Minority report: confronting gender inequality

FairPlé at NUIG: (from left) Karan Casey, Niamh Dunne, Dr. Síle Denvir and Dr. Úna Monaghan

Shut up and play!

Do elements of traditional/folk music discourage diversity?

Some aspects of the practice of traditional music may feed into a broader culture which could militate against social diversity, according to American music researcher and fiddle player, Dr. Tes Slominski of Benoit College in America.

In her keynote address to the Women and Traditional/Folk Music research symposium in NUI-Galway on February 9, she argued that the emphasis on understatement in the delivery of traditional music – including silences between notes and the “unadorned long note” – reflects a range of social practices where barely perceptible movements, sounds and remarks have meaning and impact that may serve to undermine social inclusion.

Addressing the symposium through a Skype link, Dr. Slominski suggested that silence and understatement may be interpreted by some as the opposite of the demand for visibility that has been at the heart of most social movements involved in civil rights, women’s rights and gay liberation. Therefore, the call – often heard at sessions – to “shut up and play/sing” may lend itself to a more sinister interpretation.

Tes Slominski (on- screen) watches session facilitator Verena Commins (Photo: FairPlé)

In her call for action for change, Slominski warned that the use of musical understatement within traditional music could become a pretext for attempting to silence non-conventional voices. She demanded physical, financial and existential security for all within traditional music including women, LGBTQ and other minorities.

She called on those involved in traditional music to challenge hierarchies and to expand consciousness to embrace greater diversity – by moving beyond tokenism. Finally she demanded measures to eliminate the particular barriers to women returning to music after having children and the bias against older women performing in folk/ traditional music.

Tes Slominski

Tes Slominski’s research interests within music include issues of gender and sexuality as well as nationalism in Ireland and the United States. Her monograph, Trad Nation: Gender, Sexuality and Race in Irish Traditional Music is due for publication next year. In addition to her scholarship, Tes is an accomplished fiddle player specialising in the regional repertoire of Sliabh Luachra. A member of the contradance band Roaring Mary in her early 20s, she also became a frequent visitor to Ireland, where she regularly played with fiddlers, Connie O’Connell from Cill na Martra and Dónal O’Connor from Brosna. She also taught at the Maoin Cheoíl an Chlár in Ennis. Before completing her doctorate at New York University, Tes studied at the University of Limerick for her MA in ethnomusicology.

Some of the participants in the FairPlé-NUIG symposium in Galway (Photo: FairPlé)

One hundred stories:

Perspectives on gender and Irish traditional music in 2018

Dr. Úna Monaghan has been researching the lived experience of musicians in Irish traditional and folk music from a gender perspective for over twelve months. Initially she sought to write a piece of music named What Haven’t We Heard. The piece questions whether the under-representation of women in the genre results in a loss of opportunity to experience certain pieces, styles or instances of music and artwork. Having considered her own experience of sexism during over twenty years of playing and working in traditional music as part of the process for creating this piece, Dr. Monaghan decided to invite contributions from others.

From this initial collection, two findings began to emerge. Firstly, the experiences could be divided into categories ranging from serious overt experiences linked to gender, such as sexual harassment, to more subtle instances, such as the expectation that women would behave in a certain way or play a certain instrument.

Secondly there were some people who were reluctant to share their stories publicly, either due to the personal nature of the experience, or because they did not wish to speak out about their peers in a relatively small and tight-knit traditional music community.

When some musicians asserted that they did not consider gender to be an issue in any way – in response to the emergence of FairPlé – Dr. Monaghan (pictured above) decided to launch an anonymous online questionnaire to gather experiences on a more systematic basis. The questionnaire – which was live for over three months between July and November 2018 – was open-ended inviting respondents to “tell their story.” Altogether 123 testimonies were received from 83 respondents – ranging from descriptions of specific incidents to comments on the effect of gender on participation in traditional music more generally.

“The collection of stories form a fascinating and nuanced picture of the subtleties of gender dynamics in the noncommercial and community-based aspects of our tradition, in addition to the realities of life as a professional traditional musician,” said Dr. Monaghan. “They increase our understanding of the behaviours and contexts that contribute to gender inequality in Irish traditional and folk music today.

“This collection provides an overview of the landscape of traditional music life regarding this issue, and exposes some of the specific challenges faced by women,” Dr. Monaghan added. “These testimonies suggest that the Irish traditional and folk music community is by no means immune to the consequences of gender inequality and bias in wider society.

