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.
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.
"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 22-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.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.