Starring Women

Star actresses and dancers were among the most publicly visible, celebrated, and often polarizing female public figures in the early United States. Their fame drove the growth and transformation of theater between 1790 and 1850 from the Atlantic seaboard to the trans-Appalachian West.

They introduced new repertoire—melodramas, breeches roles, dance pantomime and ballet—that catalyzed debates about American culture, regional and national identity, and women’s place in public life.

This book transforms existing understandings of early U.S. theater and culture. It tells a new story about women’s professional strategies by applying close critical feminist readings to a range of print and manuscript sources, including newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and sheet music illustrations, theatrical memoirs, and business records.

These starring women lived and performed the contradictions of changing nineteenth-century gender roles. They were exceptional figures who mapped the margins of a narrowing white middle-class domestic ideal.

Book Talks

EMAIL to learn more about the following talks or about other topics that might suit your institution.

Dis/Obedient Daughters and Devoted Wives: The Family Politics of Starring Performers in Early U.S. Theater

  • Learn about the history of the women and the family through stories of early starring women who helped popularize theater in the early United States, but still chafed at the narrow gendered contours of their lives.

"Elsslermania" and the Danger of Female Celebrity in America

  • Discover how Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler excited and shocked American audiences, inspiring debates about American identity, American behavior, and American virtues and vices. Was Elssler "poetry of motion" or was she a threat to American democracy itself!

From Stock to Star: Inventing the American Actress

  • What did it mean to be an American actress in an industry dominated by British stars? This talk weaves together the remarkable careers of three women who navigated unscrupulous managers, fraught respectability politics, and competing ideals of art and national identity to become the first AMERICAN starring women.