Some anti-suffragists thought that granting women the right to vote would give women sway over certain social issues. For example, brewers and distillers feared that women voters would favor the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Factory owners worried that women voters would support the drive for worker rights and labor regulations. Despite the opposition, and bolstered by the 1890 merger of the AWSA and NWSA, the women’s suffrage movement gained strength during the Progressive Era. As World War I threatened to once again slow the movement, a splinter group formed by Alice Paul resorted to more aggressive strategies than speech making and petitions to generate publicity. In 1917, Paul and her supporters picketed the White House. After their arrest for “obstructing traffic,” some of the group went on a hunger strike to protest their treatment and had to be force-fed in prison. But it was women’s contributions to the war effort that appeared to be best served by the suffragists’ cause, demonstrating that they were just as patriotic as men and deserved the full rights of citizenship. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson finally recognized this, declaring that suffrage was essential to the war effort. Six months later, Congress passed the 19th Amendment. On August 26, 1920, it was signed into law, prohibiting states or the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens based on their sex.
Well behaved women rarely make history. Long before this phrase became popular, and long after the fight for the vote, circus women in the early 1900s knew all too well knew that saying was true. Able to make a living that was equal to, and sometimes even more than their male counterparts, they did what other women in civilized society couldn't do. It wasn't just the tricks and acrobatic acts they performed, nor was it the skimpy outfits and unladylike body movements. Circus women were able to make their own money, negotiate contracts, and demand certain salaries. Contracted work was usually limited to a year, which allowed performers to transfer between circuses, but bigger performers could secure multiple season contracts.
|Barnum & Bailey's women performers gather for a photograph.|
In a time when most women were relegated to being housewives or maids. Circus women were performing and starring in their own acts, becoming the center of attention, where the taboo nature sold more tickets and earned them more money by the crowds they drew to their acts. There were even a few women such as Mollie Bailey and Nellie Dutton who became successful circuses owners. Common women on the street were to be discreet, not seen, or heard. Public speaking was ill-mannered at best in polite society. In an almost upside-down world, the female circus performers enjoyed a level of freedom no lady of society would ever see, but it was at a cost. Circus performers were looked down upon, women performers even more so. They were seen as circus freaks.
|Kimble Twins, Iron Jaw performers circa 1920.|
|Artoria Gibbons Tatooed Lady, circa 1920|
Throughout this endeavor, we have learned much about women and how their right to vote was achieved through hard work, all around the world. After a few other countries had already gone through the struggle of recognizing women's right to vote, things went a little more smoothly for American women, even though it was feared that voting was bad for women's physical and mental health, as well as fertility.
We often hear of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Emeline Pankhurst at the front of this battle. Rarely do we hear of the women with names like Josie DeMott Robinson, Zella Florence, May Wirth, or Katie Sandwina; who were all part of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society.
On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of (by some reports 25) female performers from the Barnum & Bailey Circus gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden to talk about suffrage. Among them was equestrian May Wirth, high wire performer Victoria Codona, bareback rider Victoria Davenport, the “female Hercules” Katie Sandwina, and many others.
A Sacramento Union reporter wrote 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.”
|Madison Square Garden Circus Week|
|Madison Square Garden Circus Week|
The circus women had invited Inez Milholland of the New York City-based Women’s Political Union, but Inez failed to appear, instead, she sent a low-level representative by the name of Beatrice Jones. The news of the day dramatized this incident as a major snub to the circus ladies, and insinuated that Inez Milholland had sent Beatrice Jones to get a sense of what was really going on, to rate the women's seriousness of forming a legitimate group, ensure it wasn't just a prank or stunt, and even joked that Beatrice was sent there to tell the women to "tone it down". There was a lot of negative press, making fun of the whole event that was aimed at electing officers for the newly created Barnum & Bailey's Circus Women's Equal Rights Society.
|Women's Party Booth at San Francisco Expo, Spring 1915. Right Front (1): Mrs. May Wright Sewell,IN (2): Mrs. Kate Waller Barrett, Right Rear (3): Miss Anita Whitney, (4): Mrs. Mary Bear, (5): Miss Vivian Pierce, (6): Miss Margaret Whittmore.|
Sex in America was also becoming a focal point during this time frame, in 1910 Sigmund Freud proclaimed that sexuality was the defining aspect of the human experience from infancy to old age. The skimpy outfits, over-the-top make-up, and unladylike feats of female circus performers sold more and more tickets. The rise of this new age saw an acceptance of women being as sexually passionate as men, and that leads to women being recognized as being equal to men in other ways as well. Showmen would usually bill female performers as being a member of an old and distinguished family troupe, preferably from Europe to quell the disapproving sentiments of woman circus performers being some sort of roving exhibitionist. European circuses were different than the tented traveling American Circuses. In Europe, women of the circus were of good broodstock.
