By Jennifer Bain
As I pass the baton to Judy Lochhead who has just taken over as Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women, I offer a reflection on the Society for Music Theory’s 40th anniversary meeting.
The Society’s 40th anniversary was also the Committee on the Status of Women’s 30th anniversary. While the Committee and the Society still have much work to do to achieve gender equity in SMT, we do have many things to celebrate. As I said in my report at the business meeting in Arlington, VA, in the last year:
…we have celebrated the achievements of women theorists including Cristle Collins Judd, new president of Sarah Lawrence College, and Brenda Ravenscroft, new Dean of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, as well as of 2016 award recipients, Ruth DeFord (Hunter College), winner of last year’s Wallace Berry Award, Catherine Losada (College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati), winner of last year’s Outstanding Publication Award, and this year’s inaugural winner of the SMT-40 dissertation fellowship, Kristen Wallentinsen (University of Western Ontario).
By the end of this year’s business meeting, we had several more achievements to celebrate: Mary Arlin (Ithaca College) and Maureen Carr (Penn State) were named 2017 Lifetime Members of the Society for Music Theory, and Laurel Parsons (University of British Columbia) and Brenda Ravenscroft (McGill University), editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music from 1960-2000 (Oxford University Press), had received the Society’s Outstanding Multi-Author Collection Award. As well, Nicole Biamonte (McGill University) completed her term as editor of the Society’s journal Music Theory Online. For the Society’s print journal, Music Theory Spectrum, Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois at Chicago) has just completed her term as associate editor, while Marianne Wheeldon (University of Texas at Austin) has taken up her position as editor.
To mark the concurrent anniversaries, the Committee on the Status of Women held a three-hour session, live-streamed by the Society, on the music of an outstanding composer, Chen Yi (Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City). Dr. Chen spoke about her chamber work, Happy Rain on a Spring Night, and her presentation was followed by three rich analytical papers on her music by John Roeder (University of British Columbia School of Music), Marianne Kielian-Gilbert (The Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington), and Nancy Yunhwa Rao (Rutgers University). The final hour of the session comprised a lively discussion about compositional process, orchestration involving Chinese traditional instruments, and analytical methodologies. The session attracted the most diverse audience by any measure (age, rank, gender, and ethnicity) that I have ever seen at a Committee on the Status of Women session. I felt like we had really got things right.
Sometimes though, as individuals or groups or committees, we get things wrong, and it’s important to acknowledge where we might have done better. During the Society’s anniversary celebration on Thursday evening, featuring invited reminiscences by fifteen members of the Society, I was delighted to see a balanced gender ratio, but, along with many other people, I was disappointed by the lack of ethnic diversity. I also know scholars of colour who were very disheartened by the lack of representation and wondered what kind of message it sent to the junior members of the society. I was disappointed as well at one of the comments during this year’s open discussion at the brownbag lunch hosted by the Committee on the Status of Women, and was also frustrated with myself for not addressing the statement immediately. There had been a brief discussion of last year’s U.S. election and one participant remarked that “American society is more misogynist than racist,” picking up on the sentiment that has circulated frequently in the last year that while the U.S. was willing to elect a black man as president, it wasn’t willing to elect a woman. I thought the statement wrong-headed and I didn’t see the value in working from that position; we need to counter all biases, not stress the importance of one over another. I planned to address it as soon as the speaker finished, but I got side-tracked by other things, and ended up not countering the comment in any way.
Post-conference, a group of concerned graduate students (Catrina Kim, Lissa Reed, Eron Smith, Sam Reenan, and Alyssa Barna) emailed me and the current committee and were understandably upset that no one had spoken up during the meeting, articulating very well the issues at hand:
To compare which forms of oppression are “worse” than others implies that forms of oppression can be and should be isolated and ranked; we are committed to the intersectional view that this kind of separation weakens any work done toward justice, toward diversity, and toward the civil and human rights of all marginalized groups in a society that is mostly white, male, and cisgender.
As they explain further:
…the statement made at the brown bag lunch separates the “woman” from the “minority,” a separation which is impossible for any woman of color. We cannot draw lines between our personal identities, and all women have other identities that intersect with their womanhood. Asking a woman of color to temporarily shelve her minority status is to marginalize and silence her…
I agree completely, and affirm from my position as past-Chair that the Committee on the Status of Women must embrace diversity and justice of all kinds within the Society.
It is critical for us to keep moving forward, and in this case, I am heartened by an email from the participant who made the remark. She contacted the committee and the group of students to apologize for her insensitive comment, writing that she is “deeply appreciative of the graduate students who have organized to push back,” and hopes that “we can discuss this and further related issues at our next meeting.” While I feel deflated that I as Chair missed an opportunity to speak to the issue during the brownbag lunch, I am encouraged by this open dialogue, and by the integrity and energy of all of these junior scholars. The Society for Music Theory has much more to do to promote inclusivity and diversity, but we can be proud that at 40, we have created a mechanism—actively supported standing committees—for these discussions to take place.
Jennifer Bain, Associate Professor of Music at Dalhousie University, was recently named to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists. Her publications focus on the music of Guillaume de Machaut and Hildegard of Bingen, the development of digital chant research tools, and the reception of medieval music.