Female Firsts

by Malcolm Macdonald, July 5, 2017

Women got short shrift in 19th century reporting. If married, a woman was almost always referred to in print by her husband's first and last name, with Mrs. in front of that. You could give birth on New Year's Day and the local paper would only note, “In Mendocino, January 1st, 1879, to the wife of A. Carlson, a daughter.”

A woman's first name in print was a designation reserved for the truly noteworthy in the 1800s. An earlier piece in the AVA (June 14) described some of the career of Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to pass the California bar and practice law in the state. Her 'Shortridge' maiden name was seldom published, though her husband, Jeremiah Foltz, had run off and left Clara with five children to raise well before her days as an attorney. For a full length detailing of Clara Shortridge Foltz readers should turn to Barbara A. Babcock's Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz. (Hopefully you'll request it from your local independent bookseller instead of resorting to a quick fix like Amazon.)

Ms. Babcock proves a woman of distinction herself. Raised in Hope, Arkansas and Hyattsville, Maryland, Barbara A. Babcock (don't mistake her for the film and television actress of a similar name, best known for a recurring role on Hill Street Blues) is a graduate of Yale Law School. After serving as the first director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, in 1972, she became the first woman appointed to the regular faculty at Stanford University. She also taught the first “Women and the Law” courses at Yale and Georgetown. She is married to Thomas C. Grey a Professor of Law, Emeritus at Stanford, but has retained the Babcock surname with which she entered the world.

In the 1800s, a woman's name was more likely to pop up in newspaper print in a story like this describing circumstances in San Francisco, “The members of the Madame Rentz's Female Minstrel Troupe, performing at the Standard Theatre, together with the Proprietor and Manager, were formally arrested one night last week by a police officer on a warrant charging them with a misdemeanor. They were held to bail; after which the performance was proceeded with. This is the troupe whose performances are regarded so obscene by some of the papers that they will not advertise them.”

The article appeared as part of the “San Francisco Notes” column on page four of the March 22, 1879 edition of the Mendocino Beacon. Madame Rentz's Female Minstrel Troupe was something of a bridge between minstrelsy and burlesque. Though the troupe did dance, the main objective was a display of what was then considered scantily clad bodies and tights. A stage hand described one of the San Francisco performances this way, “We had advertised that we were going to put on the can-can. Mabel Santley did this number and when the music came to the dum-de-dum, she raised her foot just about twelve inches; whereupon the entire audience hollored [sic] 'Whooooo!' It set them crazy.”

Madame Rentz's minstrel troupe, though composed of an all female cast, clung to the pre-Civil War male minstrelsy tradition of white acts performing in black face. Apparently audiences weren't looking that high up. By the time Madame Rentz's troupe made it across the continent to San Francisco nearly a dozen other “girlie” dance shows sprung up to tour the country.

As readers may have guessed, the creator of Madame Rentz's Female Minstrel Troupe was not a woman, but Michael B. Leavitt, a one time black-faced singer. The name was purloined from a European traveling show called Rentz's Circus. Leavitt also stole or borrowed from European entertainers the idea of using lithographic posters for advertising instead of simple block printing.

While producing more legitimate performances, such as then widely followed magicians Herrmann the Great and Harry Kellar (both deserving of full pages of their own), Leavitt productions have earned him an historical footnote as the “father” of burlesque in America.

(The show goes on at the author's website: malcolmmacdonaloutlawford.com.)

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