|Female Circus Performer circa 1910|
Josie DeMott Robinson came from a long line of respected French riders and trainers who fraternized with Napoleon Bonaparte no less. Josie grew up in the circus because her parents owned the DeMott and Ward Circus, and made her circus debut on the back of a horse at the age of three. By the time she turned 13, she was the star of the show. Considered one of the top female circus riders in the United States, her manager once described her as "the very perfection of art and the embodiment of one's wildest dreams".
|Josie performing in the circus.|
In 1891, in her early 20s, Josie married Charles Robinson, a popular and wealthy son of a circus owner. She decided to leave the circus to support his political ambitions and made an uneasy attempt to fit into Victorian society. Admonished by the local pastor for riding past the church on her bicycle was an example of the things she had to endure, despising the confining clothing and stifled by the slow movements required of a lady. Her husband’s political career faltered, and he failed at prospecting for gold in Alaska. Still struggling to fit in, in 1905, finances were tight, and she had finally had enough. Josie decided to earn money the best way she knew how and returned to the circus. Mr. Bailey didn’t ask her to audition; her word and past reputation were enough to secure a job.
|Josie's return to the circus.|
In her first rehearsal, she did one, two, three somersaults atop her mount perfectly. At the afternoon matinee, Josie was standing on the back of her horse, she leaped into the air — and the horse darted from under her, Josie fell onto the wooden ring. Her knee took the blow, and pain shot up her side. She finished the act with two fractured ribs and torn the ligaments surrounding her knee. She was told by the doctor that it would be eight months before she could walk on that leg again. Josie, on the other hand, intended to return to the ring as soon as possible, no matter what the doctor or her husband had to say. Charles who was against her return to the circus from the start, gave her an ultimatum: give up on the circus, or you and I are finished. For Robinson, the choice was simple. They “agreed to a definite understanding, each to go our own way,” and she got back on the horse, doctor’s orders be damned.
|Josie at her riding school on her farm.|
Katie Brumbach (Sandwina) was one of 14 children born in on the back of a circus wagon in 1884 to Austrian circus performers Phillipe and Johanna Brumbach. By the age of sixteen, she was already the star of her father's circus. In her early years, she would perform with her family, and her father would offer one hundred marks to any man in the audience that could beat her in wrestling. No one ever won that prize.
|Katie & Max|
This was precisely how she met her lifelong husband Max Heymann. Max recalled:
"She picks me up vuns and trows me on de floor and I say Kati I Luv you. Will you marry me?"
Katie was known by several stage names including Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty, Lady Hercules, The Great Sandwina, and the World's Strongest Woman.
When Katie and Max got married, Max took her "Sandwina" stage name as his own, and they gave their children that last name as well.
|Katie holding three men.|
She would use her husband Max, in her act, as a human barbell. Her popularity grew as a member of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and was promoted to center ring and created a celebrity image. "[s]he has the look of some heroic work in marble" [Who Tosses Her Husband About as She Would a Feather].
|Strongest Woman In The World Is Still A Lady|
As with all women performers, promoters were overt in their descriptions of Katie being a delicate lady, who would choose domesticity over all else. After retirement, Katie and Max opened a grill and spent their days running it.
May Wirth was an Australian bareback rider, known as one of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times. May was the daughter of impoverished divorced parents Australian Marie Dezeppo (Beaumont) and John Edward Zinga (Despoges) from Mauritius, born in Bundaberg Queensland on June 6, 1894. May was adopted in 1901 after her parents separated, by Mary Wirth, and equestrian and sister of circus proprietors Philip and George Wirth, who all together were a well-established Australian circus family who owned the Wirth Brothers, one of Australia's largest circuses. When May opened as a center-ring star for Ringling Bros. in 1912, the newspapers didn't dwell on her early childhood (her indigent childhood was well known in Australia, and some rumored that she was an aboriginal), but instead depicted her as a member of an old foreign circus family.
