Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

They Flew Through the Air...and Helped Women Win the Right to Vote

In 1912, female acrobats, equestrians and weightlifters took on a new high-wire act: fighting for their right to vote.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Photo by Bettman/Getty Images

On a Sunday afternoon in March 1912, a group of female performers from the Barnum & Bailey Circus gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden. Watched over by lions, a Bengalese tiger, “a two-horned rhinoceros, ostriches, yaks, pigs, seals, cassowaries, flamingos, monkeys” and a hippopotamus named Babe, they began to talk about suffrage. Among them was petite May Wirth, whose equestrian act included a running leap onto the back of a galloping horse; Victoria Codona, whose beauty was nearly as famous as her skill on the high wire; bareback rider Victoria Davenport; the “female Hercules” Katie Sandwina and many others. Barnum & Bailey billed itself as the greatest show on earth, and these were its female stars.

They’d been brought together by acrobat Zella Florence and Josephine DeMott Robinson, a retired circus bareback rider. The turnout was impressive, but notably absent were the top representatives from the Women’s Political Union, a suffrage organization known for its focus on working women. Inez Millholland, a rising star in the women’s suffrage movement, had planned to come. She had been quoted in the New York Press saying that “circus women exemplify one phase of the ability of women to earn their own living,” and that she was interested in helping them join the fight for suffrage. But at the last minute, Millholland backed out, perhaps out of concern that the meeting was nothing but a circus publicity ploy.

Inez Milholland at women’s suffrage parade in New York City, May 3, 1913.Photo courtesy The Library of Congress

To replace her, Florence and Robinson crashed a tea being given by the Women’s Political Union and tried to get a group of the suffragists to attend the circus meeting. According to the New York Times, these “strong and earnest women” impressed the suffragists, who sent over Miss Beatrice Jones, “as a committee of one.” Back in the Madison Square Garden menagerie, “[Jones] planted herself in the center of a group of 25 or more women and girls, modishly and sedately gowned, so that you would never dream it was their daily lot to bound about, blithe and bespangled,” and asked assurances from the women that their intentions were sincere. Once they had convinced her, she helped them elect officers and told them how they could contribute to the cause. To celebrate, they named a baby giraffe Miss Suffrage. For the women of Barnum & Bailey, it was the first step towards becoming suffragists. For Josephine DeMott Robinson, it was just another scrap in a long battle to find her place outside of the ring, in a world that she had always found bewildering and stifling.

Standing on the back of a pony and tied securely to a harness, Josephine DeMott Robinson made her circus debut at the age of three. The short ride around the ring was the culmination of her relentless begging to be part of her parents’ equestrian act. By the time she was 13 she was the star of the family show and soon considered one of the top female circus riders in the United States. She was reportedly one of only two women turning somersaults on the back of a horse at that time, and a circus manager once described her as “the very perfection of art and the embodiment of one’s wildest dreams.”

In 1891, when she was in her early 20s, she 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. She despised the confining clothing and felt stifled by the slow movements required of a lady. “I ate as if I were listening to a dirge and keeping time to it,” she wrote in her memoir, The Circus Lady. When she found some joy in learning to ride her new bicycle she was admonished by the local pastor for riding past the church. When her husband’s political career faltered, she followed him to Alaska to prospect for gold. After three years’ failure to get rich, they came to New York, and settled on a farm in Long Island, but she still struggled to fit in.

Portrait of Josephine DeMott Robinson, 1926.Photo courtesy Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers

“When I thought too long about my vanished world I felt blue and unhappy,” she wrote of this period, “so I tried to put it out of my mind.”

In 1905, she had finally had enough. The family’s finances were tight, and Robinson intended to earn a living the best way she knew how. She was going to return to the circus. This was a ludicrous idea — she was close to 40 and she hadn’t ridden bareback in 15 years — but she bought a horse and started to train him. She had a dirt ring built on the property and was delighted when her horse, My Joe, “could run around the twenty-two-foot circle at least eight times…without getting dizzy.” Her husband watched all this with a confused amazement that turned into concern. “He talked and talked,” she wrote, “trying to persuade me not to do it. I told him it would help our finances very much, but, manlike,” he was against it.

Next, she would train herself. She sewed new practice slippers and cleared a space in her parlor to exercise. She gripped the fireplace mantel like a ballet bar and kicked her leg forward, then swept it around behind her. Before she completed the full movement she knew how weak she had really become. She dropped to the floor and sobbed.

“I cried for my old place in the circus,” she wrote, “and…I cried to find what a weak, worthless body I owned.”

