Taking Women Seriously: a Podcast with Will Robin

I really enjoyed the conversation I had with Will Robin on his exciting new podcast, Sound Expertise. We talked about the history of spoken word and its forgotten performance practices, women’s roles in American music, and the problems with “rescuing” female composers. You can listen to the full episode here: https://soundexpertise.org/elocution-and-taking-women-seriously-with-marian-wilson-kimber/. Check out Will’s rapidly growing list of of fascinating guests talking about all kinds of music. The reviews have been enthusiastic! Here’s my favorite:

Grecian Urns in The Music Man

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Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn and her less-than-graceful entourage of “Grecian urns” are one of the delights of Meredith Willson’s musical, The Music Man. I’ve just discovered the article I wrote several years ago for Iowa Heritage Illustrated about the real Iowa women who tried Delsarte posing is available free online. It’s got great old photographs of real Iowans posing in their white gowns and explains that there were actually no urns involved! Check it out here: “Iowa’s Nymphs, Naiads, and Graces: Performing Delsarte for the Masses.

Miss [Jane?] Austen Plays Pleyel


Jane Austen

Discovering lost pieces of music in dusty archives is what most people think musicologists do. We only make the news if someone finds an unknown manuscript by a famous composer buried in a library. It’s true that the most rewarding part of my job is getting to hold centuries-old letters, scores, and concert programs in my hands and to imagine their earlier lives. But “dusty archives”? No, thanks to the Rita Benton Music Library’s digitization of rare scores, I made my biggest discovery on the internet: a volume of sonatas that may have belonged to the family of the novelist Jane Austen.

This story starts a few years back when George McTyre, a doctoral voice student, took me out for coffee. He had one more music history requirement, and he wanted me to offer an interesting class. By the time I’d finished my cappuccino, I’d agreed to teach “Music in the World of Jane Austen.” Designing the course was not exactly a challenge for me. I confess that I’m a “Janeite”—I’ve read all of Austen’s novels multiple times, have seen the movie adaptations, and own a plastic Austen action figure. I even have the voice of Mr. Darcy greeting callers on my cell phone.


Ignaz Pleyel (1758-1831)

In addition to being a writer, Austen was an amateur pianist who practiced every morning before breakfast. The music manuscripts she copied by hand survive, as do many published pieces that belonged to her and to other women in her family circle. These compositions became my class’s “textbook,” as students learned about music making in England during Austen’s lifetime. The Rita Benton Music Library owns many eighteenth-century scores similar to those the writer might have played. When we moved into the Voxman Music Building in 2016, I decided to offer a class based entirely on rare materials in the Library’s Arthur and Miriam Canter Rare Book Room. Featured prominently would be the extensive collection of historic scores by composer Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831). The compositions of Pleyel, a contemporary of Franz Joseph Haydn, were popular throughout Europe. Rita Benton was the leading scholar of his music, and the Music Library’s Pleyel collection is unparalleled.

Miss Austen

To whom did this volume of Sonatas belong?

naamloos copy

Elizabeth Bridges Austen Knight

Late one night I was perusing the virtual Pleyel scores available online through the Iowa Digital Library. I found a set of six sonatas bound in a volume labeled “Miss Austen.” I emailed librarian Katie Buehner and joked about my “discovery.” But then I looked more closely. Iowa’s sonatas have penciled-in fingerings that resemble the fingerings in another copy of Pleyel’s sonatas, this one owned by Jane Austen’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knight. Here things get a little complicated. Elizabeth was the wife of Edward Austen. Edward had been adopted by the wealthy Knights, and he later changed his own family’s name when he received his inheritance. Thus his wife was “Mrs. Austen” or “Mrs. Knight,” never “Miss Austen,” so it’s not clear that Iowa’s Pleyel sonatas could have belonged to her. Another possible owner of the sonatas is Elizabeth’s daughter, Fanny Austen, Jane’s favorite niece, who played the piano very well. Of course, one cannot help but wonder if the volume ever found its way to Jane’s sister, Miss Cassandra Austen or to Jane herself.

