Women Orchestral Conductors in America: The Struggle for Acceptance—An Historical View from the Nineteenth Century to the Present

October 1, 1998


Orchestral conducting has been the latest door of opportunity to open for women in the field of music. Although women have been actively involved in performance, composition, teaching, and patronage from the history of the ancient Greeks to the present, their accomplishments and contributions have often passed unvalued.1 Female musicians have endured more than their share of discrimination, and many women conductors continue to struggle in a profession that is often still perceived as male-dominated. The role of American women orchestral conductors and the accomplishments they have achieved from both a historical and contemporary vantage point will be documented.


Gender Discrimination

In order to appreciate the path trodden by women conductors, the traditional status of women and their role in society and in music must be examined. Early American women existed in primarily an agricultural society where young women were expected to become home-keepers, bear children for family labor, and perform daily domestic duties. Such restrictions were, of course, based on European precedent. Even Martin Luther declared that "women should stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon."2 Women were further denied the right to vote and to hold political office and consequently succumbed to socially approved patterns of behavior.

The modern feminist movement in America began around 1848 when both women and men expressed their annoyance at the lack of woman's political rights, her legal status in marriage, disadvantages in education and employment, and a general resentment of the stereotypes that characterized women.3 Suffrage privileges were finally granted to women during the early twentieth century, and feminism began to subside after the 1920's. The 1960's and early 70's witnessed a resurgence of woman's groups, which remains strong today.

Higher education was often left unpursued by young women deeming it useless when they would marry and care for home and children. The idea of educated women was initially accepted when women's colleges were popularized in the mid-nineteenth century.4 Schools outside of female institutions remained slow in admitting women. Near the end of the century more young women were waiting longer before marriage and began entering the work force. Most, however, were excluded from professional fields and were destined to work in factories with the exceptions of teaching and writing. Even then most women were restricted to elementary teaching positions, and many early writers felt compelled to write under a pseudonym in order to have their work published.


Emergence of Women Musicians

Desire to Perform

Women, initially, were not encouraged to play professionally because it was considered inappropriate by society. Women were further considered neither strong enough nor skilled enough to play instruments other than the piano, or to survive grueling rehearsal schedules. Despite this, a new attitude was adopted by women aspiring to become professionals in the field of music. "I cannot ask for the right to succeed; I can ask only for the right to try on equal terms."5 Up until 1600 when opera began, most women practiced music in the privacy of their homes, often entertaining their husbands' guests. It is ironic that in Medieval times women were not allowed to perform in the Roman Catholic Church, yet a woman, Saint Cecilia, was made the Patron Saint of music.6 Clara Schumann (1819-96) demonstrated the capable endurance and talent of a woman by providing support to Robert while at the same time attempting to pursue her own interests in composing and performing and managing household duties for eight children.7 History shows that women have been performing on instruments for many eras. In eighteenth century Venice there were all-female orchestras made up of musically trained orphans. In the early twentieth century women's music clubs were organized to provide a forum for women trained as musicians but unable to practice music as a profession.8


All-Female Orchestras in the United States

Women were not employed by orchestras because of society's sexist view towards a woman's presumed lack of musical ability and commitment. To break down this apparent employment barrier, women created their own opportunities by founding and organizing all-female orchestras. One of the earliest established orchestras was the Vienna Ladies Orchestra organized in 1867 by Josephine Weimlich. One reviewer seemed to be more impressed by the attractiveness of the women than by the fact that they were accomplished musicians.9 This unfortunate mental disposition based on the stereotyped physical and mental qualities of women was too often adopted by both genders.

One of the most prominent and longest surviving professional all-female orchestras was the Fadette Women's Orchestra of Boston founded and conducted by Caroline B. Nichols in 1888 in order to provide employment for herself and other female musicians. Men were also influential in supporting female orchestras such as the Los Angeles Women's Symphony founded in 1893 under the direction of Henry Hamilton, and the Philadelphia Women's Symphony Orchestra founded in 1921 and conducted by J. W. F. Lehman. Other men and women influential in establishing all-female symphony orchestras are outlined in Table 1.


