Women and Music Summary, 1920

Here’s a summary of doozy of a paper that was presented in 1920 in Britain. In it, women were accused of reversing the progress of an entire art form, stealing opportunities from men, and having minds only good for receiving ideas rather than producing them. So far I haven’t come across anything that suggests more than a few people of this era believed this nonsense, but the fact that this paper was even presented, and considered worthy of summary in The Musical Times as late as 1920, certainly says something.

This is from 1 March 1920 The Musical Times.


Mr. James Swinburne’s paper, ‘Women and Music,’ read on January 13, proved to contain much matter for discussion. He took the line that the generally accepted idea that women were the musical sex was wrong, and that until it was given up England would remain an unmusical country. He did not desire to belittle their attainments, or to deny that there were able women musicians; but in discussing half mankind it was necessary to generalise. Brain power was coupled with large brain, and men had on the average larger brains than women, and their brains used more and richer blood. Intellect might be divided broadly into two kinds – Receptive and Productive. Everyone had both types of mind, but the proportions varied as well as the quantities of each. The receptive mind involved what was called a good memory; the productive mind not only possessed that, but its characteristic was that it compared facts or ideas and developed new ones. Women had nearly always the receptive mind only, while the productive was almost peculiar to men, though a very large proportion had receptive minds only. Women were behind in composition, and shone best as pure executants. They had done nothing in any mental branch of music. The cultivation of music by women not only did not help the art in its development, it kept it back actively. Women took no interest in the art as such; they were concerned solely with their own performances. They did not explore music for themselves; they only took up what they had heard before. They did not read the musical papers, still less did they read musical books, which was the reason why there was so little musical literature in this country, nothing compared with that in Germany, where men devoted attention to music. The assumption that women were musical had two main effects. It wasted the time of innumerable women, but the greater evil was that parents thought their daughters should be instructed in music and not their sons. Small boys were thus left, and one may hear men regretting in later life that they were never taught.

Following the paper was an animated discussion, the chairman (Dr. J.E. Borland), Dr. Yorke Trotter, and others warmly controverting the lecturer’s assertions.


Yes, one hopes they were warmly controverted, indeed.

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