At the age of ten, she was a "real trick rider." In Melbourne in 1906, aged twelve, she was billed as "May Ringling," the "American fearless hurricane hurdle rider." Like the most circus performers, bareback riders in particular, May was short but strong, growing to be about 5 feet tall. May was scouted by one of John Ringling’s talent scouts and was engaged in 1912 to tour the United States with the Barnum & Bailey circus, and billed as "The World's Greatest Bareback Rider". Opening season in Square Garden, her flic-flacs on horseback and her somersaults from horse to horse were indeed exceptional.
|May somersaulting from one horse to another.|
May was seriously injured in a fall during a performance in April 1913, she soon recovered and appeared later that year with Carl Hagenbeck's Wonder Zoo and Circus at London’s Olympia. May and her troupe were touring the music-hall circuits of England when war broke out in September 1914. As The Royal Wirth Family, the troupe toured Australasia with Wirth Bros. Ltd Circus in 1915-1916, performing vaudeville, burlesque, and equestrian items.
|May Wirth with two horses.|
Giving her performance at the new Hippodrome in Sydney, May was described as dainty, "like a butterfly in flight ... alive, alert" and delighted her audiences. In December 1916, May and her troupe sailed for San Francisco and entrained for Chicago in time to join the opening of Ringling Bros. Circus on April 7, 1917. She performed with Ringling Bros 1917-1918, and then another two seasons (1919-1920) with the newly combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows. In 1919 May married longtime associate and fellow performer Frank White. Frank had already been using May's name of "Wirth" for business dealings, so he took her last name. The Clipper of May 17, 1922, reported the Wirth troupe’s opening at London’s Coliseum and returning to New York, it was engaged as a $1,500-a-week extra attraction for Jean Bedini’s Chuckles. By 1924, the New York Times announced the construction of their home in the exclusive Forrest Hills district of Queens. Then the Wirth act headlined the Walter L. Main Circus in 1923 in Virginia.
The four seasons from 1924 to 1927 were May’s last with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (Winter of 1925-1926 they were touring Europe). After 1927, May and her troupe toured county fairs and indoor circuses. In the winter of 1931 her troupe was featured with the short-lived St. Leon Bros. Circus, partly owned by her husband, Frank Wirth, and her brother-in-law, Phil St Leon Wirth. May retired from active riding in 1937 and then traveled with her husband organizing circus spectacles throughout the United States. In 1956 they moved from their Long Island home to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. May received the supreme honor of the American circus world when on February 23, 1964, she was inducted to the Circus Hall of Fame. May, at eighty, regaled the audience with a sharp memory, told with a soft gentle voice and a hint of Australian accent, of the many tricks she did on horseback during her circus career. She died on 18 October 1978 at Sarasota.
|Florence Troupe Acrobats|
In the circus, women's success came from good breeding and status, while men could climb the ladder from rags-to-riches, mobility was not allowed for the female performers. Regarding women's circus careers, talent was the determining factor for the salary level. Unmarried female performers were always referred to as being on the brink of getting married. The gossip columns were always full of romantic stories of women circus performers being swept off their feet by rich aristocrats. These stories always highlighted the domesticity of the female performers. Marriage was always good advertising opportunities, whether it was female performers getting married, or animals. Many circuses had strict behavior codes for female performers, designed not only to convince audiences that the circus was a fun family attraction (and not something seedy), but also to keep the trust of many families who sent their young daughters off to perform.
The woman circus performer was almost always described as preferring the domestic housewife role at home. They would often publish stories of the women circus performers anxiously awaiting the end of the season so that they could go home and do laundry and bake a cake. This helped keep the reputation of circus women siding with the respective side as much as possible. This tight-wire walk was no accident. Because in the center ring, these women transformed from housewives into spotlit acrobatic aerialists who captivated every member of the audience.
The circus was a small step in the walk to Women's' Suffrage, just as women's suffrage was one small step towards Women's Equality. As Josephine DeMott Robinson said during the infamous March 31, 1912, Madison Square Garden meeting, when they named a baby giraffe in a ceremony as "Miss Suffrage": "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. You are not slaves."
Robinson also said: "The time has gone by when a woman can think of only herself. If a circus woman is ill-treated it is my concern; if I am underpaid it is something for you to see to. We are all part of a great sisterhood, and that is what suffrage is."
The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis
ISBN-13: 978-0807953993 & ISBN-10: 0807853992
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