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date: 26 July 2021

Teaching Silence in the Twenty-First Century: Where are the Missing Women Composers?

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the prejudices that women continue to experience in the field of composition in the twenty-first century. More specifically, it analyzes the host of factors that may be responsible for this reality from three perspectives: the notion that the language of modernist music is a gendered discourse, the role of precedent in the acceptance of women composers, and the role of societal stereotypes. The article looks at Catherine Parson Smith’s contention that the use of sexual linguistics has been detrimental to women artists during the modernist era; the various contexts that gave rise to the political positioning of the musical language of modernism; how stereotypes about artistic women affect the creativity and output as well as the professional behavior of women composers. Finally, it offers suggestions for overcoming the obstacles that prevent contemporary women composers from receiving due recognition.

Keywords: music, women composers, stereotypes, Catherine Parson Smith, sexual linguistics, modernism, prejudices

If you are a woman and you want to be a composer, you should marry rich.”

In September 2000, I sat excitedly in my very first seminar in upper-level composition. Only after proving my proficiency in counterpoint, orchestration, set-theory, and harmony was I allowed to enter this final course, and so it was with great anticipation and pride that I awaited the words of the award-winning Master Teacher assigned to pass on to us his pearls of wisdom. The professor began with this fundamental piece of advice: “if you are a woman, and you want to be a composer, you should marry rich. The same can be said of men, to a degree, but this especially applies to women.” It was spoken as nothing more than a matter of fact and no effort was made to suggest whether this reality was just or not. Instead, all eleven of us in that room that first day—eight men and three women—learned that there were two sets of rules for professional composers that divided us along gendered lines. The dynamic decidedly shifted in our class from that point forward. Though not directly caused by his words—which were simply a symptom of a larger problem—only two of the three women present with me that day finished the final course, and neither of us remains in the field of composition now.

This story, shared by a colleague, is simply one example among many of the prejudices women continue to face in the field of composition in the twenty-first century. Although women composers have gained recognition in recent years in the domains of performance, grants, publishing, and recordings, the number of active contemporary women composers remains small in comparison to their male counterparts. Considering that more women currently undertake university studies than men, it is remarkable that composition remains a field dominated by men, begging the question: where are all the missing women composers?

(p. 638) This chapter examines the multiple factors that may lie behind this reality from three vantage points. First, we consider the notion that the language of modernist music is a gendered discourse. We explore Catherine Parson Smith’s influential argument that the use of sexual linguistics—that is, the contrast between a mode of writing associated with the dominant, or male, voice versus the other, or female, discourse—has proven detrimental to women artists during the modernist era. We present supporters and detractors of this theory while also considering the various contexts that gave rise to the political positioning of the musical language of modernism and the tradition these variables have helped to establish.

Secondly, we consider the role precedent plays in the acceptance of women composers. While male composers generally study with other men and have a long history on which to draw, women artists do not typically have this lineage. The problem is intensified by the canon of works studied in undergraduate analysis classes and analyzed in peer-reviewed music theoretical literature. Women composers are usually excluded and, as a result, their works are often perceived as being of inferior quality and not worthy of discussion. Although there are exceptions—for instance Clara Schumann—the role traditionally assigned to women composers has been that of the mediocre artist who writes for pleasure. Recently, some women have broken the barrier and an increasing number of courses engage with topics concerning women and music, but tradition still comes into play. In this chapter, we examine in greater detail different ways in which the fields of musicology and music theory have reacted to this situation, as well as different strategies scholars have employed and continue to explore to address this imbalance.

Thirdly, we discuss the role of societal stereotypes, which are themselves imbedded within quotidian relationships and remain tacit, yet ever so effective. We explore where women composers are positioned within society, as well as other factors that closely relate to societal conditions affecting the reception of women composers’ music. We briefly examine how stereotypes about artistic women affect not only the creativity and output of women composers, but also their professional behavior. We conclude our study by offering new strategies to overcome the obstacles we identify, posing expanded solutions to the following questions: How is it that societal prejudices and pedagogical content influence the fields in which composers’ music is received? And, since more women composers than ever before hold positions at post-secondary institutions today thereby creating a legacy for younger students, and since scholars have opened up new discourses concerning creative women, why are there still so few recognized contemporary women composers?

The Gender Dynamics of Musical Modernism

The development of musical modernism in North America and Western Europe has been decidedly marked by gendered rhetoric. In her widely influential article, “‘A Distinguishing (p. 639) Virility’: Feminism and Modernism in American Art Music,” Catherine Parsons Smith (1994) makes the argument that the compositional language of modern music is inherently prohibitive to women. She borrows from the work of literary scholars Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who convincingly theorize that the development of modernist literature was indelibly linked to gender politics. In their text No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Gilbert and Gubar (1988) identify two discursive categories used in modernism’s “sexual linguistics”: a materna lingua, or a “mother tongue,” spoken by all in domestic situations and outside of the academy, and a patrius sermo, a form of language learned only by entering higher education. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the patrius sermo of the nineteenth century was Latin, but that as women gained greater access to education, the patrius sermo lost its prestige and exclusionary power. Increasingly, male and female writers were using the same materials, and in some cases, such as with the works of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, women were arguably surpassing men in both the realms of critical and popular success. The desire to reinscribe a sense of privilege into the literature of the avant-garde, coupled with the threat that women might overtake the field—a fear exacerbated by the simultaneous advances made by the feminist movement—led male authors such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce to reappropriate and complicate the materna lingua, transforming it into a new patrius sermo. In so doing, these men created a style that we now consider the definition of literary high modernism. Women authors, among them Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Thurston, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, reacted to this discourse by creating their own politically loaded literary techniques, and thus modernism in the field of literature carried with it this “war of words” as authors battled over the politics of gender identities through literature.

