Women Shaping History:
Making a Difference Through the Circus
Talking with Peggy Williams the catch phrase “greatest show on earth” takes on deeper meaning. Williams’ career began in 1970 when, through a serendipitous turn of events, she joined the circus, becoming, to her own surprise, the first female clown.
During her senior year at the University of Wisconsin, majoring in Speech Pathology, planning to work with deaf children, she came across an article in Parade magazine, indicating that Ringling Brothers in Venice, Florida, was accepting female students. Williams planned to take the eight week course and pursue a master’s degree.
Instead, after receiving a job as a clown, she began a dynamic career in the circus, an adventure, continuing today, enriching the lives of children and adults.
A career as a clown is “not a walk in the park” but rather physically and mentally challenging, requiring tremendous endurance and the need to “put all your cares and woes aside the minute you put your make-up on.” But through the circus—the place “with a culture and language all its own”—there’s the opportunity to touch lives of all ages, according to Williams.
Williams throughout her career has maintained her passion for reaching out to children with special needs. During an interview with Education Update, she recalled a poignant story while doing a one person show as a Good Will Ambassador at the School for Autistic Children. Williams “shed the human” and became clown before the audience. When at one point she asked if anyone wanted to have their nose painted, one little girl made eye-contact—an extremely rare occurrence among autistic children—with Williams, responding that she wanted a red nose. She even made eye-contact with herself—also, rare among autistics—looking at her painted face in the mirror. The nurses were shocked, exclaiming that they had never seen the child connect with anyone before. The child even posed for a photograph with Williams. “I’m no magician, she was really connecting with the clown,” Williams matter-of-factly recalled.
Williams has additionally been able to reach out to the blind and deaf community through resources such as Bell Volunteers, which provides auditory descriptions of circus acts for the blind. Williams has learned all circus terminology in sign language to be able to communicate with the deaf during circus tours.
While doing outreach with children in schools, introducing them to life in the circus, Williams, began to develop Ringling materials for classrooms. She asked Dr. Mildred Fenner, an editor for NEA, to develop materials along with her. Williams did some of the writing as well, and did field testing while Fenner researched the data.
The endeavor came to be known as CircusWorks; today, circusworks.com allows teachers access to curriculums for pre-school and elementary school age children. Williams is currently Education Outreach manager for CircusWorks. Writers for the program now match the curriculum with national educational standards.
CircusWorks incorporates geography, math, science, physics; character building is a major theme. As Williams points out, there’s “no better example than teamwork, trust, and getting along than at the circus,” for children to emulate.
A striking example of this occurred over the course of two summers when Williams went to Northern Ireland, during the late 80’s, at the height of the conflict between Christians and Protestants. Through the Belfast Community Children’s Circus, a program joining kids from different sides of the wall to work collaboratively to create a circus show. Williams, as a clown instructor, saw the animosity of the two groups diminish, as they worked towards their shared goal of creating a successful show.
With reference to her experiences as the first female clown, Williams has rolled with the punches, seeing it as an opportunity to create a female character completely from scratch, without the bias or influence of earlier role models. There was, however, prejudice in her early years working, especially from older clowns, some of whom refused to sit in the clown cars with her, and even from younger clowns who refused to participate in slapstick—so as not to violate the maxim “don’t hit a girl.” Being together in the traveling circus, the “town without a zip code,” as Williams refers to it, helped to some degree to overcome prejudice and she still keeps in touch with many of male members of the cast.
Williams equates the circus to a kind of United Nations, and one of her messages to youth is, “If you aren’t getting along, keep trying to get along until you do.” She attributes Ringling’s success for 136 years to abiding by this philosophy. Williams’ advice is also: “Don’t be afraid to try.” Using the word try rather than do is what got her to the successful place she’s at today.#