Skirts or Pants? How About Both

Skirt by Wanda Ewing

“Skirt” by Wanda Ewing

When I first considered writing on the topic of gender in “classical” composition, I wondered how I could possibly have anything new to say. Then, my colleagues challenged me. Why not? As a consequence, I have read about the role of gender in popular music, punk misogyny, and photography and discussed analogies between film and composition with a number of friends and colleagues. I have conversed with my closest collaborators, both male and female. I have started asking deeper questions, and in doing so, confronting why this issue is so challenging for me.

In graduate school, I consciously disassociated being female with being a composer. In fact, I took that even further and came to the conclusion that being a composer was in direct conflict with what I knew as a teacher, as a student, and as an artist. While I was coming to realize that my work coupled with my teaching style reflected a theme of synergy and convergence, I perceived a dichotomy in trying to fuse my various roles. I am sure some of this can be simply attributed to youth, but also, I believe we have been part of a transformation, where our generation is realizing a gradual shift in the way we view the artist.

Generally, we are coming to accept a more multidimensional role for an artist in the 21st century. Being an entrepreneur, musician, and teacher (and/or any number of other occupations) are all equally important. As Claire Chase said in her 2013 Bienen School of Music convocation address, “You can’t really separate the act of creating music, even very old music, from entrepreneurship.” She examined how entrepreneurship manifests in our time by providing countless examples of how we assume multiple roles: the artist as collaborator, the artist as producer, the artist as organizer, the artist as educator, and the list goes on. The resounding message delivered is that there is no clear roadmap. She inspires her young audience to “blow the ceiling off anything resembling a limitation.” I try to remind myself of this mantra every day; however, it is not always easy.

From my vantage point, the “guru” mentality is an accurate snapshot of the history of the composer/composition teacher relationship. In graduate school, I was encouraged to ignore the gender bias, which at the time was probably for the best in order to preserve my identity; however, this is not the same advice I offer to my students. I want to talk openly and non-judgmentally with them about the inherent challenges of being female and a composer alongside being a composition teacher and entrepreneur. More importantly, I want begin to identify why and how we have fallen into patterns of behavior that support the status quo. We have far too many resources at hand in the 21st century for female composers/teachers/organizers not to have more visible role models.

As women, by and large, we have been taught to view ourselves as made up of independent spheres, separating our profession from our gender, and from our craft. One challenge is to allow and encourage our various roles to operate and shape us in tandem, rather than in silos. For me, this involves accepting that being a good composer is being a good teacher, and that composing is my lifelong lesson. These two essential parts of who I am should not, and cannot, be in conflict. Whether it is teaching and composing, or composing and being a mother, or doing any number of things that we as composers in the 21st century must do to survive, we all deserve the opportunity to merge our identities and define ourselves in our own unique way. Granted, I am primarily coming from the perspective of a female in academia, but I suspect that the challenge of balancing multiple and often simultaneously demanding roles is consistent for female composers in general.

Recent publications about the relationship of women to the field of composition present numerous heartening viewpoints. Amy Beth Kirsten’s “The Woman Composer is Dead” (2012) offers many valuable observations. Kristin Kuster’s “Taking Off My Pants” challenges us to embrace who we are, while maintaining respect for our craft. And Ellen McSweeny’s “The Power List” offers concrete solutions to incite change. These three articles in particular illustrate exactly how much we need to talk about this pervasive issue, so I assigned these articles to students. Their reactions ranged from, “I’m saddened” to “…a women could never have composed Beethoven’s Ninth or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto…women need to stop having hissy fits about it.”

The teacher in me desperately wanted to understand these reactions, so I researched and looked to the visual art community for answers. As Linda Nochlin probes in her famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”:

“Why have there been no great women artists?” …like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”

Power structures have long operated along gendered presumptions like the one above. Certainly, all artists struggle to balance both creative and personal life challenges—this has become part of the romantic “plight” of being an artist—but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for me, this quandary was further complicated by sex and gender. As women, we are pulled in directions that are conflicted, both due to social pressures and the biological constraints of childbearing during key career-building years. Culturally, we are expected to respond in “feminine,” frequently subservient ways, but to follow the modernist trend, as composers we are expected to provide answers.

I agree with Eva Hesse that “excellence has no gender.” But how exactly do we begin to tell that story? Visibility is imperative for role models to succeed.

I also relate to Lucy Lippard, who writes, “Of course art has no gender, but artists do.”

So then, the question is: does being a “female” composer make a difference to being a good composer?

In confronting the question solely in the realm of being a good composer, the answer is inequitably no. There are countless examples of superb, successful, living female composers. However, when confronted with being a good composer, alongside being a good mother, and (for me) a good teacher, it becomes more difficult to quantify.

