Women have always had a place in the circus, but it would not be until 1896 that the “New Woman” would join the ranks of her male contemporaries under the big top. These “New Woman” acts were often segregated sororities, featuring women performing ‘death defying’ stunts in form fitting costumes in an arena that “no man was allowed to occupy” (Davis 2016: 175). Trapeze artist and strong woman Charmion (b. Laverie Vallée) would shock the world on Christmas Day 1897 with her infamous trapeze disrobing act at Koster and Bial’s NYC vaudeville theatre, an unapologetically provocative display of female sexuality and muscularity that would prove equal parts divisive and intriguing to American audiences (Gils 2013: 1). Katie Sandwina, a German weightlifter featured by Barnum & Bailey, would go on to be described as a “Giantess in Strength.” Big cat trainer Mabel Stark boasted of her ‘network of scars’ that mapped out her body from the bites she endured from her beasts (Davis 2016: 175).
The Lady Hercules, Katie Sandwina. Photo source Library of Congress The New Woman ushered in a new wave of racism and sexual fetishism within the circus, with white women continuously being marketed as virginal, pure, and civilised, in stark contrast to the sexually charged nudity associated with ‘exhibitions’ of women of colour (2016: 177). There was a cultural insistence forced upon female aerialists in particular to be portrayed as virgin vestals, as fear of maternity might provoke anxiety in the audience (Stoddart 2000: 170). The...
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