Smith maps the concepts of materna lingua and patrius sermo onto the development of music of the modernist period in North America and Western Europe. She argues that musical materials common during the high Romantic period—or the use of chromatically inflected tonality—were themselves a sort of materna lingua by the turn of the twentieth century. This was also a time when women had entered professional music spheres in unprecedented numbers as teachers, performers, composers, and patrons. This female presence was especially true in the United States, to the point that conductor Walter Damrosch remarked, “I do not think there has ever been a country whose musical development has been fostered so almost exclusively by women as America” (Oja 2003, 201).

In reaction to this, Smith argues, male composers in fields as diverse as the American ultra-moderns, the Italian futurists, the French neo-classicists, and the German-Austrian serialists established new patrii sermones that could then exclude women from participating in the development of classical music. She cites the highly misogynistic rhetoric surrounding this music and its increasingly specialized technical issues as factors that lead to the sharp decline in women’s public participation in music circles after 1920, especially in the United States. Today, it remains true that serialism, neo-romanticism, and computer-assisted music are the dominant modes of composition, often carrying with them masculine connotations. Composers who write using these types of procedures are generally more successful with performances and recordings of their works, while those writing in a discourse that opposes the dominant one are far less likely to be recognized because their music does not fall within this accepted norm.

(p. 640) Ellie Hisama has complicated Smith’s assertions, arguing that there were indeed women composers, such as Ruth Crawford Seeger, Marion Bauer, and Vivian Fine, who found modernist techniques satisfying for their own compositional goals. She affirms that simply because “male composers . . . wished to ascribe to modernism stereotypically masculine characteristics is not sufficient reason to claim that modernist music actually is a male preserve . . . Smith does not demonstrate the inherent misogyny of music matter itself—that is, pitch, rhythm, and other elements of structure” (Hisama 2001, 10–11). Moreover, Hisama argues that it is difficult to map Gilbert and Gubar’s conclusions about a specific sexual syntax on to the matter of musical modernism because its historic development was so different from that of its literary counterpart.

We agree with Hisama that it is difficult to assert that the content or structures of musical modernism are essentially misogynist—a sort of anti-écriture feminine, if you will. Simultaneously, we cannot dismiss the misogynist context in which these notes, techniques, and structures were and are created, taught, performed, published, and received. The key lies somewhere between Smith’s and Hisama’s observations—a balance between interrogating content and context. Modernism’s multiple outlets and facets have indeed provided some women with the freedom of expression inherent to their musical vision. At the same time, the classroom, where these techniques were developed and are currently passed on, was and remains to a degree today, a space that privileges men. Furthermore, the system that comprises everything beyond the act of composing—the concert hall, the critic’s column, the publisher’s catalogue, the foundations’ grants—remains a hostile place for women composers, and this can serve as a means to deter or stifle their participation in the field of composition. Before elaborating on the reception and perception of women composers within society, we explore the absence of role models for women composers as well as the implications of established canons of musical works in academic and performance settings.

Identifying Traditions, Establishing Legacies

One factor that has served to detrimentally affect women artists is a sense of isolation from any kind of lineage or tradition. Indeed, many young women composers find themselves without a female role model or a tradition to which they belong. Without this heritage, women composers may struggle with the notion of precedence. In Gender and the Musical Canon, Marcia Citron (1993, 67) argues that ameliorating this situation, and creating a historical lineage for women composers, does not have a simple answer:

Which past does the female creator relate to: some neutral or universal past, or a female past? Perhaps she might want to relate to more than one tradition. But if one of them is a female tradition the problem is that there is still no fully formed female (p. 641) tradition to relate to. Music by women is performed occasionally but still has not acquired the status of a meaningful tradition. As statements by many women composers suggest . . . relating to a neutral past can mean marginalization and subordination to the ideologies of dominant culture, which is male culture. This may be especially true given that women are socialized in dominant culture. In fact, there is no such thing as a neutral, universal past; every past represents a later reconstruction that selects what it wishes to emphasize.

It is this sense of isolation that Citron argues may exacerbate a sense of insecurity among some women composers, creating a milieu in which they experience creative anxiety. She writes, “Many female composers of art music have expressed an anxiety of authorship. . . . The anxiety often translates into ambivalence: contradictory statements or actions about one’s relationship to the creative process. The ambivalence usually indicates a lack of confidence” (54). Women composers then face a challenge in connecting themselves with past traditions, and a key factor to improving their position rests in establishing a revised canon. Given a firmer grounding in the past, more women may claim a place in the present. This is a reality scholars and composers alike have begun to confront by documenting the activities of women composers throughout history. Understanding the current state of literature on women’s history and the communities of women composers that have been established to date will help to explain where the disparities remain and possible reasons for the continued gap between women and men in the field of professional composition. Because of the broad array of creative communities globally, we have chosen to focus this part of our chapter primarily on scholarship and communities based in and around the United States.

