How Women Are Seen


This week I listened through Women musicians -study days, arranged by the University of Arts History Forum and the DocMus and MuTri doctoral schools. The days included a multitude of topics, all somehow connected to the women in music -theme. Listening to the speakers, I noticed that at some point all of them seemed to be talking about the same thing - how women are seen.

This isn't just about physical appearance, although it does play a part. How women are seen is a question that opens up and leads to dozens of others - questions of morality, professionalism, gender norms, notions of class, sex, and so on ad infinitum.


Here's me trying to shed light on some parts of the question, using the age-old dualism of madonna and whore.


Many of the presentations focused on historical women from the 19th and early 20th century. As we all know, in those times the concept of what was "proper" was especially potent for women, and created plenty of barriers, rules, and restrictions of behaviour. Samuli Korkalainen spoke about how women were silenced in churches - the bible says women should be quiet in the congregation, and this was taken quite literally in Finland about a hundred years ago. For women, singing was forbidden. The question of how women are seen expands to how they are heard - or whether they have a right to be heard at all. In churches they certainly didn't, but they could be church organists, if they applied for a special licence. Juha Torvinen talked about Maria Castrén, the first female cantor in Finland, who did exactly that (and didn't sing).

The keynote by professor Susanna Välimäki introduced us to multiple Finnish female composers from the "long 19th century". (She's preparing a book about them with Nuppu Koivisto - check out their articles in FMQ.) During the keynote we met Anna Blomqvist, who never got a post as a singing teacher because less qualified male applicants were always preferred over her - Lilli Thuneberg, who became a wealthy woman by composing educational music for children, but who has been excluded from Finnish music history because children's music isn't Important Music - Ingeborg von Bronsart, who had to give up her international career as a pianist because her husband's job requirements prohibited his wife from pursuing a public career - and so on. A proper wife stayed at home with the children, kept her head down.

Margaret Kilpinen was one of the few women who managed to be both a wife and a performer. Margit Rahkonen introduced composer Yrjö Kilpinen's wife as an artist in her own right, whose peformances were mainly promotions of her husband's work. Yrjö was a popular lied composer, and Margaret was the pianist who accompanied singers who sang them. Since she didn't so much shine a light on herself, but rather performed to champion her husband the musical genius, it was "proper" for her to be in the public eye. The wife as the supporter, the quiet force behind her husband.

The noblest woman of them all was the unattainable love-object of the troubadours. Liisamaija Hautsalo spoke about Kaija Saariaho's opera L'amour de loin, which is a story of a troubadour loving a woman from afar. The troubadour culture produced fabulous poetry, and this loving from afar was seen as the noblest, purest form of love. Hautsalo provides an alternative view of troubadour as stalker. From today's perspective the setting seems problematic indeed - a man decides to admire a certain woman, and proceeds to compose poetry and songs for her, follow her around, haunt her, all for love. Nobody asks how the woman feels about the situation, and so the highest form of love reduces her to a mere object of desire, whereas the man retains all the power of action, agency, thought and want. The woman as an empty vessel into which male desire is poured. A true madonna.


The church fathers, the ones who didn't let women sing in churches, obviously didn't like the idea of female priests. One of the main lines of opposition was pregnancy. How would it look, a pregnant priest? Indecent, vulgar, hideous, it would direct men's thoughts towards sex when they were supposed to think about God. The woman's body provoked dirty thoughts, so it had to be kept hidden. Even playing the cello was seen as an indecent act, since in order to play it you had to spread your legs. A woman spreading her legs in front of men - what a whore.

Nina Öhman spoke about the beginnings of the Finnish jazz scene in the 20s and 30s, and the role of women in it. Surprise, surprise, the (attractive) women singers of the early days were seen as a threat to the proper society - their "modern" ways were dangerously alluring, and of course it was impossible for men to resist their siren calls.

This has always been a great mystery to me, by the way: If women are seen as far too hormonal and emotional for certain jobs and men are seen as more rational, then how is it that men are not responsible for not being able to control themselves around women, and women are expected to be the responsible party in sexual assault cases? Shouldn't men then be seen as too unreliable and hormonal for certain demanding jobs?

The attractiveness of a woman is easily used against her.  Telling a female pianist her playing is "sexy" undermines in five seconds all of her hard work and education, and reduces her to a fantasy object. So if you want to belittle a woman's professional achievements, focus on her looks. Ingeborg von Bronsart was so famous a musician that Wagner himself mentioned her in his memoir - or rather her aryan good looks and gorgeous hair. The Finnish violinist and composer Agnes Tschetschulin formed a string quartet with other brilliant women musicians of her day, and the European press couldn't get past the fact that four women were playing. Four women! It deserved five exclamation marks on a headline. And people were worried how their brains would cope with Beethoven. They were but women, after all.

Many female singers used to get signed off as nightingales, who by the way are very dull-looking birds with a very loud, aggressive song. Anyway, comparing female singers to little birds downplayed their maturity as artists, but it could be an effective marketing strategy as well - soprano Aulikki Rautawaara was but one of many to use "nightingale" in concert advertising. Anna Ramstedt brought out another bird-connotation in her presentation, where a violin teacher had lamented their student lacking a delicate, birdlike bone structure (apparently desirable for a violinist). The woman as a delicate, birdlike thing, in need of protection.

Talking about branding, one fine example today is Yuja Wang. She might say that she just dresses as she wants, that may well be the case, but I'd still like to point out that she's also branded herself very succesfully. Her distinct style divides opinion and provokes discussion, therefore making her easy to remember. Of course she is first and foremost a formidable pianist, but in the crowded market of today one needs to stand out somehow. Some people think she looks like a whore, but then in the history of humankind, most scarily bright women have been dismissed in a similar way. So I guess there's a compliment hidden in there somewhere.

Being free

Women have tried to escape the madonna-whore -dualism in various ways. In the 19th century many female composers published under pseudonyms, or in their brother's or husband's name, to avoid being judged as women. Laura Netzel was M. Lago, Mélanie Bonis shortened her name to the androgynous Mel, etc. Then there were the women who had to renounce their gender or apply for "liberation from their gender" to be able to do things in the society - Maria Castrén, the first female cantor in Finland, was allowed to start working only after she applied for this "liberation". Studies in the university in the early 20th century were possible for women only with a special permission, and the same "liberation". Being free from being a woman - what does that even mean?

Only a couple of musical giants have managed to soar over the gender discussion - during these study days we heard of two: Clara Schumann and Kaija Saariaho. Clara managed by being one of the greatest concert pianists of her time, and Kaija Saariaho began her escape by telling journalists they're not allowed to talk about her gender. Saariaho also became one of the greatest composers of her time, which probably helped.