The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Teaching “Women and Music” in a Liberal Arts Setting: an Introduction

Posted in Susan_Borwick, Teaching by iawmblog on January 9, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, it happened.  In my first full-time teaching job post-Ph.D., at my alma mater (full-time music jobs weren’t so rare then!), I sat on a master’s oral committee, along with three others: a choral director, a religion professor, and my mentor in music history.  I was “the kid” committee member and the only woman.

My question to the master’s student, a conductor-to-be, was simply “Tell us a little about a woman composer of your choice.”  Long silence.  “Well, just name a woman composer.”  Deadly silence.  Unbearable silence.

Then the music historian, my mentor, spoke up: “Well, women don’t really compose much, you know.  Their creativity goes into mothering their children.”

I was stunned.  Not only had the student not been able to answer a fairly broad [!] question; my mentor had had an issue with the question!  That mentor’s comment dropped my respect for him down several notches.

As a young second-wave feminist who had seen gender bias against several female students in grad school, I set about to design a “women and music” course, to educate the next generation’s musicians and their mentors about women composers, yes, and also about the dynamics behind stupid assumptions (my term!) about women and composing.

Musicians now early in your careers doubtless witness more nuanced challenges that undermine women.  I guess earning 79 pennies for every man’s dollar, U.S., isn’t all that nuanced, but let’s consider today’s more subtle challenges.  Ellen Malcolm, president of the U.S. women’s political action committee Emily’s List, describes today’s U.S. political scene as “corridors of power where more attention is paid to the tap of a woman’s high heels than to the ideas she champions; reporters who waste ink and airtime discussing women’s clothes instead of their character; the men who call themselves liberals but always seem to reach back into their network of guys when an opportunity for advancement materializes.”

In music, the nuances involve not knowing or including music written by women; choosing texts and methods that hardly allow for discussion of women’s compositional creativity; devaluing musical contributions that are by or about a woman; measuring a female colleague’s or student’s feelings as her “problem” rather than her frustration at the different treatment she experiences compared with her colleagues who are male.  All of us, men and women, carry these biases as cultural baggage.

In the face of the politics of today’s educational scene, then, how can we organize a “women and music” course that is academically viable and effective?  After all, we’re in an art whose participants often, perhaps usually, identify with being a musician above even being gendered.

I’ve found that including the powerful politics of gender—even beginning a women-and-music course with a theoretical model for gender politics—allows students and instructors to sit in our discomforts, whatever they may be.  Including musical politics at the get-go sometimes offends the music majors while making the liberal-arts majors more comfortable.  It’s a good place to begin.


Susan Borwick

Susan is a musicologist, theorist, and composer teaching at Wake Forest, and she’s also the Secretary of IAWM. Her areas of specialization include women’s and gender studies, and spirituality and the arts. She’ll be blogging about teaching “women and music” in a liberal arts setting.


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