Get thee to a Stage! A Brief History of Women in the Theater

Women in the theater are a legacy all their own.

Though much of women’s history has been distorted or forgotten, we can be sure that women have always had a powerful presence within the history of Performing Arts. Amid controversy, triumph, and occasional public backlash, the women of theater have continued to shine throughout the ages.

220px-Roswitha_of_Gandersheim.jpgThe theater arose more than two millennia ago in ancient Greece. Since heroines and Goddesses were the pinnacles of Greek society, they were often the stars of drama productions. Despite this, the role of women in the Greek Theater was otherwise non-existent.  Women were strictly prohibited from being onstage, as it was considered “too dangerous” to give them such a prominent platform.  Even the most renowned characters, like the tragic heroine, Antigone, were portrayed exclusively by male actors. During the following centuries, there were few accounts of women participating in theater. One notable exception was a nun called Hrosvitha, who wrote comedy during the tenth century. Hrosvitha is often credited as the first female playwright in history.

With the arrival of Opera during the 16th century, the stage began to open up for women. Some productions even called for women in starring roles! Despite this new development, female Opera singers still faced many unjust challenges. Much like Ancient Greek societies, Christian rule sought to control women’s behavior. Thus, it was commonly deemed inappropriate and unchaste for women to perform on stage. Women’s Soprano parts were often replaced by a type of male performer known as the Castrati. The purpose of the Castrati was to try and achieve the quality of a woman’s pitch without allowing females to actually perform in Opera productions. During this period, the most ruthless oppressor was the Church itself, where women were strictly barred from performing in the Papal Choir.

During the Elizabethan era, William Shakespeare created some of the most commanding female characters in history. Rosalind, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, and other Shakespearean icons were among the first female characters to be portrayed with the depth, cunning, and bravery that were frequently bestowed upon male characters. Still, female performers were prohibited from playing these roles.

Actresses may have taken the stage in Europe as early as the 1620s. This was a tumultuous time for women performers, as they were commonly harassed and berated during performances. Even when faced with public ridicule, women continued their conquest of the stage. In 1660, a movement known as the Restoration set off a wave of changes within the theater. With support from the King, women were finally permitted to perform in major productions. The movement marked a huge shift in the collective attitude towards female performers. For the first time in history, it seemed that society was beginning to acknowledge the value of women actors. Still, actresses of the 17th century experienced only a gradual rise in status.

Female playwrights in Europe emerged during the latter half of the 17th century. The earliest woman playwrights, including Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre, brought women’s voices and perspectives into the spotlight for the first time. These playwrights didn’t shy away from controversial, women-centric topics. Behn even used her disdain for forced marriage as inspiration for some of her productions. Early women playwrights also utilized their platform to write heroic, dynamic, and autonomous female characters.

Astor_Theatre,_Broadway,_1936.jpgFor the next few centuries, women’s achievements in theater continued to gain momentum. In the United States, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a breakthrough period for women in performing arts. Female performers came to enjoy a relatively prominent place under the dazzling Broadway lights. Likewise, theater going started to become a women’s activity. With actresses seeing new potential for independence and economic power, the theater was truly beginning to seem like a woman’s world! Although American women found a more inclusive place onstage, they still struggled to escape oppressive systems of gender discrimination. Like the ones before them, scores of brilliant women have fought hard for visibility within the modern theater.

Because women chose to resist and persevere, diversity in the theater has seen more progress than ever before. Though we have come a long way since the Boy’s Club Greek Theaters and the bearded Juliets of Shakespeare’s day, women are still disproportionately represented in the theater. According to Works By Women, “It is estimated that women playwrights, directors, and designers represent only 20% of all theatre professionals hired each year”[1]. Creative women face many other forms of oppression, including sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. The women of today’s theater are actively working to change this. Here are two examples of the many organizations working toward parity in the theater:

  • Each year, The Kilroys assemble a list that specifically illuminates new plays by female, trans, and women of color authors.
  • Works by Women is committed to achieving parity by elevating women theater professionals and empowering women audiences to get involved with its mission.

Though the work is far from done, women continue to make incredible strides in performing arts. We can become agents of change by sharing their stories and supporting their work. As we look to a more diverse and inclusive society, we must demand that theater and art continue to become a place of empowerment for all women.


 Jessica Lamb,  Women’s Museum Volunteer.
Don’t miss the current exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California exploring the history of women in the Old Globe Theater, September 1 – October 29
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