Playing Like a Girl: The Problems With Reception of Women in Music

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The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared. According to Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, the story lived on in a small way, not in music schools, but in oral histories from women’s jazz festivals and in women’s studies programs, as a sociological phenomenon. One such group that crossed both gender and racial boundaries was the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm from Piney Woods, Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the precursors to the Freedom Riders.

How do such important contributors to 20th-century music get lost so easily? This is a question of reception.

Leaving out receptions related to touchdowns and weddings, Merriam-Webster associates the word reception with three synonyms: receipt, response, and admission. Working from that definition, we can perhaps refine the distinct meanings of reception into three musical steps:

Receipt – Getting the music to an audience, which involves access.

Response – Having an audience react to the music and form judgments about its worth.

Admission – Allowing the work to be part of a collective group, canon, or curriculum.

ANY NEW MUSIC OR NEW MESSAGE HAS PROBLEMS WITH RECEPTION.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all had problems with reception. Even Jesus had problems with reception in his own hometown. Women in particular, though, have problems with reception in music. Lucy Green, music education philosopher and author of Music, Gender, Education, posits that there is a spectrum for acceptance of women in music . A woman singer is accepted because using her body to make music is an extension of her femininity. Put an instrument in her hands or in front of her face, and it interrupts the impression of a woman as either “sexually available or maternally occupied.” The role of composer (and, I would add, producer ), the dux femina facti, is the greatest challenge of all according to Green, because it places the woman in control and invites the audience to gaze upon the inner workings of her mind, disembodying the woman entirely.

 

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