Women in the Orchestra

In the jazz world, much of the discrimination against women was discrete—much went unsaid, and many women, even those with great talent, were simply ignored.  The orchestral scene was a bit more overt about discrimination towards women.  Perhaps it was America’s long-standing traditions with European orchestral models that prolonged this discrimination, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that real progress was made with women joining professional orchestras.  Antiquated Victorian ideals as well deluded ideas of a woman’s physical limitations to playing musical instruments professionally fueled this discrimination.  As quoted from Gustave Kerker in the Musical Standard journal in 1904:

 Nature never intended the fair sex to become cornetists, trombonists, and players of wind instruments.  In the first place they are not strong enough to play them as well as men; they lack the lip and lung power to hold notes which deficiency makes them always play out of tune…Another point against them is that women cannot possibly play brass instruments and look pretty, an why should they spoil their good looks? 

Sexual discrimination is still a major issue in the orchestral scene as well as the music conservatories that train musicians.  While this news may be disheartening, the fact that awareness has been raised, research is being conducted, and women are taking advantage of musical opportunities now more than ever are all signs that progress is being made. 
In conclusion, it was a matter of American traditions and culture that shaped women’s roles in music.  The fact that women were excluded from mainstream musical scenes forced women to unite and form new, all-women groups.  The United States military was rooted in service and duty—women’s involvement in military bands mirrored these ideas and helped to shape the band tradition in America as well as music education.  Popular music like the Blues sparked the formation of America’s true art form: jazz.  Singers like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith sang of the hardships that African American females faced and gave the American public a needed dose of stark reality.  All-women jazz groups like the Ingenues and the Harlem Playgirls, though perceived as “novelty” acts, allowed women to engage in professional music careers in jazz—careers that would become more prominent in the future.  While sexual discrimination in the orchestral music scene has been the most prevalent and is still at a state today that requires attention, changes are being made in the right direction for female musicians.  American conductor Leopold Stokowski said, “What a poof economy it is to take it for granted that women are not ready to enter the world of art, are not capable of becoming fluent channels for the expression of genius…We are sacrificing accomplishment to tradition.”  

So, let us form new traditions for women in the American music scene!  I have really enjoyed this research and have realized that there is so much out there on this subject. I plan on researching these topics more this summer– after I finish Tina Fey’s new book Bossypants, of course. Ladies and gents, read this– it is hilarious. (and may supply me with a few blog posts!) Oh, and also check out this handout from Lin Foulk’s site– the quotations will surely enrage you 🙂  

Gustave Kerker, “Opinions of Some New York Leaders on Women as Orchestral Players,” Musical Standard, Vol. 21 (April 2, 1904).
Leopold Stokowski, “Women in the Orchestra,” The Literary Digest, Vol. 52 (Feb. 26, 1916) p. 504.

2 thoughts on “Women in the Orchestra

Add yours

  1. Hi! I just found your blog as I was doing a project for a music marketing course. I thought this entry was really interesting. As a female low brass player myself, I've come across a lot of discrimination along the way. It seems that you're in grad school, so you're probably really busy, but I'd love to see more posts!

  2. Thanks, Amy! (and sorry for such a late response) I have really become quite passionate about the role that women have played in our musical history and also what women are currently facing today. I will try to keep the posts coming…it sure is nice to know that someone is actually reading them 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: