Celebrating Annie Edson Taylor, the “Queen of the Mist ”

Queen-of-the-MistA key factor in selecting this year’s “Gender Bender” festival theme is the fact that Western New York is closely linked to the American women’s rights movement. But one piece of colorful local history that you probably haven’t heard about is the story of a solo female pioneer, Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. And she was 63 years old when she did it.

Taylor was an adventurer well before she attempted her most daring stunt on October 24th, 1901, a date that was, incidentally, also her birthday. Born in Auburn, New York, she was a schoolteacher in her early adulthood, but when her husband died just four years after their marriage along with her infant son, she spent the rest of her adult life traveling and working odd jobs.

In Bay City, Michigan she trained to be a dance instructor, and when she couldn’t find work, she opened her own studio. She later became a music teacher, then moved to San Antonio and on to Mexico City. Reaching old age and having little monetary wealth despite her many skills and experiences, she decided to become the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Although many believed it to be a suicide mission, Taylor went over the Falls in a custom made oak barrel padded with a mattress. Two days prior to her stunt a cat was also sent over the Falls in a barrel in an attempt to determine whether or not it would be possible to survive. Both Taylor and the cat lived, and posed for the press together in the photo above.

After completing her Niagara-Falls stunt, Taylor continued to travel and earned a modest income by speaking about her harrowing experience. Unfortunately, she never earned the fame and fortune that she had hoped to gain, and when her manager stole her famous barrel and disappeared it became more difficult for her to make a living off of her story.

Nonetheless, Taylor persevered and remained independent, continuing to speak at tourist destinations and even finding work as a clairvoyant until her death in 1921.

You can read more about Annie Edson Taylor in Charles Carlin Parish’s biography entitled The Queen of the Mist. And you can learn more about other daring women and men in history, literature, and the arts at this September’s Buffalo Humanities Festival!

The Sex of Sports

runningIn her Festival talk on the role of gender in sports, UB Professor of History Susan Cahn will discuss the evolving cultural image of the female athlete. Once considered “masculine” intruders in a male realm, women athletes were long characterized as “mannish amazons.”  For more than a century, women have had to fight for the right to compete in athletic competitions and be taken seriously as competitors.

Now, in high school and college, women’s participation rates are approaching parity with their male peers.  But old stereotypes linger and many doubt that women can ever be “equal” to men in sports. For example, in the wake of the US women’s soccer team’s victory at the world cup, there have also been reports about the horrible playing conditions that the athletes were forced to compete in and the outrageous pay gaps between female and male soccer players. Even at the highest levels, female athletes still garner less respect than male athletes.

Susan Cahn’s presentation, which will be held on September 26th from 3—4pm at Ketchum Hall, will examine the history of women’s sports in the United States to explore the many ways gender, sexuality, and sports intersect.  This history offers surprising insights about today’s sports world and the struggles that female athletes still face.

At the University at Buffalo, Susan Cahn teaches U.S. history, women’s history, and the history of sexuality.  She recently published Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport (2nd edition). In this edition of her book, “Susan K. Cahn updates her detailed history of women’s sport and the struggles over gender, sexuality, race, class, and policy that have often defined it. A new chapter explores the impact of Title IX and how the opportunities and interest in sports it helped create reshaped women’s lives even as the legislation itself came under sustained attack.” If you’re interested in reading it in advance of the Festival, you can get a copy here.

Princesses vs. Superheroes


With acclaimed author and historian Jill Lepore as this year’s Festival Keynote Speaker, there will be a lot of discussions on the roles that female, queer and trans characters play in various superhero universes. On Saturday, Sept. 26th from 11:00am—12pm in Ketchum Hall at SUNY Buff State (Room TBA), Profs. Jennifer Hunt and Jennifer Ryan will give their presentation on the tensions between princess and superhero archetypes.

Princesses are ubiquitous in books, movies, toys, and apparel.  Parents of female children find it especially hard to negotiate the fraught waters of the Disney Princess universe, which at best sends mixed messages about gender roles. Even recent princess narratives emphasize femininity, traditional gender roles, and heterosexual romance. A quick Google search of “Disney princess op ed” brings up hundreds of pieces debating the relative harm that princess iconography causes  in American society.

However, these conventional roles can be countered through the radical actions and empowerment that superheroes exemplify. And there is a growing market for female superheroes as well. The success of, for example, the rebooted female version of Thor in the Marvel universe is a perfect example of the increasing desire in American audiences for a new model of femininity that breaks the princess mold.

During their lecture, Hunt and Ryan will discuss gender messages in princesses and superheroes from a feminist perspective, including Hunt’s original research showing how princess and superhero identification relates to gender ideology, relationship desires, and career choices for women.

Jennifer Hunt is Associate Professor of Psychology at SUNY Buffalo State.  She teaches courses on the psychology of gender, diversity, and legal psychology.  Her research examines how race, ethnicity, and culture influence jury decision-making and how princess and superhero identification affects women.  Jennifer Ryan is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State, where she teaches courses in American poetry, women’s literature, and African-American literature.  She has published on black women superheroes, Bessie Smith, and Wanda Coleman.