Fanny Austen

Fanny Austen Knight

I’ve explored the possibilities for the provenance of Iowa’s Pleyel Sonatas in an article for Fontes artis musicae, the journal of the International Association of Music Libraries. I wish I could say I have positive proof that an Austen performed from this particular score. Unfortunately, the complete origins of the “Miss Austen” volume remain a mystery. Still, we can imagine that while taking a break from working on Pride and Prejudice or Emma, Jane Austen enjoyed a rendition of a Pleyel Sonata performed by her talented niece or sat down at the pianoforte and played from the score herself.

Read more about it
Marian Wilson Kimber, “Miss Austen Plays Pleyel: An Additional Source for the Jane Austen Family Music Collection?Fontes Artis Musicae 67, no. 1 (January-March 2020): 1–17.

Pleyel’s Sonatas were “accompanied” with an optional violin part. Some editions had a cello part as well, as you can hear in this lively performance of the first Sonata, Benton 431.

For more information, see Kathryn Libin, “Daily Practice, Musical Accomplishment, and the Example of Jane Austen,” in Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (Lehigh University Press, 2013), and Jeanice Brooks and Samantha Carrasco, “A Chawton Family Album.” The Austen Family Music Books have been digitized by the University of South Hampton.


Waking up to ourselves: two presents for Eleanor Roosevelt

In Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence, there is a short story entitled “Eleanor for President.” It was sent to her in 1945 by an admirer, a Miss Harris from Defiance, Ohio. The carefully typed pages describe a pair of women sharing a coffee and cigarette break. Both of their husbands are away in the war, and Margie tries to console Mary, who is distraught that hers may not come back. Their conversation turns to a recent article by the First Lady urging women to enter government. “Do you think we will ever have a woman President?” asks Mary. Margie responds, “Sure we will someday. When women wake up to themselves.” Her choice for chief executive is, of course, Eleanor. She proclaims, “Do you think for one minute, F.D.R. would be where he is today, if it weren’t for her?”

ER Button

Wilkie campaign button

This little story strikes me as unusual. Although Roosevelt’s correspondence is full of admiring letters from women across America, her public activities were often controversial, including the numerous political stances she took that differed from her husband’s. When Wendell Wilkie ran against FDR in 1940, his campaign had buttons that read “We don’t want Eleanor either.” My own grandfather was known to refer to Roosevelt disparagingly, as “THAT woman!” In spite of Margie’s optimism, the author of the tale recognizes what bold statements her fictional character has made, adding, “She sure had been laying it on the line.” Eleanor herself had suggested that a woman president was unlikely in a column she wrote for Cosmopolitan in 1935. Over seven decades later, there are multiple women running in hopes of winning the 2020 election, yet America has still not had a female president, not even another controversial First Lady.


Theodore Bilbo, Mississippi Senator

The next item in Mrs. Roosevelt’s correspondence, filed immediately after the story, is a handwritten song entitled “The Bilbo Bill,” sent by a man from Washington, D.C. The song supports the 1939 bill by Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo to have African Americans removed to Liberia. Although Bilbo associated with African American activists who supported similar ideas, he was a member of the KKK, and his ultimate goal was to create a white America. The song’s chorus reflects the Senator’s ideology:

Black will be Black—White will be White
But that don’t mean that they must fight.
The U.S.A. is not the place
In which to breed a mongrel race.

The music, which resembles a Stephen Foster minstrel tune, by is marked “With pep (Hill-billy style).” The songwriter was undoubtedly an amateur, as his lyrics are overly repetitive—the word “mongrel” appears three times. They are in no way as clever as those for the song “Listen, Mr. Bilbo,” written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946 (sung here by Pete Seeger), critiquing the Senator’s nativist stance:

Yes, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews;
If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.
You don’t like Poles, Italians, Catholics, too;
Is it any wonder, Bilbo, that we don’t like you!

Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history
Listen while I tell you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.

