“Nobody would comment on what clothes male conductors wear. Or if they kind of put on some weight or something like that, and maybe their jacket is a little bit too tight. But if that happens to me as a female, then that’s immediately pointed out.” Ruth Reinhardt
Several years ago, I was at a post-concert reception for a local symphony orchestra. My spouse is on the board, so we attend most receptions and other social events for the symphony. Another board member, who seemed to have been over-served, decided to corner me about something she thought I should know. My spouse was talking to friends on the other side of the room, and I couldn’t leave or be dismissive—I was trapped.
She decided this was the appropriate time to tell me she thought I looked “weird” when I conduct. She doesn’t like seeing my back (she called it my “rump”), and while my chamber choir sounds “really good,” she wondered if I could get someone else (someone male) to conduct my group in public. Or at least when my choir sings for pre-concert events for the symphony as we have in the past.
This woman, an important member of the board, rattled on and on….and on about women conductors. I’m not sure what else she said because my ears shut down after hearing she thought someone else should conduct my choir in public. I said nothing and looked down at my feet because I couldn’t quite believe this was happening. I’m sure I looked dazed and finally was able to make my escape when her husband brought her another glass of wine, not the best idea in my humble opinion. I’m sure I appeared rude but I don’t care.
This wasn’t the first time someone decided to say something bizarre to me about being a woman conductor and it won’t be the last. Folks think they can say anything because I am a woman or more approachable or less deserving of the respect and reverence they show a male conductor. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. It’s never about the music, in my experience, but usually about what I wear or how “odd” it is to see a woman with a baton in front of a chorus or orchestra. Most often, those who feel they must “share” their insightful opinions have no complaints about the music or how an ensemble sounds, just who’s leading it. And, just as often, it’s another woman making those comments.
We encourage young girls to think big; to study law or medicine and science or a musical instrument. Rarely, even now, are young girls supported or encouraged to conduct or compose even if they show an early interest. Conductors and composers are positions of leadership in the classical music world and it’s uncomfortable for many to think of women leading, even by other women. Those who decide to conduct or compose struggle, not just with their art and technique and creativity, or how hard they work every day in a practice room. They also struggle with other people’s perceptions about what it means to be a woman conductor or composer. And try to change others’ ideas of what they should—or should not—be. It is often an uphill climb. And yet, we persist.