Iris Zeng looks at International Women’s Day

Old Visuals / Alamy Stock Photo

Having gone to an all-girls’ school, I met a fair share of our species. Some were fierce, others mild and maternal. Pinned outside the philosophy club was a poster, known these days as a ‘meme’:

I’m a female.
Fe = Iron
Male = Man

I am Iron Man.

One doesn’t need to be a chemistry or Marvel Comics nerd to appreciate the mettle of women.

When we think of famous women in history, Marie Curie, Jane Austen, and Rosa Parks come to mind. Defying the social norms of their time, these women made valuable contributions to society. Curie, given the choice of becoming either a governess or teacher, went on to win two Nobel prizes (the only female to do so); Parks, mother of the American civil rights movement, helped desegregate city buses in Alabama during the 1950s; and Austen, like her novels’ heroines, pursued happiness in an otherwise limiting environment. She was also a keen pianist, noting in Emma: “Without music, life would be a blank to me.”

In classical music, important female pioneers included Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun, who composed religious pieces in the 12th century; and of course, Clara Schumann, the celebrated pianist and wife of Robert Schumann. At the time, Clara was more famous than her husband. Dubbed ‘Queen of the Piano’, she continued touring and teaching piano during
her marriage.

Yet up until the 20th century, a professional career in music was rare for women (private performances at home were acceptable, but not in public). They were twice banned from singing in churches by two different Popes, and for centuries their compositions were generally deemed inferior to men’s.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Florence Price from becoming the first African American woman whose symphonies were played by a major orchestra. One of her last works before she died in 1953 was Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, the final being Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Nor was Margaret Sutherland discouraged, despite accepting her domestic duties as a homemaker. Her Sonata for violin and piano was praised by her teacher as “the best work by a woman I know.”

Fast forwarding to modern times, female voices are becoming stronger. Although only about 17 per cent on music publisher lists and five per cent on concert programs is music composed by women, progress has been made. To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, 2MBS Fine Music Sydney has two programs dedicated to a diverse range of female talent. Australian composers Mary Finsterer, Liza Lim, and Bree van Reyk, as well as musicians from Ensemble Offspring, feature in Music of the Night at 10:30pm, and you can hear chamber works from an earlier era by Florence Price and Margaret Sutherland in Celebrating International Women’s Day, at 2pm.

Celebrating International Women’s Day, 2:00pm,
and Music of the Night, 10:30pm, both on Wednesday 8 March