Written into History: ‘Woman-Centric’ Feminist Musicology

Hegemonic discourses and power relations which sought to write women as a category out of musical history have been met with numerous attempts by feminist musicologists and feminist ethnomusicologists to write women into the histories they have been erased from.  Early feminist musicology, which gained momentum and recognition predominantly within Euro-American discourses in the 1980s, can be considered as largely reflecting what feminist musicologist Ellen Koskoff calls a “woman-centric” approach (Koskoff 2005: 93). This, according to Koskoff, connects the ‘first wave’ of feminist musicology with the early ‘second wave’ of feminism. Whilst I do not fully subscribe to the compartmentalising of feminism into successive generational waves because such thinking itself is largely based upon progressive and heteronormal organisational structures, Koskoff’s analysis may yet prove to be productive. Her identification enables a focus upon some of the strengths and weaknesses inherent to this particular approach. For as a primary engagement invested in writing forgotten musical women into histories from which they had either been neglected or erased, this “phase”, as a political strategy, resonates with feminist efforts that have similarly sought to ‘write woman into history’ such as those invested in processes of writing “her-story” and ‘feminine writing’.  Women’s music anthologies such as Carol Neuls-Bates’ Women In Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present (1982),  Jane Bower’s and Judith Tick’s Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950 (1987), Karin Pendle’s Women and Music: A History (1991) and Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner’s Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States (2006), among others, attest to this impulse to write ‘woman’ into history. As Koskoff suggests these texts “first proposed “woman” as an analytic category, thus forever separating woman from the all-inclusive category “man” (as in mankind)” (Koskoff 2005: 93). Koskoff’s analysis of this ‘phase’ of feminist musicology echoes somewhat with Joan Scott’s identification of “her-story” as a feminist methodology applied in the writing of women’s histories in which, “as the play on the word “her-story” implied, the point was to give value to an experience that had been ignored (hence devalued) and to insist on female agency in the making of history” (Scott 1999: 18). A consideration of early feminist musicological methodologies of woman-centric approaches as ‘herstories’, can in hindsight be appreciated to have within their construction the propensity for reifying the ideologies of gendered separate spheres, which Koskoff also notes (Koskoff 2005: 93). Woman-centric feminist musicology, in a manner that is also in line with early Western feminist theories predicated upon notions of ontological sexual difference, have been critiqued for rarely including “efforts to recover black women’s histories or account for the factors that have historically marginalised their efforts” (Hariston 2008: 97; Hayes & Williams 2007). Whilst queer musicology has developed as a recognised site of enquiry from roughly the 1990s onwards, the fact that feminist critical race musicology has not materialised as a distinct site of enquiry, may in part be perceived to be due to generalised assumptions about “race”, “ethnicity” and “nationality” as being specific primarily to ethnomusicology. Yet, as Koskoff explains, the latter’s predominant working methodologies of fieldwork indebted to historical anthropological practices and discourses have often operated within a different paradigm to the predominant development of structural critique within musicology (Koskoff 2005: 92). Additionally, relegating issues of ‘race’ to ethnomusicology alone maintains historically normative and hierarchical structures of race-thinking that would insist that ‘race’ is something that happens ‘over there’ in a way that implicitly conflates race with the ethnicity of the ‘other’. Early feminist musicology’s assumption of what can be called essential identifications for the category of ‘woman’ and the widespread neglect of critical difference regarding issues of race, ethnicity and nationality in this period, seemingly left to the field of feminist ethnomusicology and resonating with historical ‘white’ feminism’s own erasures of intersectional differences, belies a certain failure within its own historical workings.

The majority of musicology and critical theory that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century and that engaged with discourses of race, gender and sexuality has tended toward a focus either upon popular music or jazz and blues (Rose 1994; Gourse 1995; McRobbie 1995; Davis 1999; Carby 1999; McClary 2001; Moten 2003; Collins 2004).  Angela Y. Davis and Hazel V. Carby both identify the blues as historically productive sites for black female musics and sexual representations (Davis 1998; Carby 1999). In a manner that responds to critiques of the inherent masculinism in many writings about music and migration within Diasporan discourses, Carby examines the ways in which historical effects of  “migration had distinctively different meanings for black men and women” and where the songs of the classic blues women of the 1920s and 30s were “part of a discourse of sexual relations” in which “migration for women often meant being left behind” but which were also sites in which black women “constructed themselves as sexual subjects through song” (Carby 1999: 13; 1998: 471).  In an era that would eventually come to define a “politics of silence” around black female sexuality in response to negative racial stereotypes and representations of sexuality for black women, Evelynn M. Hammonds notes that women’s blues presented a particular moment when “the blues women defied and exploited those stereotypes” (Hammonds 1997: 176).


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