Tokenism in Classical Music: Womxn for Womxn

No matter what field they are in, womxn are constantly being compared to one another for the best, the prettiest, the smartest, the most talented in the room. What if we were able to stop trying to compete, and were just able to encourage one another? What would the classical music world look like on a level playing field?

A world where women are not asked to compete with each other is a world that can be hard to imagine because competition is quite literally everywhere we go, something that is a daily occurrence. On one hand, healthy competition is what allows people to win jobs, for us to choose what cranberry juice we want at the store, or which company to insure our car through. This sort of competition is what allows us the freedom to make the choice that best suits our wants or needs. On the other hand, what needs to be acknowledged and taken care of is the unhealthy, negative competition that is not productive.

One of the main shows I most enjoy has two women of color, Brooklyn 99, starring Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz. In an interview, Beatriz recalls being excited for her colleague but disappointed because she heard that Fumero was cast and that Fumero had already “filled the slot” of a woman of color in the show. In this moment of vulnerability, an inequality is brought shyly into the spotlight: if there is a womxn and/or womxn of color already present, other womxn can find themselves dismayed or even deterred because they think they will not be chosen. This is where tokenism comes into play, and this fear is still something that womxn, LGBTQ+ people, and other minority groups strive to get rid of in order to create a more level playing field.

This competition to be the “token woman” stems from having to constantly be the best of the best in your craft when being compared to men in the field. In blind orchestra auditions it is not uncommon to audition in a room with a carpeted floor so if a woman chooses to wear heels, she will not be heard walking and therefore judged before even playing a single note. This requirement to be truly exceptional is disappointing and hard to contend with when women are considering auditioning for a position, interviewing for a job, or even just having their voice heard in a company setting. Womxn do not want things to just be handed to them on a silver platter, it would be more beneficial to have us feel as though we are on a level playing field. We want to know if we are given a job, we truly worked for it, and if we are not then we weren’t denied for less than professional reasons. It wears down on womxn until we have to steel our nerves every time we submit an application or take an interview. However, what might a positive environment mean for music making?

In my last article Elitism in Classical Music, we looked at how elitism affects the classical music world as a whole, men and womxn alike. There would be a lot more joy in music making if jobs were awarded to skilled musicians because of their hard work and dedication, not their gender, because what we ant to avoid is having someone be the “token womxn” or “token Black oboist”. If womxn and other BIPOC people are a part of an equal orchestra that performs repertoire from all people, this would tell that audience that everyone has a place in classical music, not just those that are the very best of the very best. Meredith also discusses how we could have more access to classical music for all in her article on gerrymandering.

If we were all encouraged to support each other in our journeys, we would likely see more friendships, more connections, more personal fulfillment instead of a cutthroat atmosphere and sideways glances. Womxn could simply support other womxn without having to be in the top .1% of performers in order to achieve their dreams and support their colleagues. At the end of the day, that’s what we want right? Womxn for BIPOC, womxn for equality, womxn for womxn.


Immediate Ways to Support Womxn in Classical Music

  • Vote for those that will fund the arts and arts education in all school districts rather than assuming it will all work out for everyone else.

  • Encourage one another at auditions rather than hoping they fail so you win.

  • Share videos that your female colleagues create rather than fearing they may get more attention than you.

  • Perform as many works by womxn composers that you want, both past and present, rather than fearing the, “why does it have to be an all-womxn composer concert”, complaint.

  • Allow people to make mistakes and encourage them rather than jumping on an opportunity to point out that you noticed their mistake, ie masterclasses, auditions, performances, or even life in general.

  • Listen to more music by women composers rather than being afraid someone might roll their eyes at your growth, curiosity, and support of others.

  • Stand up for womxn when you hear others discrediting them or insulting them, rather than sitting by silently.

  • Look into ways you may be gatekeeping classical music, rather than assuming you are doing everything right.

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