Recently I saw a former student at a concert. In catching up on things, she asked me if I ever encountered being labeled a woman composer. She and another fellow student had been discussing how they never identified themselves that way and felt frustrated because another colleague had done so. I was surprised, relieved, and somewhat saddened to hear her story.
I have a number of conflicting feelings about the label “woman composer.” As my contemporaries and I progress in our professional lives, I see very few women following us. It seems that there are fewer women entering formal studies in composition. I have noticed how colleagues are at a loss to find more than one or two qualified candidates to enter their composition programs who are female. There are even some schools with no women composers at all. Ironically, at a time when there are more female role models, mentors, and opportunities, the number of women entering composition looks as if it is drying up.
So, what has changed? When I entered college, it was the opposite. I entered graduate school in the early ’90s, when government affirmative action was still in and the first Iraq war had yet to begin. At that time, I knew of only a handful of professional composers who were women. But not one female composer was ever mentioned in any of my music history classes. In fact, in an attempt to find some music by a woman composer, I went to the local record store. I found nothing until I finally got to the letter Z, where there was one lone bargin-price record of music by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
However, in school I thrived. Even though all my teachers (save one guest) were male, they never singled me out for being a woman. I almost always had wholehearted support for my work, and when I didn’t, it had nothing to do with my gender, but with my style. In fact, the ratio of male to female student composers was 60-40 at my one of my schools. It was not the only one. As I began to go to festivals and conferences I encountered other young colleagues who also came from schools that had a significant number of female students.
Yes, I have encountered stereotypical sexism and discrimination from time to time. But that’s true for most professions, and I have not found it to be unduly more so in music. So while I hate being identified as a woman composer, I still find it necessary. And, while I cheer my younger counterparts for not feeling the need to use that identity, I believe they need to be aware of it. Like it or not, there is still a need to consciously foster and encourage girls and young women to feel free to enter this arena of music. For whatever reasons, women are still a very small minority in the new music field.