Where are the Women of Yester Year?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Mary Astell, a woman from the seventeenth century whose interest and reading in natural philosophy/science was, as has recently become clear, much greater than had previously been attributed to her. I am intrigued by how women in different spheres are now being rediscovered, or their efforts being accorded more respect, than previously. We can’t reinvent the past, or create women who never existed, but it does seem a bit tough that some of them have simply been forgotten, despite all they did in their own day and, in many cases, the recognition they received for those efforts at the time. The campaign to ensure more women – across many different spheres of activity – are recognized by the ‘blue plaque’ scheme, particularly in London, is an indication of belated awareness of many different sorts of contribution by notable women who ceased to be noted. Next month, for instance, the nutritionist Elsie Widdowson will be celebrated with a blue plaque in the village of Barrington just outside Cambridge.

BBC Radio3 has now made a ‘thing’ out of playing music by women composers only on International Women’s Day each year. I am sure as little as 20 years ago one might have found BBC producers saying such an event would have been impossible as there were only one or two women whose music was up to scratch (or perhaps whose names they knew at all). When I was growing up, the names of Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s elder sister) and Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) would have been the top two women mentioned in this context, although I believe they were primarily seen as performers rather than composers in their day. And they were always referred to (e.g on Radio 3) in relation to their more famous family members, in the way that I have just described them. These days their music is quite often heard, and pretty impressive I, for one, find it. But there are far more female names heard regularly on the radio now, just in the regular occurrence of things, not simply on a single day each year. That, I suppose, is progress!

There are of course many contemporary composers whose music could be played, ranging from Judith Weir, the first female Master of the Queen’s Music (though there has never yet been one of the King’s Music), appointed in 2014, through someone I overlapped with at my all girls’ school, Sally Beamish, to Erollyn Wallen, who composed a fanfare for Churchill College when she attended a Feast in the College a few years ago; all women working in the UK (though the last was born in Belize). Women composers from the wider world include Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova, and the Russian-born Australian Elena Kats-Chernin, both of whose music I have recently listened to with great pleasure having previously been unacquainted with them. That is, unless you count the music from a Lloyds TSB Bank advertisement which the latter wrote as part of her ballet Wild Swans; that ad seemed to get a lot of airtime some years back. However, the more you look the more of such women you find, and it is good to hear them turning up regularly on Radio 3. And turning up in the general way of things, without comment about how exciting or rare it is to find a woman composer after all.

However, it is the fact that women from the past are now being played so much more that I am fascinated by. Their music was always out there and yet it clearly wasn’t regarded as ‘manly’ enough to warrant being played. The grande dame of these must be Hildegard of Bingen, whose religious chants and plainsong are so simple and yet so moving. The Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, also a singer, seems to have been regarded as a bit dubious over the centuries because she was suspected of being a courtesan. Thus, despite having published more music than any of her contemporaries, her name seems to have languished for generations.

Americans Amy Beach and Florence Price were appreciated in their day, in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, but then seem to have been forgotten about for years. The latter, who was black, was the first American woman to have a major work played by a first rank orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), in 1933. The UK could boast Rosalind Ellicott, from the late Victorian period, and the suffragette Ethyl Smyth a little later, whose anthem The March of the Women became the movement’s anthem. Perhaps she was regarded as dubious because of that association with those tiresome, militant women but she seems to have been dubbed with the ‘too manly to be a decent woman composer’ label, so reminiscent of the modern double standard for professional women: behave like a man and be frowned upon, behave as a woman ‘should’ and be trodden upon or regarded as likeable but not competent.

I don’t know how many other professional areas there are, in which there were many women active in the past whose names have simply been written out of the record. Some professions were of course formally closed to women, such as the law and medicine from the 18th century on. Before, no one thought to codify such a formal forbidding since it wasn’t expected women would ever try to enter such professions. The move away from early female midwives to professional men who attended childbirth, may well have led to many more maternal deaths than necessary because of the way they felt obliged not to touch women or carry out proper examinations. The battle to get the medical profession to accept women  as nurses (Florence Nightingale had quite a hand in that), let alone as doctors, was long and hard fought. Some of these struggles are described with verve by Julia Boyd, my predecessor-at-Churchill-but-one’s wife, in her enjoyable book The Excellent Doctor Blackwell. I feel embarrassed for describing her in that relative way, because she’s an author of note, but that’s how I’ve met her. Of course, before Blackwell came the army doctor who ‘passed’ as a man throughout her professional life, James Barry, no mean feat to fool so many military folk for so long, with her secret only discovered at her death.

All of this shows how short-changed women have been over the years. For all those composers (and music was at least acceptable for a woman to spend time on, unlike cutting up dead bodies to learn anatomy) who are resurfacing, whose music is being heard and enjoyed, how many more are still unknown and are yet to be (re)discovered? And what of other spheres of activity?

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One Response to Where are the Women of Yester Year?

  1. Tessa Boase says:

    Hello Athene – Ann Hawkins alerted me to your excellent blog, which absolutely chimes with the work I’m doing. I’ve written a couple of social history books on ‘invisible women’ – first, a handful of housekeepers from some of our most prominent households over 150 years, and most recently a history of the forgotten women who founded the RSPB as an anti-fashion protest in 1889. My publishers didn’t dare put the name of my heroine, Etta Lemon, on the front of the book for 2018, as nobody had ever heard of her before. It ended up being called ‘Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather’, but I’m really pleased that with the paperback edition, out on June 1, Etta has taken her rightful place. I should love to send you a copy of ‘Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds’, as I think it might be right up your street. Dame Ethel Smythe features in the cast. If you’d like that, please let me know where to send it, thanks.
    I’m also running a campaign for a statue of the RSPB founder Emily Williamson, with RSPB backing. Four maquettes to be unveiled in Didsbury on July 1, the Plumage Act centenary.
    Pleased to have you on my radar! Very best wishes, Tessa @tessaboase

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