Music » Music Features

Ladies First



Much has been written about rock-and-roll babes: There are tomes like Andrea Juno's Angry Women in Rock, Gillian Gaar's She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll, and Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women Who Rock. Survey the racks at your favorite CD store, and you'll see "best of" offerings from Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Nina Simone.

Dig deeper, however, and you'll be hard-pressed to find many women working in the music biz, says Moira Logan of the College of Communication and Fine Arts at the University of Memphis.

To celebrate Women's History Month, Logan has put together a panel of women who will share their experiences and philosophies at the Methodist Presentation Theatre inside the U of M's FedEx Institute of Technology on Thursday, March 30th.

"Until the last hundred years or so, we didn't really hear about women musicians," she says. "Today, you think, Yeah, we have women in music. But there aren't that many female conductors or [classical] composers. Here at the university, there are many more women than men at an undergraduate level. But the question is, Who goes on to have a career in the music business? Who are the role models who help [students] realize this is a field they can go into?"

Janet Page, a musicologist and an associate professor of music at the U of M, will moderate the Women in Music panel, which will include Patricia Hoy, conductor and director of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music; Tonya Butler, an assistant professor in the music-industry department and a specialist in entertainment law; jazz and blues diva Joyce Cobb, who teaches theory and voice classes at the U of M; and special guest Janice Misurell-Mitchell, a composer, flutist, and performance artist from Chicago.

"If you look at music history books or examine the programming of symphonic and chamber music organizations, you don't see music by women," Misurell-Mitchell says. "Take Mozart. He was friends with women composers. It's documented that he hung out with them, so, obviously, women weren't just sweeping the floor. That kind of information needs to be built into educational programs and become general knowledge until it reaches the mainstream."

According to Misurell-Mitchell, women traditionally become singers or educators or play instruments like the flute and the French horn, instead of focusing on composing or conducting or picking up heavier brass instruments such as the trumpet or tuba.

Of her years as a music student at Ohio State University, she notes, "There were no women. Our role models were men. It seemed like a compliment when a professor said, 'You write like a man.' By definition, women didn't have strong ideas or couldn't follow through. And at the time, we felt flattered by that type of comment."

Mentor problems are a real issue, Misurell-Mitchell says. When prompted to list positive female role models, she delves into the pop field without hesitation, naming Queen Latifah, Madonna, and Roxanne Shante, along with blueswomen like Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and Memphis Minnie. She also lists the International Alliance of Women in Music, a global organization, as an invaluable resource.

"Now, I have professors complain that the straight white male composers don't have a group," she says. "There's not enough support for the arts in general these days. In terms of growth, somebody has to take the backseat."

At Thursday's conference, which is free and open to the public, Logan expects the gender issue will be a hot topic -- along with discussions about the portrayal of women in popular music and male/female relationships and attitudes.

"I see this as a collaborative and interdisciplinary way of crossing boundaries and bringing people together," Logan says. "This is an interesting time to be a woman in any profession. I see so many generational differences. Back in the '70s, we were blazing a trail, or at least we felt that way. I am very interested to see ways women are empowered now. There's a certain ease with which younger women operate in the world that we didn't have back then."

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