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Eleanor Roosevelt with Marian Anderson

No letter survives to explain why “The Bilbo Bill” was sent to Eleanor, who was known for her egalitarian ideals and had joined the NAACP in 1934. For musicians, the most famous example of Roosevelt’s putting her beliefs into practice was her resignation from the DAR when it denied its concert hall to renowned soprano Marian Anderson. Bilbo had backed the New Deal, but he was publicly critical of Eleanor. Around the time the song was written he suggested that she be sent to Liberia to be the leader of the African Americans he wanted to deport. Perhaps the song’s composer merely wanted to rub this in the First Lady’s face. Later, when Harry Truman nominated Roosevelt for the United Nations, Bilbo cast the only vote opposing her. After accusations that Bilbo had prevented African Americans from voting when he was reelected in 1946, the Senate refused to seat him, but he died before the matter was resolved.

While it’s tempting to portray the story proposing female political equality as on the right side of history and the bigoted song on the wrong, this would be an oversimplification. “Eleanor for President” has a third character, Julie, Margie’s African American servant. Julie is also excited by the prospect of having Eleanor as president, yet she is described with mammy stereotyping: “big black eyes popping out of her fat round face” and “big fat body wobbling back and forth as she walked.” Margie—or her creator—looks for change in the White House, but doesn’t recognize the need for it in her own fictional kitchen.

“The Bilbo Bill” may seem even farther away from 2019 than the smoking WWII wives, yet both offerings to Roosevelt reflect the white supremacist rhetoric ingrained in American culture, rhetoric which has been resurgent in the “send her back” chants. Eleanor told a friend that she believed that with sufficient power, Bilbo could be similar to the Nazis who created concentration camps.  She did not underestimate how dangerous a flamboyantly racist politician might be.


Not Distinguished Enough


Stairs I once climbed

Last year the chair at my undergraduate institution emailed to tell me I had been nominated for “distinguished alum.”  He requested my CV and asked if I was free on a particular date.  It has been decades since I’ve visited my former campus, so I began to envision what a trip back might be like.  After I said I was available, he wrote again to say, “Sorry, you weren’t chosen.”  So I’m not distinguished enough?  Well, okay.

I got a good education at the former women’s college that grew into a state university.  I remember those years as a period of guzzling down repertoire as fast as I could.  My friends and I would bury ourselves in the basement library, perched before turntables in a long, windowless room.  We listened as the records spun, handing off the gigantic padded headphones to each another when we heard sounds we wanted to share.  But I also came away from this education with a tremendous sense of failure and a huge amount of anger.  My major was composition.  I had written some music that had won small prizes in high school.  In college I was the only woman composer in the program.  In retrospect, I don’t think I fully understood the gender dynamics involved in my slow decline into being unable to write another note, culminating in my change to a music theory BA so that I could quickly graduate.  I was certainly no compositional wunderkind, and I don’t want to paint yet another story of a tragically repressed female composer.  Most of my professors seemed genuinely to want me to succeed.  I can’t recount many specific events that would clearly demonstrate discrimination.  I do recall taking two classes taught the same semester by my composition teacher: counterpoint and twentieth-century music.  After the two midterm exams, he passed me in the hallway and told me I had made “As” on both, adding “bitch.”

I am happy as a musicologist.  I do not mourn the composition career I did not have.  But I suspect my mission to research women’s musical lives must have come in part from the way my undergraduate experience played out.  As I think back, would it have helped me if any of the music my composition teacher recommended had been by women, or if I had studied women composers in my courses, or if works I played in the orchestra had been by women?  I believe yes.  I search my memory to think if I knew any pieces by women then.  I owned a recording of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet and an LP set of women composers’ pieces that I didn’t listen to, probably because they were not particularly well played.  I did encounter two living female composers.  Pauline Oliveros made a brief visit, but her musical meditations seemed as if they came from a completely different world, not the one I was trying to fit into.  When I met Marga Richter at music camp, she advised me to marry a man who would wash his own socks.  This was advice I eventually took, but long after I had abandoned composing.

