering a Crowd, December 9, 2019.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Breaking Down Domestic Labor: Gender, Race, Class, and Sexuality

By Sidney Wegener

You may have heard the claim “women belong in the kitchen.” Many who believe in traditional patriarchal domesticity agree. Feminists of the twenty-first century often detest such a sexist notion. However, there is an underlying issue that both misogynists and feminists are not necessarily addressing. Why is it that traditional domesticity proponents uphold an oppressive gender hierarchy wherein housework and childcare are less valued than professional or public occupations? Why is it that people who believe in gender equality think that the way to get there is simply assimilating women into the public labor force?  At the core of feminism is the belief that women have the right to make our own choices in life, including the form of labor that we engage in whether it be domestic, productive, or both.

Hidden beneath the battle for women’s equal labor opportunities and rights is the conceptualization of domestic work as less important than public labor, which results in monetary gain. The idea that doing laundry or making lunch for children is not productive labor diminishes its value a social necessity. This is one way capitalism influences misogyny and reinforces the gendered separation of domestic labor and public, or productive, labor. While public labor refers to what are socio-economically productive occupations (those which make money), domestic labor is privatized. The idea that domestic labor is degrading to women depends on a capitalist understanding of the value of labor which is based on productivity. Not only that, but women who work in both the private domestic and public productive labor spheres take on the “double burden.” Often these women are placed under the strain of balancing work outside of their home with the traditionally-gendered demand for house maintenance and parenting. Rarely are domestic responsibilities equally distributed between a heterosexual couple; yet the need for home keeping and child care does not disappear. 

It is critical to acknowledge that women with the most access to employment in public and/or professional labor spheres are cisgendered, heterosexual (or in heterosexual partnerships), come from a middle-upper class background, able-bodied/neurotypical, and white. Many women who become successful in the public labor sphere and are able to obtain substantial income end up hiring working-class women of color as domestic laborers. However, when women who have careers manage their double burden by employing working-class women of color, a gendered and racialized capitalist hierarchy is reproduced and reinforced. For example, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 80% of Black women are the main source of income for their households. Therefore, they work in the public labor sphere to provide for their families, but most also care for their homes, children, and elder relatives. Due to white supremacist racial hierarchies in the United States, women of color frequently fall into the working-class bracket. Although all women are subject to wage discrimination, pay gaps vary according to race. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports these statistics for 2019: 

  • Latina women are paid about 54 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes 
  • Native American women are paid about 58 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes
  • Black women are paid about 62 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • White women are paid about 79 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • Asian American women are paid about 90 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes

In order to support themselves and their families, women of color consistently shoulder the double burden of committing themselves to domestic and productive labor. Most women of color also find themselves facing sexism and racial discrimination in the United States’ capitalist economy, earning between 25 and 17 cents less per dollar than white women.

In addition, women who are non-cisgender and/or in non-heterosexual partnerships do not have access to the same opportunites and rights which may afford them public occupations and income. Lesbian partnerships are positioned at a disadvantage as women are faced with discrimination in public workspaces and sexist, racist wage gaps continue to pose a threat to financial stability. Non-cisgender women also face adverse circumstances as they are often excluded from the traditional sphere of domesticity designated as a cis-woman’s place in society; yet transgender women experience intense workplace discrimination in the public labor sphere. One recent example of such discrimination that non-heterosexual and transgender women face when entering into public sphere is an argument over whether or not memebers of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Currently this issue is being decided by the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on October 8, 2019. This case will determine whether or not members of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation (CNN). In the end, it is a very particular demographic of women who have the agency and the resources to gain financial stability, maintain steady monetary income, and meet domestic labor demands.

Among the many women who are barred from entering the domestic and/or public labor spheres are those who are considered to be disabled. While many of these women receive public support from state services, there are still a vast number of challenges that come attached to living in a body which is disabled either mentally or physically. Often, state services are not enough as people with disabilities account for 24% of the homeless population in the United States (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness). Everyday tasks or ways of moving through life, such as getting on a bus to go to work or verbally communicating with employers, are obstacles which able-bodied and/or neurotypical women rarely encounter. Women who are identified as disabled are also often considered incompetent parents and unfit for home maintence. There are a vast number of women with disabilities who often find themselves excluded from domestic and productive labor due to public assumptions of incapability or lack of sufficient familial and/or public support.

To quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” This includes both the domestic labor and public labor spheres. The feminist response to “women belong in the kitchen” should be to call out the oppressive systems which deem domestic labor as lesser than productive labor. Key to progress in equal labor opportunities and rights will be de-gendering and de-racializing the nature of home making, maintenance, and child care. We must take the time to break down what domestic labor means to a cishetero-patriarchal society that is dependent on a capitalist economy wherein productive labor is more highly valued. Finally, it is critical to acknowledge the intersections of racial, trans or non-binary gender, and sexuality oppression which are at play.


Resources


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.