Women in orchestras

Mrs Marj Bowman (centre) and her musical sisters, all members of the Pether family.

The ABC’s Limelight magazine on classical music rejoiced that most orchestras had as many women as men. and wondered why. I think I have part of the answer, and my letter was published in the February issue as the letter of the month.


Dear Mr Merson

There may be a reason why most orchestras in our post-patriarchal world have 50% women (Limelight, December 2012). I have just researched the musical life of my childhood music teacher Mrs Bowman. As Marjorie Pether, she was a foundation cellist in the WASO’s predecessor, the Perth Symphony Orchestra from its 1931inception. By 1941 she was seated in the first cellist’s chair. She always used to tell me modestly that she was promoted to first cellist because ‘the men had gone off to war’.

However, in the archives of the J.S. Battye Library in Perth, there is a note that women in orchestras were exempt from the ban on married women in paid positions in the public service. Photos from the 1930s show about 40% women in the PSO, in any case a more generous proportion than other contemporary institutions and work-places.

Their early history must have made it easier for orchestras to build to 50:50 women and men. Woman musicians started out in strength and continued in that key.

[My article on Marjorie Pether “Music in the Bush” (working title) will be in the Mar/Apr or May/Jun 2013 edition of Inside History.]

Ted Witham

Broadwater, Western Australia

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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