Women’s Issues

I do not like, and never will, the association of men and women in orchestras and other instrumental combinations . . . As a member of the orchestra once said to me, “If she is attractive I can’t play with her and if she is not I won’t.”

Sir Thomas Beecham

Sir Henry Wood, conductor of the London Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and a near-contemporary of Sir Thomas, claimed to be the first conductor to admit women into a professional orchestra. In a 1913 letter to the Times of London, the famed British composer Ethel Smyth (named Dame Ethel in 1922), whose compositions included the suffragette anthem “The March of the Women,” complimented Wood, while decrying the ingrained sexism that characterized the music world at the time:

Sir, Will you allow me to point out the significance of a new departure inaugurated, after years of striving, by Sir Henry Wood–namely, the inclusion of women in a first-class orchestra. To begin with, the mere fact of belonging to certain bands enables a player to ask a good fee for lessons, and as it is mainly by teaching that orchestral musicians earn a livelihood, it is easy to gauge the importance to women of admission within the pale–a privilege till now restricted, for some mysterious reason, to harpists. But another point seems, to me, more interesting. Hitherto, after leaving the musical college, in which perhaps she led the band or played a wind instrument, a girl found herself cut off from all connection with music, except through teaching. The effect of this isolation on the music soul can be imagined. An orchestral player will grumble at the grind of rehearsals and so on, but meanwhile he is immersed in the stream, taking new ideas, acquiring new technique, and equipping himself automatically for the exercise of any special gift he may happen to possess. . . . People often ask, where are the great women composers? I wonder how many great male composers there would be if men had been completely shut out from the workaday world of art, deprived of the bracing, the concentration, the comradeship: the inestimable training and stimulus of professional life. It may be that time must elapse before we see the fruits of the movement of which Sir Henry’s splendid achievement is a symptom; but judging by the portents in science, literature and other branches of art, see them we shall someday. I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

Ethel Smyth, Mus. Doc.

… the complete text is available in “More Than Meets The Ear

Senza Sordino, May 2012, Volume 50 Number 2

VOLUME 50 NO. 2 Online Edition May 2012

Haven’t We Won These Battles?

by Julie Ayer

Observing the so-called “war on women” occurring in national politics recently, I am struck by the irony of assuming battles fought decades ago are behind us. Those of us who lived through the fight for equal rights for women, and succeeded in no small measure, are appalled at the rhetoric from some politicians threatening the erosion and possible reversal of some of those rights. I’m afraid the lessons for this generation of both men and women are that one cannot take anything for granted, and the rights gained by our predecessors are more easily lost than preserved.

These thoughts lead me to reflect on parallel struggles that occurred in our industry. The birth of icsom coincided with the historic civil rights movements of the 1960s, but true equal rights for women in orchestras did not begin then. Conductors retained power to hire and fire until the audition process was reformed in the early 1970s through negotiations to guarantee participation of musician committees.

The use of screens changed everything. When musicians took control of their destiny, including a voice in the audition process, “the other half of humanity” were taking blind auditions and winning them. They did not have to share the regrets of musicians of previous generations, including Elsa Hilger, assistant principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who said during the tenure of conductor Eugene Ormandy (1936–1976), “I would have been principal, but my pants weren’t long enough.”

The Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions was unanimously approved in1984 by ICSOM, the Major Orchestra Managers Conference, and the afm. It is not a contract but is to be used as a guideline. However, it does articulate that “[t]here should be no discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, creed, national origin, religion or sexual preference.”

Women’s dressing rooms were non-existent in the pre-icsom era, at home or on tours, and men’s facilities were barely adequate. The Minnesota Orchestra’s women’s dressing room in Orchestra Hall is still lacking, in spite of two remodel/expansions in the past 38 years.

After all these years, both the men’s and the women’s dressing rooms are finally slated to be expanded during the planned Orchestra Hall remodel of 2012–2013.

Even the mere fact of pregnancy in the workplace was frowned upon, and women were threatened with firing, as described by Russell Brodine’s memoir Fiddle and Fight: “When [St. Louis Symphony] Manager Zalken presented the 1962–1963 contracts to the musicians, there was one clause in the women’s contracts that had not been agreed to by either the Orchestra Committee or the Union.” The so-called pregnancy clause contained language such as “audience distraction” and “if the pregnancy is visually apparent or causes interference to render proper services, then this contract may be terminated.” The clause disappeared after an orchestra meet- ing at which men and women alike were outraged and objected to such discriminatory contractual language. “I read that clause over three times; each time it sounded more disgusting.” At the orchestra meeting to discuss this, Brodine said, “figuratively speaking, this contract is always with us … but I’ll be goddamned, if it’s such a good contract that anyone should have to take it to bed with them.”

