Feminist awakenings are special moments. Nothing is more incredible in the classroom than seeing something click into place for students, where their world-view is shifted so they see just how much of an impact gender has on their lives. As such, it was certainly a privilege to observe something of a feminist awakening happening for a community of art and classical music scholars and practitioners at the Women in the Creative Arts conference. An indicator that this was what was taking place was when one of the keynote speakers, Professor Cat Hope from Monash University, shared her own very recent feminist awakening with the listeners. She admitted during her talk that she had no background in gender studies or any particular knowledge of gender theory, and that it was only in the last few years that she had really started to appreciate that gender might be an issue in the music world. This realisation, though, was clearly now a driving force in her work. The response to her keynote, which brought together recent data demonstrating exactly how much of an issue gender is (both in the creative industries and in Australian society more broadly), showed that this information was clearly eye opening to many of the attendees. This is not to suggest that the idea of gender being an issue was new to those at the conference; most of the papers focused on the problems being encountered in this area. Rather, there was a sense that those undertaking such work, or experiencing discrimination as practitioners, had been disconnected from one another, or felt isolated, and that the connections being made at this event were the start of a sense of shared experience, a validation of this experience, and created the potential for collective action to be taken to fight for change.
The papers delivered at the parallel sessions certainly delivered many reasons for change to be seen as necessary. A number of speakers delivered papers on their own practice and experiences in the creative arts that focused on barriers they had encountered. Felicity Wilcox and Jessica Wells both examined the experiences of women screen composers and the difficulties they have had breaking into this highly guarded area. Other papers took a more historical approach, providing further examples of ways in which women’s contribution to music making is so often left out of the history books. Pegah Varamini and Mark Shepheard both drew upon historical paintings to illustrate women’s participation in music making, in Iran and Italy respectively. Shepheard’s paper focusing on composer Barbara Strozzi told a story of women in the 1600s being locked out of the arts and vilified when they managed to still find a way in, in a way that could have been told about today in many ways. Other papers focused on ways that women find ways to bend, break and change the rules in art. Megan Berry’s paper on the gender subversions contained in the performances of St. Vincent was insightful, and one of the most theoretically informed presentations I was lucky enough to see.
Despite the ‘creative arts’ emphasis of the conference call-out, the vast majority of the papers given were focused on music, generally in the art and classical areas. There were, however, some stand-out sessions that went in different directions. Liz Giuffre, Sarah Attfield and Becky Bennison held a panel on ‘Developing the next generation of women in Creative Arts’, looking at issues in education in secondary and tertiary institutions. This wide-ranging discussion covered creative writing and journalism, as well as girls’ engagement with music technologies at high school. The discussants canvassed a range of problems they faced as educators, both in terms of piquing girls’ and women’s interest in the topics they teach, and making sure they are suitably equipped for industries that they know have gender biases. Giuffre’s discussion of how she has tried to push back against gendered expectations as a journalist – for example, editors’ expectations that women artists be asked questions about women’s issues even though this may not be relevant to their work – and how she can use these experiences in teaching was particularly insightful. The takeaway message of the panel, which was that so many of the problems encountered in the creative arts in terms of gender have their roots (at least partly) in what happens in education, was well made.
The conference call for papers also incorporated a call for proposals by performers and composers and as such had a fascinating series of performances integrated into it. This included a conference recital by the Muses Trio, which featured new music by women composers from around the globe and clearly demonstrated the talent and creativity that women are bringing to the table in the world of music. The celebration of women’s work on many different levels that the conference allowed for culminated in a final session where plans started to be formulated to take the energy created at this event forward, starting with a commitment for the conference to be held again next year. The sense of frustration and anger at the difficulties faced by women in the creative arts that so many of the attendees at the conference clearly experienced was ultimately balanced by the excitement, mutual support and appreciation of what women are capable of that was generated. The outcomes of this event will be fascinating to watch unfold.