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Discussion of women's biography in theory class

edited July 2020 in Pedagogy

Collected wisdom,

This coming term I'll be discussing many composers for the first time in video lectures (ugh), composers such as Valerie Coleman, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Betty Jackson King, and others. Since I anticipate students won't know these composers, I've been writing brief biographical sketches—I want students to see photographs or paintings of these women (and also of the composers of color) and I want them to think of composers as people. But the sketches of women invariably include details I wouldn't include in introducing men—details of their private lives, e.g., who they married, the age and social status of their husbands, the number of children they did or didn't have, etc. These details are often necessary to contextualize their compositional output (since their husbands may have disdained public performance and teaching but supported publishing) and the genres in which they wrote, but it also gives a clear signal that they differ from the men. On the third hand, I does seem valuable to highlight that marraige and family had (and have) a far greater impact on women's careers than men. I know this issue is perennial but I thought I'd raise it again. Would you advise including details of marraiges and childbearing in discussions of women composers?

Thanks so much,

-Mitch Ohriner

University of Denver



  • Hi Mitch, maybe taking students through exactly this line of thinking and then inviting responses/discussion, or asking them prompting questions that would promote their own reflections as you assign the reading and then discussing the issues, would go a long toward accomplishing your goal of getting them to reflect on these issues. But also maybe wait to until  class 2, after they've had the opportunity to come to know this music qua music, which is presumably a luxury that is afforded their male peers.



  • That's a really good question, Mitch.  I think you're right that including certain kind of personal information implies a lower level of professionalism for women, and so it might be better to omit this sort of thing.  I would make an exception, however, if there's information that's relevant to the compositional output.  For instance, if a woman's husband forced her to give up composing after a certain year, or if she wrote numerous easy works for her own children to play, that seems worth mentioning — and I would say the same of a male composer who wrote easy works for his children or whose output was limited because he was poor and had to work extensive hours in a non-musical job.

    I realize that my suggestion underplays the greater impact that marriage and family have traditionally had on women's careers, and reasonable people may disagree.  On the whole, though, I think that the emphasis on such information not only implicitly undermines women's achievements, but it also suggests that treating women and men differently is acceptable, reasonable, and normal.

    Again, thanks both for the observation and for the question.

    Nancy Rogers

    Florida State University

  • Hi. 

    Definitely a great question. Representation matters, but what we say and how we show people also matters. I was thinking about that recently with a NY Times article about work/parenting: It was upsetting to me, not just the situation, but I was wondering why the paper chose to show a picture of the mother in t-shirt/shorts wen outside playing with the kids, instead of in dressed work attire, at the computer? Even the image seemed to put a slant on the situation.

    Perhaps - also think through including brief biographies of male composers, and consider what details would be in those? I agree with the two prior posts as well. To help with the discussion Ricahrd Cohn suggests, perhaps put two biographies side-by-side to discuss how gendered they often are. (And the differences may be more than just which biographical details are included, or how they are described, but also the type of words used - just look at recent studies on student evaluations to see that gendered langauge is still a huge problem)


  • Hi Mitch.  Good questions and important issues. Like Richard Cohn, I think you have a good opportunity for some meaningful discussions with students about the realities and issues this topic raises.  Why not raise these contextualizing topics for the men's bios as well?  Women have often not only been disadvantaged by family or marital status, but men have also often been advantaged by wives who handle all/most of the daily tasks of maintaining life thus freeing the men to work/composer with fewer distractions. Further, I wouldn't start from the assumption that everyone is in a heterosexual marriage.  Think also about the significant professional support among groups of gay men in terms of mentoring, employment, etc.  (see, e.g., Nadine Hubbs, The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity).  Or think about the impact of the closet on composers emotionally, compositionally, etc. Lesbian lives of composers have been less visible and less explored but should not be overlooked.  I don't see how we can ignore the issue and impact of race/ethnicity in the face of the realities that the "Black Lives Matter" movement has recently shed a brighter light on.  This would have to address white privilege as well as disadvantages for BIPOC.  The question of genre and the expectation of working in a particular genre/idiom applies to BIPOC as well as to women AND men (not just to women).  In the end, I probably wouldn't treat all the bios in the same manner--just as I wouldn't use the same analytical approach to all compositions--but would try to focus on the most important aspects of composers' lives and works.  There is never enough time to do it all.

  • Including that information might be relevant if it's important to the composer. If that's a part of their life they want people to know, then let people know.

    Related, how many biographies don't include the number of children Bach had?

  • Personally, I think a healthy question is: why don't we discuss the emotional life, including family life, of male composers? To what extent has this separation of the personal from the "professional" contributed to the phenomenon of toxic masculinity, to say nothing of the continuing problem of work/life balance in academia?

    Nathan Baker

    Music Theory Coordinator, Casper College, WY


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