It has been forty years since I was a freshman, and much has changed.  The photos of the composers now enrolled at my undergrad school include women.  A soprano voice narrates the video that describes the program’s “energetic and supportive community.”  But that the world of classical music is still dominated by concert after concert of music by men bothers me now more than ever.  Do I tell my colleagues that the recital they practiced for months and played beautifully causes me to rage silently?  That my school’s stunning concert halls are filled with sounds that say to half the population, “your voices are not welcome”?  When I try to describe the situation in music to professors in other disciplines, they refer to the culture wars almost nostalgically, as something long past.  It would be difficult to graduate from an English department without ever reading a novel by a woman, but many music majors never perform women’s music.

The chair at my alma mater recently turned up as an applicant to head the music school where I now work.  An affable fellow, he acknowledged some faculty members’ concerns about diversity, but assured us simply that we should be striving for excellence.  I was incredulous when he suggested there aren’t any issues with the canon or, as one of my students paraphrased, “the repertoire is not the problem.”  I wonder how the young composition students under his charge would feel about his comments.  Noncanonic music—the realm where women’s music still resides—is apparently not distinguished enough.

The Women Who Do the Work

Pen Women

National League of American Pen Women Executive Board, 1934

My article, “Women Composers at the White House: The National League of American Pen Women and Phyllis Fergus’s Advocacy for Women in American Music,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music.  It describes how Fergus, a Chicago composer, came to organize concerts of music by women in the East Room of the White House in 1934 and 1936, events that were attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  My original interest in Fergus stemmed from her creation of comic spoken-word compositions in the teens and twenties.  Her career and music are covered in my book, The Elocutionists, and I’ve enjoyed performing her clever pieces.  When I initially contacted Fergus’s daughters about their mother years ago, I had no idea that she had also played a national role in promoting women’s music.  Fergus was certainly capable of self-promotion, but like many women who work for others, her efforts have not been recognized.

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Phyllis Fergus in JSAM

During my first visit, Fergus’s daughters brought out laundry baskets of their mother’s music and four remarkable scrapbooks for me to see.  One scrapbook documented a women composers’ concert Fergus organized in Chicago in 1933 during the Century of Progress World’s Fair—complete with detailed receipts for hiring the Women’s Symphony Orchestra and for the coffee, frappé, and punch she ordered for the reception.  Another book contained news clippings about the first concert at the White House and Fergus’s promotion of composer Amy Beach.  Almost a decade later, after acquiring materials from a dozen or so archives, I’ve been able to piece together the story of Fergus and other women, working together as part of the National League of American Pen Women to support women’s music.

Copthorne badges copy

Frances Copthorne’s NLAPW badges, Sibley Library, Eastman School of Music

Along the way, I’ve seen bits and pieces of women’s history that mostly don’t make it into the books: not only Fergus’s receipts, but Pen Women’s souvenirs, such as the delegate pins of Frances Copthorne. Copthorne was not internationally known like Beach, but a composer whose music was nonetheless heard at the White House.  The current Pen Women’s president graciously allowed me to stay in Pen Arts, their Victorian headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to explore their archives, which literally meant going through their closets. I also got to dive into the voluminous correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Library, where it was virtually impossible not to be star-struck by one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century.


Eleanor Roosevelt, Malvina Scheider, and Edith Helm

In the archival folders at Hyde Park, Mrs. Roosevelt’s correspondence is organized from the bottom up: first a letter, inevitably asking her to appear, speak, donate, or write.  Sometimes a few words as to the appropriate response are scrawled by the First Lady on the letter.  The top layer is always the carbon copy of the reply that was sent by Mrs. Roosevelt’s staff, most often Malvina (“Tommy”) Scheider or Edith Helm. I came to have deep respect for these women and their unerringly typed, unfailingly polite and respectful responses, perfect every time, like haiku (“Mrs. Roosevelt thanks you for your. . . ,” “Mrs. Roosevelt regrets she is unable to. . .”).  Thousands upon thousands of these little letters fill box after box, writing back to the American people.  When the Pen Women asked the First Lady, who became a member due to her role as an author and newspaper columnist, to write an article for them about “how she does it,” her eventual response stressed that she didn’t “do it all”—she had a staff.

