Historic Female Circus Performers at Ringling and beyond

Historically, female circus performers are some of the most misunderstood  women.  I’m not saying THE most misunderstood, but they are up there on the scales of it all.  I was telling my Mom about some of the books I have been reading here at Ringling: Sawdust and Solitude by Lucia Zora and The Circus Lady by Josephine DeMott Robinson.  Her first comment was this:  “When I was young [she grew up in a small town near Lake Ontario], we always thought circus women were promiscuous because men and women all lived and traveled together and therefore there must be a lot of sex.”  The truth is that rules of conduct for circus women were extremely strict in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I would imagine similar rules were reinforced in the 1940’s when my Mom was young.

So my reading has taken me into the lives of two incredible women: Zora and Josie – both were the first women to perform daring acts with animals and they both retired early, took on new lifestyles and wrote about their experiences.  Josie tried and tried to “fit in” with normal society women and Zora became a homesteader/rancher in the Colorado mountains.  If you get a chance, read the books – you may be able to find them in the library.

The following photographs are from the Frederick W. Glasier Collection, courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Circus Museum. I call them Glasier’s women.  Glasier was famous for capturing the circus performers personal nature while performing and behind the scenes.  He also took pride in showing strength and pride in his subjects often contrary to popular societal norms and perceptions.