Table 1
Women's Orchestras* in the United States, 1925-45

Los Angeles
Woman's Orchestra
Los Angeles Woman's
Symphony Orchestra
California Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Philadelphia Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Woman's
Symphony Orchestra

Woman's Symphony
Orchestra of Chicago

[New York] American
Women's Symphony

Long Beach [California]
Women's Symphony

Boston Woman's
Symphony Orchestra

[New York] National
Women's Symphony

[New York] Orchestrette
Orchestrette of New
York 1941-43

Portland [Oregon]
Women's Symphony

New York Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Cleveland Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Cleveland Women's Little
Symphony Orchestra

Pittsburgh Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Stockton [California]
Women's Sinfonetta

Baltimore Women's
String Orchestra

Women's Concert
Ensemble of Chicago

St. Louis Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Women's Chamber
Orchestra of New York

Women's Symphony
of Mason City [Iowa]

[Boston] Commonwealth
Women's Symphony
Orchestra (WPA)

Women's Symphony
Orchestra of Minneapolis

Boston Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Pittsburgh Women's
String Sinfonetta

All-Feminine Ensemble
of Pittsburgh's Tuesday
Symphony Orchestra

Musical Clubs

Montreal [Canada]
Women's Symphony

New York Woman's
Symphony Orchestra

Detroit Women's
Symphony Orchestra































After WWII





c. 1955




c. 1942










Still active
in 1985










Henry Hamilton, 1893-c.1913
Henry Schoenefeld, c.1913-?
C. D. Gianfoni, 1930's
William Ulrich, 1937-39
Ruth Haroldson, 1939-61

J. W. F. Lehman

Elena Moneak

Richard Czerwonky, 1924-27
Ethel Leginska, 1927-29
Ebba Sundstrom, 1929-38
Gladys Welge, 1938-?
Izler Solomon, 1940-44
Jerry Bojanowski, 1944-45

Elizabeth Kuyper

Eva Anderson

Ethel Leginska

Ethel Leginska

Frédérique Petrides

D'Zama Murielle

Antonia Brico

Hyman Schandler

Ruth Sandra Rothstein

Carl Simonis

Virginia L. Short

Stephen Deak, 1936 - ?
Wolfgang Martin ?

Fanny Arnsten-Hassler

Edith Gordon

Jeannette Scheerer

Marjorie B. Smith

Solomon Branslavsky
Ruth Kemper

Harry Anderson

Stanley Hassel
Alexander Thiede

Gwen Treasure

Margaret Horne

Ethel Stark

Maxim Walde

Victor Kolar, 1947-57

* Note: In the 1920's and earlier the term Woman's Orchestra was preferred; in the 1930's Women's Orchestra became common.

Source: Reprinted from Women Making Music by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, 351-53.


In 1903 discrimination against women orchestral players declined somewhat when the Musical Union in New York became affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.10 This merger compelled authorities to accept qualified women musicians as members. Gustave Kerker, Musical Director at the Casino Theater, was disgusted at the Union's 1903 decision:

It would be like oil and water to put men and women in the same organization. Nature never intended the fair sex to become cornetists, trombonists, and players of wind instruments. In the first place they are not strong enough to play them as well as men; they lack the lip and lung power to hold notes which deficiency makes them always play out of tune. One discordant musician might not be noticed in an orchestra, but if you have several women members or a whole band composed of them, the playing verges on the excruciating!11

In 1916 Josef Stransky, conductor of the New York Symphony, confessed that he did not object to women in his orchestra, but that they would have to be "better players than the men who apply for the same positions."12 In the 1940's Sir Thomas Beecham declared, "I do not like, and never will, the association of men and women in orchestras and other instrumental combinations . . . As a member of the orchestra once said to me, 'If she is attractive I can't play with her and if she is not I won't.'"13 In defense of these former positions Leopold Stokowski, an English-born American conductor, claimed that "not hiring women was a waste of splendid power."14

Despite the Union's decision, there was no substantial increase in hiring female musicians until the practice of blind auditions in the mid-twentieth century. As a result of the existing sexism, female orchestras continued to grow and between 1925 and 1945 there were approximately thirty 80-piece female orchestras established. In 1980 the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic, which still exists today under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, was founded for the purpose of promoting women conductors and performances of compositions by women.


