Separate but Equal? Sexual Politics in the Barbershop

By Garnett, Liz | Women & Music, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Separate but Equal? Sexual Politics in the Barbershop


Garnett, Liz, Women & Music


"The Tyneside Ladies Barbershop Chorus was formed in 1973 by a few barbershop widows, but this nucleus was soon the minority when women realised that they too could sing in the barbershop style--and enjoy the pleasure of its fellowship and goodwill."

--Doreen Taylor, "Tyneside"

THIS ACCOUNT OF THE FORMATION OF a women's barbershop chorus sets the agenda for much of the structure and discourse of barbershop gender relations. The rhetoric of "women realised they too" could participate in a previously male hobby represents an assertion of equality characteristic of liberal feminism, while the use of the term "barbershop widow" to refer to women whose husbands periodically abandoned them for their hobby appeals to a more traditional model of femininity. Gender relations in the British barbershop community are largely characterized by such reworkings of traditional gender roles in conjunction with ideals of sexual equality, but they also suggest the limitations of unilaterally reworking such definitions for actually achieving equality.

This paper is part of an ongoing project to investigate the relationship between social values and musical practices in the British barbershop community.(1) Its purpose is to explore the gender relations of this community as a significant, though not all-determining, aspect of what it means to be a barbershopper. I will start by outlining the musical and institutional practices by which barbershop organizes itself according to a modernized version of the "separate but equal" model. I will then consider some of the ways in which gender segregation has facilitated the development of different cultural norms within the community, and how these are in turn shaped by gendered norms in wider society. I will then turn to some recent events that have opened up conflicts directly in terms of gender and explore how these controversies shed new light on the structures discussed in the earlier parts of the paper. I will conclude that this musical manifestation of the doctrine of separate spheres displays both the potential for female autonomy and the dangers of women's marginalization that the model has historically been used to promote and, moreover, that it is this very capacity for deployment in the service of different agendas that renders it an effective model around which to integrate otherwise disparate individuals into a coherent community. The point, then, is two-fold: to provide insight into a distinctive and underresearched musical community, and to suggest ways in which gender ideologies and musical practices can inform each other reciprocally. First, though, it is necessary to sketch the shape of the musical community in which these relationships are formed.

Background and Sources

Barbershop is a form of unaccompanied vocal music that originated in the United States during the last part of the nineteenth century. Its transformation into the genre known today started with the formation of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) in 1938. The growth of this organization precipitated the genre's mutation from an improvised, oral tradition into a highly regulated and institutionalized practice suitable for export across both national and gender boundaries (although those of race have proved rather more problematic).(2) Gender boundaries were the first to be crossed: the barbershop and the street corner--the original locations of the practice--were both definitively masculine social spaces, but the chapter meeting of its organized manifestation, drawing upon religious practices, and occupying more gender-neutral social spaces, proved easily adaptable to women. Accordingly, Sweet Adelines, Inc. (now Sweet Adelines International) was founded in 1945.

National boundaries were crossed some years later. In 1964, the first British barbershop harmony club--the Crawley Chordsmen--was founded, followed by a number of other clubs--both male and female--over the next decade. …

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