Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Whence Comes the Lady Tympanist?" Gender and Instrumental Musicians in America, 1853-1990

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Whence Comes the Lady Tympanist?" Gender and Instrumental Musicians in America, 1853-1990

Article excerpt

At the turn of the century, women's roles moved from the domestic to the public sphere. Historians of the Progressive Era have documented this emergence, describing the suffragists' fight for political rights and the college-educated "new women," who eschewed or postponed marriage to forge careers and play leading roles as social scientists and reformers. They have also described the clubwoman's application of a more cautious "domestic feminism" to problems of women, families and workers, as well as the activities of Progressive Era women who gained new prominence as patrons and "apostles of culture."(1)

Developments in music followed similar patterns as performers moved from the parlor to the concert hall,(2) but the accomplishments of women instrumental musicians are not widely known.(3) This is unfortunate, since their achievements were considerable. At the turn of the century, violinist Maud Powell toured the country and was widely recognized as one of the preeminent violinists of her day. Julie Rive-King and Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler were similarly accepted as pianists worthy of comparison with Anton Rubinstein and Ignace Paderewski. Women's orchestras flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1925 Ethel Leginska made her American conducting debut with the New York Symphony Orchestra, a group comprised almost exclusively of men.(4)

But the acclaim for these individuals and groups obscures the fact that in music, as in other fields of endeavor, success was shaped and defined by gender expectations. As we shall see, for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women instrumentalists could succeed as public performers only on certain musical instruments; they were not likely to be accepted in most symphony orchestras; and very few women have held major posts as conductors. Even though music programs expanded rapidly in the public schools after 1900, women rarely achieved prominence as instrumental music teachers; and the discomfort of male music teachers with girls in the marching band has often shunted girls into baton-twirling and flag-waving. The likelihood that women would play particular musical instruments did not change significantly between the late nineteenth century and the 1980s. In short, the gender expectations that defined and limited women's musical participation at the turn of the century are, for the most part, still in place one hundred years later.

When the young ladies of Madison Female College gave a concert in 1853, John Dwight of Dwight's Journal of Music was there to document the novel event. He took pianists, guitarists and harpists in stride, but expressed shock at "13 young lady violinists(!), 1 young lady violist(!!), 4 violoncellists(!!!) and 1 young lady contrabassist(!!!!)."(5) As the rising chorus of exclamation marks shows, Dwight's tolerance was in inverse proportion to the size of the instrument. Dwight's reaction was characteristic of his time. The fact that the young ladies were playing music was not the problem. His discomfort arose because these women went beyond the narrow range of what was considered their proper musical place by playing instruments that contemporary audiences were unaccustomed to seeing played by women.

There is irony in the restrictive views of Dwight and his contemporaries about women performing music, since many nineteenth-century writers endowed music with the same qualities as those imputed to women. In the words of one late nineteenth-century author and critic, music was the "interpreter and the language of the emotions. . . . It inspires, . . . saddens, cheers, and soothes the soul . . . and performs its loftiest homage as the handmaid of religion."(6) In much the same vein, the nineteenth-century woman was expected to be gentle and refined, "guardian of religion, inspiration to man, bestower of care and love."(7) The medical orthodoxy of the time enhanced this notion, asserting that in females, the nervous system and emotions prevailed over rational faculties, and that it was "inherent in their very being" to "display more affect than men. …

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