Free Term Paper About Feminism And Music

Type of paper: Term Paper

Topic: Music, Women, Gender Equality, Women's Rights, Feminism, Musicology, Composers, Gender

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2021/02/25


A prevalent approach in today’s academics is the feminist theory and the criticism it is accorded. The combination of feminism and musicology has caused a significant field in the past decades. The new approach which scholars have termed loosely as “feminist musicology”, has its goals geared towards discovering, analysis, discussions and promotion of the representation of feminine essence in selected music disciplines. Musicologists such as Marcia J. Citron and Susan McClary are musicologists who have been influenced by feminist ideologies and become examples who guide the musicological world in the direction of feminist musicology.
The emergence of the feminist movement was in the 1840s in the United States in New York, Seneca Falls where there was a paraphrase of the declaration of independence. The held to the truths being self-sufficient that all women and men were created as equals, and thereafter, their creator endowed them with some inalienable rights including liberty, life and happiness pursuit (Wood, 71). The goal of feminism was to increase the interest in the lives of women, their activities and experiences (Cook & Tsou, 3). At the core of feminism is achieving is achieving of a world without negative attitudes and oppressions towards women in all the aspects of culture and society.
Feminism reached the field of musicology in the 1970s and this happened when some musicologists turned focus to history of the participation of women in music. Both musicologists and historians compiled resources highlighting influential and noteworthy women musicians and composers (Bernstein, 5). Some musicologists uncovered some music by Barbara Strozzi, Ethel Smyth, Clara Schumann and Rith Crawford Seeger as well as other women who had composed and performed music from the past century, hidden from history and needed discovery (McClary, 5). Different attitudes and ideologies from extreme sides of patriarchy that is directed towards women concealed many women’s music for centuries to come.
Through the efforts of many musicologists, contributions of some musical women in the past have and continue being rediscovered. Their work is then included in the newer history books and are highlighted in college classes. Music companies now sell more recordings of these women composers and it is from these scholarly pursuits that the development of the feminist approach to musicology. Over the years, through the research, feminist musicologists attribute the lack of recognition of feminist to issues of societal status and the fact that women lack power to promote their music in a made dominated field (Bernstein, 5). Before the twentieth century, women and their contributions in music have become marginalized as a result of certain attitudes and ideologies (Riegel, 4). An attitude of this nature is the idea that women, in their bodies and minds are weaker than males, and as such, they possess lesser abilities and have limited options for their vocations.
A similar attitude would present the idea that women are found to be way too emotional and unstable to concentrate fully on their musical studies. In the 19th century, the only way a woman was allowed to be in music is for her to support her husband in his musical activities (Citron, 111). For instance, Alma Mahler’s husband had insecurities and forced her not to compose music and only support his musical activities until his death. Such ideologies promoted some perspective literature that told women that dictated which kind of musical behavior women should exhibit. This literature cast slur against women who crossed over the gender-ascribed boundaries set out for them, allegations that these women had easy virtue were made, and the women were socially described as personifications of sensual intoxications (Bowers, 86-87). However, the twentieth century has sought to refute these ideologies, although before this time, never hoped to escape such negative attitudes (Ibid 81). With this realization, the feminist scholars set goals ensuring that women and the related feminist issues earned a commendable place in musicology.
Feminist scholars realized by 1980 that the data they collected challenges the traditional discourses in musicology. The challenge prompted musicologists to seek answers to questions that had been posed about gender and music. Some scholars also questioned the values allowing the musical canon of classical music to have domination by male composers. Questions were also raised by scholars concerning abilities of women to produce their unique feminine music in a male-dominated field with the male aesthetic values (Bernstein, 5).
With concern on this issue, some questions come up. “How can the expression of women’s experience be distinguished from the expression of patriarchal or male constructions? Do women have authentically female experiences unconditioned by the constraints and patriarchal oppression? The overarching questions focus on all the areas of musicology; thus, the musicologists recognize that gender bias is at the heart of all the aspects of research. An indicator of this is that with ethnographers, who study traditions and culture recognize the presence of a male bias because most of the data they collect comes from male informants in the fields of my work.
The idea of masculine and feminine music is also considered a dispute among music scholars, most especially in non-texted music. The basic concept however, deals with deals a lot with the practice of reflection on the aesthetic properties of a socially constructed gender traits within music (Pendle 3). Most scholars accept “masculine” music displays a more dominant, active and/or some prominent characteristics and “feminine” music displays a more passive, lyrical and supportive theme (McClary, 367). Small music genres with melodious or sentimental sounds such as the piano, chamber music, vocal are considered feminine, while large instrumental music genres such as concerti, operas and symphonies are considered masculine. The root of this controversial idea is the seventeenth to nineteenth century gender ideas of emotional women and strong intellectual men. Although the constructions of femininity and masculinity are different from composer to composer, the stereotypes remain (Diane, 4).
During the nineteenth century when women composed music considered “masculine”, they were termed as daring and bold and often received criticism that they were betraying their feminine nature (Ibid 4-5). However, when they composed music that is in line with their “feminine” nature, they composed what is expected from them by society perpetuating the idea of inability to compose larger works (Ibid).
Clara Schumann was considered almost above gender and was fortunate enough to be praised for having “masculine” accomplishments (Bowers, 87). Perhaps it was the supportive family and education she had that encouraged her to attain the reputation. Not many women were lucky enough to escape this criticism coming from their male counterparts (Jezic 4-7). For instance Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel failed to escape the same kind of criticism from her brother and her father. Her father believed strongly that she should have only been a mother and wife rather than a musician, while her brother believed that she had the right to be a musician, the should just not have published her work (Citron, 570-572).
Towards the end of 1980s, conferences that were organized by the American Musicology society started accepting presentations and papers in criticism and feminist 1988, the conference were held in Ottawa at the Carleton University where panels and papers on feminist criticism were presented (McClary, 410).in 1991, there were three international conferences that were focused on music and feminism in Holland, Minnesota, and England (McClary 411). The overwhelming popularity and interest in feminism criticism within music affected growth of the feminist musicology for many years coming after the specific conferences.
