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.

Miscegenation: A Law Review

Until the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage was legally banned in a few states in this country.  Although we may look back and say to ourselves how can that be? That was so recent! the changes in legal thinking that made eradicating all miscegenation laws from the books were actually quite remarkable.  Rather, it was not so much that the legal arguments changed, it’s that the opinions of the Justices in charge of making the decisions changed, and luckily for the better. On the brink of the Court’s landmark Loving decision, two law professors wrote companion pieces of sorts, which were published in the Virginia Law Review.  Alfred Avins’ “Anti-Miscegenation Laws and the Fourteenth Amendment: The Original Intent” takes a strong stand in defense of banning marriage between the races, while Walter Wadlington’s “The Loving Case: Virginia’s Anti-Miscegenation Statute in Historical Perspective” argues that anti-miscegenation laws violate the Constitution and should be struck down.

An issue found in both articles is the lack of attention given to black female agency, in the sense of a black woman’s autonomy over her own fate, particularly as it comes to marital choices.  This is an aspect of analysis that is largely ignored by the authors, who choose instead to write about the laws from the perspective of the white male.  This may stem from a number of factors—including the professions of the authors (lawyers), the drafters of the laws (white men) and a general lack of case law brought to the courts by black women.  These constraints should not automatically yield an assumption that female agency may be ignored, however.   Unfortunately, the professors do not approach the issue of miscegenation law from the position to view it as an inability for a black woman to maintain a certain status in her life.  Rather, they approach it from the male dominated stance, which, while not necessarily lessening the importance of the analysis, does limit it in some respects. 

Alfred Avins, “Anti-Miscegenation Laws and the Fourteenth Amendment: The Original Intent”

One of the best parts about being a student of history is stumbling across that one document that really makes the reader stop, sometimes gape, and really say “huh.” [The one piece that unlocks not only the writer’s personal beliefs, but also the sentiments of the era.]  That, for this reader, was Professor Alfred Avins’ “Anti-Miscegenation Laws and the Fourteenth Amendment: The Original Intent,” which was published in the Virginia Law Review in 1966.[1]  Not only does the article offer incredible insights, albeit one-sided, into the Congressional debates over miscegenation law during Reconstruction and the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—but it also serves as an invaluable insight into the legal world during the 1960s at a time when conservatives were doing everything they could to preserve the racism that was so prevalent in the South. This racism was ultimately eliminated, at least as far as marriage was concerned, only one year later with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia.[2]  In many respects, the article serves as both a primary and secondary source, making it a true gem among the scholarship about miscegenation law.

The article itself was written and published while Loving v. Virginia was making its way up to the Supreme Court.  On July 29, 1966 lawyers for the Loving’s had submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court asking for the Court’s intervention on a Constitutional question.  Professor Avins’ article was published in the November 1966 issue of the Virginia Law Review, and the state of Virginia filed its response briefs with the Supreme Court on November 18, 1966.  The Court announced that it would hear the case on December 12, 1966 and oral arguments were scheduled for April 10, 1967.  Given these factual circumstances, it is no wonder that Professor Avins, a law professor at Memphis State University, used such strong language in the opening paragraph as “it requires no special perspicacity to see that anti-miscegenation laws are in jeopardy.”[3]  Right from the start Avins makes it clear that the article, published in the very state whose anti-miscegenation law was coming under attack, was a vehement defense of the states’ right “to draw distinctions between the races.”[4]  Despite the fact that it is nearly impossible for Avins to have researched and written the entire article in the amount of time it took for the Lovings’ case to get from the Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court, it is clear that there was enough discussion surrounding the Lovings’ case that Avins article, while not necessarily a direct attack on the Lovings’ case, was in many ways a response to the potential change in the legal and political environments.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) was groundbreaking for its representation of interracial marriage

Avins’ main argument is that the Fourteenth Amendment was never meant to cover marriage between the races.  After chiding the Supreme Court for overstepping its boundaries and noting that the Court should not have the final say on the scope of a Constitutional provision, he turns to the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that “once the original understanding and intent of the framers is ascertained” any further questions about the scope of the Amendment should be laid to rest.[5] Avins looks to transcripts from the Congressional debates over the Reconstruction amendments in order to reach his conclusion about the true scope of the Fourteenth Amendment.  He also notes that “present day attacks on these laws involved no new constitutional principle, and it cannot be said that they involve any questions to which the framers did not in fact address themselves in 1866.”[6]  If that’s not a blatant criticism of the Lovings’ case and potential threats to miscegenation law, what is?

In order to make his case, Avins uses block quotes from many of the Senators and Congressmen who were debating just how many rights to extend to the newly freed slaves after the conclusion of the Civil War.  These quotations themselves are invaluable, particularly as they pertain to female agency, to the study of U.S. miscegenation law as a whole.  Avins argues that miscegenation was only even considered because it was a rhetorical tool used to try to stir up trouble around the proposed extensions of rights to the African-Americans in the 1860s.  One of the arguments against the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection was the fear among Democrats that enfranchising black men would lead to more interracial marriages.[7] Along that same line, the Congressmen argued that the Fourteenth Amendment would not touch state miscegenation laws because “the white person [is] equally denied the right to marry the negro.”[8]  This logic is precisely what the state of Virginia relied on, and the Court rejected, in the arguments in Loving; Avins’ intention is clear: don’t rock the boat.

