The Women’s Orchestra Movement in 20th Century America

Last month while I was researching women’s music salons, I came across a mention of ladies’ orchestra clubs in the United States.  After some initial googling, I found out there was a whole movement of women’s orchestras who pioneered the way for female performers in professional ensembles.  Many of these women were also active lobbyists for women’s rights, though the ensembles themselves weren’t political organizations.  Women’s rights have been a big topic in the news lately, so this felt like a good time to learn more about women’s activist groups in the field of classical music. 

Black and white photo of an all-women orchestra from the 1900s, with women wearing full-length, long-sleeved white gowns with lace trim and their hair pulled back into buns.  The women stand shoulder to shoulder in informal rows, and the front row is seated, holding their instruments.  A white semi-transparent label in the middle reads "Women's orchestras in solidarity" in turquoise script.

The Women’s Orchestra Movement

The Women's Orchestra Movement in Turn of the Century America
Clipping from a Los Angeles newspaper printed on December 27, 1925

In the United States, the Women’s Orchestra Movement began to gain momentum in the 1890s.  Women who were professionally trained but blocked out of men’s orchestras decided to team up in solidarity, make their own opportunities, and support each other in their education and careers.  This led to the formation of many all-women orchestras that performed across the country.  This movement really took off around 1919, after many men had been drafted for war and new performance opportunities opened up for women (as in the previous century, it was not yet considered acceptable for women to perform music in public).  

Despite the new opportunities, these performers still faced many limitations.  While many ensemble members were unmarried, others were housewives looking to supplement their income – which limited their options, as they could not join ensembles that toured the country. This was also a time when women were not commonly allowed to play wind and brass instruments – there was still a prevalent belief that it was only proper for women to play keyboard instruments or sing, so that making music did not distort the shape of their faces.

As a result, conservatories in this era typically steered women towards positions as teachers, rather than performers. Many women instrumentalists trained privately, and this was the first time a majority of them had ever performed in public.  (Consequently, these groups also had a lot of women learning something then teaching each other as a fundamental part of their ensemble culture). 

Taking the Stage

All-Women Orchestras in 20th Century America
The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra – this ensemble was founded in 1935 and is still around today!

In the US, women’s orchestras seemed to be concentrated around major cities on the east and west coasts, with some ensembles that toured the country.  (There were also swing bands, brass bands, and jazz bands that performed across the US – this movement wasn’t limited to symphony orchestras!) 

But this was not a movement happening only in the US.  In Europe, there were also ensembles such as the Erstes Europäisches Damenorchester and the Berlin Lady Orchestra, and organizations such as the Society of Women Musicians in Great Britain, that created a community and resources to help support women musicians and composers. 

Orchestral Music by Women Composers

Women’s orchestras helped break the glass ceiling by proving that women could perform classical music just as well as men; however, it’s also important to note that while the instrumentalists in these groups were all women, the conductors, directors, managers, and/or guest soloists were often men.  Programming seemed to also follow “standard” repertoire – though there could have been many reasons for this.  I’m sure there was a lot of external pressure, and this could have been partly an effort to build credibility and partly the biased influence of male managers.  Standard repertoire would also have been the easiest music to obtain copies of, and since many ensembles already had to fundraise for instruments, costs and accessibility would have also been important factors. 

Amy Beach’s “Gaelic Symhpony,” conducted by JoAnn Falletta

That said, there were also many women composers in the 20th century writing orchestral works on both sides of the Atlantic.  Unfortunately, their music was not programmed much during their lifetimes and many of their works are still not well known today.

Some key composers from the United States include Amy Beach, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Florence Price.  In London, the Society of Women Musicians hosted a concert series that promoted works by women composers, and some of their key contributors included Katharine Eggar, Ethel Smyth, and Rebecca Clarke.  

Back to Reality

I keep returning to this question: If there were so many women active in the classical music scene, why didn’t I learn about them in school?  None of the ensembles mentioned above appeared in my music history textbook from college, which only acknowledged that women weren’t allowed in ensembles prior to this time period with a single sentence.  And its section on 20th century music in the United States only included one paragraph about Amy Beach, a passing note about Helen May Butler (a composer, conductor, and pioneer in women’s brass bands), and no mentions of any other female composers.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind that have affected the way that female musicians are remembered in history: musician’s unions at the time didn’t provide as much support to women as they did to their male members.  There were also a lot of newspaper articles by music critics that treated these women like showgirls or made commentary on their beauty and appearance rather than their hard work and professionalism.  Lastly, limiting beliefs around which instruments were suitable for women meant that they had to take private lessons or teach themselves how to play winds and brass in order to fill out those sections.  Those aspects of music education were not typically accessible to women in conservatories, and university curricula can be heavily influenced by the demographics of people who are in charge of the colleges and/or donate significant amounts of money.

Equality vs. Equity

Wind and brass lessons weren’t the only music-related subjects that early 20th century women couldn’t access through formal education – many also had to learn how to manage their ensembles as a business while juggling lives as wives and mothers.  So many of their experiences have resonated with me in a way that stories about lives of other historical musicians haven’t – from young ladies fighting stereotypes based on the way that they’re dressed to women juggling limited options for employment due to family obligations.  I’d previously attributed those differences to time and culture, but I’m beginning to wonder how much of that distanced feeling is the perspective of gender bias too. 

The Women’s Orchestra Movement is often framed as a fight for equality – but what would it look like if our goal was equity instead?

If women face unique challenges in their careers as classical musicians as a result of Western gender roles, what did we really lose in terms of behind-the-scenes support networks and communities once these groups disbanded?  Since many of these women learned privately, the contributions to music education they developed in the process of forming these ensembles would’ve never reached universities and conservatories once mixed-gender groups became the norm.  So what lessons and conversations are young women missing out on having with female teachers and mentors that could help support them in today’s musical world? 

Learning about women’s orchestras felt really bittersweet – on one hand, it’s nice to feel solidarity with women who experienced many of the same struggles as modern female musicians, and inspiring to learn about how they fought for progress.  On the other hand, it’s sad to see that despite their best efforts, we still have a long way to go.  How did they envision the 21st century?  Would they be excited to learn that about 40% of students currently enrolled in US university music programs identify as women?  Or would they be sad to hear that despite that, only 21.7% of principal players in leading orchestras are female?  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need more spaces to learn from each other and tell our stories in order to make sure that this kind of history, and the progress that came from it, wasn’t all for nothing. 


If this article has sparked your interest and you’d like to learn more about women’s orchestral traditions, check out the following (unaffiliated & unsponsored) links!

To read more about women’s orchestras, there’s some great info in “American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century,” edited by John Spitzer.  A good portion of the chapter on women’s orchestras is accessible online via the link above.

One of these women’s orchestras is still around today – the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra!  Check out the link above to learn more about their organization & upcoming performances.

If you’re curious how women’s music clubs have evolved, check out the Ladies’ Musical Club of Seattle – an organization from my hometown that was founded in 1891 and is still active today!


And if you’d like to listen to more symphonic works by contemporary women composers, the following pieces are a great place to start 🙂