Gender Equity or White Supremacy? Who’s Really Championed in the Women’s Music Movement

It’s no secret that classical music has historically been incredibly gender biased. The so-called ‘Great Composers’ are a long list of dead white men. Hundreds of female composers, and male composers of colour, have been marginalized while white men have been overrepresented. Over the past century, there’s been a push for women’s music from organisations like London’s Society of Women Musicians founded in 1911, the Society of American Women Composers founded in 1925, and Germany’s Archiv Frau und Musik founded 1979. However, in the past few years, gender equity has become a much bigger and widely debated issue. Numerous initiatives all over the world are springing up, all apparently championing women in music, but are all women being championed equally?

Is the women’s music movement actually a white women’s music movement?

Illuminate Women’s Music in Britain promotes women composers and performers. In addition to their concert seasons, which feature mostly white women, Illuminate has a regular blog. The blog has showcased 35 composers to date: 34 white women, and 1 Asian woman.

Donne Women in Music is another British-based organisation that has established itself as a leader in the women’s music movement. Donne’s The Big List includes several thousand women of all races and ethnicities. However, Donne also curates a daily blog, last year featuring two female composers born on each day of the year. From June to December 2020, 362 composers were showcased: 302 white women (83%), 28 Asian women (7%), 23 Latinx women (6%), and 9 Black women (2%).

Statistics like this are not just within the women’s music movement, but in the wider classical music industry, as well. The most performed women composers listed on Bachtrack‘s “Classical Music in 2019” were 12 white women and Korean composer Unsuk Chin.

The 2019 Proms season featured 29 female composers: 27 white women, and 2 Black women—the great Errollyn Wallen, and soul singer and songwriter Laura Mvula. This is an improvement from the 2016 season, which featured 8 white women and no women of colour.

Photo by Eduardo Sanchez on Unsplash

Photo by Eduardo Sanchez on Unsplash

I’ve been involved in the women’s music movement myself for the past two and a half years. I produce The Daffodil Perspective, a gender balanced radio show championing female composers. Last spring, I was forced to reckon with my own complicity in this racial bias. The 2018-2019 season of The Daffodil Perspective featured 204 female composers, but I only programmed 7 Black women and 6 additional female composers of colour, representing just over 5% of the total music by women played on my show. As a tri-racial woman, it was horrifying to see the internalised racism at play.

Since then, I’ve made radical changes, and now female composers of colour make up at least 50% the female content on The Daffodil Perspective, including at least one Black woman and one Asian woman on every show. Other changes include a music submissions policy prioritizing women of colour, and a new albums policy to ensure the albums I promote all include women of colour. I’m also focusing more on individual works instead of showcasing three albums of the week because I’ve found that the majority of albums dedicated to music by women are exclusively white. Please see The Daffodil Perspective’s website for full details.

Looking at the racial bias on The Daffodil Perspective made me sick to my stomach, but even worse was the difference in reactions I received to my admission of guilt and pledge to do better. Most of my Black friends and colleagues thanked me sincerely for doing the work, recognising the problems, and dealing with it. Contrastingly, many of the responses from white women were something like:

Don’t give up, please!”

Don’t beat yourself up. You’re doing so much better than everyone else.”

Everyone makes mistakes.

These reactions demonstrate a widespread apathy to the championing of women of colour, absolving people with ‘good intentions’ of guilt and shame. It’s this mentality that frames the consistent exclusion of women of colour as a mere mistake instead of a long series of deliberate choices and bias (both conscious and unconscious).

Would these white women make these same remarks to an orchestra who apologized for playing all men?

Attempting to engage white women in conversations about these inequities is difficult, and white fragility is very common in the women’s music movement. Last year, a white female composer contacted me–in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement–to enquire about having her music played on my show. I replied that women of colour were being prioritized, and it may be a while before I listen to her music. The composer agreed with me that it was the ‘right time’ to highlight Black composers, but I politely clarified that Black composers would be included fairly and equitably all year round moving forward. Her response was that even though she is middle class and white, she didn’t get a fair hearing in her singing career because there are unfair factors other than race or gender.