“Key groups of people emerge` from the testimonies occupying influential roles in traditional and folk music. People in these roles have the potential to perpetuate the difficulties described – but consequently have the most power to create change,” she observed. Below are some of the responses to the questionnaire:

Work-Life Imbalance

Part of feminism and women getting more equality has been women putting themselves under this amazing amount of pressure and trying to do everything. It’s just completely impossible. There’s always something that’s going to give and it’s usually the mom… It’s one of the biggest regrets I have, leaving my youngest and going away {for work}. I didn’t feel like I had the choice. And ultimately when I said I couldn’t do {it}, I was told: ‘you’re either in or you’re out.’

Work-Life Imbalance 2

I remember practising for one tour… The kids were very young. I would sit on the kitchen table and pull the chairs up next to me. If I didn’t do this, they would be pulling at me and needing attention. I would practice up on that table, you see, and keep an eye on them.

Talent Skin Deep?

They’ve gone through two or three [musicians] already. I’ve been replaced with a younger version. She doesn’t come with kids. She doesn’t come with an attitude… A friend of mine has this great saying: ‘Hired, admired, f**kd and fired.’ That’s kind of it in a nutshell.

Young, Gifted and… Invisible

There’s more subtle things that you can always explain away, but as they build up, you just think: ‘Would they have said that or done that if I was twenty years older and a man?’… You do need to make sure you show no weakness and are twice as good… Sometimes you’re just dismissed. And if you’re dismissed before you have a chance to show what you’re bringing, that can be really detrimental.

Behind Every Successful Woman…

That seemed to be the key in whether somebody kept playing at the same level. was what kind of support they had in their marriage… Even just my own generation, there are {women} who gave up because the husbands weren’t supportive.

Pregnant Pause

One programme that we did I was very heavily pregnant. Better not say where I was. One of the producers of the programme had asked if I would play a solo… Another person who wasn’t sort of involved in his decision… came up to the producer and said: ‘you can’t let her play like that, looking like that.’

Playing Like A Man

You have to nearly be equal if not better than a man if you’re … to be accepted. [A man] once said about me: ‘Oh yeah, I know her, she’s great, she’s great. And do you know why? Because she plays like a man!’ And I heard this and I laughed! And I thought: ‘I wonder, does that sum it all up?’ I never thought that I played like a man. I certainly didn’t set out to play like a man!

Flute Not For Girls

At the time when I was learning … there was an elderly man who was a flute player. My mother did have the conversation with him. ‘Why was I learning the flute?’… ‘Did she not know that the flute wasn’t a girl’s instrument?’ And you know, I’d basically be better off just going off and learning the fiddle.

I Candy

It’s important to agents and venues and promoters that there be a pretty young girl in the line-up. Use her front and centre as much as you can … It’s just the value that we place on youth and women … it’s pure commercial, it’s nothing to do with our tradition… But it wasn’t quite what I signed up for… It takes years before you have the confidence to use your voice and say this is how I want to be portrayed.

Traditional music under microscope

Wide-ranging lines of enquiry

The recent research symposium in NUI-Galway highlighted the great depth of research – currently under way in various cultural bodies and educational institutions – into the role of women and the impact of gender in Irish traditional and folk music. Altogether twenty-one papers were presented at the one-day symposium – most providing snapshots of work in progress with some pointing to new lines of enquiry to be pursued.

Apart from Tes Slominski’s keynote, a number of other participants addressed the underrepresentation of women in many areas of traditional and folk music. In her paper, Feminism and Agency in Irish Traditional Music, Leslie Anne Harrison highlighted the dearth of research in the past to consider the many complex issues behind the significant gender impact in many areas of traditional music.

These issues include the use of language, instruments and spaces – as well as the impact of marriage, motherhood and domestic duties – to undermine or diminish women’s participation in music either as professional or as amateur performers.

Verena Commins presented a gender analysis of what might be called the canon of traditional music – the tunes, songs, artists and performances widely regarded as the classics of the genre. Finding a distinct absence of female representation, she reflected on the impact of this imbalance in her paper, The Man and His Music – Gender Representation and the Irish Traditional Music Canon.