Concurrent to women’s unprecedented participation in professional music spheres, the early twentieth century also saw the publication of some of the first biographical anthologies concerned with women in music (Elson 1903; Elson 1918). Yet, after 1920, interest in such publications either by authors or by publishers seems to have disappeared. By 1930, women faced criticism from public comments launched against them by male composers such as Charles Ives and critics such as Paul Rosenfeld, who attacked women for the feminization of American music and the inferior quality of their musical abilities and taste (Oja 2003; Tick 1993). Carol Neuls-Bates has also demonstrated that, during the middle of the modernist period, men invoked science to try to explain why there were no great female composers. In particular, she points to the influential behavioral psychologist Carl Seashore, who wrote in 1940, “[admittedly] women have a rich and free imagination, but it is . . . of a less sustained order, while men’s achievement in creative work is often attributed to greater capacity for creative power.” He further declared that women were far too attracted by the institution and subsequent confines of marriage, stating, “marriage, as a career in itself, then invites music as an avocation. . . . Married women may not have produced great compositions, but they have produced great composers” (Neuls-Bates 1996, 301). Similar sentiments were echoed by perhaps the most prominent woman teacher of the modernist era, Nadia Boulanger, who was notoriously discouraging of the creative aspirations of her women students (Rosenstiel (p. 642) 1982). As modernist aesthetics—particularly serial techniques and computer-generated music—gained ground in the United States during the Cold War era, music’s connections to science and masculinity became of the utmost importance. Early McCarthyism, as Nadine Hubbs (2004) has trenchantly argued, was laden with misogynistic, homophobic, and racist conceptions of what classical music ought to be, and who ought to be composing it—a factor in stifling women’s further advancement in academic training as composers and exacerbating the sense of isolation from a particular woman-centered legacy.

These conditions began to change in 1975, the year designated by the United Nations as International Women’s Year. In collaboration with other events held during this time, the College Music Society hosted the first conference on the Status of Women (Neuls-Bates 1996, 325). This same year, women composers’ organizations took shape, the first being the International League of Women Composers (ILWC), founded by Nancy van der Vate. The initial executive board included exceptional women composers from all over the world including van der Vate, Radie Britain, Clair Plin, Marga Richter, Donna Robertson, and Pauline Oliveros (Beath 1991, 1). In an interview from 1981, van der Vate clearly outlined her motivation for forming the IWLC: she strongly believed that “as women, we simply have not had access to the same opportunities as men” (Neuls-Bates 1996, 327). More precisely, the IWLC worked to “redress the imbalance between men and women composers in the areas of orchestral performance, commissions, and recordings” (Beath 1991, 1). The International League was also devoted to providing a network of communication for both composers and those interested in performing their works. It was designed to maintain a sense of community support among its members, and affect an increasingly strong liaison between women composers and the rest of the musical world. Beyond advocating for increased concert performances of women’s music, the ILWC also supported female student composers through competitions and sponsored a series of lecture recitals over the radio.

A year after the creation of the ILWC, the American Women Composers Association (AWCA) was founded by Tommie E. Carl. This separate organization was designed to promote music by women composers in the United States (Neuls-Bates, 1996, 361). The AWCA provided recording resources for members and established a tape and score library. Members of this organization also began to lobby successfully for concerts of women’s music at such high-profile locations as the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Working in tandem with the ILWC and the AWCA was the International Congress on Women and Music, established by Jeannie Pool in 1979. This association served as a means to formally organize conferences and meetings for women in music while also maintaining a library of related literature, now housed at California State University, Northridge. In 1995 all three of these bodies merged to form the International Alliance for Women and Music (IAWM). After the merger, the newsletters of these various groups were collapsed into two major scholarly journals dedicated specifically to women in music: the International Alliance for Women and Music Journal and Women and Music.

(p. 643) The work of these groups has led to some success. In 1983 Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music with her Symphony No. 1 (Neuls-Bates 1996, 331). She was also the first woman awarded a doctorate in composition from Julliard, an accomplishment she achieved in 1975 (Neuls-Bates, 1996, 331). In 1990 Joan Tower received the Grawemeyer Prize, the first granted to a composing woman, and nine years later, violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Pamela Frank, and Sarah Chang received the Avery Fisher Prize, the first time it was ever awarded to women artists (Ammer 2001, 58–59). These and other groundbreaking accomplishments are signs that the work of associations like the ILWC and the AWCA have contributed to the exposure and successful championing of both women composers and performers.

Feminism and the Academy: Challenging the Canon

The push to incorporate feminist thought into the academy took longer to flourish, and it first gained ground in the field of musicology. Beginning in 1980, scholarly anthologies concerning biographical accounts of women composers and women’s musical careers began to appear in print. With these texts, women’s historical involvement with creative traditions was no longer relegated to isolated, exceptional circumstances; slowly, a canonical tradition began to take shape. Furthermore, from 1991 to 1994 four watershed publications—Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality; Ruth Solie’s Musicology and Difference; Marcia Citron’s Gender and the Musical Canon; and Phillip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas’s Queering the Pitch—were published. These texts ignited a firestorm of academic debate that marked the beginning of attempts by the scholarly community to interrogate the roles of gender, sexuality, and minority identities in the structure of the canon, the place of women’s music, and public perceptions of the Kleinmeister. Attempts to critically indict traditions of misogyny, racism, and homophobia within the musicological canon eventually became recognized as a legitimate form of scholarly inquiry.

These efforts have directly resulted in the increased presence of women composers in history textbooks on the Western canon, albeit still in decidedly small numbers compared to men. Another healthy sign that feminist musicologists are gaining ground is that authors now include women as part of the main narrative in their textbooks, no longer relegating them to parenthetical, token discussions of women composers. There is still the need to increase the number of examples within texts that draw on women’s music as well as a need to add greater value to those elements of music-making that women have been fundamentally involved with, including teaching, patronage, and review writing. Finally, there has yet to be a textbook on the Western canon written exclusively by a woman. Given that an author’s life experiences and personal narrative goals would greatly inflect a book of this kind, one could imagine that a history of (p. 644) Western music written from a woman’s point of view would offer a potentially different narrative than those currently in print.