Perhaps it’s easy, when we write histories of “great women,” to forget how much activity by others had to surround them in order to make their achievements happen. Malvina Scheider, who I cannot envision apart from her typewriter, is overshadowed by Eleanor Roosevelt, her brief typed missives individually insignificant, but collectively powerful. Phyllis Fergus is unknown compared to Amy Beach, who was the “star” of both White House concerts.  My article not only tries to recover Fergus’s work for the historical record, but that of the other Pen Women who made it possible for large numbers of women composers to hear their music.




The Normal Woman Composer


Amy Beach’s two most popular songs were recorded in 1911.

The narrative we tell about historical women composers is often one of recovery. Fanny Hensel is perfect for this—she only began to publish her music in her forties, then died young, so most of her output remained unavailable until the past few decades.  Recently the music of African American composer Florence Price, some of whose manuscripts were found in an attic, has begun to receive well publicized and sometimes premiere performances.  For International Women’s Day in 2018, the BBC ran a program highlighting the works of five women composers, playing up the “and their works have been hidden in archives for centuries” angle.  We like our women composers to be “recovered” and to “break barriers”: the first woman to publish her madrigals, to write an opera, the first American woman to write a symphony, the first female winners of a Guggenheim or a Pulitzer.  And we think somehow that if enough historic women are “rediscovered,” composers can break the canonic glass ceiling, overcome the obstacles to getting their music programmed, and that women’s secondary status in the concert hall will change.


Harmonic Club Program (1907), State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City

I’ve spent the last couple of years researching American women’s clubs involved in music.  This summer I’ve enjoyed digging into the history of music clubs in my own state, Iowa. When I look at concert programs from a century ago what I notice is how many of them regularly feature women’s compositions.  Take, for example, the Harmonic Club of Clinton, Iowa, which began in 1903 and lasted until 1945.  Clinton was a transportation hub located on both the Mississippi River and railroad lines. It had about 23 thousand residents at the turn of the century, which was good-sized for a rural state. The Harmonic Club contained many local musicians, both men and women. I’ve seen Club programs from between 1907 and 1941 that contain music by women composers. There were entire programs dedicated to women, but these were written in up in the local press just as all the other programs were: the evenings of Beethoven, Mozart, or Mendelssohn, or the concerts of American music.  Two major organizations encouraged clubs to study women composers, both the National Federation of Music Clubs and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.  But I don’t get the sense that the Harmonic Club was dutifully programming women purely due to these initiatives, as they performed women composers’ music frequently.  Amy Beach, Guy d’Hardelot, Liza Lehman, Mary Turner Salter, Clara Kathleen Rogers, Harriet Ware, and Margaret Lang were likely to turn up, even on concerts with no stated theme; Cécile Chaminade figures more heavily in a French composers concert than she does in those dedicated to women.


Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s A Perfect Day (1910)

It strikes me that no one was making a big deal about how they were helping these women to break boundaries.  In 1931, Mrs. Joseph Cahill gave the introductory report to the Club’s women composers program, commenting on women’s musical activity, which was “encouraged hesitatingly more than 200 years ago, but is now well patterned with creative effort.”  In other words, in Clinton, Iowa, by the early twentieth century women composers were completely normal.  When a chamber group from the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra appeared in Clinton in 1910, the soprano sang a Lied by Clara Schumann. The chapter of another women’s organization, the National League of American Pen Women, in Knoxville, Tennessee, programmed their members’ music for twenty years, beginning in the 1920s, performing the music of some seventy women.  If you’d picked up a copy of Better Homes and Gardens in December 1925, you could have read how Amy Beach’s song, “The Year’s at the Spring” was a “best-seller.”  Or you if saw the movie, Remember the Night when it came out in 1940, you’d discover that “everybody” could sing Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s “A Perfect Day.”

Yet here we are, recovering the women composers again, in spite of the fact that most of them have been here all along.  I’m not underestimating the very real obstacles that women have faced, both in the past and today, and I’m grateful for genuine musicological “finds,” for Hensel’s Das Jahr and Price’s Piano Concerto.  But I wonder if the way we shape the recovery narrative actually does more to hurt than to help.  In heroically and repeatedly solving the problem by letting women in, we reinforce their outsider status, and there they stay, waiting for us to let them in again.  The Clinton Harmonic Club should remind us that the problem is not that women composers were lost to history.  If they aren’t getting performed now, the problem is us.

