Classical 91.5

Musical Women of the Suffrage Movement

Feb 28, 2020

As we prepare to celebrate Women's History Month, our minds are on trailblazing women of the past and present. Last month we celebrated Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday and our own Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented concerts on the music of suffrage and Susan B. Anthony herself. As I explored this music, I was drawn to suffrage songs and the women who created and inspired them. Many of these composers changed the game for women in music, but they are not often remembered today. These songs were anthems for the women of their day, but they ring true for women seeking equality throughout generations.

Credit Portrait of Dame Ethyl Smyth by John Singer Sargent (1901)

1.  Dame Ethyl Mary Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer. She composed in many genres. Her most famous work is her song “The March of the Women.” This piece became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Suffragettes sang it at rallies all throughout the United Kingdom. Smyth composed various operas as well, and as a singer, I dove into them to see what more I could learn. Smyth was the first woman to have an opera produced at the Metropolitan Opera. Her opera Der Wald was a mystical fairytale in one act. It was also the last opera by a woman produced at the Met until 2016 when Kaija Saariaho premiered L’amour de Loin. Smyth also used "The March of the Women" as a theme in her opera The Boatswain’s Mate. This opera features a strong heroine who outsmarts her male counterparts and humorously forges her own path to love and marriage. Smyth's operas were met with praise but also a concern about whether or not they sounded "feminine" enough. She pressed on and her opera The Wreckers was one of the most admired English operas of its time. 

2. 

Amy Beach

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was the first American woman to premiere a symphony. She was a strong believer that female composers had just as much (if not more) to share than their male counterparts. Beach’s successful contributions to both society and music became an emblem for the women’s suffrage movement. When men of the time would explain why they believed women could not compose, Amy Beach rebutted them in the newspaper. She cited facts about the history of women in music. Her compositional works made her a symbol of the creative power of women, and many suffragettes used her as an example. 

3. Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was the sister of another composer, Nadia Boulanger. Nadia was famous for teaching many other famous composers, including Virgil Thomson (check out my blogpost about Thomson's "The Mother of Us All"). Lili Boulanger was used as an example of the prowess and power of women because in 1913 she became the first woman to ever win the Prix de Rome for composing. The winning piece, Faust et Hélènepulls on a specific moment in Goethe's retelling of Dr. Faust when Faust asks to see Helen of Troy while he signs his soul away. Lili's work is often overshadowed by that of her sister because Lili died at such a young age. Despite the social pressure at the time and her untimely death, Lili composed over 50 works during the years in which she was most active as a composer. Winning the Prix de Rome cracked a glass ceiling for female composers.  

4.   Eleanor Sophia Smith (1858-1942) was the founder of Hull-House Music School. She studied music in Germany and the United States. She composed many songs for the labor movement as well as the women’s suffrage movement. Furthermore, Smith was a member of the Chicago Woman's Club and the North Side Branch Equal Suffrage League. She was an advocate for music education and composed many pieces for children's music books in addition to her political songs. You can hear her songs, as organized by Graham Cassano and funded by a grant from the Oakland University Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice here

Mary Davenport-Engberg and her violin

5. Mary Davenport-Engberg (1880-1951) was not a composer, but she was a pioneer for music in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States of America. She was a conductor and violinist and is credited as one of the first American women to conduct a symphony orchestra. She studied violin in Germany and Denmark and later taught. She was the leader of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for three years, from 1921-1924. Fun fact: she was raised in my hometown of Spokane, Washington! 

6. 

Lillian Russell

Lillian Russell (1861-1922) was a comic opera singer, actress and political activist. She is also a featured character in Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All (which seems to be a theme of my time here at WXXI). At the time she was considered a pinnacle of American beauty. Russell publicly made statements about how the right to vote would not destroy a woman's femininity. She helped popularize the use of the bicycle for women. Her most famous roles were in the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operas, as well as parodies of these works that were popular at the time. Lillian Russell worked as a public figure for women's suffrage and was an icon of both beauty and female power during her lifetime. 

7. Emily Davison was not a professional musician, but I have chosen to include her because her life was quite theatrical. Additionally, Tim Benjamin recently composed an opera about her story. Emily Davison was a militant suffragette. She was an enthusiastic member of the Women's Social and Political Union. After being arrested for her protests, she performed a hunger strike while in prison. She sued the wardens for their treatment of her and won! In 1911 she died after throwing herself in front of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby. She was said to have been carrying a flag for women's suffrage, but her intent for running in front of the horse was unclear. Benjamin's opera tells Davison's story and uses extensive research into the letters Davison wrote in her life, giving a perspective into the actual thoughts of this suffragette.

Celebrate women's history month by celebrating women in music. Listen to the music of these suffragettes. Listen to the music of women who are writing and performing today.