Starring Women

Forthcoming October 2020 from University of Illinois Press.

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.