What The Music Man Got Wrong


I’m delighted to have been interviewed by Iowa Public Radio’s Barney Sherman about my book, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word (University of Illinois Press, 2017).  The interview is entitled “What The Music Man Got Wrong: Iowa Author Uncovers Forgotten Cultural Legacy of Women.”  [Go ahead and click on the link, if you really want to know what Meredith Willson got wrong. Or if you want to see more “Grecian urn” ladies my article in Iowa Illustrated Heritage about them is also online.) Although my book treats the intersections of music and elocution across America, there’s a lot of my state, Iowa, in it.  Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn’s less-than-graceful “Grecian Urn” ladies were based on real Iowa women, and the chapter about Delsarte posing and The Music Man particularly fascinated Barney.  Our conversation also explores women’s lost arts and the wider lack of historical knowledge about women’s crucial role in creating American musical culture.  I hope you’ll check Barney’s interview out.  If you’d like to hear a longer interview, musicologist Kristen Turner spoke with me about The Elocutionists for New Books Network back in in March.

[Above: Students at Upper Iowa University in Delsarte poses, 1919. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa]

Ordinary Women


In 1926, the Tama Philharmonic Society published a little green flier announcing their upcoming season.  The Society’s goals were ambitious: nine concerts of eighty-two works, including an oratorio and a cantata, by twelve composers, all but one of whom were living.  The composers listed were both men and women.  All were from Iowa.  For in spite of its name, the Philharmonic wasn’t an orchestra, but a club of twenty-nine women who lived in a town of 2600 people, contributing to its cultural life.


Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City

Historical narratives about women in music often take one of two shapes: on the one hand, tales of women with outstanding musical abilities prevented by contemporary gender restrictions from having the kinds of careers they deserved.  On the other hand are stories of female musicians who achieved great things, only to be omitted from the historical record and forgotten.  Music history is plagued by its obsession with the individual agency of composers and virtuosos, and even when we turn our pens towards the structures that helped support arts careers, it is easy to get caught up in the biographies of impresarios or patrons (Serge Diaghilev or Isabella Stewart Gardner).

Women’s music clubs like the Tama Philharmonic Society had a major impact on American musical life.  This is not a story that is widely known, because it is much harder to write about women in groups.  The labor of digging through countless yearly member directories small enough to fit in your pocket can feel unrewarding.  Even with their perfectly-trained, elegant scripts in fading brown ink, secretaries’ books of monthly minutes quickly blur into numbing clouds of motions about projects and scholarships.  Karen Blair’s The Torchbearers: Women and Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930 (1994), does an excellent job of explaining the nationalistic arts agendas of Progressive-era clubwomen (I suspect her book isn’t more widely known because it’s classified under “art” rather than “music” in most libraries).  But the problem remains—Fanny Mendelssohn or Adelina Patti or Jeanette Thurber have a historical visibility that the Music Division of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs does not.

Alice Brice

Alice Brice (1880-1970)

With the generous assistance of a grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa, I am researching the ordinary women of Tama, who are slowly starting to come into focus for me.  Alice Brice’s mother, Nettie Bracken, was probably the first music teacher in town, trudging on foot to teach forty students piano and voice, no small feat during a bitter Iowa winter.  Alice grew up to be a music teacher as well, serving as the organist for the Methodist Church for twenty-five years and conducting a Messiah with 42 participants in 1923.  Only a few of the Philharmonic’s women studied music at college or at a conservatory, but several came from musical families.  It was known that for Mrs. Ben Jones’s family, music was “one of the main avocations.”  Several of the women were Methodists and sang in the church choir.  Two Philharmonic members, Vera Wonser Tims and Ella Wonser Beal, were sisters, and five members had a sister-in-law in the group.