World War II Opens New Doors

When World War II erupted, labor shortages allowed women employment in male orchestras, which in turn prompted the dissipation of all-female orchestras.15 When the War ended, many female musicians found themselves unemployed once again, but instead of returning to all-female orchestras, women began lobbying support for inclusion in male orchestras which eventually led to the practice of blind auditions. Although trained women musicians were more likely to be hired now, they unjustly received an average $500 less than men without music degrees.16


Emergence of Women Conductors

Sexism and Conducting

History illustrates not only women's involvement with performing and composing, but also their involvement with conducting. As early as the Renaissance Tarquinia Molza organized and conducted her own women's orchestra at the Italian court of Ferrara.17 Sexism, unfortunately, prevailed in the medium of conducting. Amy Fay, the American concert pianist and lecturer, writing about her stay in Germany from 1869 to 1875 expressed the following:

Did you read my letter to N.S., in which I told her about Alicia Hund, who composed and conducted a symphony? All the men were highly disgusted because she was allowed to conduct the orchestra herself. I didn't think myself that it was a very becoming position, though I had no prejudice against it. Somehow, a woman doesn't look well with a baton in her hand directing a body of men. 18

It was opinions such as these that set a biased precedent for years to follow.

Regardless of the paths pursued by earlier women conductors, prejudiced notions still prevail in contemporary times. Eve Queler, born in 1936 in New York City, serves as conductor of the Opera Orchestra of New York. Queler has received many conducting opportunities throughout the United States and abroad, and was the first woman to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, and Hartford Symphony. Queler recalls that, "One of our leading artist managers stated at a meeting that women with good figures have a problem on the podium because they are sex symbols. It is painful to repeat these stories, but one day this kind of attitude will end, and music will be the winner."19 Judith Somogi (1937-88) was also actively involved with choral directing, but received orchestral guest conducting opportunities with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1975 and other American orchestras. She was appointed music director of the Utica (New York) Symphony in 1977. She too admitted that, "As one of the few conductors who happen to be women, I would be less than frank if I pretended there have not been problems because of my sex."20

Margaret Hillis, born in Indiana in 1921, was fortunate to have been exposed to the arts by her parents, which subsequently inspired her interests as a conductor. When she graduated from Indiana University in 1947, the dean of the school of music remarked to her parents, "Your daughter's a talented conductor. Too bad she doesn't wear pants."21 Even the composer Bernard Heiden (born 1910) recognized her for her talents but recommended that she pursue choral conducting as a back door to orchestral conducting.22

Sarah Caldwell, a pioneer conductor, was born in 1924 in Missouri and made her conducting debut in 1976 as the first female conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. Although most of her conducting career resided with the Boston Opera, she made appearances with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Toronto Symphony. Caldwell was a rather large woman with a deep, powerful voice. This may have proved advantageous for her in prejudiced situations. One of her musicians remarked that, "if she'd been a babe we'd have walked right over her."23 In comparison, author Robert Jones remarks that "it is worth noting that Antonia Brico, another pioneer conductor, whose extremely promising career foundered when she was thirty and sexually attractive, is now flourishing when she is seventy-two, craggy-faced, and sensible-shoed."24 Sexism continued to exist as a barrier to many women aspiring to become performers or conductors. This variable presented a situation that denied deserved opportunities to many, yet evoked a resolute spirit in others to attain recognition for their capabilities. It is imperative to recognize many of these pioneer conductors for their stamina, perseverance, patience, and talent pursued in the face of discrimination by both genders.


Early Twentieth Century Women Conductors

The first emergence of women orchestral conductors in the United States occurred in the 1920's due to increased conducting opportunities from the growth and popularity of all-female orchestras.25 Women conductors were few because they lacked training and were perceived as being submissive and incapable of possessing the stronger attributes required of a conductor. If women did possess such attributes, they were often scorned for acting unfeminine. Table 2 outlines some of the more notable women conductors of the early twentieth century.


