Here's what my new fridge magnet says: "Evetta the Only Lady Clown with the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth." She is in white harlequin-style pantaloons and dark stockings, with tasselled ballet slippers jauntily pointing upwards, her gesticulating arms completely encased in long black gloves. She sports a tall white beehive wig (hello, Marge Simpson?) while the circus Ringmaster leers over her shoulder down into her cleavage. He holds a whip suggestively over her, in his right hand.
I snapped up this beauty at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum complex in Sarasota this past Labor Day weekend, immediately recognizing a kindred soul. (I was voted Best Sense of Humor in the 7th grade at PS 3 in Greenwich Village, circa 1957- what's a girl gotta do when she doesn't have boobs yet? Be funny.....naturally. It's still my proudest moment.)
Evetta and I had to become better acquainted. At moments like this I drift in a trance over to my computer and am blissful for hours... It did not take more than a few moments, however, before I hit paydirt. Apparently, the women of the circus knew that they could achieve a rare kind of freedom and financial independence as clowns, lion tamers and acrobats....In a fascinating piece based on her extensive research (thank you, Mr. Google, all is forgiven), Professor Janet Davis of the University of Texas at Austin enlightened me about Evetta:
"Acrobat Josephine Matthews invaded the all-male world of clowning in 1895....She thoroughly enjoyed her life with the circus:
'I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man. All of my people laughed at me when I told them I was going into the ring as a clown; but they do not laugh now when they see that I can keep an engagment all the time and earn as much money and more than they can in their branches of business. I like the work and try to put ideas into it. Every day I thnk out something new and the management usually gives me pretty wide latitude. My chief difficulty is in making myself heard, but then nobody ever listens to what a clown says; everything depends on the antics.'
from the text of "Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America," a brilliant talk by Janet M. Davis in October 2005 at the University of Virginia. Quoted here with permission from the author.
Books by Professor Davis: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (2002) and Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline (2008).
And then- I drifted into my memories of my sweet female clients in San Francisco who ran a cafe called The Bearded Lady ....because they were. Bearded ladies, lesbians and rock musicians. More anon. Stay tuned. Everything connects.