Charmion (1875 – 1949), vaudeville strongwoman and trapeze artist
Women with muscles. Roll up. Roll up. Come see the circus freaks.
A muscular woman was an object of myth, wonder and fear. She disrupts the order of things: a strange, immoral, exotic, erotic and dangerous creature not quite a man and yet affecting male stereotypes. She is a woman unsexed.
Among the earliest strongwomen whose names have come down to us is the subject of this lithograph: Elise Serafin Luftmann. Apparently from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830. Via
They aren’t building their bodies for us, anyway. The question is not whether they are sexually appealing for others but whether they excel at what they do for themselves. In the end, it is an issue of self-fulfillment. It was a simple explanation, but it made me wonder about the women who had tried to build their bodies in previous generations. Did they worry about gender-identity issues a hundred or more years ago?
Ultimately, Chapman reminds us misconception, stereotype, and judgement of strongwomen are far from eradicated… Many of the same battles that were being fought over a century ago are still being waged today … after all, labels are so much easier to deal with than realities.
circa 1895: Strong woman, Katie Sandwina mother of boxer Teddy Sandwina, prepares to break a chain over her thigh. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
A way to diffuse male worries about women being too strong and threatening was to portray them in photos that emphasized their grace and beauty rather than their mass and musculature. Trapeze artists like this one had highly developed arms and upper bodies; it is significant that the photographer chose not to emphasize those parts of the subject’s anatomy. Although her name and date are unknown, this gymnast is almost certainly a circus or music hall performer from the 1890s. Via
The Belgian strongwoman had figured out that the one of the ways that she could amaze audiences was to lift a man on her shoulders. Eventually she was able to support half a dozen burly males as well as an oversized barbell. (Via)
The Braselly Sisters were a pair of strongwomen who specialized in graceful and artistic strength stunts. They were also sisters of the even more famous female athlete, Sandwina. Here the two ladies do an adagio (acrobatic balancing) act. The photo found its way into The Police Gazette in 1909 where it was titled ‘Muscles and Music.’ The editors asked rhetorically, ‘But don’t you think the lady athletes are a stunning pair of statuesque beauties?’
When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise. here two cheerful ladies work out in their street clothes in a photograph c. 1910 by Willis T. White.
A circus strongwoman balances a piano and pianist on her chest, circa 1920. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
‘Vulcana’ (aka Kate Roberts).
1942: WWII patriotic We Can Do It poster by J. Howard Miller
In the 1940s and ’50s, there were few places where muscular women congregated; one of the most important was in the circus. Aerialists, trapeze artists, and acrobats all developed impressive musculature by practicing their arts. There was a cadre of men who pursued these women and captured their flexing biceps on film. The pictures do not show much creativity or talent, but they document female muscularity at a time when such images were very rare. There is a rustic charm to these photographs, taken in off-hours in fort of circus wagons or company busses. Unfortunately, few paying customers wanted to see girls posing like this.
11th August 1955: Larger-than-life Ewart Potgieter balances on strong woman Jean Rhodes. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, women had to appear as ladylike as possible, even when doing something as traditionally masculine as working out with weights. This girl is doing a seated press with respectably heavy weight, but her high heels and helmet-like hairdo are like fig leaves preserving her femininity.
March 1950: Strongwoman Joan Rhodes bends an iron bar between her teeth. (Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
September 1953: Twenty-one year old Alice Penfold, a professional strong woman from Bury, near Pulborough, Sussex, flexes her biceps. She can tear telephone directories in half and lift a 146 lb woman with her teeth. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
March 1958: Glamorous strongwoman Joan Rhodes exercises her strength whilst hoovering in her flat in Hampstead, north London. (Photo by Ken Harding/BIPs/Getty Images)
8th April 1958: Men, working on the site of Quaglino’s new banqueting rooms, look on in amazement as strong-woman Joan Rhodes demonstrates her strength by lifts one of their co-workers. She is appearing in cabaret at Quaglino’s restaurant and decided to visit the men working next door. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
11th January 1973: Strongwoman Maria McArd pulling a 12-ton lorry with her teeth. (Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, NSW – OCTOBER 30: Competitors perform poses for judges during the womens open bodybuilding division during the Australian Bodybuilding and Bodyshaping Championships at Revesby Workers Club October 30, 2005 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
2006 Imprisoned women One smokes, the other shows the strong muscles of the arms (Photo by Sofia Moro/Cover/Getty Images)
Laverie Vallee, better-known by her stage name of Charmion, is the subject of this Thomas Edison film from 1901, featuring her famous trapeze strip-tease: