Female Instrumental Musicians in America

     When we are asked to name important figures in music history, what are some names that immediately come to mind? Composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, the list goes on. What about those who perform their music? Instrumentalists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Art Rubenstein, Wynton Marsalis, to name a few. Now the question is, what do these lists of musicians and performers lack? Women.

     Musicologists only began to recover the history of women in music during the 1970s. Women who played orchestral instruments were met with the greatest of resistance for a long time. They were initially widely accepted as vocal performers because they were irreplaceable, but public instrumental performance remained problematic for years. At first, only certain instruments were considered “acceptable” for women, including keyboard, guitar, and harp. These instruments were seen as “ladylike” because their sounds appeared delicate and soft, just as a lady was supposed to be. Once piano was considered to a be a soloist instrument, violin became popular. This opened the door for other stringed instruments except the cello, for it was considered too “physical” because it has to be held between the legs. During the 1860s, the endpin became a standard accessory for cello, making it more suitable for women to play “side-saddle”. Flute was the only blown instrument considered socially acceptable for a long time, mostly because there was no facial contortion necessary. In other words, they would still look “pretty” while performing.


Notice the title of this magazine article

Women responded to exclusion from orchestras by forming their own all-female organizations. Many had gaps in instrumentation, but if no woman was available to play a certain instrument, a man dressed in a woman’s clothes would fill the spot. Ironically, popularity of these orchestras rose because they were “odd” and women were seen playing “masculine” instruments. There are many reasons why men thought women couldn’t play these instruments: they were “unladylike”, it could ruin their looks, they weren’t strong enough to manage them, they didn’t have enough lip or lung power, or they wouldn’t be able to endure long rehearsals or touring schedules. Ultimately, any instrument was alright, but appearance would determine their amount of success. The greatest compliment a woman could receive during these times was that she played “like a man”. However, women have won more spots through a process called blind auditions, proving that gender has nothing to do with how well one plays an instrument.


One of the first all-female orchestras, Women’s Fadette Orchestra of Boston, founded in 1888 by Caroline B. Nichols.

-Kathryn Andrade


Vincent Duckles, et al. “Musicology.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/46710pg2

Hinely, Mary Brown. “The Uphill Climb of Women in American Music: Performers and Teachers.” Music Educators Journal 70, no. 8 (1984): 31-35. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/3400871.

Macleod, Beth Abelson. “”Whence Comes the Lady Tympanist?” Gender and Instrumental Musicians in America, 1853-1990.” Journal of Social History 27, no. 2 (1993): 291-308. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/3788304.

Judith Tick, et al. “Women in music.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/52554.



4 thoughts on “Female Instrumental Musicians in America

  1. ntblack1992 says:

    This is very cool because it’s something that’s not often brought up for discussion. I’ve always wondered why there aren’t many women conductors…do you know of any working today?

    Liked by 1 person

    • keandrade says:

      Women have encountered even more resistance in the performing world when it comes to conducting. The creation of the all-women orchestras was really the only place women could get opportunities to conduct and perform literature. “She could play in an orchestra or conduct, but it was best if it only consisted of women”. One of the more famous women conductors today is Alondra de la Parra of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. I think she has gained popularity through social media, just because of the fact that she’s a woman conductor.


  2. sandiarivera says:

    Thanks for sharing this article – It is surprising how women were not in the picture for the longest time! I wonder how many women composers have been since the renaissance! -Why does our canon decided not to include women in music studies?


  3. clvillarreal2 says:

    Sandra! I was thinking similar things. Why wouldn’t our cannon consist of women composers. I can’t help but think or at least believe it’s just the realm of which our canon comes from. It comes from the past when women weren’t allowed to do much of anything. I can’t help but think about women composers of today and while I can’t think of any off the top of my head, I think about church music. There are a lot of Church music composers that are women today and now they’re seen as having wisdom and the stories of how they compose are just amazing. So maybe, our canon doesn’t have women because they haven’t “made it big” yet.


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