Women's Bands Paved the Way for Today's Musicians

In the September 2008 Music Educators Journal  is an article by Jill M. Sullivan, “A Century of Women’s Bands in America.”  Covering the period from the 1870s through the 1970s, the article contains archival photos that history-buff music educators will enjoy.

An associate professor of music education at Arizona State University (Tempe), Sullivan notes that bands were beloved organizations in the United States after the Civil War. The fifty years after 1865 were known as America’s “Golden Age of Bands.” Girls and women have played in single-sex musical groups since that time, and girls outnumber boys in many coed ensembles today.

The musicians who played in the early bands Sullivan describes were frequently pioneers in these activities. They often performed in cumbersome uniforms while striving to hold onto their feminine identity: “Consider how it would have felt to march in long skirts or in high-heeled shoes carrying a sousaphone,” she says.

The bands described were sources of pride in their communities, and the quality of their musical performance was often very high. Bands today accept both genders based on skill, but it took decades for leadership in the armed forces, professional ensembles, and schools to see past gender to girls’ and women’s potential as competent musicians.

A NAFME member, Sullivan has encouraged community participation in music by people of all ages and backgrounds. Her work in Arizona continues the proud tradition of women as music-makers and leaders.

Resource for your students:  Check out Sullivan’s website at ASU at http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmsulli/

—Ella Wilcox, originally published May 6, 2008, © National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org).