After this one moment of self-pity, she got back to work.

After months of training, she went to talk to Mr. Bailey. He didn’t ask her to audition; her word and past reputation were enough to secure a job. In her first rehearsal, she did one, two, three somersaults atop her mount, executing each perfectly. In the afternoon matinee, she rode into the ring with confidence, feeling at last that she was back where she belonged. Standing on the back of her horse, she leapt into the air — and the horse darted inside. Robinson fell onto the wooden ring. Her knee took the blow, and pain shot up her side. She picked herself up and finished the act. In the dressing room the doctor told her she had fractured two ribs and torn the ligaments surrounding her knee. He told her it would be eight months before she could walk on that leg again.

Robinson intended to return to the ring as soon as possible, no matter what the doctor — or her husband — had to say. Charles had thought her comeback was mad from the start, and he 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.

Robinson doing stunts riding while doubling for actress Mae Marsh in a motion picture “Polly of the Circus,” 1917.  (Photo courtesy Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

“Maybe I did limp a bit while I was getting on the horse,” she wrote, “but exactly two months from the time I was forced to leave the ring I was back in it again.”

She performed with the show for three seasons before finally retiring a second time in late 1908. But this time she knew she “would never again become the weakling that those years in society had made me.” She opened a riding school near her farm and began teaching fitness classes to “a lot of stout women” who might need to “run with fair comfort if they were late for an appointment.”

“It was during this part of my life that suffrage started in real earnest,” she wrote. “At first, when I watched one of these excited mobs of women with their yellow and black standards, their excited voice, their parades that never ended… I was alarmed.” But soon she joined the cause, becoming a “valuable acquisition” for her horsewomanship and physical strength.

“I could ride Comet and make him stand up straight in the air, while I waved a suffrage banner with a firm hand and a high arm. I could lead a parade. I could carry soapboxes for speakers.”

Then she turned to organizing the women she knew best. Although the press treated the Barnum & Bailey suffrage group as a joke, Robinson knew that female circus performers had the potential to be great allies in the fight for the vote. In a society that did all it could to marginalize strong women, circus women were stars who traveled the country and earned their own living.

At the meeting in Madison Square Garden, Robinson stood to speak.

“You earn salaries,” she said. “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.”

It was a radical message, and one not all in the crowd were ready to hear. As she spoke, according to the press, “an indignant-looking circus man shouldered his way into the group and subtracted a docile wife and daughter from it.” (Some accounts report it was his wife and sister-in-law.) The Sacramento Union in California quoted him saying “that he didn’t intend to let his wife take part in such nonsense” and the New York Tribune claimed he was tired of waiting for his dinner. Multiple newspapers focused more on the annoyed husband and the audience of wild animals than they did on the suffrage meeting itself. The press often poked fun at suffragists and the idea of circus suffragists was even more difficult for them to take seriously. Robinson didn’t care.

A group of performers in the Barnum & Bailey circus taken at the time when Robinson was planning to come back. Robinson is standing in the right-center of the group, near the front. Photo courtesy Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers

A week after the meeting Robinson and other representatives of the newly formed group attended a tea with the leaders of the Women’s Political Union — this time they were invited. Robinson made her pitch:

“The circus women live in a little world of their own, roaming all over this country … until age or accident knocks them out. They are thrifty, hard-working people … they do daring deeds, of a kind unknown to the people outside… There is no class of women who could be of more assistance to the cause than we women, who are constantly traveling…”

Suffragist Elizabeth Cook agreed, “There is no class of women who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women, who twice a day prove that they have the courage and endurance of men.”

Robinson at the riding school, showing some of her pupils how to vault a horse while in motion. (Photo courtesy Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

The women of Barnum & Bailey had joined the fight. The Women’s Political Union asked them to help fundraise, becoming just one of the countless groups nationwide that would spend the next seven years fighting for the vote. Robinson remained active in the suffrage movement, becoming captain of her district on Long Island. Later she spoke to women’s groups about how physical fitness would help them support the country during World War I. Her riding school expanded and became a place for women with “jaded nerves” to recuperate.

Robinson never called herself a reformer, but it’s clear that her time in the circus, and outside of it, led her to believe that both economic and physical freedom was important for all women. As one of the New York suffragists had said, “The time has gone by when a woman can think only of 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.”

Kat Vecchio is a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work explores American social and cultural history, with an emphasis on gender and popular entertainment. She is developing "Big Top, Little Lady," a feature documentary exploring the lives of female circus performers at the turn of the century.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Narratively

This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published December 27, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

Vist narratively.com to discover more articles about ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

Visit Narratively