Women You Missed in History Class: Dame Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

She was a radical feminist who proudly and openly loved women.  She was an avid reader and writer, and she enjoyed sports and outdoor activities.  She had a fashion sense that was all her own and could rock a suit and tie.  She also really, really loved sheepdogs.  Surprisingly, I am not talking about myself.  I’m talking about British composer and suffragist Dame Ethel Smyth.  She was born April 23, 1858 in Kent, England.  Growing up, she was a rebellious girl who enjoyed hunting, tennis, cycling, mountain climbing, and other “unladylike” activities.  She started playing piano when she was ten, and began composing hymns shortly after.  She was determined to become a composer, but her father was vehemently opposed to her chosen career.  Undaunted, Smyth studied music with a private tutor and attended the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany.

Smyth composed six operas, a mass, and dozens of chamber, piano, and orchestral pieces over the course of her career.  She was the first female composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera, and until just a few months ago, the only female composer.  Her work was seldom judged on merits alone, but was judged as the work of a “woman composer.”  Critics said of her opera Der Wald that “This little woman writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to the especial gift of the rougher sex.  There is not a weak or effeminate note in Der Wald, nor an unstable sentiment,” and “Her work is utterly unfeminine. It lacks sweetness and grace of phrase.”  She did earn some high praise, though.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw said “It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do man’s work in art and all other things.”

When she wasn’t busy composing music, Smyth was active in the women’s suffrage movement.  She actually wrote a song called “The March of the Women” which became an anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.  She was good friends with prominent suffragists like Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel.  In March of 1912, militant suffragists in London staged a protest smashing the windows of businesses and political offices that opposed women’s suffrage.  Smyth was one of several women arrested during this demonstration, and was jailed in Holloway prison.  While she was there, several other imprisoned suffragists gathered in the prison yard to sing Smyth’s “The March of the Women,” with Smyth using her toothbrush to conduct the impromptu choir.

In her personal life, Smyth was openly queer.  She had several affairs with women, which she described in detail in her journals and memoirs.  Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf were both objects of her affection, although in the case of Pankhurst, at least, her relationship with the married suffragist seems to have remained platonic.  Hey, we’ve all been there, Ethel; falling for a straight girl is rough.  She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922, the first female composer to receive the honor.  Throughout her life, she was active, athletic, eccentric, feisty, and reportedly did not give a flying fuck what anyone thought of her.

So I don’t know if Dame Ethel Smyth is now your role model in life, but she’s definitely mine.  She once said that “Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to ‘The March of the Women’ from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.”  And for all those reasons and so many more, she deserves a place in the history books.


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