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.

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.