In my fond imaginings of the circus’ golden age, I envision myself tightly woven into the fabric of its big top community for decades. I think I would have chosen to devote a sequence of my past lives to various acts: I’d undulate sensuously, bedecked in gigantic snakes; tumble through the air to meet the catcher’s rosined grip; arabesque in gaudy costumery atop a bareback horse; shine and shimmy as a dancing chanteuse showgirl; and reveal the fortunes laid out by my favorite divination tools. I would’ve been in good company amidst other females sharing a similar disposition–a taste for adventure, for performance and the freedom inherent in rejecting social norms. Whether out of rebelliousness or through adherence to familial tradition, a great deal of circus women have carved a fulfilling life from the heavy, confining structure of society.
Women were performing in the circus before they were ever allowed to have careers outside of the home. Before they were considered anything other than the delicate lesser sex in need of moulding and protection, they wore revealing costumes (for their time) to perform feats of strength and daring alongside their male colleagues.
They were expected to master their craft and execute their acts with as much prowess as the male performers, which they most definitely did. Females weren’t even allowed in the audience during a certain period of circus history because of how impressionable they were perceived to be. During a time when the average woman was oppressed into the corners of a very few specific boxes, circus women were respected as hard-working, talented people to be applauded and admired. They earned a living for themselves and traveled around the country, untethered. Even when the time came that women were able to get jobs and have rights, the available choices and social expectations of them were still so limited and limiting. While it’s true that the circus offered women an alternative lifestyle, it wasn’t supported by all and definitely carried a stigma–many regarded this subculture with contempt. Puritanical groups and others attached to Victorian era prudishness were obviously opposed, though not as vehemently as they were to burlesque and vaudeville. “Family” style circuses, like Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth, were purported to offer “clean” shows, which still included the scandalously clad female form, but advertised their wholesomeness, invariably referred to their marital status or domestic natures and even imposed seemingly excessive rules on their single female dancers’ free time.
One of my sources for understanding the social implications of the circus has been The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis. See an article about her work here. There is a chapter entitled “Respectable Female Nudity” that gives this subject a thorough examination. This book is pretty academically focused (she’s a professor at UT Austin), so it’s mostly for the serious circus lover or avid history buff.
One of my favorite circus stars was Mabel Stark (1889? – 1968). Her story is similar to many other circus celebrities in that it isn’t clear–the details are different depending on who tells the story and one can expect that they were likely embellished. The one I’ve pieced together goes like this: after spending a few years in nursing, she joined the circus and allegedly became a “cooch” dancer, where she found much success. She eventually fell in love with the big cats that traveled in the circus’ menagerie and learned how to work with them by assisting one of the greatest trainers in the industry, whom she later married. She ended up marrying 4 or 5 times in her life, which is remarkable for the decades in which she lived. She became one of the top cat trainers herself, famous especially for the tight leather bodysuit she donned in the ring, which was actually practical as extra protection against claw swipes. Mabel was blonde, tiny and very tough and it seems this combination may have contributed to her immense popularity. She continued this brutally difficult work for six decades, devising and performing acts that had never been done before; she was severely mauled many times in the process.
Mabel first became a trainer with Al G.’s circus.
She was friends with Mae West (pictured below), another of my favorite women. She acted as Mae’s stunt double in I’m No Angel.
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is a fictionalized account of Mabel’s life, which I got most of the way through but abandoned because it stopped holding my attention and I knew it wasn’t accurate. Some of the people who loved Mabel and knew her personally were really appalled by the way this author chose to portray her. She wrote an autobiography called Hold That Tiger, but it is out of print and very expensive, and thusly, out of my reach.
There is so much more to say on the subject of gender and the circus, but I fear for your attention span and would need much more time than I have. I’ll leave it to you to investigate further and hope you will leave a crumb trail in the comments!