Conversely, despite this improving state of affairs in musicological spheres, the discipline of music theory still struggles with incorporating women into its canon. This is most apparent in the distinct lack of women’s music represented in theory textbooks. Of all the texts produced post-1975 for the purposes of studying tonal music analysis, orchestration, and counterpoint, most exclude examples of music written by women. It is only with recent publications that we begin to see the inclusion of women composers’ music in tonal theory textbooks (Clendinning and Marvin 2005; Gauldin 2004; Kostka and Payne 2000; Roig-Francolí 2003). Those books that extend as far as the post-tonal era often reference Ruth Crawford Seeger’s music, especially her String Quartet (1931), but otherwise, few women are discussed. As with textbooks on tonal music, it is the recent publications that discuss music by women composers. In his second edition (2000) of Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, Joseph N. Straus provides two works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, while his third edition (2005) now includes the same works by Crawford Seeger, in addition to works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Thea Musgrave, and Ellen Taffe Zwilich. Although these recent publications offer repertoire that is more inclusive, the representation of women composers remains relatively small. For students of composition, this presents a decidedly contradictory message that music theorists are now beginning to interrogate more thoroughly.

In her article “Cognitive Dissonance: Should Twentieth-Century Women Composers be Grouped with Foucault’s Mad Criminals?” Rosemary Killam provides a thorough, poststructural critique of the underrepresentation of women composers in the music theory canon. She considers this to be largely the result of how music theory programs developed in the United States during the 1960s. Killam cites the rallying cry put out by Milton Babbitt during the 1950s as a major catalyst for the current structure of music theory programs. Babbitt denounced the effects of public opinion on music composition, aligning himself entirely with the academy, and strongly encouraging other composers to do likewise. This led in many instances to the indelible link between modernist art music composition and the academy. Simultaneously, there was a striking decrease in the percentage of women faculty members within higher-level institutions. This, Killam (1997, par. 22) argues, “may have had unintended consequences on the education of younger contemporary composers and theorists, who may have had minimal opportunities to study theory and composition with women composers/theorists.” Killam believes that this lack of women mentors and opportunities to study the music of women artists caused later theorists to avoid including music with which they were unfamiliar, or for which there was no established music-theoretical canon, in their own textbooks and classrooms. Thus, precedence played a large role in setting the stage for the present lack of women’s music in theory and analysis textbooks, perpetuating an imbalance both in the matter of academic literature and in the demographics of faculty positions in upper-level institutions.

Marcia Citron’s work elaborates on the way this self-perpetuating cycle has resulted in the current canon. Citron highlights as a main problem the often detrimental “male (p. 645) modes of discourse” or “patterns that grow out of ideology and acculturation in Western society,” which have served as the overwhelming basis for those who hold positions of critical authority. Professional musical criticism, argues Citron, has been established as the purview of men, or has been driven by a specifically male viewpoint. The limitations of this lens therefore generate a limited outcome, similar to the male-dominated spheres described by Killam. As Citron (1993, 181) explains, “internalized musical values from male predecessors and contemporaries . . . form a pre-evaluative context for the structuring of [critical] discourse.” Thus, the act of criticism, of authoritatively assigning value to musical matter, has often been controlled by parameters derived from the male experiential model. If we agree that gender affects our lives profoundly, and therefore how we experience, discuss, and relate to music, then it would also stand to reason that the exclusion of women’s perspectives, and women’s works, has limited the canon and the modes of musical expression currently in use.

By continuing to promote certain pieces and repertoire as representative of the best works, canons not only promote certain repertoire but also give the impression that this repertoire is of the highest quality, diminishing the value of those works not considered. Moreover, as Citron argues, canons influence both those in academia and those who are involved with the marketing and promotion of music, such as music critics, concert promoters, record producers, and music publishers. And so these tacit canonical assumptions can have wide-reaching and quite pernicious effects, particularly if they remain unquestioned, on the level of the subtext. As Citron (1993, 193) writes, “Canon formation is a complex process that exerts great power in shaping and perpetuating attitudes toward valuation and hence what gets enshrined as masterpieces.”

Our perception as listeners and our expectations of how works are to be positioned within the canon are often influenced by the critic’s comments or observations. We interpret works within a cultural framework and, as such, we may be convinced to change our interpretation if new information arises. Lucy Green has proven through studies that our response will most likely change if we discover that the work we are studying or listening to was composed by a woman. Her conclusions are worth citing at length:

Both sides of the masculine delineation of music—the assumption of the male classical composer bequeathed to us by history, and the cerebral, masculine connotation of composition—are still in operation. I have argued that musical delineations are not closed unto themselves, but that they affect our perception of inherent meanings. In the face of the twofold masculine delineation of music, what happens when we do discover a women’s mind behind the music is that her femininity then enters the delineation as an unusual and noticeable fact, which conflicts with the delineation of mental capacity arising from composition. From that position, delineated femininity acts to alter our attitude towards the inherent meanings of the music. We are then liable to judge the woman composer’s handling of inherent meanings in terms of our idea of her femininity. It is not that there is anything feminine about the inherent meanings, but that the idea of femininity filters our response to them. The fact that some critics have been able to hold on to their conviction that women cannot (p. 646) compose is not, then, the result of pure prejudice: it is something which they apparently learned from their experience of music itself. I would therefore suggest that it is something which is difficult for everyone, and this must include myself, to resist.

