By Robyn Bramhall — Our author is a WPA Board Member and Secretary who has been involved with WPA since our inception, and who also worked with The Women’s Philharmonic for almost the entirety of its influential and important lifespan, including serving as its President.
Today we celebrate the birth of Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), English composer, memoirist and suffragist. Hers was the first biography of a woman composer I had ever seen – surprising to me as I was an avid feminist who had already graduated with a degree in music history from USC. I had heard briefly about Smyth in the summer of 1977, during a conference on women in music held at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, and it was that conference that inspired my next academic move: I had just started graduate school at UCLA, intending to study the sociology of women in music. Maybe that conference was also the reason that the first-edition copy of Ethel Smyth: A Biography (Longman’s 1959) caught my eye as I shelved books during my shift at Theodore Front Musical Literature in Beverly Hills. The dust cover featured a copy of Smyth’s portrait by John Singer Sargent, which shows young Ethel with her eyes looking slightly upward, her mouth open as if singing, and her arms forward as if playing a piano. I was compelled to learn more!
Within a year after reading Smyth’s biography, I had lost my positions at Theodore Front’s and UCLA, and had moved with my musician girlfriend to the Bay Area, where I kept afloat as a temp secretary. My fascination with Dame Ethel was so deep, and my bafflement at her seeming disappearance from music history so troubling, that I saved enough money to spend a full month in London in 1980 to learn more about the woman and her music. By the time I was halfway through that cold November of walks and bus rides to publishing houses, bookstores, the BBC, the British Library, Ethel’s final home town of Woking, and only a few of the must-visit tourist spots (which my B&B friend, another American, insisted I see), I was convinced that this woman was worthy not only of a place in music history, but also a place in both women’s history and queer history.
The story of Ethel Smyth’s role in British women winning the right to vote has been well told elsewhere, including by Smyth herself in her several memoirs. If you haven’t read of her committed friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst, her time in Holloway Prison, or her composing of the music to the suffragist anthem, “The March of the Women,” I recommend you make a note to do so.
The role of Ethel Smyth in queer history is less obvious, although not in the way many people think. Throughout her life, and in her writings, she was very clear about her attraction to women being a strong drive – despite the fact that so many of the objects of her fervor snubbed her advances, especially in her later years. Among the male sex, only Henry Brewster received Ethel’s romantic affection, and it was this relationship that was to blossom and last the longest, until Brewster’s death in 1908. Despite this truest of her loves being a man, Smyth is very often referred to as a Lesbian rather than the more suitable term, bisexual.
If Dame Ethel had described herself as Lesbian, I would honor her preference and let it stand at that. After all, many of us who consider ourselves Lesbian have had liaisons with one or more men, some for long periods of time, even in marriage. However, when program annotators or scholars look for a word to characterize this Victorian iconoclast, they very often settle on Lesbian. Why? Does it sound more naughty and anti-establishment, as she appeared by frequently dressing in tweed suits, with mannish ties and hats? Is it because any sensible bisexual in her situation would have married the well-off, cultured and attractive Henry Brewster? Certainly there were plenty of women in Victorian England who were married to men and yet carried on with other women (as their husbands frequently carried on with other men). And Ethel did spend a few weeks engaged, at an early age, to Willy Wilde, brother of Oscar – but broke it off before it became public. By the time she and Brewster had solidified their relationship enough to consider marriage, Ethel had firmly decided that marriage to anyone could derail her career as a composer.
Despite her resistance to marriage, the fact remains that the person she loved more than anyone, and with whom she had a deep intellectual, romantic, artistic and sexual relationship, was a man. I hope that we can respect that truth, starting on her birthday, by using a term that is true to her nature – when we feel a need to mention her sexuality at all: bisexual.