Before learning more about the four women discussed in this site, it’s worth taking a (very) brief look at how women’s roles in the theatre have changed over time – and where they have opportunities for growth. The contributions women have made to theatre history are far too numerous to count, yet there have been significant periods in which women’s participation has been severely limited. Did you know, for example, that in William Shakespeare’s time (late 16th, early 17th century), women were effectively barred from performing on the professional English stage? Instead, all of Shakespeare’s female roles – including such greats as Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), and Olivia (Twelfth Night) – were originally played by boys and young men. This is also probably the case of the great tragic roles of ancient Athens (5th century B.C.E) as well as traditional forms such as Japanese kabuki, which actually began as a predominately female art form in the early 17th century before becoming an exclusively male occupation. To be clear, this does not mean women were barred from performing in general; in Shakespeare’s time, women often performed in courtly masques, pageants, and street shows. As is often the case in history, women sometimes appear to be absent when in fact they are very much part of the fabric of theatrical life. Nevertheless, women have historically faced certain restrictions when it comes to participating in the professional theatre, as well as many aspects of civic life.
Why has this been the case? The reasons are often quite complex. In some cases, such as modern kabuki, keeping the all-male tradition has become a matter of importance in and of itself, something many scholars and activists continue to debate. Oftentimes, however, women were first excluded from the stage for moral reasons. In fact, throughout the Medieval and Early Modern period in Europe, actors and theatre folk in general were routinely associated (often unfairly) with unsavory behavior, particularly by the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, women were subjected to a sexist double-standard, meaning their behavior was often scrutinized much more harshly than that of men. Indeed, it was not uncommon for actresses to be associated with prostitutes, or at the very least to be considered sexually promiscuous simply because they were involved in the theatre. That stigma remained even as women began to appear on stages throughout Europe. Meanwhile, men continued to enjoy most of the artistic and economic power by holding management positions, commanding greater patronage, and writing dramas that better suited their perspectives.
Fortunately, by the time professional theatre began to develop in the new United States, women were very much onstage and, in some cases, playing significant roles offstage. Mary Ann Duff (1794-1857), for example, was an English actress who achieved significant renown after arriving in the United States in 1810. In fact, many thought her the finest tragic actress in the English speaking world, surpassing even the actresses in her native England. Later, Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) would move in the opposite direction, becoming the first American-born actress to achieve international fame before enjoying a successful career in London. At her peak, Cushman played some of the most famous roles in the canon, including Lady Macbeth, which she performed at The National Theatre. Like all of the women in this site, Cushman was a success in part because of her talent but also because she pursued a life true to who she was. In her case, that meant being openly lesbian, which was highly uncommon at the time and generated yet another level of scrutiny regarding her personal affairs. In addition to garnering fame on the stage, women were also starting to make big moves in the wings, including at The National Theatre. In 1842, Virginia Monsier became its first female manager of The National, a position she held until 1843 when the theatre passed into new management and fell on hard times. The second female manager’s tenure was even briefer. Fanny Morant, who renamed The National in her own honor, managed it for barely a month in early 1857 before it burned down following a backstage accident. Though short-lived, their times in charge demonstrate that women in American theatre were capable of making significant breakthroughs.
Despite these important figures, American men were still far more likely to own and operate theatre buildings and male actors were significantly more likely to benefit from the star system, in which leading performers traveled around the country performing major roles alongside local actors. This, in turn, was aided by the fact that few truly inspired leading roles existed for women within the canon of great plays; Sarah Bernhardt, one of the women you will learn about in this site, often lamented that. Apart from playing second fiddle in the American theatre, women in the 19th century were generally lacking in significant social and political power, a fact exemplified by their inability to vote in elections. In fact, each of the four women you will learn about in this site were all born before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Even then, many women of color, Black women in particular, were still effectively disenfranchised by segregation. Much of this was addressed by the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enshrined protections against discrimination based on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin into law. The two American women we discuss in this site, Helen Hayes and Pearl Bailey, were alive during some of the most significant moments in American history, and were taking advantage by charting successful careers for themselves. By the time Second Wave Feminism was coming to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, the very nature of what it meant to be a woman, career and all, was rapidly changing.
Obviously, many women enjoy successful, prominent careers in the American theatre today. Nevertheless, progress is a constant, and there is still a need for change to bring about greater opportunities for women theatre-makers, as well as their trans and non-binary colleagues. Since the late 1960s and 1970s, many women have concentrated their efforts on documenting the inequity in professional theatre and taking steps to address it. In her excellent article for HowlRound Theatre Commons, Jenny Lyn Bader offers a brief overview of these efforts, taking into account protests, conferences, theatre festivals that celebrate women writers, organizations such as the League of Professional Theatre Women, and documents such as the annual Kilroys List, which curates the best un-produced plays written by women, trans, and non-binary writers. Much of this work has demonstrated that, despite women making up the majority of theatre audiences around the country, they are still vastly outnumbered in plays produced, professional directing credits received, awards given, and other categories. This is an issue not just on Broadway but in regional theatres and touring productions as well.
So while you learn about the women featured in this site, recognize that they are part of a larger struggle for equity in the theatre. In fact, each of them contributed to that struggle in her own way, whether by breaking new ground in their profession, demonstrating mastery over her own affairs, or openly advocating for others. And of course, all of them made their mark at The National Theatre.
In A Brief History of the Gender Parity Movement in Theatre, author Jenny Lyn Bader charts various movements and organizations designed to address the lack of opportunities for women, non-binary, and trans artists in the theatre. Bader starts by pointing out an important fact: that women writers and theatre-makers are not new. Take, for example, Hrosvitha von Gandersheim, a 10th Century German canoness who is often considered the first known woman playwright. Of course, there are many great contributors of all genders who have been lost to history, perhaps because their work was not valued enough at the time to be preserved for future generations. This is another reason why generating more inclusive practices today is important: because it ensures more diverse work sustains into the future. For now, there are a number of ideas for how to make the theatre a more equitable place for people of all genders.
Bader, Jenny Lyn. “A Brief History of the Gender Parity Movement in Theatre.” HowlRound. HowlRound Theatre Commons, 4 March, 2017, https://howlround.com/brief-history-gender-parity-movement-theatre.
Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 10th edition. Boston: Pearson, 2008.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
“Women Performers in Shakespeare’s Time.” Folger Shakespeare Library Online. Folger Shakespeare Library, accessed 4 March, 2021, https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/women-performers.
Zarilli, Philip, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. Theatre Histories. 2nd edition. Oxford: Routledge, 2010.