(Green 1997, 107)

Music theorists exert much influence over these canonical formations and their subsequent delineations of masculinity or femininity. They decide what their students will analyze and how this will resonate with what they learn in music history courses and the music they perform in lessons and ensembles. The selection of specific exemplars in anthologies reinforces the valuation of an elite group of compositions. It sends the message that, of all of the works written in a particular historical period, this one in particular must be studied in order for the student to gain a better understanding of music from that time. To borrow Citron’s (1993, 201) words again:

The “great pieces” paradigm, underlying the notion of anthologized works, exerts tremendous power. A tacit assumption is that anthologized works embody high quality and exemplify the important stylistic and historical points that students should know. In varying proportions, each composition is deemed significant in its own right and representative of other works of like-minded values. Furthermore, inclusion implies that its composer as an individual and as part of the diachronic succession delineated via other exemplars merits historical recognition. It suggests that the work and composer exemplify a style that influenced others; for works after 1800 add innovative and original.

Works commonly selected to be part of the canon gain recognition as works of high quality, while pieces that are omitted, by default, are perceived as being of inferior quality. Since few music anthologies include works by women composers, their music is often excluded from classroom analysis and the perception is that women write works that are not as interesting or as valuable in comparison to those of their male counterparts. Music analysis and skills courses, the bread and butter of a composer’s training, therefore continue to present a decidedly myopic and discouraging state of affairs that reinforces the stereotype that women’s music lacks craft. Thus, we return to the problem of women’s music being provincial or crippled by notions of dilettantism when compared to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Currently, there is no theory textbook that even distinguishes which Schumann—Clara or Robert—they are referencing in their texts. Instead, the surname is left unqualified, once again reiterating the notion that the male is the default. In the theory classroom, women are still confronted with a world where there is no precedent for them outside of the masculine tradition. Theirs is to choose whether to continue on and create this tradition themselves from scratch, or remain one of the many whose life in music will not extend into the canon of musical works.

Furthermore, the canonical restrictions impose control over the work of music theorists beyond the classroom as well. Scholars of music theory, both male and female, often strategically turn to music written by male composers in order to publish in (p. 647) peer-reviewed journals. These journals seldom accept studies that consider the music of women composers, further reinforcing a limited canon that excludes the feminine. As Killam (1997, par. 20) argues:

What analyses have been published in music theory journals, written by men theorists about compositions by women, utilizing twelve-tone and set theory? There are multiple examples of the converse: women theorists, in their published analysis, have dutifully and skillfully applied current analytical techniques to men’s compositions. Would there have been such outrage against McClary’s analyses if she had centered on women’s compositions, instead of the “canonized” men’s compositions which she frequently analyzes?

Many factors come into play to account for the exclusion of women composers in the music theory canon. In his article “The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox,” Randel (1992, 17) argues that one reason music by women composers is excluded is that it was composed for a different audience than the one that promoted a canon of works:

Music by women composers . . . was composed by (and perhaps for) people different from—foreign to—those who officiated at the canonizations that have dominated us. We cannot expect to understand any new repertory other than the traditional ones if we are not prepared to invent new methods appropriate for its study. The canon of Western art music as we know it was formulated by a body of specific individuals, all of who happen to have been men. Until we interrogate that face—and them—we cannot suppose it either an accident or a phenomenon of dispassionate nature that this canon includes only the works of men.

Not surprisingly, most women theorists opt to submit studies that focus on music that is part of the canon in order to publish, but, even then, they remain underrepresented in the acceptance rate of articles to the Society for Music Theory journals Music Theory Spectrum and Music Theory Online relative to their membership in the Society.

Asserting a criticism of the “work concept” and thereby creating space not only for the validation of the lives of women composers but also of their actual music is something theorists have recently started to address. Three such examples include Joseph N. Straus’s recent large-scale study of The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger (1995) and the anthology Music by Women for Study and Analysis (1993), and Harold and Sharon Krebs’s examination of Josephine Lang’s life and works in Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs (2006). What makes Straus’s study of Crawford Seeger’s music particularly noteworthy is his concluding chapter, which addresses the social context of her life as a way to bring nuance to some of his analytical findings. This innovative approach allows for the interaction of biography and analysis that brings forth unique insights concerning the music that he examines. Although publications of these types have begun to appear, few theoretical texts on music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries focus on the works of women composers, and this is a situation that scholars of music theory must address in order to improve the current canon imbalance.

(p. 648) The issue of women’s inclusion or exclusion in canons, classrooms, and concert halls is a complex one, the solutions for which do not rest entirely within the academy. Further extending our reach, we would also like to address how academia’s permeable boundaries allow institutionally sanctioned canonical constructs to influence and be influenced by society at large. These factors play an essential role in informing the biases both students and professors bring to bear on the pedagogical experience and therefore affect women’s training as composers.

Society and Cultural Factors

Society and cultural environment have played a significant role in the perception of women as creative artists. The common belief that women are associated with the body and emotions, while men are associated with the mind and logic, still resonates with social conditioning in certain cultures, including that of North America. Given these covert views on men and women’s behavioral proclivities, Jill Halstead proposes that associating the field of composition with men instead of women is itself contradictory. She argues that this biological determinist theory presents a conflicting set of stereotypes concerning composition that ought to be addressed:

These [prejudices] reinforce the common belief that men are “by nature” logical, profound, technical and ambitious, whereas women are “by nature” intuitive, refined and caring . . . . Yet, even if such ideas proved to be true (and based on unchangeable sex differences), the arts and music [remain] depicted as areas of “natural feminine” interest, [but] they have been (and still are) staunchly male-dominated. By this reasoning, “natural interest” on the part of women would seem to have no basis in “natural” ability, unless it is directly related to their reproductive role!