Sixteen years after this incident, in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed to protect women from discrimination in the workplace. At the 1980 ICSOM Conference, for the first time, women held their own session, discussing concerns specifically related to their professional lives and their status as symphony musicians. Topics included improved contract language for maternity and paternity leave, child care, tours, auditions, and committee representation.

When I interviewed I. Philip Sipser, icsom’s first counsel, in 2000, he could not emphasize strongly enough how important it was to stay within the AFM, even during a time when both the locals and the AFM were not particularly helpful to orchestra musicians, to say the least. “The symphony field is the only field in which the lawyer does not represent the entire union, only some of its mem- bers, completely unique in labor history … and here was a group of rank-and-file who organized themselves, kept the movement alive, retained counsel, fought a three-front battle against the afm, locals and management … and lived to tell about it.”

If this is not inspiration enough to steel us for more battles ahead, it is also a cautionary tale. Union bashing seems to be the way of the world in 2012. Within our workplace across this country, orchestras have become a diverse and thriving environment of dignity and equal rights for all members. Collective bargaining is our way of life, and without the union protections, most of these gains would not have been possible. The historic grassroots labor movement within the musicians union fifty years ago, along with the unprecedented government-sponsored symphony grant program of 1966, transformed the lives of symphony musicians, students, teachers, managers and all those who are touched by great music.

By 1965, many ICSOM orchestras had gained the right to ratify their master agreements, coinciding with the extraordinary Ford Foundation Symphony Program of 1966. It established an unprecedented $80.2 million matching-grant endowment plan, to be distributed to 61 orchestras — and all but a handful succeeded in reaching that goal. The guiding light of the Symphony Program was W. McNeil Lowry. The New York Times, on April 9, 2012, had this to say about Lowry: “[T]he nation’s unofficial mentor in chief during much of the 1950s and ’60s, a cultural figure of remarkable influence who was virtually unknown to most of the public. … By1962 Mr. Lowry expanded its arts programs with $6.1 million in grants to nine nonprofit repertory theaters, and later with stipends to writers, filmmakers, art schools, music conservatories and dance organizations.”

The Ford Foundation grants, growing local subsidies, and the establishment of the principle of federal support attest to the gradual emergence of the American symphony orchestra from its own economic “Dark Ages.”

W. McNeil Lowry, Monthly Labor Review, May 1966

The following are excerpts from the Congressional Record of the 92nd Congress, First Session, October 19, 1971, read into the Re- cord by Senator Jacob Javits and Representative John Brademas, December 2, 1971:


The standard of living in this country cannot be measured by dollars alone — nor in miles of concrete highways and numbers of automobiles, nor by the gross national product. More im- portant than these material or statistical factors are the values we cherish and the way we live. Deep in every community, in every family, is a hunger for what enriches life … .

…The arts are an essential part of our common heritage and must be given a wholly new precedence that will bring them into wide use in our educational system and make possible new activity in our communities and in our homes. As a nation we must accord to the arts a place of honor…

So we ask for new legislation embodying a new national program for the arts designed to help pay for the public service and educational work of the arts…

What we ask is modest, when measured in terms of other federal projects. Above all, what we ask for is a wholly new precedence for the arts and humanities — for that which gives our living richness and meaning.

Julie Ayer is a Minnesota Orchestra violinist and is the author of More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History, and Defying the Silence, A Chronicle of Resilience that Saved the World-Renowned Minnesota Orchestra


An Endearing Legacy

February 4, 2010

Editor’s Abstract
In 2009 the Spokane Symphony created an endowed chair in memory of two members of their violin section: mother/daughter Evelyn Ayer and Jane Ayer Blegen. Julie Ayer, violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, has written a loving tribute to her mother and sister, describing their involvement with the orchestra and how the endowed chair came to be. She also gives us an overview of the history of women in North American symphony orchestras. Ann Drinan

My mother, Evelyn Ayer, and sister, Jane Ayer Blegen, were members of the violin section of the Spokane Symphony for many years. Their careers overlapped for 12 of the 50+ years that one of them was a member of the orchestra.