Table 2
Early Twentieth Century Women Conductors in the United States

Orchestral Ensembles

Fadette Woman's Orchestra of Boston

Boston Woman's Symphony Orchestra
Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago
[New York] National Women's Symphony

Los Angeles Woman's Symphony Orchestra
California Women's Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Woman's Symphony Orchestra

Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago

[New York] American Women's
Symphony Orchestra

Long Beach [California] Women's
Symphony Orchestra

[New York] Orchestrette Classique
Orchestrette of New York 1941-43

New York Women's Symphony Orchestra
(renamed Brico Symphony in 1938)

Cleveland Women's Little Symphony

Stockton [California] Women's Sinfonetta

Women's Concert Ensemble of Chicago

St. Louis Women's Symphony Orchestra

Women's Chamber Orchestra of New York

Women's Symphony of Mason City [Iowa]

[Boston] Commonwealth Women's
Symphony Orchestra (WPA)

Pittsburgh Women's String Sinfonetta

All-Feminine Ensemble of Pittsburgh's
Tuesday Symphony Orchestra


1926 - 1930
1927 - 1929

1939 - 1961

1924 - 1928

1929 - 1938
1938 - ?

1924- 1925

1925 - 1948

1932 - 1943

1934 - 1938

1935 - 1936

1936 - 1938

1936 - 1938

1937 - 1941

1937 - 1941

1937 - 1945


1938 - 1939


Caroline B. Nichols (1864 -1939)

Ethel Leginska (1886 - 1970)

Ruth Haroldson (1909 - 1982)

Elena Moneak

Ebba Sundstrom (1896 - 1963)
Gladys Welge

Elizabeth Kuyper

Eva Anderson (1893 - 1985)

Frédérique Petrides (1903 - 1983)

Antonia Brico (1902 - 1989)

Ruth Sandra Rothstein

Virginia L. Short

Fanny Arnsten-Hassler

Edith Gordon

Jeannette Scheerer

Marjorie B. Smith

Ruth Kemper

Gwen Treasure

Margaret Horne

Source: The information compiled in the table was selected from:

1. Women composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies 3 vols. by Jane Weiner LePage (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988).

2. Evening the Score: Women in Music and the Legacy of Frédérique Petrides by Jan Bell Groh (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1991).

Caroline B. Nichols (1864-1939) is noted as one of the first orchestral conductors when she established in 1888 the Fadette Woman's Orchestra of Boston, which frequently toured both the United States and Canada.26 English-born Ethel Leginska (1886-1970) was one of the most colorful conductors with her influence on both the orchestra and the audience.27 She came to the United States in 1912 as a concert pianist and pursued a career in conducting in 1924. In October, 1924 she conducted the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, and in November she led the London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and Munich Konzertverein. She also had conducting engagements with the New York Symphony Orchestra, the People's Symphony of Boston, and the Los Angeles Symphony. In 1926 she founded a 100-man Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, which lasted only one season; conducted the Boston Women's Symphony Orchestra, which lasted until 1930; and the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago from 1927-28. In 1932 Leginska founded the National Women's Symphony in New York, but it too only enjoyed a short season. Of notable interest is that Leginska was the first woman to conduct in Carnegie Hall.

Another notable pioneer is Antonia Brico (1902-89) whose autobiography is documented in the film Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman.28 Brico was born in Holland and moved to California with her foster parents. She was graduated in 1923 from the University of California at Berkeley and made her conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930. Germany, Poland, and other European countries offered her further conducting experience. In 1930 she conducted the Los Angeles and San Francisco Symphonies, and made her first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House with the Musicians Symphony Orchestra. Brico continued to conduct a second concert here, but was denied a third because the baritone John Charles Thomas refused to perform under the direction of a woman. (Ironically, however, Thomas agreed to work with Leginska the very next year.) Brico received many other conducting opportunities: the Detroit Symphony in 1934, the National Symphony in 1935, and the New York Civic Opera at Brighton Beach in 1936. In 1935 she founded the New York Women's Symphony and renamed it the Brico Symphony when she opened its membership to men in 1938. Brico was also the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1938. Arthur Judson, manager of the New York Philharmonic, initially denied her this performance because he believed the subscribers would not like to see a woman direct. Brico was finally allowed to conduct the concert after having engineered a petition containing 4,000 signatures.29

