When I was in my final year at university in Cork, I wanted to do a music technology module. To my chagrin, I was too late, and my only option was to do a self-taught module i.e. research something of interest and present it as a paper. Someone had posed the question as to why there were no female Mozarts, and that question niggled at me until it became too loud to ignore. I was presented with the perfect opportunity to allow myself some relief from that niggling; the result was a voyage of discovery through the social and educational oppression of women, since the year dot, really. The women that did manage to break through did in spite of society, and many without the educational access and advantages afforded to their male counterparts. The voyage eventually led to a radio series on RTÉ’s Lyric FM, which garnered Critics’ Choice from the Irish Times for its duration.
I was brought to mind of this by the petition launched by Jessy McCabe this week to demand that female composers be included in the A Level syllabus, and she posed some interesting questions: “How can we expect girls to aspire to be composers and musicians if they don’t have the opportunity to learn of any role models? How can we accept that the UK’s largest awarding body doesn’t adequately acknowledge the work of female musicians? Why are we limiting diversity in a subject which thrives on its astounding breadth?”
The fact of the matter is that music history (and Western Art Music history at that – it is one small area of music) is not the only area of history, and wider storytelling as a society where women’s endeavours have been cast aside. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s endeavours for the abolition of slavery are only rarely recalled, and mainly in reference to Abraham Lincoln, who ironically did not believe in abolition. Rosa Parks is remembered, but doesn’t evoke the same emotion historically as, let’s say, MLK or Malcolm X. Even in recent years, until he won Wimbledon, it was erroneously reported that Britain had not had a Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry, when in fact it had, in Virginia Wade.
A small example, but noteworthy in that the endeavours of women are not seen as important in the area of historical narrative, which, by no coincidence whatsoever, is dominated by men. Moreover, this view of the world is supported by the power prerogative of men across the corporate world, political world and educational establishments from university onwards. It is no wonder then, that, given who controls the narrative, most people are kept largely ignorant of women’s achievements, many of them not inconsiderable given the societal adversity they face(d).
But there are a couple of key points which I believe need to be implemented on the road to true equality. First is the idea of non-appropriation. The amount of times that I’ve been in situations where I’ve offered an idea or an insight, only for it to be met with grand indifference until, a few moments later, a male appropriates it as his own and (almost universally) it has been treated as an original and brilliant thought. When that happens to you a number of times, there is a sense of one’s own invisibility that sets in, and an annoyance that one’s ideas are being falsely attributed to another, allied with a sense (dependent on the situation) of futility and helplessness in actually being able to address it (unless one is able to record every instance of one’s life, it is not feasible in real terms). Recently I’ve discussed this with other women across different sectors – all with the same experience. (It’s also outlined in an excellent article by Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/jul/30/10-sexist-scenarios-women-deal-work-ignored-maternity-risk-everyday-sexism, which indicates in the wider sense, this is something that women confront on an almost daily basis).
Ultimately, all these roads lead to the idea of shared space. I’m always struck by this in a physical sense on the Tube, and amuse myself on an almost daily basis by taking a tally of man spreaders (For the man I saw recently on the Jubilee line whose spread occupied almost two seats – talk about letting it all hang out….) In all seriousness, until we address men’s insecurities (in a general sense) at the prospect of having to share their world and give equal physical and metaphorical space (and airtime) to women, we may always be fighting an uphill struggle on this front. The fact that online comment sections of newspapers like the Guardian have to exert stricter levels of moderation when the words ‘sexism’ or ‘feminism’ are used is a clue that there are a lot of men out there who feel threatened and do not want women’s voices to be heard.
In one sense, if men are that insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s opinion because of their gender, I’m inclined to ignore them and refer them to a good therapist to deal with their obvious mommy issues. However, the politic part of me has long recognised that it is in women’s interests to appeal to the many fair-minded men out there (and I believe they are in the increasingly vocal majority) who have been, till it was brought to their attention, largely unaware of how unfairly skewed narrative is in many areas in favour of the male. It is the case that people are largely unmotivated to affect change unless it directly impinges on them, and parallel to encouraging women to come forward and agitate and protest and petition and raise awareness of women’s stories and achievements, we must continue to encourage men to do the same. This is why I believe Jessy McCabe’s petition to be absolutely vital, timely and worthy of support (if you’d like to sign, you can do so here: https://www.change.org/p/edexcel-ensure-the-representation-of-women-on-the-a-level-music-syllabus.
As I found out all those years ago in University College Cork, there is a wealth of untapped history out there. The more we uncover it, the more stories there are of human achievement to wonder at, recount and inspire. The more we uncover it, the more room there is in the history books, the more space is created for everyone, regardless of gender, to occupy.