This exchange shows the bias many white people hold. Highlighting is not inclusion. We do not need to highlight Black composers—we all need to commit to fair and equitable inclusion now and forever. This exchange also reflects the common white supremacist attitude that Black people do not need equity, that one concert of Black composers will suffice. This is a major issue with Black History Month and Black Music Month. Every year it’s the same old, ‘We’re playing Black composers because it’s Black History Month,” then the rest of the year, nothing or almost nothing.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

How can we be a women’s music movement when we relegate a large proportion of women to one single month? This failure to commit to year-round inclusion demonstrates how women of colour are frequently not held in the same regard as white women–they’re not seen as equals.

Criticising the efforts of white women for their lack of diversity is frequently met with defensive posturing responses of, “There aren’t enough women of color,” or “Women of color are difficult to find,” or “I do this in my free time as a passion project.” Often when I’ve tried to engage white women about this, I’ve had absolute figures quoted at me with no context. Absolute figures mean very little, especially when we are talking about inclusion and underrepresentation. Saying you played five Black female composers last year may sound good, but out of how many? Is that a radio station with thousands of tracks every week, or a community orchestra with three concerts a year?

Another problem is the language used when discussing opportunities for underrepresented composers, particularly the phrase ‘Identifying as female and/or a composer of colour.’ For example, Uncommon Music Festival say on their website, “We included over 50% works by women composers and over 30% works by composers of color in our 2018 season.” Subconsciously or not, this language of either/or causes us to divide people. Where do women of colour fit in? This language doesn’t necessarily lead to their inclusion–in fact, it unintentionally justifies their marginalisation and/or complete exclusion by steering us into these naturally biased categories.

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

This incorrect language also translates into methodology problems when we work on analyzing gender and racial statistics. The Institute for Composer Diversity’s orchestral season analysis for 2019-2020 is a great example. Each section is divided into women composers on the left and composers of colour on the right. At the bottom, ICD gives minimum-per-season goals for inclusion, stating that goals for women composers and composers of colour should be separate. Using this methodology to plan programmes and analyse seasons leads to further bias and opacity on gender and racial issues.

With all this information, how we can move forward as a collective movement, as an industry, and as a society?

STOP – Thinking about white women’s success as success for all women
START – Analyzing content for racial breakdowns to see where the bias lies and where changes and improvements can be made

STOP – Tokenizing Black women by doing one concert/playlist/article of all Black female composers, or only featuring Black women during Black History Month/Black Music Month
START – Putting Black female composers in all your content every month

STOP – Waiting for women of colour to engage with your work
START – Actively seeking out music by women of colour and promoting it

STOP – Using absolute figures to justify your commitment to inclusivity
START – Using proportional figures and publishing stats to prove your commitment to diversity and inclusivity. We need to keep what we do as transparent as possible. I recommend that every women’s music initiative publish their stats each year, particularly month-to-month to avoid othering, showing gender and racial breakdowns for all content with racial stats split by gender.

STOP – Making excuses for not programming women of colour
START – Enforcing quotas for inclusion. There is so much bias against women of colour, both deliberate and unconscious. It’s a challenge to overcome without assistance. Quotas ensure adequate representation across the gender and racial spectrum as well as accountability.

STOP – Using your lack of knowledge as a reason for exclusion
START – Actively researching female composers of colour. Hire a repertoire consultant such as myself, someone who has done the heavy lifting already, knows the names, knows the resources, and can point you in the right direction.

This is a challenging and difficult topic with many different facets. There is lots to consider and much to make us uncomfortable. But, we need to ask the tough questions, both of ourselves, of our allies, and the industry at large. We must support each other in creating a movement that champions all women, not just white women.


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