An additional influential woman in promoting women conductors and performers was Belgium-born Frédérique Petrides (1903-83) whose extensive biography is illustrated in Evening the Score: Women in Music and the Legacy of Frédérique Petrides.30 Petrides came to the United States in 1923 in hopes of establishing a conducting career. With no opportunities, she decided to organize the Orchestrette Classique of New York in 1933 and the Hudson Valley Symphony Orchestra in the 1940's. She published many articles in magazines and appeared on radio talk shows and served as a lecturer.31 In her own article "On Women Conductors," which appeared in American Music Lover, July 1935 she stated:

When one pauses to consider the increasing numbers of young American women who are now studying or who aspire to study in the near future, the art of directing an orchestra, one's conviction grows stronger and stronger that the day is not far distant when the sight of women conductors will no longer evoke feelings of curiosity and surprise. 32

She was further responsible for the production of the newsletter Women in Music, which first appeared on July 1, 1935 with the purpose of relaying the musical role of women as conductors and performers.33 Petrides is remembered for her effort in attempting to bring to the public's attention the discrimination of women in music.


Contemporary Women Conductors

Many contemporary women continue to enter the field of conducting, and there is a slow, yet gradual, emergence of prominent female conductors contracted by professional orchestras. Table 3 outlines some of the currently held positions of women conductors in the United States.


Table 3
Contemporary Women Conductors in the United States

Orchestral Ensembles

Meriden Oratorio Orchestra; Conductor

Frederick Symphony; Music Director
Goucher Chamber Symphony; Music Director

Colorado Symphony; Principal Conductor
Eugene Symphony Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor
Long Island Philharmonic; Music Director
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Creative Chair
Cabrillo Music Festival; Music Director & Conductor

Skagit Valley Symphony; Conductor

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra; Music Director
Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston; Music Director
Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Elgin Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor

New School of Music Orchestra; Conductor

Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra; Musical Director & Conductor

Bowling Green Philharmonia; Music Director

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Principal Guest Conductor
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Artistic Director

Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor

Grand Rapids Symphony; Music Director

Hershey Symphony Orchestra; Music Director
Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Nashville Symphony; Assistant Conductor

Long Island Youth Orchestra; Associate Conductor
North Shore Symphony Orchestra; Music Director/Conductor

Connecticut Chamber Symphony; Music Director

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra; Music Director/Conductor
The Virginia Symphony; Music Director
The Women's Philharmonic; Music Director

St. Joseph Symphony; Music Director & Conductor
Missouri Western Philharmonia

Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra; Conductor

Kennett Symphony Orchestra; Conductor & Music Director

Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra; Assistant Conductor

Greenwich Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra; Music Director
Lafayette Symphony; Music Director/Conductor

Central Iowa Symphony; Music Director & Conductor

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor
Columbus Women's Orchestra; Music Director

New World Chamber Orchestra; Artistic Director

Mid-Peninsula Symphony Orchestra; Assistant Conductor

Pueblo Symphony Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor

Rohnert Park Symphony; Conductor & Music Director
San Francisco State U. Orchestra; Conductor
Stanford Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra; Conductor

Boise Philharmonic; Assistant Conductor
Treasure Valley Youth Symphony; Conductor

Phoenix Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor

New Sussex Symphony; Music Director

Mankato Symphony Orchestra; Conductor

Opera Orchestra of New York

Nova Vista Symphony; Conductor

Central Florida Symphony; Conductor/Music Director

Gotham Chamber Orchestra; Conductor

Fairbanks Symphony/Arctic Chamber Orchestra; Conductor
Fairbanks Youth Symphony; Conductor

DuPage Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; NEA Conductor
Kenosha Symphony Orchestra; Conductor & Music Director
National Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony; Conductor & Music Director

North Jersey Symphony Orchestra; Conductor

Seattle Symphony; Associate Conductor

East Texas Symphony Orchestra; Conductor
Vermont Symphony Orchestra; Music Director

Olympic Youth Symphonies; Conductor
Thalia Symphony & Chamber Symphony; Conductor & Director

