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Female guitarists in contemporary music

(Released July 2009)

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  by Les Reynolds  


Key Citations



Social Dictates


Discrimination, whether intentional, institutional or otherwise, has played a significant role among musicians for centuries, especially with regard to the upper echelons of music business management and instrument playing.

Bowers and Tick wrote in "Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950" that even in the history books, women have been absent from the conventional mainstream. Not absent from the music itself, but rather, they argued, women were simply not included in the questions musicologists and historians were asking.

The early Christian church allowed for women to sing in worship services; although, as the Church grew, so did opposition to female participation in liturgical rites. Bowers and Tick also found that during the Middle Ages, female troubadours would set courtly poems to song and aristocratic women would sing and play for their own pleasure. As a whole, however, women were excluded from music positions of high status and lacked direct access to most professional opportunities, rewards and authority. And over time, while the situation seemed to improve in some areas, challenges remained. (3)

women at piano & singing
Victorian music scene, oil painting
Some other early references to how society apparently "dictated" to women what was appropriate (or not) for their musical engagements appear in Victorian-era England. In fact, women were "permitted" to play guitar, among other instruments, provided they followed certain protocol and adhered to certain social expectations of their day. Allan Atlas (4) writes that Victorian England held firm convictions about which instruments were appropriate for middle- and upper-class women, whether professional or "well-bred amateurs." There was even an informal ban on women playing the violin, which only began to loosen around 1870. Until then, only the piano, harp and guitar were deemed suitable. The English concertina, only developed by Charles Wheatstone around 1830, was added to the list of allowable instruments. His clientele, Atlas writes, "reads like a list of Victorian England's rich-and-famous," which includes mention of several teachers and instrumentalists-but notes only one guitarist: Madame R. Sidney Pratten.

Gillett (5) examined this issue in greater scope with a study of entrepreneurial female musicians in Britain from the 1790s to the early 1900s to examine how they gained access and advantage from patrons, the public and markets, how their careers differed from males in the same endeavors and what, if any, obstacles the women encountered. A single guitarist, Catherina Pratten (also a composer and instructor) was simply noted. It was determined that the least problematic path for the women in music was in musical production and composing short pieces, singing and teaching. The day's social norms were once more a key element in limiting choices as well as a long-standing belief in the "intellectual inferiority" of women that placed barriers to their acceptance as orchestral conductors and composers of complex and large-scale works.

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