(Halstead 1997, 36)

Stereotypes, therefore, suggest that women, though “naturally” or biologically drawn to the arts, rarely have the actual abilities to achieve professional success in this arena. Prejudices such as this are rarely articulated explicitly, yet their subversive presence has had a lasting effect in creating professional obstacles for women that men fail to face.

Further complicating women’s position in contemporary professional music spheres is the notion that women are socialized to be “nurturing” and men “ambitious.” Recent studies have asked how it is that these dichotomies are the product of social conditioning, rather than being determined biologically, such as was asserted by Seashore in the quote cited earlier in this chapter. Scholars are now beginning to consider how the conditioning of women to avoid conflict may also set them up for failure in the fractious environments found in music theory and composition circles. In her work, Killam cites research of Gilligan, Ruddick, and others that shows that women, particularly in the United States, are culturally conditioned to avoid conflict and to resolve disagreements (p. 649) whenever possible. Killam then postulates that this may be a possible reason why women composers are less successful in the male-dominated, highly aggressive world of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art music. Killam (1997, par. 13) explains:

Women may be reluctant to participate in the heated verbal printed exchanges that have occurred in the dialectics defining compositional practices and their appropriate theoretical approaches. Many women composers and theorists display these characteristics. . . . In addition, when women composers and theorists do attempt to participate in these exchanges, our colleagues may perceive us as operating outside the traditional cultural roles of women and discount our opinions.

If Killam’s conclusions are correct, and we believe that for many women they are, women composers and theorists are faced with a two-sided problem. They may either choose to engage with professional conflict by using a dominant discourse that may alienate them and cause them to be perceived as over-aggressive or antisocial, or they may choose to continue to approach professional conflict through the subservient position, a more culturally comfortable vantage point yet one that can prove professionally inefficacious.

Thus the nature of classical music composition, itself a highly competitive and arguably fractious field, may itself seem intimidating or hostile to women. Obviously not all women feel this way, and there are departments and institutions where this is not the case, but these are the exception not the rule. Moreover, social conditioning is so often dismissed as a personal obstacle to be surmounted: women simply need “tougher skin,” those who truly want careers in the creative arts will be able to work around the uncomfortable environment. But it is worth considering what would happen if we made a concerted effort to change this ethos. It is worth imagining if in changing this, we might not only help nurture an environment that is friendlier to women but also create a space that is more inclusive in general, more creatively productive, and more intriguing to the general public. True, this would perhaps lead classical music down a path upsettingly divergent from the one suggested by Milton Babbitt, but we believe that inclusivity is not entirely a dirty word, that it would not hamper the quality of people’s compositions, and that in addition to being more enticing to women, it might actually bring about healthier change to the field of classical music as a whole.

Concluding Thoughts

Although progress has been achieved in the past twenty years, much remains to be done if creative women are to be accepted as “composers” rather than “women composers.” The classification of “woman musician,” instead of simply, “musician” differentiates and to some extent segregates female artists, rendering them a novelty, or an inferior class of artist. In Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, Christine Ammer (2001, 311), however, argues that this separation is necessary until more grounds are gained (p. 650) in the equal opportunities for all musicians. Only when women have an equal presence within the canon will the “woman composer” label lose its usefulness. For Virginia Caputo, this is not simply a question of redefining which composers become part of the accepted canon; rather, it is a question of examining the assumptions and criteria that make up the canon itself. She argues for an approach that questions the paradigms that lie beneath the surface of canons, limiting our ability to engage with a diverse array of musical expression. In Caputo’s words: “rather than focusing on finding a place for music by women in the canon, we should begin to rethink the ways certain assumptions about women, gender, women’s music, as well as notions of style, genre, process, and periodization, permeate the assumptions that organize our thinking” (1995, 31–32). For Caputo, the solution is not one that can be entirely fixed by simply wedging women composers into our textbooks and onto our concert programs. This solution is only a band-aid that will not have long-standing results unless accompanied by greater questioning of the larger issues behind canon formation. Caputo (1995, 32) argues that we need to fundamentally question the system that has continued to exclude women artists, the “categories and paradigms in place that sustain the power/knowledge nexus that naturalizes the canon and its categories, keeping universal meanings and valuation of music intact, thus obscuring music by women from audible positions.”

Randel echoes this viewpoint by asserting that we should question the canon and its formation rather than simply shoehorning women composers into larger historical narratives through affirmative action. He proposes that not only students but also teachers and listeners stand to benefit from the recovery of women’s otherwise silent voices, but adds that without a trenchant criticism of the underlying prejudices that have sanctioned exclusionary practices, we are destined to replicate, in Randel’s words, the “gender-related implications of what has enshrined the canon that we propose to expand” (1992, 17). Without this kind of interrogation, well-intentioned acts of historical recovery will remain susceptible to devaluation based upon the unspoken rules that police the margins of the canon. For longer-lasting, longer-reaching results, Randel argues, we must “challenge . . . traditional criterion. For this criterion, which is formulated only vaguely if at all, has been the ultimate weapon—not least because of its vagueness—in the male-produced, male-dominated arsenal that has so long kept women out” (17). By reexamining the canon and its formation, we can better contextualize the factors that have led to the current canonical paradigms and challenge assumptions taken for granted in the past.

