Women in American Theatre, 1850-1870: A Study in Professional Equity

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Cooley, Edna Hammer
Meersman, Roger
This study supports the contention that women in the American theatre from 1850 to 1870 experienced a unique degree of professional equity with men in theatre. The time-frame has been selected for two reasons: (1) actresses active after 1870 have been the subject of several dissertations and scholarly studies, while relatively little research has been completed on women active on the American stage prior to 1870, and (2) prior to 1850 there was limited theatre activity in this country and very few professional actresses. A general description of mid-nineteenth-century theatre and its social context is provided, including a summary of major developments in theatre in New York and other cities from 1850 to 1870, discussions of the star system, the combination company, and the mid-century audience. Important social influences on the theatre, and on women working in the theatre, include the emergence of the Women's Rights movement in 1848, the ''Gold Rush" and consequent westward expansion, and increased immigration. A discussion of the nineteenth-century view of women's role in society and the prescriptive ideal of "belle femme" wife and mother demonstrates that the American actress, successfully employed, constituted a contradiction of society's ideal. Two indicators of professional equity are discussed: career opportunities and salaries. A description of the careers of four actresses, Mrs. W. G. Jones, Maggie Mitchell, Kate Reignolds, and Mrs. J. R. Vincent, illustrates four differentiated career patterns open to women in mid-century theatre. The management careers of Mrs. John Drew, Laura Keene, and Mrs. John Wood are described to exemplify opportunities open to women as theatre managers. Additional information on twenty-two other actresses active on the American stage from 1850 to 1870 is also presented. Research on wages paid to men and women in mid-century theatre demonstrates the degree to which women's salaries were comparable to men's salaries. The study concludes that from 1850 to 1870, the American theatre offered women opportunities for stable employment, long and varied careers, success as theatre managers, and a degree of economic equity with male counterparts which exceeded economic equity possible in other occupations.