Where Have All the Women Gone?

By Juliana Jiménez

There are few women musicians whose talent supersedes their looks. There are lots of singers, but it’s usually looks > talent, at least as far as society is concerned: Lady GagaBritney SpearsJessica Simpson, Madonna, etc. Even when they do have talent, their looks are highlighted a lot more than for male singers.

But full bands full of musical talent and creative genius? full of women? Not very likely. Can you think of one out of the top of your head? They don’t even have to be too good and/or successful. Or, think musical genius. Does a woman come to mind?

Umoja Orchestra, a Gainesville, Fla. band. Band handout.
Umoja Orchestra, a Gainesville, Fla. band. Band handout.

There’s a pattern here too. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with singing, but what about musicians who play instruments or compose? Why are there so few women bass players, drummers, trumpet players, sax players, lead guitarists? Why are some genres more accessible to women, like pop and indie rock, and others are not, like rap, salsa, metal or jazz (or punk, or vallenato, or classical, or ska, or reggae, or you-get-my-point)?

When it comes to solo musicians, there are exceptions, of course. The history of human civilization is rather long and male hegemony is not that complete, so a few, historically very recently, have squeezed through. Black-Haired Shakira (regardless of whether you like her or not, she writes her own music, plays guitar, harmonica, drums, sings, dances and writes her own lyrics–which are breathtaking in the first two CDs); Esperanza Spalding, jazz prodigy bassist, vocalist, band leader and composer; Edith Piaf, and Celia Cruz (no explanation needed), composer, producer and pianist Yoko Kanno, to name just a few.

Examples of all-male bands are too numerous to even attempt to start, but bands with one or two female members, that I am somewhat familiarized with, are for example, Bio Ritmo (salsa, Richmond, Va.), Monsieur Perine (jazz/pop, Bogotá, Colombia), Ekobios (salsa, Gainesville, Fla.), Umoja Orchestra (afrobeat/Latin/jazz, Gainesville, Fla.) where women usually sing and/or play auxiliary percussion instruments (which can be important, depending on the music genre. And in Bio Ritmo, the woman plays the piano and she is extremely talented). The women that I know in these bands are very talented, and I feel their musicality could go to greater depths –so obviously, this is in no way is trying to be disrespectful to the members of these bands, female or male– this is simply pointing out the current state of affairs, to question whether they are optimal and what can be improved about them.

I had this conversation with a male multi-instrumentalist/composer who is in a band of +/- 12 men and +/- 1 woman (singer). It went like this:

Me: “Why are there so few women musicians in bands?”

Him: “Because they don’t take the initiative.”

Me: “True. Why?”

Him: “Because they don’t care, they’re not interested.”

How true is this? And if it’s true, why aren’t they interested? Is it something inherent in women? Is it genetic, hormonal? In a sweep of collective generalization, what are they doing that they’re not out there making music? Cooking and having babies? 

Him: “Yes.”

This could be a possibility. Household chores and motherhood have kept women out of the workplace for many, many years, so the same could apply to activities that require a lot of dedication and time, like music. Then I am reminded that not everything has to do with feminism, not everything shitty that happens to women is a result of an unfair power imbalance. Yes, one should consider all possibilities. Maybe they’re uninterested, apathetic. Maybe they just don’t like making music that much. Maybe they have better, more important things to do, like being state leaders, philosophers, engineers. Oh, wait.

Another possibility he points out is that maybe testosterone is needed to be able to play something like drums, (just like you need testosterone to play football, he says, and you don’t need it for ballet. For ballet you need flexibility, which women have more of, and that’s why each has its due gender distributions).

Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding. Wikipedia.

If that’s true, first, we would have to assume that women either a) have no natural inclination for music, or b) they like it, but they are incapable of reaching the level of skill necessary to start or be in a band, or c) they like it, they can have skill, but they lack the necessary level of creativity to lead and create music, not just consume it. You can also see this reflected in a lot of lyrics, ancient and contemporary, which present the scenario of women as audience and men as “creators” (religious pun intended).

Here we can go back to music prodigies like Esperanza Spalding and Shakira, who prove it’s not inherent in womanhood to lack musicality.

So if it’s not genes or hormones — in other words, nature — then it must be nurture. This is about being active vs. passive, about feeling the confidence to create, to contribute to society something that is strong and beautiful and worthwhile, like music can be. This is part of what holds back many women to this day, when it’s not prohibited by law for them to do certain things, but they are still “not interested”.

But before we understand why this happens, lets look at what this musical status quo means, for men, for women, and for humanity as a whole.

More on that on the next post.

11 thoughts on “Where Have All the Women Gone?

  1. Edith Piaf had a wonderful voice. Shakira is AMAZING (and she’s absolutely gorgeous to boot!) I must admit, love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is more than just her looks–it’s just that people get hung up on them.

    I agree that there should be more women instrumentalists/composers. Maybe schools should promote band more, that it’s not “nerdy.” I was a clarinetist, and my band class was rad :P

  2. Lets socially engineer women to become musicians. It seems an extremely small percentage of women (feminists) are the ones who decide how a woman should lead her life. Not enough women in heavy metal bands? Learn the guitar and listen to Slayer. Want to advance your career? Don’t get married and have an abortion. Want a college education? Become a scientist because they’re aren’t enough women in those fields It really doesn’t matter what you want to study. Not enough female athletes? Join sports team. Not enough female gamers? Buy an X-Box, regardless if you enough it. Not enough women contributing to Wikipedia? Drop what your doing and start researching. You see, it doesn’t matter what women want, it only matters to the people who preach equal rights but want equal outcomes.

