“Around me I saw women overworked and underpaid, doing men’s work at half men’s wages, not because their work was inferior, but because they were women.” Anna Howard Shaw
For the last Thursday of August 2020’s Choral Potpourri, I would like to share some thoughts about women conductors. I hope you will share some of your thoughts with us as well in the comments below.
It’s been an unusual year, hasn’t it? And wild and wooly, to say the least. It began much like every year, with January cold and snowy and February being February. Then all heck broke loose in mid-March; none of us are the same as we were back then. And August 2020 is not like we supposed it would be back in January, the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in the United States. There were to be concerts of women celebrating the rights our Mothers, Sisters, Cousins and Aunties fought for more than a century ago. Some music did happen and became virtual with some events never happening, having to be canceled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. We were okay about the cancellations and while we missed the Hoop-La, we know it’s not about the party and celebration, it’s about the RIGHT TO VOTE and gender equality.
During the last one hundred years, things have changed for women in the United States. Perhaps not as quickly as anyone would have liked, but things are better for most women than at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Women in classical music seem to be the last to notice any change in our art form regarding gender prejudice. It’s not news to you or to me but to others, not involved in classical music, the lack of gender parity is astounding.
Women instrumentalists are slowly but surely gaining ground, with some of the last bastions of all-male orchestras breaking the gender divide. Instrumentalists are no longer looked on as male, female, or non-binary but AS PLAYERS of their instruments. Folks have learned a good violinist or percussionist is a good violinist or percussionist NOT just a good woman violinist or a good woman percussion. Now if we could only have more People of Color in symphony orchestras, we’d be on the right track.
While the ranks of symphony orchestras have more women players than ever before, women conductors with regular conducting positions are not common. It is no secret women conductors are still struggling with gender equality, no matter what sort of ensemble they conduct. Comments such as “she’s a pretty good for a woman conductor” or “they took a chance and hired a woman music director” or “we had to have at least one interview with a woman and were pleasantly surprised with her ability” are not benign comments, though they sound positive. If “she’s good for a woman conductor” is meant as a compliment, it’s not.
I adored my Grandpa Grass and he adored me, his first grandchild. But he would call me “Mike” because he thought I was too smart to be a girl. He would tease me, and I never really understood what he meant since Grandma was pretty smart. It really bothered me he thought I was too smart for a girl, but I never told him so, because how smart is “too smart” for a girl? When my youngest son was a few months old, he told me I redeemed myself by having three sons. I know he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but he did, with what he thought to be a compliment.
I dream of a day when woman conductors are respected for being good conductors, not a good WOMAN conductor. And comments about hair (is she a real blond or why doesn’t she put it up so it won’t flop around), weight (I think she’s pregnant but I’m not sure), what she wears (did you see the get-up she had on to conduct HANDEL), or her shoes (did she really had to wear heels that high) will be outweighed by positive comments about her conducting.
I hope women will uplift other women, as my first mentor Lillian advised. I long for the day when a conductor is chosen for their musical leadership ability rather than what the Blue-Haired Ladies think is appropriate. Because a good conductor is a good conductor, no matter their gender.
Next week, I’ll ponder what the new academic/concert year means for us this fall.
Until then, be well and be safe!
I am taking my Choral Ethics Blogs to my chamber choir’s Facebook page for the foreseeable future. Please join me there this morning!