Including Composers Who Are Women in the Music Curriculum

Yesterday The Plashing Vole brought to my attention Kerry Andrew’s recent article in the The Guardian, ‘Why are there so few women composers?’ Andrew suggests that one way to increase the number of composers who are women is to revise the curriculum so that composing is seen as something women do. Sensible suggestion, that. Writers of supposedly general histories of music have often failed to mention that really they’re writing histories of music by white, European men. Many failed to mention their decision to omit the creativity of specific demographics and instead passed off the work of a select demographic as the work of an entire culture. Of course, all histories involve decisions about what to include and exclude, but some histories are a bit more upfront about those decisions and criteria for inclusion than others. And sometimes even music history surveys that include women do so in ways that differentiate them from men—for example, women composers may be introduced as student of Mr. X, whereas the men composers are apparently born fully-formed creative geniuses who never required teachers. (Yes, I have a specific music history book in mind.) Casting a wider net in telling history, being more inclusive in many ways, paints a fuller picture of what was going on in a specific culture. It isn’t just good for groups of musicians currently marginalised by society, it’s good for society as a whole. More people see music as a possible activity and we all get to hear a wide variety of music. What’s not to like?! (Please, don’t answer!)

So, yes, I agree with Andrew that primary and secondary schools need to revise their curricula (which in England and Wales really means changing the National Curriculum). It needs to happen in tertiary education too—you know, in the classes where future teachers learn the kinds of things that our culture currently thinks are worth teaching. In cases where survey courses are still the main approach, the ideal would be to revise those completely. (The late Prof. Donna Cardamone Jackson, who taught at the University of Minnesota, once told me that in every course she taught she used music examples by diverse composers—diverse in terms of gender and race. I would say Donna was quietly revolutionary. Sometimes not so quietly.) It’s not just a case of keeping the same basic “great composer” narrative and including a few token women, say. The “great composer” narrative functioned to exclude people, to devalue certain types of music making. Ultimately, the narrative needs to change too, and in many places it is changing.

Today I happened upon a relevant book that might help those interested in revising undergraduate curricula: Julie Dunbar’s Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction (Routledge, 2011) and its companion website. Like Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds, edited by Jane Bernstein (Northeastern University Press, 2003), chapters of which I’ve used in my undergraduate course, ‘Women and Music Across Cultures’, it’s organised by theme. I’ve only skimmed the Google Books preview of Dunbar’s book, but so far it looks quite interesting. Both Bernstein and Dunbar’s books are suitable for undergraduates and might be particularly useful for those who are not research-active in women’s or gender studies and want to work at mainstreaming gender-related issues in their courses. Dunbar’s includes questions, exercises and discussion points that encourage students to reflect upon the kinds of stories that are told (including the one being told in the book). Bernstein’s edited book doesn’t have that kind of thing—it’s aimed at a general music readership, not just undergraduates—but it does have really useful topic introductions that draw out common threads between the various essays. In my very brief scan of the very short preview, I saw abundant mention of Hildegard, Pauline Oliveros, and an index entry for X-Ray Spex. Bernstein’s book likewise covers a wide range of musical practices.

I’m curious enough to request an e-copy of Dunbar’s book for examination, even though it’s going to be a while until I teach an undergraduate course again. To be honest, the paperback price seems a little on the high side: £39.99, or $64.95 versus $29.95 for a paperback copy of Bernstein’s edited volume. (I’m quoting prices on the publishers’ websites: at time of writing, is charging almost $140 for Dunbar’s in hardback and just under $60 for the paperback.)

Finally, the Committee on Women and Gender of the American Musicological Society is updating their collection of course syllabi. I’ll post the link when I have it.