Evelyn was one of the founding members of the Spokane Philharmonic, as it was known in 1945. Evelyn sat in the 4th chair of the first violins until she retired in 1984. Jane joined the Spokane Symphony in 1972, and after her mother’s retirement, she moved to the same chair her mother had occupied.

Anyone who knew them experienced their enthusiasm and love for the orchestra, and the musical family and friendships that developed over many years. They were truly peas in a pod, with similar mannerisms, appearance, sense of humor, and were even roommates on orchestra tours.

Spokane Symphony’s first concert, December 18, 1945 (Spokane Symphony Archives.)

Jane died at age 58 on May 18, 2002 of melanoma cancer. One of the cancer treatments required hours in the hospital for blood transfusions. Never wanting to waste a minute and the queen-of- multi-taskers, Jane practiced during the transfusions, much to the delight and amazement of the hospital staff. Her last performance was with the Spokane String Quartet in March of 2002, of which she was 2nd violinist for many years. When she became too weak to play, she reluctantly put her violin away and never opened the case again. Until Evelyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 90, playing her violin sustained her and brought her great joy. She died August 6, 2008 at the age of 98.

In the late summer of 2002, the idea for an endowed chair in both names was discussed with the Spokane Symphony. It was quickly approved and followed by an overwhelming response from the public to the announcement of the Ayer-Blegen Endowed Chair. By the end of November, 2003, the SSO had received gifts and pledges from 167 donors totaling almost $65,000, with $100,000 the eventual goal. This goal was reached in July of 2009, and much credit and appreciation goes to the generosity of so many.

In an interview in the local newspaper in 1949, my mother stated, “As a member of the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra for the last four years, my greatest pleasure and benefit has been in learning and playing the works of great composers. Most housewives need and maintain an interest outside of home and daily duties and participation in the Philharmonic is, to me, a very happy diversion, and makes possible my greater enjoyment of the fine symphonic music presented over the radio networks by the great orchestras of the country.”

Women have always been accepted in, and perhaps even formed the backbone of, amateur and semiprofessional orchestras in the United States. Usually offering part-time work and paying “per-service” rather than on a seasonal basis, such orchestras play important roles in the lives of their communities. The numbers of women in such smaller-budget orchestras have always been higher than in the major orchestras, averaging between 42 percent and 46 percent. Gender discrimination for the “other half of humanity” was not an issue, as it was in major symphony orchestras for many decades.

Sir Henry Wood, conductor of the London Queen’s Hall Orchestra, claimed to be the first conductor to admit women into a professional orchestra. In a 1913 letter to the Times of London, the famed British composer Ethel Smyth, later named Dame Ethel, pointed out that “the inclusion of women in a first-class orchestra… a privilege till now restricted, for some mysterious reason, to harpists.”

From the early 19th century until the 1960s, symphony orchestra membership was strictly controlled by invitation of the conductor or manager, and few women had the opportunity even to audition for a position in a major orchestra in the United States and Canada. Some conductors hired the best player, even if she also happened to be a woman. Leopold Stokowski hired cellist Elsa Hilger to the Philadelphia Orchestra in the mid 1930s, and later the next conductor, Eugene Ormandy, appointed her assistant principal, but never to the principal position. In her words, “I would have been principal but my pants weren’t long enough.”

As early as 1903, the American Federation of Labor required that the musicians union not discriminate against women. (However, it was not until 1953 that the musicians union was desegregated.) In the spring of 1938, 150 female members of the Musicians Local 802 of New York met together to discuss their mutual problems.

With the outbreak of World War II, men left their professions faster than the vacancies could be filled. In their places, women flew airplanes, towed targets, worked rigorously in factories and defense-related positions – and filled men’s chairs in major American orchestras. At war’s end, many of these women were expected to give up their jobs to returning soldiers. Not all of them did so, and their stories open a window on a generation of women who changed American society by securing a place for themselves in the workplace, the newsroom, the battlefield – and on the concert stage.