Nochlin answers the women-artist question sensibly:

What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.

As creative artists, we are students forever; otherwise, we would not have chosen such an infinite language to study. And frequently we have to act like a teacher, student, and artist simultaneously. Whether it is building music, art collaborations, schools, teaching, or learning, we create materials, build forms architecturally, and communicate those ideas creatively. Remember, maestro, male or female, as artists, we are inherently collaborators.

Gaining a broad perspective through all of the roles we must play has provided a critical lesson for me. Beyond social construction and convention, judgment, joy and anger, we must confront the abyss and challenge, question, and listen. And, above all, we should celebrate being female, and choose to wear pants or skirts as we see fit.

5 thoughts on “Skirts or Pants? How About Both

  1. Mo Dickens

    I enjoyed reading this Mara, and wanted to share a story from my wife’s experiences. Cary Esser has been an artist, specializing in architectural ornamentation since the late 1970s. Since 1996 she has been the Chair of Ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute. Cary always declined invites to “women artists” or “women in clay” exhibits. She didn’t want to be categorized as an artist based on gender. In the summer of 2010 she was in a six-person exhibition at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. The show was for all the winners of McKnight Fellowships ($5,000 – $25,000 awards) in the previous year. It wasn’t until we all assembled to install the exhibit that I realized all six winners that year were women. I looked back through the archives of the NCC and that had never happened before. I stopped the Director of the NCC as she walked through the gallery and said, “Can you believe it? All six winners this year were women?” She looked around and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t even realized it.” 20 years ago it would have been a major to do in the ceramics world, but in 2010 it barely made a ripple. – Mo

    Reply
  2. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

    Thanks Mara for an excellent article. My suspicion has always been that the “problem” for those of us who have held “positions” in society is that of others’ perceptions. I am sure that you have been seen as a woman by someone who at the same time does not see you as an artist. Similarly, you may have been regarded as a teacher by someone who fails to see you as an entrepreneur. I recall many years ago leaving my job as a senior manager to take up another position being asked to make a speech to my many colleagues. In it I appealed to them not to see themselves as “just teachers” or “just managers”. Being asked to choose one or the other by those in charge was like being asked if I was a father or husband – an absurd demand as I had been both for 20 years.
    As a composer, we may have been over-run by an internal soundscape that we feel we want to share with others. As teachers, we may have a vocational desire to share ideas, insights, knowledge and disciplines with others. As women (or men) we have acquired socially inherited relationships that we can accept or challenge or both. But in all that we do, we are all these things together and it seems to me that the main problem we all face is when others compartmentalise us and fail to understand that we can be, and are, all these things together.

    Reply
  3. william osborne

    We limit ourselves by defining ourselves. We also limit ourselves by not defining ourselves.

    It is difficult for us to understand that a refusal to define ourselves is also an ironic form of self-definition. “I’m-a-woman-composer-who-believes-being-a-woman-has-nothing-to-do-with-it.” We define ourselves by saying what we are not, and by categorizing what doesn’t effect what we are or do. (And of course, substituting male for woman in the above is also a form self-limiting definition.) So it never makes much sense to permanently freeze oneself into a concepts like being a woman composer, or conversely, to say gender doesn’t matter.

    How could we ever define something as infinitely complex as a human’s identity, including our own? We can’t say what we are. And we can’t fully say what we are not. Both existence and non-existence (that-which-I-am-not) merge into unknowable netherworlds.

    One approach is to view ourselves through a continuously-evolving Gestalt of multiple vantage points, such as woman, composer, mother, teacher, thinker, wife, etc. Humans are an ever-changing, 3-D Kaleidoscope of constantly transforming identities. We are an infinite series of identities. This power of transformation defines both our limitation and our potential.

    When we think of Michelangelo’s “David,”, or Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” or Picasso’s “Guernica,” we see that art is a reflection of our unknowability. Our mystery defines our transcendence.

    Reply
  4. Sarah Tyrrell

    Ok, so the most important thing about a composer is that she (or he) is a composer, not that she (or he) is a girl. Yes. And the most important thing about, say, Sotomayor is NOT that she is a girl, or that she is Hispanic, or the first girl Hispanic in such a position, but rather what her ideology is, what her take on the United States Constitution is. OK. Yes. BUT!! Why NOT further define as a female? What is the harm in that label? Any of her labels? Indeed, her “conditioning” (related to her gender, her social context, etc.) ricochets off of her beliefs– maybe even CHALLENGE her beliefs by not aligning per expectation… it seems to me it is at once very complicated (and I rarely use the modifier “very”) and very simple.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: 5 of 5 on New Music Box | Mara Gibson

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