Camellia Symphony Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor

Jefferson Symphony Orchestra; Music Director & Conductor

Dallas Symphony; Assistant Conductor

Symphony of Southeast Texas; Music Director & Conductor

Wheeling Symphony; Music Director

Adrian, Sherron

Alfonso, Sebrina Maria

Alsop, Marin

Barraclough, Kathleen Ash

Ben-Dor, Giselle

Blaho, Rebecca

Bond, Victoria

Brooks, Tamara

Brown, Beatrice

Brown, Emily Freeman

Brown, Iona

Carver, Lucinda

Comet, Catherine

Dackow, Sandra

Deal, Karen

Deaver, Susan

Eckstein, Leslie

Falletta, JoAnn

Freedman, Deborah

Gabbi, Marianna

Green, Mary Woodmansee

Habitzruther, Ellen

Handy, Patricia

Harrigan, Anne E.

Holcomb, Paula K.

Hymes, Janna

Kitterman, Susan

Kovacs, Kimberly

La Reau, Marcia

Lemon, J. Karla

Leon, Tania

Myers, Sheila

Otranto, Clotilde

Pinoci, Karen

Pope, Dianne

Queler, Eve

Ray, Emily

Robinson, Susan

Savitch, Dorothy

Schatz, Madeline F.

Schubert, Barbara E.

Schulze, Elizabeth

Tall, Susan Porter

Talvi, Ilkka

Tamarkin, Kate

Walton, Frances

Washburn, Nan

Wilson, Antonia Joy

Wilson, Keri-Lynn

Wittry, Diane M.

Worby, Rachael


Society should be aware of and acknowledge contemporary American conductors for their path-breaking achievements for women. One such American is Beatrice Brown who was the conductor of the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Philharmonic from 1963-70 and directs the Ridgefield Symphony today. In the 1960's she became the first woman to hold an orchestral conducting contract in the Eastern United States. Another "first" is Swiss-born Sylvia Caduff (born 1938) who was the first woman to win the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in 1966 and was soon named assistant to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. She received many guest conducting opportunities throughout America and Europe but returned to Germany in 1977 as director of the Orchestra of the City of Solingen. Giselle Ben-Dor also demonstrates great achievement, having won appointments as music director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston and the Annapolis Symphony in Maryland, and serving as resident conductor of the Houston Symphony from 1988 until 1991. She is presently director of the Orange County Symphony. Rachael Worby, First Lady of West Virginia, has been the conductor of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra since 1986. She has had debuts in Germany and Romania and serves as music director and conductor of Carnegie Hall's Concerts for Young People.

Two of America's most prominent African-American women conductors are Kay George Roberts and Margaret Harris. Roberts was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in orchestral conducting from Yale University and had the opportunity to work with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. She made her professional debut in 1976 with the Nashville Symphony and has since made appearances with the Dayton Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland Symphony. Roberts deals with her double minority discrimination by placing "the unpleasant experiences in a learning drawer."34 Margaret Harris was the first African-American woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony in 1971 and has made appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra, and the Sinfonia of Northern California.

The demonstrated musical influence and ability of women is epitomized by JoAnn Falletta, Catherine Comet and Victoria Bond. JoAnn Falletta (born 1954) is the present music director of the Virginia Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, and Bay Area Women's Philharmonic. She served as associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony and Denver Chamber Orchestra. Catherine Comet currently serves as the director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. When only twenty-two, she won all five prizes at an International Contest for Conductors at Besançon, France. She was associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony from 1984 until 1986, and received various performances with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Victoria Bond (born 1949) was the first woman admitted to Juilliard as a doctoral candidate in orchestral conducting. Her advice to other young conductors emphasizes the necessity of a tenacious spirit:

I would encourage anyone, man or woman, who is interested in conducting to pursue it. It is a long road, since there are many skills which must be mastered before you even hope to stand before an orchestra, but it is tremendously rewarding . . . . In the beginning no one believed that I would make it and assumed that I would quit because it was a field that just wasn't open to women, but I think that I can safely say now that I have proved to them that they were wrong. It can be done, and I know because I am doing it.35

Bond was appointed conducting assistant with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and is presently director of the Roanoke Symphony.