  3. This topic deserves a serious academic-level study. Thanks for starting the conversation. I’m glad Feministing decided to highlight this article, because you ask a bunch of great questions, as well as provide a strong personal insight into the discussion.

    Many of us that primarily listen to music that is based upon an “indie” distribution model (as in, we discover it within an “underground” context, rather than by commercial Top-40 radio or MTV) like to take pride in the fact that our music is made by “musicians”, not “models that happen to be musicians”, like “mainstream pop music”, as we say.

    We often cast our scorn upon shows like American Idol for their heavy prioritization of vocalists over the people that write the music, play instruments or utilize software to craft songs (yes, electronic music is “real music”, don’t let musical-conservatives tell you any different). We criticize this laser-focus on the attractiveness and marketability of a singer – especially when they are women – over their level of talent and creativity. And our criticisms are accurate.

    Yet, we sit idle as the “indie” side of music lurches towards the same idiom.

    In an interview with either Spin or Rolling Stone about a decade ago, Fiona Apple asked the writer, “Would you even care about me if I cut off all of my hair and had a different eye color?”

    Take a look at any list of top indie bands or performers. Now identify the women that are either solo acts or members of these bands as singer or instrumentalist. Notice how nearly all of them would be considered – even by producers of American Idol – as “conventionally” attractive.

    Then do the same for the male performers, and notice how the ratio is far lower.

    How does one ask this question without giving the impression that they are claiming that the prominent women within indie rock are undeserving, since they are attractive? I have no intention to do that. Hell, many of these women are just as – if not more – groundbreaking and innovative than the men, with songs that are just plain undeniable. Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Lykke Li, Bat for Lashes, Meg White, Santy White (Santigold), Shingai Shoniwa (Noisettes), Neko Case, Terri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes), and Alison Mosshart (the Kills) are all awesome, and I could care less they all happen to be beautiful (in addition to ridiculously-talented) women musicians and songwriters.

    But I do wonder if there is a massive universe of other women out there that are adding to the great canon of music, yet may never cross my musical path because indie methods of distribution (blogs, review websites, festivals) are not giving them the exposure they’d get if they had the more attractive look.

    And perhaps, this lack of exposure is convincing many of these women to not bother at all with seeking a career in music. So we could be missing out on an epochal array of songs.

    I noticed that most of the indie music infrastructure, particularly the labels and blogs, display a similar gender diversity (or lack thereof) as the system within the mainstream that we so strongly lampoon.

    If so, where are the women and LGBT-curated record labels and music blogs? What needs to be done to assure that we allies are not closing ourselves (and our readers) off from the potential multitudes of great music out there that isn’t being promoted?

  4. It’s interesting that you’re focusing on pop music, and I don’t know why it is that the realm of pop music has a far greater concentration of men than women, but take a look at classical, or “art” music. European classical, Indian, or Chinese, to name a few. In all of these forms of music, you will find plenty of highly trained, highly talented female musicians. Just an observation.

    1. Thanks for the comment! : )
      You’re right about the vast amounts of Chinese women studiously playing the piano or violin or cello. I also see them practicing by themselves for hours depending on memorization, not really on jamming, collaborating and creating with other musicians. In regards to the pop, where I actually see a greater concentration of men is in everything but pop music. Since pop music tends to center on the lead singer (who is usually all auto-tuned out anyway) and on the presence, the theatrics, the hype, the sex-symbol, etc, women don’t have a problem in that field. If you think of bands where skill and creativity are valued more, you will see more men. That’s why I talked about salsa, jazz, rap, metal, merengue, afro-cuban. I don’t know that many women who play saxophone or the congas, for example. I think there are tons of women in pop… usually not the best place to look for quality, or highly skilled musicians. As far as European classical I can mention quite a few Mozarts, Beethovens, Handels, Mendels, Rachmaninoffs, Stravinskys, etc., etc., and very far down the list you’ll find a woman. Here is a link to a great NPR story on women in jazz. Though they highlight many very skilled and creative women, they are virtually unknown. That’s a huge part of the problem also.

  5. While ‘good looks over talent’ certainly affects men in the music industry, I think it’s particularly harsh on women. You see it everywhere…female athletes don’t get press unless they are gorgeous as well, even writers have trouble finding the limelight if their dust jacket covers don’t feature appealing headshots. At the heart of it, female musicians have that much farther to climb to be taken seriously not just as sex symbols, but as competent professionals. Look at the legacy of session bassist Carol Kaye, trumpeter Laurie Frink, Bjork, Meshell Ndegeocello, Kim Gordon. Here you find women that spoke with their talent, and eventually won over the superficial tendencies of male and female audiences.

    Thanks for the piece, and re-opening a worthwhile discussion.

    1. Hi Jesse, I hadn’t seen your comment! It’s crazy how hard it is to find these talented musicians. Thanks for the suggestions, I will definitely check them out.
      It’s a vicious cycle too: since girls don’t see these role models, they think talented women musicians don’t exist, that that doesn’t happen. But what they do see is that the women who get the attention are the ones being “sexy”, being beautiful, showing their bodies, and they think that’s what they should do as well. They feel it’s not expected of them to be talented, just to sit there and be beautiful. That is very hard to shake off.
      It’s interesting what you say about writers, that’s something that Tina Fey was making a statement about in her book jacket
      Thanks for posting, and for contributing to solving this problem in the best possible way I could think of, teaching girls. Awesome!

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