What exactly is the point of International Women’s Day?

Joanna Forbes L'EstrangeI imagine I’m not alone in my longing to live in a society in which sexual preference, skin colour and gender are as irrelevant as coffee preference, eye colour and shoe size when it comes to appreciating good music. The label “woman composer” doesn’t sit well with me; it sounds, at best, like a justification and, at worst, a warning: we’ve programmed this piece not because it’s any good but because it’s by a woman and we felt obliged to keep our quota up. This piece is by a woman but, don’t worry, it’s actually quite good. The piece of music you’re about to hear was composed by a woman; you have been warned. Imagine the equivalent: delighted to announce a brand new choral piece by the man composer [insert name].
I’m confident, though, that we’ll be able one day to drop this “woman” prefix just as, somewhere along the way, we stopped saying WPC for female police officers and typing “www” before website addresses. When the World Wide Web was a new concept, “double u double u double u” was a necessary mouthful of words for us all to struggle through but now that most of us can barely, if at all, remember life before the internet it’s no longer needed. Precisely when this change will happen no one knows, of course, but I suspect it will either coincide with a time when it’s no longer a novelty to see women’s names on church music lists and concert programmes or when we all agree that gender isn’t an either/or situation anyway. In the pop music industry nobody feels the need to say or write “the woman song-writer Joni Mitchell”. Who cares if a song on the radio was written by a man or a woman? Can you imagine tuning into Radio 2 on March 8th and hearing a presenter say “today, as it’s International Women’s Day, we’re featuring songs written by women song-writers from Carole King to Annie Lennox, not because the songs are any good, you understand, haha, but because it’s IWD and we need to be seen to be championing songs written by women.”
So, why should the pop music industry be so ahead of the game when considering the relevance of naming writers as being male or female? Well, the most obvious explanation is pop music’s seven decades of existence compared with classical music’s ten centuries. Until the twentieth century, composing music was seen very much as a man’s world which is why Hildegarde of Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ethel Smythe and the like were regarded as pioneers for having bravely entered a profession entirely dominated by men. Fanny will forever be in the shadow of her better-known composer brother, under whose name many of her songs were published, and Clara’s music only began to receive attention in the 1970s, the surname Schumann having until then only meant Robert. I like to imagine that, had she had any choice in the matter, Clara might have adopted Wieck-Schumann as her professional name in order to distinguish herself both from her pianist father and her composer husband. The ubiquitous “woman” prefix denotes the novelty element because, even now in 2020, it’s still something of a surprise to hear music by female composers, particularly within the realm of choral evensong. By contrast, it’s as easy to name female pop song writers from each decade since the 1950s as it is male, so much so that the distinction becomes wholly irrelevant; if the song is great who cares? I hope I live to see the day when the classical music industry reaches this point.
Earlier this week, my man publisher at the RSCM posted on Facebook’s Choral Evensong Appreciation Society group the music list for his church’s Choral Evensong for International Women’s Day: pieces by Margaret Rizza, Amy Summers and me. Moments later, he was perplexed to read under his post the following comment from a man:
“If I were a woman I think I’d find this quite offensive actually. I’m really not meaning to be provocative, but just think about it.”
At his suggestion, I have been thinking about it, asking myself why this man should have been offended on behalf of women, (and whether I should be offended), and have concluded that he must have felt that the post implied that these pieces had only been chosen because they were written by women and not for their musical merit. However, it’s a curious practice to put oneself in another’s shoes and imagine how they must feel. A few years ago, a vicar somewhere in the south east of England announced that he would be boycotting a performance in his church of Alexander’s Zimbe! Come, sing the songs of Africa! because the cover image on the vocal score was offensive to black women. Quite a bold claim for white man to have made especially when you consider that the piece had by that point already received 250 performances worldwide, including in Kenya, and we’d never received any negative comments; nor have we since. Far from being offended by my publisher’s post about IWD I was reassured that people in the music business are using International Women’s Day for the purpose for which it was established, namely as a global platform from which to celebrate ‘the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.’  With the aid of this annual reminder, we inch slowly towards equality; without it, the process would be even slower or grind to a halt altogether. The idea is not that our music is heard one day a year, any more than we only love our partners on February 14th or our mothers on the 4th Sunday of Lent; rather it is that, by celebrating women on this day each year, we come to a greater awareness generally of the achievements of women in all walks of life. In the music business, the hope is that this will lead to a greater likelihood of our music being heard throughout the rest of the year too.
As part of my Oxford music degree in the early 1990s, I had to study for two papers on the History of Western Music from 1600 to 1970, an ambitiously broad remit with a syllabus entirely devoid of any mention of female composers. My tutor and my tutorial partner for those three years were both man composers and, as the daughter of a man composer and, at 21, soon-to-be-wife of another, I’m ashamed to admit that I regarded composition as an entirely male area of expertise. Even my grandfather wrote hundreds of published arrangements of music for viola. The first piece I wrote was in 1999 when I’d just taken on the role of Musical Director of The Swingles: an arrangement of Amazing Grace for the four female voices of the group. It irked me that our repertoire contained a few arrangements for the two tenors and two basses but none for just the women. One of my man colleagues offered this explanation:
“a piece just for sopranos and altos wouldn’t sound any good because the vocal range would be too small and you’d miss the bass line”
I’m indebted to him for this comment because it was all the incentive I needed to go ahead and prove him wrong. By the way,  if you want to hear a whole concert of beautiful music for just women’s voices, please come to Cambridge tomorrow evening and hear my all-female a cappella group Aquila.
In their eagerness to address the gender imbalance, many choir directors have in the last couple of years made private or public pledges to include pieces by female composers in every concert/service which, in turn, has necessitated new commissions. I for one am grateful for this because, without such commissions, I’m not sure it would necessarily have occurred to me to compose my own settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the Communion Service, Preces and Responses and so on. This year I was invited to set a Psalm and a hymn, both of which are to receive their first outings today and, far from being offended, I couldn’t be more delighted. My 11-year-old son is a published composer now too: his Mum has been composing music all his life and, as such, it’s as normal for him as the fact that his Dad does most of the cooking. With any luck, their generation will never feel the need to say or write “woman composer.” Happy International Women’s Day, everyone.
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Upcoming performances of music by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange:
Today: 8am, BBC Radio 4’s Daily Service: The Lord’s Prayer; 6pm, St Mary Magdalene Church, Richmond, King’s Voices (conductor Ben Parry): Magnificat from King’s College Service and a new hymn tune, “Cherry Tree”; 6.30pm, St Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge: Preces and Responses and Psalm 135 chant.
Tomorrow: 8pm, The Old Divinity School, St John’s College, Cambridge: We will remember them, The three wise women, A woman (wearing bloomers) on a wheel and Twenty-first-century Woman.
March 11th: the US premiere of Freedom! The power of song, written in collaboration with Alexander L’Estrange
April 10th (Good Friday): first performances in various churches of new Easter anthem, Words from the cross (pre-publication perusal copy now available)
April 18th: NYCOS, Central Halls, Edinburgh: Give us grace
May 22nd: The Oriel Singers (conductor Ben Sawyer), Winchcombe: first performance of Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (pre-publication perusal copy now available)
Proceeds from downloads of Joanna’s charity single recording of Twenty-first-century Woman (recorded at Abbey Road on St Cecilia’s Day 2018 and released on IWD 2019) go to the charity Her Future Coalition.
Watch the video which features famous and influential women from across the globe
Posted in Twenty-first-century Woman.