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.

The Reviews Are In!

American Nineteenth Century History (2021) by Emily Banta:

"Sara E. Lampert offers a valuable new study of women performers on the early American stage that brings the concerns of women’s history to bear on histories of theater and drama in the early United States. Focusing on the careers of women working in the commercial theater from the early national period to mid-century, Lampert lends fresh insight into what is often called the “feminization” of nineteenth-century theater...

One of the great strengths of Lampert’s study is her ability to capture the fluid mobility of an expanding transatlantic theater culture, in which performers pursued greater celebrity and financial capital by touring across British, northeastern, southern, trans-Appalachian, and western theater circuits."

Journal of American History (2022) by Sarah Chinn:

"Starring Women takes a deeply researched look at the lives and careers of the major actresses of the first half of the nineteenth century, most forgotten, even by theater historians. By excavating them for contemporary readers, Lampert shows how these women carved out careers in the context of an emerging and eventually dominant ideology of Christian domesticity...

Lampert expertly integrates larger analytical and historical questions of women’s agency with finely drawn accounts of the lives of the women she examines.

This is a fascinating book, not just for theater historians but for anyone interested in the complex web of forces that high-earning women faced in the mid-nineteenth century."

Journal of Women's History (2022) by Renée M. Sentilles and Marnie Nichole:

"Sara E. Lampert’s Starring Women is an exhaustively researched exploration of how female actors negotiated gender norms while establishing English theater in the newly minted United States.

Lampert’s book is about women in public entertainment from the emergence of the new nation to the brink of the Civil War, but it addresses concepts of womanhood, public presence, and celebrity that reverberated well beyond the stage.

...while all theater historians should read and use this book in their classes, this book is also valuable for any scholar studying the history of women in America, the rise of the American middle class, and nineteenth-century America."

And there's more:

Journal of American Culture (2022) reviewed by Theodore Bain

Theatre Survey (2020) reviewed by Winter Phong

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.