McClary developed a methodology observing that music from a time period reflects gender organization of the given society and the idea of femininity and masculinity changes through time within the societies. For instance, femininity in the eighteenth century is different compared to the current society. The obvious implication of this is the sense of the feminine fashions and the appropriate vocation for women. However, some of the gender codes within music remain the same through centuries (Ibid 8). Such include the similarities between feminine seductiveness or masculine bravura all have similar representations as they did on Cavali’s seventeenth century operas. This phenomenon can be attributed to an unchanging perspective of gender and gender roles over centuries (Ibid 37-38). It is important that newer research is carried out so that an understanding on the gender interactions in this field is gained. .
Another perspective has looked at traditional music theory. As discussed earlier, music composers chose to use either masculine or feminine characteristics in their music and whether it is intentional or not creation of their particular composition. This task was rather difficult because the composer had to select a musical function which the listener would identify as being either masculine or feminine. In portraying feminine characteristics, music portraying passivity or softness is used often (McClary 86). When portraying masculine characteristics, or a male character, music that portrays aggressiveness or roughness is selected. These gender codes, though established in the seventeenth century, continue to influence the current opinions in a way. Men were and are expected to hide their emotions, to be strong and to be secure. Women have to be emotional and are consequently thought of as inferior.
Women in musicology have coexisted with men in the same societies yet developing their careers differently from their male counterparts. Over the centuries in development of music, women have had to face very many challenges and obstacles which men have not had to deal with. For many women the challenge of being considered unfit for being in a musical career is a major challenge (Ibid 113). Others were prevented from acquiring any form of musical education. Cases of women failing to compose or perform music, was often attributed to the ridicule they received from the masculine culture for either being “feminine” a trait which attracted a lot of criticism or being masculine, a trait which was considered unacceptable for women. Today, some female musical composers are bold enough to perform music that is considered stereotypically male, such as rap and spoken word. However, some cultures such as African cultures are still largely barred by cultural stereotypes.
The prevailing attitude is perhaps the best explanation for the absence in opera and symphonic repertories of works by the women composers and performers. To some, the women who were not able to achieve musical greatness. Most of the sources of music by women comes from piano, solo voice or the small chamber ensemble repertoire. Unfortunately, the genres listed may not receive as much attention as the larger work genres. However, in the past some women musicians who did not have it easy and struggled for recognition include Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Countess of Dia, Amy Cheney Beach and Lili Boulanger. Within recent years, women composers and performers have been able to create a name for themselves with the help of the changing attitudes towards female artists (Citron, 110). Examples of composers who have received recognition for their work in the music career include Libby Larsen, Pauline Oliveros and Thea Musgrave.
There is a significant improvement in the status of women in the music career. For instance from the 1800s to 1920s, the voices of women became more audible in all circles inclusive of the social, political and economic circles (Citron, 86). The issues that affected change of this nature could be industrialization, internalization and the women who are entering the labor force. With consideration to all these factors, it became necessary to have social reform most especially for women. Solving these issues allowed women to be more creative in their own terms.
There are some factors that women composers lacked or missed in the traditional music canon. They affected women at the beginning of the twentieth century and even today in this decade, they continue to affect women (Bowers, 85). The first factor is the denial of the right to compose and perform. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that musical education was only provided for men. Second, the compositions of women rarely got published. The reason for this was that because music by women was not very popular, the publishing houses did not want to risk their money and have no returns. In many cases, women were denied any form of musical employment. They were expected to become submissive wives and mothers. Before the mid-twentieth century, there was a mindset that tended to deny women employment in musical occupations such as composing, teaching and conducting. Those who got have occupations is such careers were only those who were part of the social elite.
Another issue is the fact that because of the apparent prejudice that women went through, women composers felt the need to conceal their femininity assuming authorship under masculine or neutral identity. Women either used their maiden names or a pseudonym or even remain anonymous. For example, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin). Today, this issue is not so evident, but one can identify some musical characters going by different names. For instance, because Hannah Montana was a loved feminine character in a children’s show, when she wanted to perform music that is different from the traditional “feminine” music exhibiting fragility, she changed her name to Miley Cyrus).
Women also went through an unfair evaluation in music compared to men, being placed in a second-rate category which was separate but not equal with men. They were criticized because their compositions exhibited female characteristics and were also judged harshly is their music was masculine. When reviews were written on compositions by women, they were terms as, “surprisingly good for having been written by a woman.” Today, women are still judged for their music with awards being provided in categories of male and female. For example, best male artist and best female artist, rather than have best artist in a given category. In order for women’s music to sell, it has had to take up a very sexual appeal in its performance so that it appeals to the male audience. Musical compositions have included a language of demeaning women and this has come to be accepted in most society are the normal ways with composers using offensive terms and languages referring to women, who have then come to celebrate that kind of music. When reviewed, this is the kind of music being termed as great music in the 21st centuries.
The late Maya Angelou, a femininity in the 21st century was quoted in a song by Beyoncé questioning the nature of the relationship between society and girls and boys. She spoke feminist terms and broke through a society that was perhaps too passive in regard to feminist thoughts. The lyrical composition has changed significantly with the 1980s respecting the woman and the compositions perpetuated proper treatment of females and the female was represented in a respectable manner in the music videos. Today, the videos depict women naked or in demeaning positions with this kind of music selling and topping charts. This is however in some categories with some still being respectful of the female character. Some genres such as country music have retained a proper respect for female music. This goes to show the postulation that in order for women’s music to have adequate recognition in their canon, it is important that an influential group such as the elite society has a positive reception to it. Reviewers and critics need to talk about women’s compositions as worthy while praising the female composer.


