It’s no secret that the fight to win the right to vote for American women was a massive effort. But one of the many groups involved in that effort may still hold a little surprise: female circus performers.
As explained in this preview clip from the new PBS American Experience documentary The Circus, premiering Monday and Tuesday in two parts, one major element turning the tide toward suffrage was the increasing presence of women in the workforce. Women who could support themselves, who spent more of their time out of the home, could see the iniquity in their lack of political representation. Those working women turned out in force for a massive 1912 suffrage rally in New York City and continued to push for change all the way up until the passing of the 19th Amendment.
But that group wasn’t limited to just the better-known women workers, like those in the garment industry who so bolstered the labor movement. The women of the circus were also part of this history. In fact, that march took place right around the same time as the founding of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society.
And, explains Janet M. Davis, a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top, there’s a good reason why they would have taken on that role. “This is an era when the circus is truly the most popular form of American entertainment,” she tells TIME. The circus was also a place where women could find opportunities, independence, freedom and, for stars, salaries just as high as those earned by their male counterparts.
Davis traces the history of American women in the circus to an equestrian performer who first appeared in a circus in 1794, but she says that women’s place in the big top was slow to get established. Especially during periods of religious revival and public moral concern, women were often barred from performing in any public setting. As women began to participate more in public life in the 19th century, that went for the circus too — a favor that the circus women would return later, by using their public face to campaign for suffrage.
Even so, Davis says, the circus was also a place of contradiction — of activist women earning high salaries in a place known for bucking norms, but whose star-making performances were often couched in marketing campaigns that would emphasize their domesticity. One circus, Davis adds, ran an ad campaign claiming that at every stop on the road the women couldn’t wait to get off the train to bake a cake. Many circuses had strict behavior codes for female performers, designed to convince audiences that the circus was a fun family attraction, not something seedy. One influential equestrian performer, Josie DeMott Robinson, recalled the strange feeling of wearing relatively skimpy and short clothes for her act and then rushing off to put on a long skirt as soon as she left the ring, to “mark her as respectable,” as Davis says.
“It’s an interesting tightrope, if you will,” Davis says.