One of the most prominent "path-achieving" American women conductors is Marin Alsop. In 1989 she became the first woman to win the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, and was the first woman to conduct the Boston Pops. Alsop further expresses her interest to conduct seminars for young women conductors. She states, "When a woman makes a certain gesture, it's interpreted differently than when a man makes the same gesture. If a man is gentle and delicate, they say he's sensitive. But if a woman does it, they say she's too feminine."36 Alsop was associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, is music director of the Long Island Philharmonic and conductor of the Eugene (Oregon) Symphony. Today she is also principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and was recently appointed the position of Creative Conductor Chair for the St. Louis Symphony commencing in the 1996-97 season.37


The New Millennium

Present View

The status of contemporary women has changed dramatically in the last century, but a changing attitude towards women musicians, performers and orchestral conductors has been slow to develop. Although orchestras now accept women into their membership, the New York Philharmonic opened its doors to women only in 1966, and the Vienna Philharmonic still denies membership to females. Society appears to have accepted more eagerly women capable of navigating in space and administering government than women capable of conducting an orchestra. A 1989 report stated that not one of the nation's thirty largest orchestras has a woman conductor. Margaret Hillis, however, is optimistic that someone like Catherine Comet could soon move into one of these top positions. Prejudiced beliefs unfortunately stem from early twentieth-century opinions such as that of a music professor who replied that, "like alcohol and driving, homemaking and leading an orchestra do not go together very well."38 Sexism continues to surface as is illustrated by a twentieth-century music critic reported of saying that women were better at conducting buses than orchestras.39 Table 4 outlines some formulations gathered from the gender-based quotes in this paper as well as opinions from the author as to possible reasons why female conductors still remain as a minority in the profession today. Despite these existing isolated prejudices, the status of contemporary women conductors continues to slowly near professional equality in the work force.


Table 4
Possible Reasons Why Female Conductors Remain as a Minority

  • discrimination
    • employers reluctant to hire women
      • distrust in female’s discipline of ensemble
      • maternity leaves
        • inconsistency of ensemble leadership
  • personal career choice
    • may be fewer women applicants
    • salary may be a consideration
  • difficult to manage career and family
    • demand on personal time
      • conducting involves committed hours inclusive of weekdays, evenings, weekends, and holiday events
      • responsibilities of mothering
        • taking children to school, doctor appointments, activities, etc.
  • difficult to adapt/ignore existing stereotyped views
    • women still viewed by many as being:
      • too feminine and weak to appropriately demand discipline of an ensemble
      • too emotional to endure gruelling rehearsals and tours
      • too sensitive to ignore inappropriate comments


An Optimistic Future

American society will carry a spoken or unspoken prejudice towards women orchestral conductors even into the twenty-first century. Yet many women have paved a more promising path for those yet to arrive. Women today are held back more by their own attitudes than by societal restriction if they surrender their talent to sexism and inequality. Legislated human equality rights should further serve as a deterrent to professional limitations imposed by society. A bright future for women orchestral conductors is just around the corner with increased conducting opportunities made available to them. Table 5 gives data gathered from professional music educators and conductors that may serve to offer solutions increasing awareness of female conductors. Falletta is also philosophical about the future of women conductors: "There are more coming up through apprentice programs. We'll see a lot in five to ten years. Conducting involves a long learning process and years in front of community orchestras."40 Margaret Hillis puts it succinctly: "There's only one woman I know of who could never be a symphony conductor, and that's the Venus de Milo."41 Good orchestras should want good conductors regardless of race or gender. Conducting is an extremely competitive and difficult field for either gender to succeed in, and it is imperative that society begin to recognize, value, and support talented women conductors in a profession still harboring discrimination and the burden of tradition.


