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Women and the Circus

250 years after the circus was first founded in Britain, how important is the art form today? And how has the role of women in the circus changed over the years?

Roll up, roll, up! Ladies and gentlemen - today's very special Woman's Hour comes to you from Zippos Circus in London. April 2018 marks 250 years since the start of the circus, which was founded right here in Britain. Dea Birkett, a former 'elephant girl' and the founder of Circus 250, joins Jane Garvey to explore women's role in the circus - past, present and future.

What is the history behind women in the circus? Who are the pioneering characters and why is it a society where women have been encouraged to thrive? Jane speaks to Dea Birkett and Professor Vanessa Toulmin, who specialises in early film and circus.

Female performers often push themselves to the extreme in the circus - from magician assistants to trapeze acts. How does this impact a woman's relationship with her body? And what kind of pressures are women in the circus facing? Vicki Amedume and Ellie Dubois are two circus performers who have gone on to found their own companies after facing stereotypes and sexism in the business.

Since its very beginning circus has been performed by those on the outside of society. And with the recent resurgence, a growing movement has emerged, where those who may feel marginalised from the mainstream learn circus skills as a sort of therapy. Reporter Henrietta Harrison visits a social circus therapy class, Albert and Friends Instant Circus.

And we've all heard the phrase that people 'run away to join the circus'. Why does the circus come with such a sense of family and community? And who are the women that keep this legacy going? Is the circus still a place for the world's outsiders? For Sarah Ramsay, having grown up in a circus family, it's all she's ever known. Helen Averley founded her own circus with her husband 11 years ago.

Presented by Jane Garvey
Produced by Olivia Cope
Reporter: Henrietta Harrison
Edited by Erin Riley.

Available now

58 minutes


  • Welcome to the Circus!

    Duration: 05:26

  • Circus History

    Duration: 08:18

  • The Female Body

    Duration: 09:27

  • Circus Therapy

    Duration: 08:14

  • The Circus Community

    Duration: 10:35


Role Contributor
Presenter Jane Garvey
Interviewed Guest Dea Birkett
Interviewed Guest Vanessa Toulmin
Interviewed Guest Vicki Amedume
Interviewed Guest Ellie Dubois
Interviewed Guest Helen Averley
Interviewed Guest Sarah Ramsay
Editor Erin Riley
Reporter Henrietta Harrison
Producer Olivia Cope


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