Barnum & Bailey’s Forgotten High-Flying Suffragists
In 1912, female acrobats, equestrians and weightlifters took on a new high-wire act: fighting for their right to vote.
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 suffrag…