An October 1944 article in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune notes the presence of four women in the Minneapolis Symphony. “Two of the players are symphony wives,” Dorothy Riley wrote, adding that “one of them wants to return to her role as housewife as soon as the war is over, and that the engagement with the symphony is definitely a wartime measure.” That same year the Boston Symphony Orchestra held a fund-raising meeting attended mostly by women. Music critic Alan Rich reported that the orchestra’s president announced that if not enough money was raised, the orchestra would have to reduce the number of players and length of its season and “lower its standards” by hiring women. Just eight years later, in 1952, the Boston Symphony hired Doriot Anthony Dwyer as principal flute. The headline in the Boston Herald read: Woman Crashes Boston Symphony.

In 1960, no US orchestra paid its musicians a full-time salary. Sixteen years later, in 1976, eleven US orchestras paid all of their musicians on a fifty-two-week basis, and the proportion of women increased from 18 percent in the early 1960s to an average of 25 percent just ten years later.

Finally the possibilities for women to have full-time careers of any kind, including an orchestra career, were becoming realized. Women’s issues and problems escalated in almost direct proportion to their finding orchestra jobs. The same year Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, the following language was issued in the personal contracts of a major American orchestra, only to be removed shortly thereafter.

If a female becomes pregnant between the time she signs this contract and the opening of the season, this contract will be void. A musician who becomes pregnant during the season will be paid only for all services rendered up to the time she stops performing with the orchestra. Such musician will notify the employer of pregnancy and misrepresentation of condition relieves the employer of any liability.

The important terms of today’s master agreements in major symphony orchestras, such as contract ratification, lawyer representation, players committees, pension, sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, insurance, working conditions and tour provisions, were the result of a labor struggle unique in labor history. The symphony musicians’ historic grassroots movement that became ICSOM in 1962, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, transformed labor relations and the professional lives of US and Canadian musicians. Before ICSOM, the conductor held all the power to hire and fire, with no recourse for the musician. Symphony musicians are now universally protected against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, and union activity.

In 1980, for the first time, forty-two years after the 150 female musicians of the New York Local had met for a relatively inconsequential discussion, the women representatives of ICSOM began to discuss issues specifically related to their professional lives and their status as symphony musicians, including pregnancy leave, tours, auditions, committee and ICSOM representation. Also addressed was the woefully inadequate or non-existent dressing rooms for both men and women. http://www.icsom.org

In 1984, musicians of the regional orchestras – who define themselves as those with budgets lower than the major orchestras – found they needed to network among themselves to address their own problems and issues, just as the major orchestras had done in 1962. Established as a

communication organization for regional orchestras, the Regional Orchestras Players’ Association, or ROPA, was formed in 1984. There are currently 79 member orchestras, whose annual budgets range up to $8.5 million. http://www.ropaweb.org

Nathan Kahn, Negotiator for the Symphonic Services Division of the American Federation of Musicians and double bassist, offers historical perspective:

Regarding the number of concerts in ROPA orchestras; it varies. By contrast, Nashville Symphony (which I was a member of, previously in ROPA, now in ICSOM) did 9 triples of classics when I was there, now does something like 14 pairs of classics plus other series, specials etc. When I first came to Colorado Springs the orchestra did 10 quadruples of each classics, now down to 7 pairs.

Structure also has varied. Fort Worth Symphony was a more a community-based orchestra in the 80s; not the case any more. Many ROPA orchestras added core orchestras during the late 70s/ 80s in order to attract a better crop of musicians, and in this current economic climate, too many of these orchestras are seemingly seeking to scale back to totally per service or something in between.

The Spokane Symphony, a ROPA orchestra, presents @ 180 services per season, including 10 Classic Concerts, 6 Pops Concerts, 3 Chamber Soirees, 3 Chamber Orchestra concerts, and a number of educational and outreach concerts/activities. Since its founding as the Spokane Philharmonic in 1945, the numbers of women have remained between 25 and 30, typical of most orchestras of this size. Of the 67 members of the orchestra, Tier 1 is a core of 36 contracted musicians who play all 180 services. Tier 2 is 16 more players contracted for 125 services, and Tier 3 is an additional 15 musicians, guaranteed 87 services per season.


All the more extraordinary that in these difficult economic times, the loyalty and devotion to Spokane Symphony is exemplified in the achievement of the $100,000 goal for the Ayer-Blegen Endowed Chair.

Julie Ayer, Minnesota Orchestra violinist and author, More Than Meets the Ear, How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History, and author of her new book Defying The Silence, A Chronicle of Resilience that Saved the World-Renowned Minnesota Orchestra