Musicology is important in feminism especially if the musicians of today wish to evaluate the upcoming effects of a given culture and time. Although the history of men and women in music has been different, the feminist journey continues today with scholars continuing to investigate feminist musicology so as ensure that the history of the feminine music is not just forgotten. There is still room for the society to improve and the feminine music still needs to be celebrated and recognized, by evening the playing ground between men and women.

Work Cited

Bernstein, Jane A., ed. Women's voices across musical worlds. Northwestern University Press, 2004.
Bowers, Jane M. "Feminist scholarship and the field of musicology: II." College Music Symposium. The College Music Society, 1990.
Citron, Marcia J. "Feminist Approaches to Musicology Marcia J. Citron." Cecilia reclaimed: feminist perspectives on gender and music (1994): 15. Ibid 200-240.
Citron, Marcia J. Gender and the musical canon. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Higgins, Paula. "Women in music, feminist criticism, and guerrilla musicology: Reflections on recent polemics." Nineteenth-Century Music (1993): 174-192.
Jezic, Diane. Women composers: the lost tradition found. Feminist Press at CUNY, 1994.
McClary, Susan. "Carmen. Cambridge Opera Handbooks." (1992): 86-96.
Pendle, Karin Anna, ed. Women and music: A history. Indiana University Press, 2001.
Wood, Julia. Gendered lives. Cengage Learning, 2012.

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