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How Female Entertainers Helped Reshape the World

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Sarah Bernhardt strides across the pages of Susan Glenn’s book like a colossus.

Professor Susan Glenn with a photo of Sarah Bernhardt.

Professor Susan Glenn with a photo of Sarah Bernhardt.

In her nine tours of the United States between 1880 and 1918, the French-born actress made an indelible impression on the American landscape that transcended the stage. In her new book, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism, UW history professorGlenn explores how Bernhardt and other female entertainers at the turn of the 20th century exercised a strong influence on public consciousness and in changing societal concepts of womanhood.

“Bernhardt was the touchstone, the spectacle of spectacles,” says Glenn. “She legitimized a strong personality for women and gave them permission to say ‘I,’ which previously would have been seen as controversial.”

Spectacle, according to Glenn, was a term widely used at the end of the 19th century to describe all sorts of changes that were beginning to transform American society. One of the biggest changes was the larger public presence of women in the workplace, streets, and in the theaters. On and off the stage women were increasingly drawing attention to themselves as they began voicing their rights to education, employment, participation in politics, and sexual expressiveness.

Bernhardt wasn’t alone in creating theatric spectacle. She was joined by scores of other leading female entertainers of the era—well-paid and independent women who helped shape wider social and cultural develop-ments because they exercised a degree of freedom that was rarely available to women in public, according to Glenn.

“Historians in general have ignored the theater as a place where new ideas were generated,” says Glenn. “I hope this book permits people to see it as a place that helped move the world into the 20th century.”