Illinois Women in the Arts and Entertainment

Funded through an Educate and Automate Grant from the Illinois State Library,
a division of the Office of the Secretary of State


by Denise Anton Wright, Alliance Library System
(formerly Interim Head of Special Collections, Milner Library, Illinois State University)

The experience of the women included in this arts and entertainment section reflects not only the constraints placed upon women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but the ability of women to transcend these constraints. Compared to their male counterparts during this period, occupations with the arts and entertainment were somewhat limited for women. The prevailing cultural attitude was that a woman's virtue or character was somehow suspect if she chose a career in the entertainment field. In spite of this attitude, there were areas of entertainment which were more culturally accepted than others. For example, singing--whether in recital hall or opera house--was accepted since it emphasized the beauty of a woman's voice and appearance.

However, careers for women in the circus had a more difficult time finding widespread acceptance. Because they traveled so much of the year and often wore what were considered risque costumes, women circus performers developed the reputation of leading indecent lives. An example of circus management trying to counter the cultural prejudice against women performers is a 1901 Ringling Brothers poster which is part of the Circus and Allied Arts Collection at Illinois State University's Milner Library. This promotional poster features photographs of all forty women performing with the Ringling Brothers circus that season. The text of the poster emphasizes the wholesomeness necessary for women in the circus: "the laws of health are sensitively adhered to by the women who achieve success in this work."

The careers of five of the women profiled in this section demonstrate how important family support and encouragement were to women artists and performers. For example, Jennie Ward learned the trapeze with the help of her older brother--and future partner--Eddie; Julia Lowande Shipp was born into a family of circus performers and began her professional career at an early age; and a teenaged Linda Jeal was apprenticed to her sister's husband who owned a circus. In addition, both the families of both Emma Abbott and Marie Litta were musical and very supportive of their daughters' singing careers. As a matter of fact, Emma Abbott's father was her first voice instructor and one of her brothers became a professional violinist.

The contributions of these women performers paved the way for other women to pursue their dreams. Emma Abbott began her own opera company, thereby providing performance opportunities for numerous women. When her own career was slowing down, Linda Jeal helped to train young circus performers in Havana, Illinois. Through her family and professional ties, Julia Lowande Shipp helped to establish Petersburg, Illinois as an important circus training and practice site. And although both Jennie Ward and Marie Litta died while in their late twenties, their careers undoubtedly inspired other young women to follow their example.


  1. Emma Abbott, Peoria's Most Famous Singer
  2. Bessie Coleman, Pilot, barnstormer, and stunt flyer
  3. Sarah Marshall Hayden, novelist
  4. Linda Jeal, Circus Performer
  5. Marie Litta, Bloomington Opera Singer
  6. Julia Lowande, Circus Performer
  7. Lena Doolin Mason, Poet
  8. Jennie Ward, Circus Performer

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This page last updated: Friday, 24-Sep-1999 14:43:23 CDT