Looking at the combination of current events and historical analysis, Avins’ article becomes much more than merely a descriptive assessment of the Fourteenth Amendment.  It becomes an insight into a world that was on the brink of change and one law professor’s last minute attempt to maintain the status quo.

Walter Wadlington, “The Loving Case: Virginia’s Anti-Miscegenation Statute in Historical Perspective” 

From the opining lines of Professor Walter Wadlington’s 1966 article “The Loving Case: Virginia’s Anti-Miscegenation Statute in Historical Perspective” it is clear where Wadlington stands on the pending miscegenation issue.[9]  He calls Virginia a state “which regularly recalls with glowing sentiment the story of how one of her early white sons married an Indian princess” and notes that it is “with symbolic irony” that the state’s highest court reaffirmed Virginia’s commitment to strict legal codes against racial intermarriage.[10]  In what can only be considered the companion piece to Professor Alvin Avins’ “Anti-Miscegenation Laws and the Fourteenth Amendment: The Original Intent”, Wadlington examines the historical background of the law that was at issue in Loving, namely the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, as well as the ideologies that contributed to the changes in the law.

Wadlington starts his analysis as far back as he possibly could in Virginia law, looking at statutory law from what he calls the colonial period, noting that the first statutory ban on interracial marriage was probably recorded in 1691.[11]  He notes that the punishment for being found guilty of sleeping with a slave was banishment from the colony, but he does not push the idea further ideologically.  He does not include an analysis of why banishment was the favored punishment or even why there was a punishment at all. He does not mention that, as Barbara Fields would note, the act of sleeping with a slave essentially rendered the white partner a slave as well, thus blurring the line between slave and free, and between the races.  Perhaps as a law professor that never occurred to Wadlington.  It may also have to do with the fact that at the time of the article’s publication many still believed race to be immutable.

Wadlington’s historical journey continues through the “present” miscegenation statute, which was enacted in 1924 with very little fanfare.  He does spend a great deal of time contemplating what he calls “the Pocahontas Exception” to the bar on interracial marriage and relationships.  He points out that there was an actual exception to the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which permitted marriages between white people and those who were “no other mixture of blood than white and American Indian.”[12]  He posits that this exception was meant to protect the descendents of Pocahontas and John Rolfe and leaves it at that.  What he does not do is make a connection between the somewhat privileged and troublesome position that the Native Americans have occupied in much of American law and race politics.  He sees no connection between this exception and the section of the Dred Scott case in which Chief Justice Taney directly addresses the issue of whether or not Native Americans are analogous to African Americans.  In Dred Scott Native Americans are held to not be citizens of the United States, but for different reasons than the African Americans, based on logic that essentially stems from class rather than race.  The same could be argued of this exception to the Racial Integrity Act, that where the act seeks to protect race, it is contradictory and really seeking to protect a privileged class.

After all the historical legwork, Wadlington finally gets to a discussion of the Loving case, which had been scheduled for oral arguments at the time of this article’s publication.  Not only does Wadlington put forth the arguments that would support overturning the miscegenation bans, he also debunks the pro-miscegenation statute arguments, most of which were set forth by Professor Adkins in the same issue of the journal.  In fact, he actually cites Avins’ article in his own footnotes.  If ever there was an illustration of the conversational nature of academia, it is with the two articles.  It almost seems that Wadlington is speaking directly to Avins with a tone one would reserve for a child who declares her intention to dig a hole in the back yard all the way to China.

This is most clear in the brief but elegant conclusion, in which Wadlington states that while “it is possible that the original miscegenation bans served a legitimate purpose at a time when Negroes were essentially an alien part of the community…neither can we justifiably perpetuate those laws under the changed circumstances of our world.”[13]  He clearly seeks to lay to rest the originalist argument that the framers of the 14th Amendment could not have meant for it to apply to interracial marriage and to further the belief in a breathing and adaptable Constitution.  He closes with a powerful call to the Judiciary, with what is perhaps the best line in the essay: “…the Supreme Court should not make it clear that bans on interracial marriage have no place in a nation dedicated to the equality of man.”[14]

{Loving photo courtesy of harpyness.com}
{Pocahontas photo courtesy of williamsburgprivatetours.com}

[1] Alfred Avins, “Anti-Miscegenation Law and the Fourteenth Amendment: The Original Intent”, Virginia Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 7, (Nov 1966), pp. 1224 – 1255

[2] Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)

[3] Avins, 1224.

[4] Avins, 1224.

[5] Avins, 1225.

[6] Avins, 1226.

[7] Avins, 1230.

[8] Avins, 1232.

[9] Walter Wadlington, “The Loving Case: Virginia’s Anti-Miscegenation Statute in Historical Perspective”, Virginia Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 7 (Nov 1966), pp. 1189 – 1123

[10] Wadlington, 1189.

[11] Wadlington, 1191.

[12] Wadlington, 1202.

[13] Wadlington, 1222.

[14] Wadlington, 1223.