Singer-songwriters, Paula Ryan and Ali Bullivent (pictured right), highlighted the imbalance in the proportion of credited female composers and song-writers and its impact on the subject matter and perspectives of many songs. Of course, one contributory factor in this imbalance could be that some female creators may have felt obliged to submit their work for publication using a male pseudonym – either just to have it considered in the first place or perhaps to ensure that they are paid a decent fee for their work. Nevertheless, such an eventuality would actually underline the gendered nature of the imbalance

Two presentations dealt more explicitly with the FairPlé movement, itself. Practising traditional musician and climate physicist, Liz Coleman sought to point the way for future research into the many complex layers of gender bias within traditional music. By applying the principles of scientific inquiry – including the collection of verifiable data – the movement should be able to build a convincing case to influence policy makers and others of influence within the traditional and folk music in Ireland.

Meanwhile, FairPlé founder, Karan Casey, provided the symposium with an analysis of the development of the movement over the previous twelve months. Casey’s presentation not only highlighted the various activities undertaken to publicise the campaign – but also noted its impact on promoters and event bookers and its engagement with major cultural bodies including the Arts Council. For a relatively small group acting on a voluntary basis albeit with considerable goodwill from a variety of sources – FairPlé has made a substantial impact in a short space of time. The challenge for the movement is to turn the initial impact into sustained progress for the future.

The under-representation of women in the recorded history of traditional music was highlighted in two papers: The Missing Voices: Addressing Archival Silence in Traditional/ Folk Music by Grace Toland and Niamh Ní Charra and Documenting Women in Irish Traditional Music and Dance Using Linked Data by the ITMA’s Lynnsey Weissenberger who urged all performers or creators of music and song to ensure that their work is recorded for posterity.

Two papers reflected on the impact of commercialism on female performers within traditional music. Dr. Tríona Ní Síocháin considered the practice of female artists who preceded the commercial era – like Elizabeth Cronin from Múscraí in Cork and Elizabeth Crotty from Clare – and the extent to which their legacy has survived in the modern age dominated by market forces. Meanwhile Joanne Cusack provided an outline of her ongoing enquiry into the impact of commercialisation on female traditional musicians since the 1990s.

Two papers reflected on the impact of commercialism on female performers within traditional music. Dr. Tríona Ní Síocháin considered the practice of female artists who preceded the commercial era – like Elizabeth Cronin from Múscraí in Cork and Elizabeth Crotty from Clare – and the extent to which their legacy has survived in the modern age dominated by market forces. Meanwhile Joanne Cusack provided an outline of her ongoing enquiry into the impact of commercialisation on female traditional musicians since the 1990s.

Among the questions Joanne aims to explore is the extent to which, in the professional arena, women are regarded more as marketing – rather than musical – assets, with the result that their potential creative contribution may be undervalued.

Some papers focussed more closely on the contribution of individual performers: Aoife Granville explored the work of women flute players in a paper entitled That’s Not Very Ladylike, with particular emphasis on Peg McGrath, Tara Diamond, Joanie Madden (pictured left), Anne Sheehy and the 2019 Gradam Cheoil Musician of the Year, Catherine McEvoy.

Meanwhile Sarah Fons considered the musical journey of Nóirín Ní Ríain in her paper, Where She Stands. Lydia Cullen reflected on the life of the Múscraí singer, Eilís Ní Shúilleabhain, while Kaylie Streit underlined the success of two female musicians, Kate Ellis and Ilse de Ziah, in securing the acceptance of a non-traditional instrument, the cello, within traditional music.

Christina Lynn, on the other hand, considered the work of country music singer, Susan McCann, in her paper, Someone is Looking for Someone like You, as a means to explore the differences between Irish and American country music. Highlighting the broad range of issues which are currently the subject of research in various institutions, a number of other papers were presented at the symposium covering topics as varied as lullabies and children’s songs as well as gender bias in performance and practice in folk music events in Somerset and in flamenco dancing.

The principal organisers of the symposium were musicians and researchers, Dr. Síle Denvir and Dr. Úna Monaghan from FairPlé, and Dr. Verena Commins, Dr. Méabh Ní Fhuartháin and Dr. Lillis Ó Laoire from Comhrá Ceoil in the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway. But they would be the first to acknowledge the support of a wide team of volunteers. The full transcript of the proceedings of the symposium – with accompanying documentation is now being prepared for publication by the symposium’s sponsoring partners, FairPlé, Comhrá Ceoil and NUI Galway.

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