Addressing the current gender imbalance in the field of modernist composition will require a multitude of strategies. First, we will have to undo the prejudices that make so many in the field of musical production hostile to women and that consequently make many women feel distant from the techniques of such mediums as serialist, electronic, and aleatoric musical composition. Second, it is imperative that we celebrate and promote those mechanisms that have served to support successful women artists in the past and currently. This will require much work on the part of musicologists and historians to recover the stories of women’s creative activities, redefine how women artists of the past secured agency for themselves, and reconfigure our models of cultural production (p. 651) so that they include those sources of power that are so often exploited by women but not currently considered in our histories.

Thirdly, we must begin to revise the music-theoretical canon. Moreover, we propose that the analysis of works incorporated into this expanded canon by women composers be twofold: technical and contextual. Some technical aspects will overlap between works by different women and men composers and similar analytical techniques will be useful to draw insightful conclusions for both. We must then be careful not to focus solely on the matter of music itself, so as to avoid simply reinforcing a narrow criterion of excellence and risk excluding any work that failed to conform to certain technical limitations. Green (1997, 114) highlights the problem that “successful” women composers are often praised for technical traits that parallel those of male composers: “Only the most successful woman composer, whose music conforms to contemporary definitions of what music should be, has been judged on the basis of the inherent meanings of her music. She has then been recognized as an honorary man, her femininity, her real woman’s achievement, remaining unsung.” Like Citron, we propose that women composers’ works also be analyzed in the context of their gender and its representation in society. To use Citron’s (1993, 58–59) words:

In general, we might conclude that the main reason a woman composes is the same reason a man chooses to compose: women have something to express, and expressing it in musical terms is important. But how a woman expresses herself can be linked with aspects of her gender and their intersection with cultural and aesthetic convention.

As previously mentioned, theorists, such as Straus and Krebs, have begun to explore new analytical methodologies that take into account the intersections between gender and cultural, societal, and aesthetic conventions. Other theorists, such as Susan McClary (1991), Ellie Hisama (1995), and Laurel Parsons (1999), also offer fascinating analyses of women composers. Furthermore, taken together, these scholars have shown that traditional tools need not be entirely discarded in order to analyze women composers’ works. But, they have blended with these traditional tools new methodologies sensitive to the unique and interesting aspects of women composers’ music that require a dialogue with gender and cultural issues to be fully explored. This type of new, methodologically innovative research needs to be championed more in the field in order to bring about increased visibility for women composers and to promote the notion that their music too has craft.

If our objective is to stimulate heightened awareness of the music of women composers, more resources must become available for classroom study. Although there are some anthologies entirely devoted to the works of women composers (Briscoe, Straus), we would argue that more publications like this are needed and that standard theory textbooks should include music of both female and male composers. Otherwise, the “woman composer” label will remain. Killam cleverly includes a full course syllabus with a repertoire of pieces and suggested readings at the end of her article. With (p. 652) more courses on women composers offered at the university level, we should expect the number of pedagogical resources to increase, but it is in the compulsory music theory courses that we most need to expose students to music written by women.

Much progress has been done in the recognition of women as composers in the past three decades. As Green argues, the level of sexual discrimination against women composers has decreased, although at some level it still prevails. She credits feminist activism with expanding opportunities for women and also believes a changing social climate has allowed women improved access to education and professional positions. These changes, in Green’s (1997, 105) words, have “at least [diminished] the normative masculine delineation of music in contemporary society.” But she remains concerned that the “assumption that the composer is a man is still far from unreasonable.”

The problem lies in large part with how women composers are still perceived within our contemporary society. The situation will only ameliorate itself when we value the music of composers through a more inclusive set of parameters rather than those set by a limited canon of works. Halstead (1997, 248) comments on this as well, writing that “women’s continued under-representation in musical composition is part of a much wider complex social and cultural phenomenon where many groups, including women, are systematically undervalued socially, economically and intellectually.” For scholars like Halstead and Green, it is this larger systematic discrimination that must be undone before there will be equality among men and women artists, and women will cease to face unjust professional obstacles.

Solving the gender imbalance in the field of art music composition will require complex approaches, not only because the problem has so many roots, but also because no one solution will speak to all women. We must, as a discipline, interrogate the complex sexual linguistics of modernist musical discourse. We must continue to develop a heritage for women to look back on and celebrate those strategies through which women claimed agency in the past and the creative solutions that they exploited to achieve professional success. We must reconsider the role the academy continues to play, particularly in the fields of music theory and composition, bringing women’s music into the textbooks, onto recordings, and into the concert hall. Additionally, we need to consider how these changes in the academy interact with conditions outside of it. Institutions of higher learning need to stand in enhanced dialogue with external organizations. They need to expand their focus; encourage those students taking courses to reach out to high school communities, radio programs, or concert halls; and start offering preconcert talks on women’s music, radio programming lists that incorporate works by women, or workshops that bring the idea of women’s music beyond the walls of the academic classroom. Communities of women composers such as the IAWM should invest more in student outreach, perhaps even creating satellite student groups within universities and conservatories, and taking the collective power of women artists and bringing it to those most vulnerable to institutional biases. Together, these diverse solutions will bring about further change to the canon, the concert hall, and the recording studio, and help to empower, instead of silence, women’s voices. (p. 653)


Bibliographic Information


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LePage, Jane Weiner. Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century


Handy, D. Antoinette. Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras


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Placksin, Sally. American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present: Their Words, Lives, and Music


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Tick, Judith. American Women Composers Before 1870c


Bowers, Jane, and Judith Tick, eds. Women Making Music


Briscoe, James R. Historical Anthology of Music by Women


Koskoff, Ellen, ed. Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspectived


Jezic, Diane Peacock. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Founde


Pendle, Karin. Women and Musicf


McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexualityg


Kivy, K. Linda. Canadian Women Making Music


Citron, Marcia. Gender and the Musical Canonh


Marshall, Kimberly, ed. Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions


Solie, Ruth, ed. Musicology and Difference


Straus, Joseph N. Music by Women for Study and Analysis


Brett, Phillip, Elizabeth Woods, Gary Thomas. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicologyi


Cook, Susan, and Judy Tsou. Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music


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(b) 2nd ed. in 1996.