Table 5
Solutions to Increase Public Awareness of Women Conductors

  • Increase Awareness
    • in Society
      • prominent orchestras with women conductors
      • audio recordings of ensembles directed by female conductors
      • media interviews with women conductors
    • in Schools
      • providing role models for students
        • guest women conductors
          • honor orchestras
          • clinics and workshops
        • observation opportunities
          • concerts
          • audio recordings
          • video recordings
          • classroom discussions and displays
        • conducting symposiums with women conductors
  • Affirmative Action
    • legislated equal rights policies create opportunities for women


This bibliography is by no means a complete record of all the works and sources I have consulted. It indicates the substance and range of reading upon which I have formulated my ideas for this paper, and serves as a resource for those who wish to pursue the study of women conductors and other women in music.



Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980.

"Antonia Brico's Triumph: First of Sex to Wield Baton over N.Y. Philharmonic."Newsweek XII (August 1, 1938), 21.

Atterbury, Betty W. "Old Prejudices, New Perceptions," Music Educators Journal LXXVIII/7 (March 1992), 25-27.

Block, Adrienne Fried, and Carol Neuls-Bates. Women in American Music: A Bibliography of Music and Literature. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Bowers, Jane, and Judith Tick, eds. Women Making Music. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

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1Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980); Adrienne Fried Block and Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in American Music: A Bibliography of Music and Literature (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979); Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds., Women Making Music (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Barbara Jepson, "American Women in Conducting," Music Clubs Magazine LVI/1 (Autumn 1976), 12-16; Jane Weiner LePage, Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies 3 vols. (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988); Carol Neuls-Bates, ed., Women in Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1982); Karin Pendle, ed., Women & Music: A History (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991); Lisa M. Redpath, "Women at the Podium: A Selected Bibliography," Music Reference Services Quarterly I/2 (1992), 59-76.

2Mary Brown Hinley, "The Uphill Climb of Women in American Music: Performers and Teachers," Music Educators Journal LXX/8 (April 1984), 201.

3Robert E. Riegel, American Women: A Story of Social Change (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1970), 214.

4Ibid., 82.

5Jan Bell Groh, Evening the Score: Women in Music and the Legacy of Frédérique Petrides (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1991), 1.

6Arthur Elson, Woman's Work in Music (Boston: L. C. Page & Company, 1913).

7Karin Pendle, ed., Women & Music: A History (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 306.

8Ibid., 307.

9Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 102.

10Ibid., 107.

11Adrienne Fried Block and Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in American Music, 202-03.

12Mary Brown Hinley, "The Uphill Climb . . . ," 34.

13Ibid., 35.


15Karin Pendle, ed., Women & Music: A History, 245.

16Mary Brown Hinley, "The Uphill Climb . . . ," 35.

17Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 101.

18Ibid., 109.

19Robert Jacobsen, "Queler, Somogi, Brico. Wielding Their Batons Too," 12.

20Ibid., 13.

21Mary Brown Hinley, "The Uphill Climb of Women in American Music: Conductors and Composers," Music Educators Journal LXX/9 (May 1984), 43.

22Karin Pendle, ed., Women & Music: A History, 245.

23Robert Jones, "Walking Into the Fire," Opera News XL/14 (February 14, 1976), 11.


25Adrienne Fried Block and Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in American Music, 247.

26Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 103.

27Ibid., 110.

28Judy Collins and Jill Godmillow, directors, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (Rocky Mountain Film Production, 1974).

29Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 112.

30Jan Bell Groh, Evening the Score: Women in Music and the Legacy of Frédérique Petrides (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1991).

31Ibid., 5.

32Ibid., 11.

33Ibid., 5.

34Ellen Sweets, "Conducting Traces Career to Childhood," The Dallas Morning News (June 3, 1994).

35Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 219-20.

36Michael Anthony, "Doors Have Been Kicked Open for Marin Alsop," Star Tribune (April 9, 1993), V:1E.

37This information was supplied from a notice printed in the Orchestralist Internet which may be subscribed to at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

38Karl W. Gehrkens, "Can a Woman Conduct an Orchestra?" Etude LXI (March 1943), 168.

39Anne Senior, "Conductor Proves Women Can Succeed in Male Preserve," Reuter Library Report (March 14, 1988).

40Ken LaFave, "JoAnn Falletta Brings Baton to Symphony," The Phoenix Gazette (March 2, 1994), E3.

41Robert Crew, "Conduct Unbecoming," The Toronto Star (August 6, 1994), K1.

28625 Last modified on October 18, 2018