If I asked you to name some famous female magicians, how many do you think you could name? If your answer is none then don’t feel bad. Very few people can even name one.
However, if you asked the same question about famous male magicians, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone that can’t pull a Harry Houdini or Dynamo out of their sleeve.
As a female magician myself, I’m curious to find out what’s going on. Are women just not that into performing magic anymore? Or is there a deeper mystery here?
So, if you’d like to step behind the veil with me, let’s go find out.
A brief history of women and magic
A search online will tell you that the earliest known male magician on record is Dedi from 2700 B.C. who’s performances for King Cheops included the conjuring of balls illusion, which is a fancy name for the cup and balls trick.
According to Google though, it would take over 4500 years for the first female magician to make herself known, with American stage magician and escapologist Dorothy Dietrich successfully performing the bullet catch trick on international television in 1988.
So perhaps the issue here is actually the label of “magician”, which despite being defined as an umbrella term for “witches”, “wizards”, “sorcerers” and “sorceress” is really a word that tends to conjure up visuals such as this. So, let’s take a look instead at the earliest known witches.
The downfall of the witch
The earliest known reference to a witch is in the Bible, specifically the book of 1 Samuel, written between 931 B.C. and 721 B.C. The book refers to King Saul seeking help from the Witch of Endor to help him overwhelm the Philistine army using “dark magic”.
Back in those times, witches were revered as the mediators between mankind and mysterious supernatural forces, such as spirits and angels. However, the public image of witches somehow fell into sharp decline, leading to them being viewed as wicked and not to be trusted.
This led to the persecution of witches, with suspected witches being tossed into the water with their thumbs bound to their feet. If they floated they were killed for resisting the “baptismal water”. If they sank, they were considered innocent of witchcraft – a bittersweet vindication, considering that many of them often drowned.
The Salem witch trials then began in February 1692, with hundreds of people being accused of witchcraft, 19 of whom met a grisly end by hanging. Many others, perhaps in the tens of thousands, were also burned alive at the stake elsewhere in the world.
It’s worth noting that not all convicted witches were women. Though you never really did hear about the wise old wizards being burned alive at the stake for practising magic, so if women needed a powerful incentive to avoid getting into magic then this was probably it!
The acceptance of women into the Magic Circle
The Magic Circle is a secretive society founded in Britain in 1905. Its purpose is to promote and advance the art of magic, with many famous illusionists, including David Copperfield and the late Paul Daniels bearing the prestigious title of Member of The Magic Circle.
Unfortunately, until recently, that prestige was unavailable to women, with Fay Presto being granted eventual entry into the Magic Circle in 1991 after 75% of its members voted to accept female magicians. As of 2016, there are more than 60 female members in The Magic Circle.
This initial lack of women in The Magic Circle may have contributed to the low number of performing female magicians, as the valuable knowledge and secret tips traded among Magic Circle Members would have been unavailable to them.
From Magicians' assistants to leading the performances
If you follow the news you’ll know that gender equality in the workplace has been a hot topic for some time now, with many claiming that women aren’t given the same opportunities as men. The magic industry is no exception with a female magicians’ role during a magic show often being assumed to be that of the glamorous assistant.
Fortunately, attitudes are changing, thanks to the female magicians that are pushing for change today, and those that worked hard to establish themselves long before. Some of these pioneering female magicians of note include:
As we mentioned earlier, Fay Presto, born Oliver Winter in May 1948, was the first female member of the Inner Magic Circle. She’s best known for kickstarting the close-up magic scene, where she would perform magic in restaurants and bars. This act would eventually win her the title of The Magic Circle Close-up Magician of the Year 2012.
Born as Adelaide Scarcez in 1853 in London, she went on to marry magician Alexander Herrmann in 1875. Together they performed magic tricks such as the bullet catch and various escape routines, with Adelaide initially functioning as Alexanders’ assistant. After Alexander's death in 1896, Adelaide kept the show going and went on to become the star of it.
Born in 1869, Lulu was an American stage magician famous for her demonstrations of immense physical strength as the “Georgia Wonder" or "Laughing Lulu". Her act included having several men hold a chair in place, which she would then move with apparent ease. The sight of a teenage girl apparently possessing the strength of several men after “gaining superpowers in an electrical storm” was an excellent crowd puller in several major American cities.
Annie Abbot was an American stage magician born as Dixie Annie Haygood in 1861. She was inspired to become a magician after witnessing Lulu Hurst perform her feats of physical strength and went on to develop a similar act. This was helped by her smaller stature (compared to Lulu) which made her act seem even more impressive.
Minerva Queen of Mystery
Mildred Snelling or Margaretha Gertz vanDorn was known as Minerva The Queen of Mystery and performed during the mid-1890s in Europe. She is considered to be one of the first successful female escape artists, with a particular talent for handcuff escapes. Her tricks also included a version of Harry Houdini’s Milk Can Escape trick, which she gained far more attention for, much to his dismay.
Dubbed as “The World's Youngest Mental Marvel” Yvonne Loretta Papkin started out her mentalism career in 1930, aged just 8 years old. She was the daughter of vaudeville mentalists Doc Irving and "Princess Yvonne" and was the star of their act, securing her place as a popular child entertainer of the times.
Born in 1925, Lesley was an Australian mentalist and one half of The Piddingtons act, performing alongside her husband Sydney Piddington. Together they performed stage and radio telepathy acts such as The Diving Bell Experiment where Lesley was submerged in a swimming pool with Sydney allegedly communicating with her telepathically from the BBC studio.
Born in the United States in 1909 as Lucille Gaillard, Lucille was a mentalist along with her husband Robert. Together they would perform a “second-sight” routine in nightclubs that involved one of them being blindfolded as the other mingled with the audience lifting up objects for the other to guess. The niche part of their act was the comedy element that they would weave into the routine, with humorous exchanges eventually leading to a full-blown “argument”.
Other possible reasons for the lack of female magicians
For one thing, you could argue that a magicians’ costume hasn’t really been designed with a female magician in mind. Many magic tricks involve the use of a long sleeved jacket or trousers with pockets and tend not to work so well with a skirt and cardigan!
Some magic tricks also generally work better when performed by men, such as using the palm of their hand to conceal a coin. This becomes problematic when you consider that most female hands tend to be much smaller, making the trick harder (but not impossible) to produce.
What do you think?
I’m really interested in hearing what you think, particularly if you can think of any other reasons that I may have missed. I also hope that this article hasn’t come across as an attack on male magicians in any way. Some of my best friends and idols are male magicians and I have nothing but complete admiration and respect for what they have achieved.
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