Few of my colleagues or students could name an Iowa composer from 1926, the year that this group of friends and relatives decided to perform the contemporary music of their state.  The following year, the Apollo Club of Greene, Iowa (population ca. 1300), put on a similar series, as did other women’s music clubs.  These musicians from small towns in Iowa were not, and will never be, famous.  Yet they nonetheless changed the American musical landscape.

Dame Fashion and the Aging Female Performer

She looks at your dress, and she says, “It won’t do!”
—Frieda Peycke, Dame Fashion

 When I took up reciting the pieces by women composers that I have written about in The Elocutionists, I had no idea if the experiment would be successful. Yet my pianist and I have recently given three recitals and have another next month. Because of the usual nature of our performance—comic poetry spoken to musical accompaniment—I typically take questions afterwards. People ask me how the spoken part is notated or how I decide on my gestures and expressions. They never ask about the hardest part of my suddenly having become a performer: figuring out what to wear.

I’m quite at ease in the attire of a fifty-something college professor. My closet is dominated by black skirts, and I have a drawer full of cardigans in subdued tones. If I’m giving a paper, I whip out a blazer. I believe, almost religiously, in comfortable shoes. I do not own a cute cocktail dress or anything with sequins. However, I know that the women whose compositions I am reviving took care with their attire: Frieda Peycke “set” her hair before a performance, and Phyllis Fergus had a pulley system in her closet that lifted her elegant gowns off the floor. The conventions of classical concerts have not changed since their era. They require that I, too, transform myself into some sort of a diva.

Given the numerical heights involved in both my age and the inches of my waistline, this is much harder than it sounds. For my first recital, I resorted to a navy suit more appropriate to the boardroom than the concert hall. My subsequent search for more suitable attire has been frustrating. I could have bought a stack of dresses with the postage I’ve spent returning multiple failed possibilities.


The “Erotica” Trio (ca. 2009)

But what kinds of role models do I have for what I do? The closest performer to a speaker transmitting text with piano is a singer (about as different a creature from a person who is happiest rummaging in archives as one can get). Wearing spectacular gowns, sometimes more than one per recital, is what singers learn at diva school. Yet instrumentalists’ attire can be equally frightening. I’ve sat through many concerts worrying about the violinist’s strapless gown, which is not unlike the kind of thrill you get watching circus acrobats—constantly wondering, will it fall? Though my violist husband complains about his uncomfortable tuxedo, he would rebel if he was required to bare large parts of his body at work. There seems to be no way to be a female soloist without having to emphasize your sexuality. Although the most extreme version is pianist Yuja Wang, entire ensembles have succumbed: the Ahn Trio, playing in skimpy skirts and body glitter, and the Eroica Trio (which my husband dubbed the “Erotica Trio”) who must spend as much time at the gym as they do in rehearsal. In contrast, the fancy dresses that keep my audience safe from seeing any more of me than necessary make me look like the “mother of the bride,” whose job it is to sit quietly and dab away tears, not deliver satirical punch lines.


Mother of the Bride

Maybe that’s the real problem. The lack of appropriate performance attire for my demographic reflects the cultural norm that older women should be neither seen nor heard. Usually by my age, female singers have retired or are giving farewell tours to nostalgic fans. Google “aging actress” and you’ll come up with women almost young enough to be my daughter. Same for another possible way of identifying my new role: how many female comedians over fifty have you heard recently? The voices of older women are considered irritating (remember the critiques of the sound of Hilary Clinton?), and they certainly aren’t supposed to be funny. Because humor is a form of power.

My simple, blue velvety dress topped off with a sparkly necklace is probably the equivalent of what Joyce DiDonato wears when she washes her car, but it nonetheless drew some surprised looks from scholars at the Society for American Music when I stepped off the elevator before my performance there in March. It also generated a few compliments, not surprisingly from women in my age group. I’m now looking for a dress I can recite in this June. In the meantime, I think about Frieda Peycke, who could still hold an audience spellbound with the sound of her voice at the age of seventy-five. And my rendition of the piece by Peycke that opens my program and complains that we are slaves to “Dame Fashion” is more convincing than ever.