Talking About Women Composers Isn’t Enough

Over the past few years—especially since the election—I’ve seen lots of meaningful conversation, art, and advocacy on behalf of women composers and their work. I’ve seen an elevation of public consciousness—not necessarily across the board, but within classical and jazz spheres, to be certain. And yes, we’ve got a lot of work still to do with drum corps (and classical and jazz) and the more mainstream-music-listening public; our efforts need to extend further than they already do, but we’re making progress. Women working in composition are seeing a shift in how we are treated, in the opportunities open to us, and in the interactions we have with our peers, colleagues, and superiors.

From here, this post could veer in two different directions. I could keep talking about the work we need to do with equity, to ensure that women are getting a statistically fair shot whenever possible. I could go on about what that means and how I’d do it. (Spoiler alert: it would make a lot of men mad.)

But that’s not actually the route I’m taking today. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but for now, there’s something more pressing on my mind.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough, because women aren’t the only gender suffering from the longstanding effects of the patriarchy in musical circles. Talking about women composers isn’t enough, because relying on the men/women dichotomy excludes and expunges the myriad of musicians whose gender or lack thereof lies somewhere betwixt or beyond those two poles. Talking about women composers isn’t enough, because by pushing the “women and men should be equal” angle, we leave behind everyone whose gender isn’t one or the other (and, when we’re up against transphobic folks in power, we leave behind some people who do identify within the binary).

Living in Los Angeles for two years was the best thing I could have done for this part of my activism. Not only was I discovering things about myself, I was forming meaningful relationships with creatives and friends whose identities were ones I’d never encountered before. I got to know them as they wanted to present themselves, and that was powerful. You haven’t lived until you’ve gone to a CalArts Gallery Night with your friends to revel in the joy of being yourselves. As a result of that shared trust, I’m fully out to more of my Los Angeles friends than anyone else. For much of the rest of the world, my identity exists in a more piecemeal way, because the state of Arizona would not protect my right to, say, employment based on some aspects of my identity. So some of those things stay quiet, at least for the time being.

But we can’t just talk about women composers. Because so often, when we say woman, we mean cis woman, we mean able-bodied woman, we mean white woman. So often, when we talk about diversity in our programming, we mean just a piece or two every once in awhile, we mean one marginalized composer is enough, we mean enough to make people stop complaining. So often, when we say gender-marginalized, we don’t mean nonbinary, or intersex, or trans, or genderfluid, or bigender, or agender, or gender-nonconforming (even though we absolutely should). Our cheap excuse for diversity does not hold space for people who don’t (or don’t always) agree with the designation they were given at birth. It does not hold space for people who are still figuring themselves out. It does not hold space for people afraid that presenting the world with who they really are will slam doors in their faces.

We can’t just talk about women composers anymore (or performers or artists or musicians or…). We have to actively, aggressively make space for everyone else, too. Are you listening to music created and performed by people of diverse gender identities? Can you name composers and performers you admire who don’t identify with the gender or pronouns assigned to them at birth? Have you realized, yet, that it is not enough to be open to the idea of gender-marginalized people in your programs and studios and networks? Have you realized that we must actively seek them out, invite them into our worlds, and prove to them every day that we are safe people for them to be themselves around? Have you realized that the structures and imbalances we uphold are the reason they aren’t already here?

And once you’ve realized all of these things, have you begun taking steps to effect change in these ways?

This work doesn’t stop just because we’ve done the bare minimum, folks. We don’t get to say, “oh, well, the white women are getting a shit ton of commissions this year while they celebrate the centennial of their voting rights; we can go take a nap now.” We are responsible not only for the continued uplifting of women in music but also the uplifting of folks whose genders (and their paths to those) are a little more of an adventure than “this is what you were given at birth.” We are responsible for leveraging the privilege we have to make decisions and effect change in our communities. It’s a tall order, and this is only part of that larger goal, but it’s a part we can’t choose to ignore because it’s inconvenient.

Your feminism isn’t feminism if it only advocates for women. We’ve got work to do, folks, and 2020’s moving fast. This year, take time getting to know the work of gender-marginalized composers—plural—and not just the one or two pieces you find first. Find someone you like, and get to know them like you might Beethoven or Cage or Bruckner or Berg or whatever the case may be. Know enough about them to talk about their practice, their consistencies in style, the choices they make in specific circumstances. Allow yourself to fall in love with their work as thoroughly as you would with a cis man. And then shout about it, because they need visibility.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough. It never was. And that’s on all of us.

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