The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Welcome to International Women’s Day: March 8th

Posted in Susan_Borwick by iawmblog on March 9, 2010

As we celebrate women, I’m thinking about how to organize a course that teaches about women and music—a course for musicians and non-musicians—a course that perhaps fulfills a humanities or a fine-arts core requirement—a course that in some ways is expected to be all things to all people, simply because it will probably be the one-and-only course these students take on the topics of women and music.

After a day or two spent getting the course off the ground, I try to introduce a topic that nobody in the class is expert in.  A useful topic comes to mind:

Introduce kinds of feminism, which gives the students an academic vocabulary for talking about women and music.  I like to use some of the terms in the old standard theoretical text by Alison Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg, Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations between Women and Men, 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill, 1993, ISBN-10: 0070322538, ISBN-13: 978-0070322530).  These terms describe some of the lenses we wear when we deal with women and gender: conservative, liberal, socialist, Marxist, women of color, global, radical.  The class learns to apply each of these kinds of feminisms—not necessarily to agree with them, but to apply them.  For example, let’s analyze this conversation:

A: “Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s sister composed music?”

B: “Really?  I’ve never heard of her before.”

A: “Well, women don’t really compose good music.  They create babies.  Probably if her music had been good we would have heard of it.”

[conservative-feminist lens: The difference between men and women is first of all biological]

*     *     *

A: “Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s sister composed music?”

B: “Really?  I’ve never heard of her before.”

A: “Well, she came from a very musical family and got unusually good musical training compared to most women of her time and place.  She was an exceptional woman, a woman composer.”

[liberal-feminist lens: The difference between men and women is first of all individual opportunity.]

*     *     *

A: “Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s sister composed music?”

B: “Really?  I’ve never heard of her before.”

A: “Well, she was successful—unlike her Indian servant who also composed good music.” [fictional statement]

[women-of-color-feminist lens: Differences are first of all ethnic.]

*     *     *

A: “Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s sister composed music?”

B: “Really?  I’ve never heard of her before.”

A: “Well, composers in the Mendelssohn family were successful—you know, they were from a well-to-do family that could afford to spend time learning to create music.”

[Marxist- or socialist-feminist lens: The differences are first of all economic (Marxist) or social class (socialist).]

*     *     *

A: “Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s sister composed music?”

B: “Really?  I’ve never heard of her before.”

A: “Well, European women have been able to compose and do other ‘manly’ things that Asian women never have been able to.”

[global-feminist lens: Differences are first of all global/colonialist.]

*     *     *

Students can then look for the lenses used by critics, composers, even us.  They have a tool.  They can now begin to ask questions such as “Does this music sound this way because a woman composed it?” or “What makes this music tick, in the context of the life of this composer, male or female?”  They can even role play.

This women-and-music course is becoming juicy!

__________

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 blogs about teaching “women and music” in a liberal arts setting.

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