Circuses and sideshows may not seem like obvious places to look for stories of female empowerment, but experts say the performers who appeared in such acts played a surprising and important role in women’s history–in large part thanks to their tattoos.
The height of sideshow and circus popularity in the mid–19th century came at a time when women had few opportunities for economic independence, and providing for families was largely a man’s job. Not so for the female sideshow performers, many of whom capitalized on the fascination with body art by voluntarily tattooing themselves, enabling them to make their own money. (Though some were forcibly tattooed.)
Ink liberated Victorian-era women outside the circus as well. Wealthy socialites, for example, got tattoos as a form of rebellion. At the time, social mores required these women to keep their whole bodies covered. And so–influenced by tattooed British royals–they started summoning ink artists to their homes to give them designs they could hide. Winston Churchill’s mother Lady Randolph Churchill is said to have had a snake tattoo on her wrist (easily covered by a wineglass or sleeve); by the turn of the 20th century, roughly three-fourths of fashionable New York City ladies had gotten similarly trendy tattoos, including butterflies, flowers and dragons, according to the New York World.
As Cristian Petru Panaite, curator of an exhibit on the 300-year history of tattooing, open now at the New-York Historical Society, puts it, “Tattoos were an early way that women took control of their bodies.”
This appears in the March 13, 2017 issue of TIME.