(c) 2nd ed. in 1995.

(d) Reprint in 1989.

(e) 2nd ed. 1994.

(f) 2nd ed. in 2001.

(g) Reprint with new introduction in 2002.

(h) Reprint in 2000.

(i) 2nd ed. in 2006.

Anthologies and Collections on Women and Music (listed chronologically):


Ammer, Christine. 2001. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. 2nd ed. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press.Find this resource:

Beath, Betty. 1991. “International League of Women Composers.” The International League of Women Composers Journal 1–2.Find this resource:

Bowers, Jane, and Judith Tick, eds. 1986. Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Brett, Phillip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. 2006. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Briscoe, James R. 1987. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

Briscoe, James R. 1997. Contemporary Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

Caputo, Virginia. 1995. “Silent Canons: Places For Music By Women.” In With a Song in Her Heart: A Celebration of Canadian Women Composers, 23–33. Windsor, Ontario: Humanities Research Group.Find this resource:

Citron, Marcia. 1993. Gender and the Musical Canon. New York: Cambridge University Press. Reprint, 2000.Find this resource:

Clendinning, Jane Piper, and Elizabeth West Marvin. 2005. The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.Find this resource:

Cook, Susan, and Judy Tsou, eds. 1994. Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music. With a foreword by Susan McClary. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Drinker, Sophie. 1948. Music and Women: The Story of Women and Their Relationship to Music. New York: Coward-McCann.Find this resource:

Elson, Arthur. 1903. Woman’s Work in Music. Boston: L. C. Page & Company.Find this resource:

Elson, Louis Charles. 1918. Women in Music. New York: University Society Incorporated.Find this resource:

Fuller, Sophie. 1994. The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States 1629–Present. London: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

Gauldin, Robert. 2004. Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music. 2nd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.Find this resource:

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 1, The War of the Words (1998). Vol. 2, Sexchanges (1989). Vol. 3, Letters from the Front (1994). New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Green, Lucy. 1997. Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Green, Mildred Denby. 1983. Black Women Composers: A Genesis. Boston: Twayne Publishers.Find this resource:

Halstead, Jill. 1997. The Woman Composer. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Handy, D. Antoinette. 1981. Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras. London: Scarecrow Press.Find this resource:

Hinkle-Turner, Elizabeth. 2006. Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Hisama, Ellie M. 1995. “The Question of Climax in Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet, Mvt. 3.” In Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Studies Since 1945: Essays and Analytical Studies, edited by Elizabeth West Marvin and Richard Hermann, 285–312. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press. (p. 655) Find this resource:

Hisama, Ellie M. 2001. Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Hubbs, Nadine. 2004. The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Jezic, Diane Peacock. 1994. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. 2nd ed. Edited by Elizabeth Wood. New York: Feminist Press.Find this resource:

Killam, Rosemary N. 1997. “Cognitive Dissonance: Should Twentieth-Century Women Composers be Grouped with Foucault’s Mad Criminals?” Music Theory Online 3, no. 2.Find this resource:

Kivi, K. Linda. 1992. Canadian Women Making Music. Toronto: Green Dragon Press.Find this resource:

Koskoff, Ellen, ed. 1987. Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Greenwood Press. Reprint, 1989.Find this resource:

Kostka, Stephen, and Dorothy Payne. 2000. Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.Find this resource:

Krebs, Harald, and Sharon Krebs. 2006. Josephine Lang: Her Life and Songs. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

LePage, Jane Weiner. 1980. Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century. London: Scarecrow Press.Find this resource:

Marshall, Kimberly, ed. 1993. Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

McClary, Susan. 2002. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Reprint with new introduction. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Neuls-Bates, Carol. 1996. Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

Oja, Carol. 2003. Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Parsons, Laurel. 1999. “Music and Text in Elisabeth Luytens’s Wittgenstein Motet.” Canadian University Music Review 20, no. 1, 71–100.Find this resource:

Pendle, Karin, ed. 2001. Women and Music: A History. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

Placksin, Sally. 1982. American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present: Their Words, Lives and Music. New York: Wideview Books.Find this resource:

Randel, Don Michael. 1992. “The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox.” In Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, 10–22. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Roig-Francolí, Miguel A. 2003. Harmony in Context. New York: McGraw Hill.Find this resource:

Rosentiel, Leonie. 1982. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Find this resource:

Smith, Catherine Parsons. 1994. “‘A Distinguishing Virility’: Feminism and Modernism in American Art Music.” In Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, edited by Susan C. Cook and Judy S. Tsou, 90–106. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Solie, Ruth A., ed. 1993. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Straus, Joseph N. 1993. Music by Women for Study and Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall.Find this resource:

Straus, Joseph N. 1995. The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Straus, Joseph N. 2000. Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. 2nd ed. (3rd ed., 2005) Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. (p. 656) Find this resource:

Tick, Judith. 1993. “Charles Ives and Gender Ideology.” In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie, 83–106. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Tick, Judith. 1995. American Women Composers Before 1870. 2nd ed. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.Find this resource: