Why Are There So Few Female Magicians?

Menna: I think the opening scene of Burt Wonderstone rang true for a lot of male magicians: They were the kid that got beat up until they learned magic. But I don't think women often get into magic because of being socially awkward. I think women get into it because they might be interested in performance.

Another part of that is the same as how math and science often attract more boys than girls. Magic is a puzzle. I was in the math club—it's no coincidence that I became a magician.

Suzanne: I didn't tend to hang out with other girls. I played around with magic a little as a child, but I didn't really look at it as magic, I thought it was puzzles. I went to college to study computer programming—puzzles—and I liked brainteasers and optical illusions, so magic was right up my alley.

Webster: If I played with other kids, I always loved playing with boys more than girls. And I never saw a real magician until my early 20s. He was my art teacher. After months of learning to paint, he suddenly showed me a coin and vanished it, then made it re-appear out from nowhere! He was a magic teacher from that moment on, because I wouldn't let him breathe until he promised to teach me magic. I love magic because it involves the sciences in performance, and I couldn't get enough of it.

Blackstone: I was a television dancer at the time I first got hired for a magic show.

The Costumes
Even when women do pursue careers in magic, though, they sometimes find that certain aspects of the magic performance tradition just weren't designed with women in mind. For starters, the clothing.

Menna: Most magic that you learn assumes that you're wearing a jacket with long sleeves, and a pair of pants with pockets—so that if you put your hand in your pocket to put your pen away, you can secretly take out your gold coin. But you don't have a pocket in your gown! So you have to rework it into your purse or something. If you're hiding a couple of doves on your body somewhere, those are bumps.

Blackstone: There was one woman who was very prevalent in the '60s, Celeste Evans, who did a bird act in a form-fitting evening gown, and nobody's ever had a clue where those birds came from. So have there been a few women who got around it? Absolutely. But it's not quite as typical.

Physical Logistics
Some tricks of the trade don't work for women because of the size differences between men and women. As Blackstone points out, though, those are generally easier to work around.

Blackstone: Most women's hands are much smaller than men's, so therefore when you'd be doing things with cards, the ability to totally cover a deck of cards—even a bridge size—is much harder to do with a female hand than with a male.

I wear a size 4½ ring. A man typically wears a 10½. If we're multiplying that over five fingers and then the palm of your hand, it just makes covering certain things so much easier if a hand is larger. It's not that someone can't do it technically just as well—it's just that they can't cover it as much. If you're not covering something that is magically vanishing or appearing, there's no magic.

A woman uses a bridge-size deck versus a poker deck; I probably wouldn't use huge poker chips. An audience won't translate that large poker chips are any different in size from the smaller poker chip, though. It'll just translate as a poker chip.

The Lifestyle
The work-life balance challenge applies for magicians, too: Historically, the grueling on-the-road lifestyle has been considered a deterrent for women who might otherwise be interested in magic.

Menna: When I started out, I used to travel by myself—and if I was in Vegas, I'd go down to the bar to get a chili or something after my gig and the security guards would come over and check to see that I wasn't a prostitute. So I started wearing pigtails and Keds downstairs to get my food! Traveling by yourself in the 1970s and 1980s as a [22-year-old] woman was terrifying. That wasn't acceptable until recently.

I don't have children; I don't have a family. I had to give that up. You can do it, but it's very hard to make a living in one town; you top out at a certain level. If you're a birthday-party clown or something, you can stay there, but if you're a successful magician, you have to be an international traveler and travel constantly. And that's not an easy ride. One has to choose quite a bit and give up quite a bit to do that. Most women who have children either take a step down or they perform as part of a duo or team.

Suzanne: Magic is really best seen in a live setting. So 100 years ago, when magicians were touring the country, it would be less feasible for women to be magicians. They had to stay home with the children and take care of the house, etc.—so there's also the idea that there just haven't been many role models for women interested in magic.

Few Role Models
As Suzanne mentioned, the tiny portion of magicians who are female could also be a self-perpetuating thing—so every female magician has to be a trailblazer in her own right.

Webster: Sometimes, I perform magic with Geoffrey McSkimming, who's writing a series about a young female magician called Phyllis Wong. When young girls and teens see the magic that comes to life from the story, they go crazy and badger me to learn. I think not seeing female role models in magic, nor having the facilities to learn, is a big reason so many girls don't think to try learning magic in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind.

Menna: I must get a letter a month for the last 30 years from some young girl who says she'd never seen a female magician, but then, "Oh, I saw you work and I thought, that's what I want to be!"

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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