The "Domestic Sphere"?
Women and Music in Home and Club
Parallel to this more or less official, highly institutionalized story runs the more fragmented story of the other half (at least) of America's music lovers, the women, whose patronage and volunteer work is explored in this volume. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, a significant number of them did have substantial money of their own (largely inherited), and in many cases, depending on the laws prevailing at the time in a given state, were free to spend it as they saw fit. In addition, many women influenced the way their husbands' money was disbursed, at least in matters over which they were considered to hold some authority, such as education and, precisely, the cultivation of the arts. The musical initiatives of such women as Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bertha Honoré Palmer (of Chicago), and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney owed much to the wealth and position of their husbands or fathers. Yet, whatever the sources of their money, these women often exhibited entrepreneurial savvy in its distribution and were in many cases guided by relatively democratic and (by standards of the day) well-informed views on social and cultural policy.
Moreover, these patrons of music, like women who supported the visual arts, theater, and dance, carried out their work in venues that were more publicly visible than the institutions of social welfare devoted to the care of the sick and poor, aged and young, that had been the primary out-of-home arena for female reformers in the early and mid nineteenth century. In this way, they may have helped to prepare public acceptance of working women taking positions of authority for pay. And certainly they stand as major early examples of women who, freer of certain social limitations than most other women of their place and time, freer to act and to influence, could devote their energy and imagination to, in Mary Catherine Bateson's phrase, "composing a life" of varied and gratifying texture, not just
taking from the larger world but also interacting with it, indeed acting upon it in productive ways.
Money, we said earlier, is only one way of contributing to a cause. Many women less affluent than a Mrs. Potter Palmer (but still "comfortable") assisted the growth of musical institutions primarily through volunteer work, including the raising of funds from others. These women most often remain nameless in the chronicles of the major symphony orchestras, festivals, and educational institutions that still bear the imprint of their devotion and generosity. Such "grassroots" work, in music or other areas, is therefore more difficult to chronicle but is nonetheless of crucial significance. Kathleen D. McCarthy has shown that women who had established a visual-arts organization were often expected, at the point where it had gathered a significant endowment or collection, to hand over control to a board of male managers, although the women may have remained active in various ways. Similar phenomena occurred in the musical arena, as Linda Whitesitt notes in Chapter 2 below, reminding us of the ever-present tension between possibilities and limits for women in public life. Still, the musical clubwomen and volunteers, perhaps even more than the wealthy patronesses discussed in the previous paragraph, helped in their way to render "obsolete the notion that 'women's place is in the home,' and thereby made a significant contribution to women's struggle for autonomy."
We should resist, though, the temptation to treat these various types of women patrons simply as rediscovered heroines. Scholars in recent years have struggled to find adequate ways of describing the complexities and contradictions of the life of a woman of leisure or at least modest comfort in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the one hand, women at all social levels were limited to varying extents (less so in the case of poor and working women) by the ideology of the "female sphere," with its emphasis on "piety, purity, and submissiveness" in the service of "domesticity, nurture, and education." On the other hand, women often developed their own strategies of resistance to such limitations, creating a rich web of emotional ties to relatives and to women friends that amounted at times, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and others have argued, to a distinctive "women's culture," full of mutual assistance and support. In comparison, the lives of middle- and upper-class men—often spent almost entirely in the "male sphere"—may appear to some of us today emotionally cramped and deprived.
The tendency, among certain women's historians, to emphasize the positive, creative, interactive aspects of women's lives (and to doubt whether men's lives were quite as rewarding as sometimes advertised) might be accused of disguising or denying the existence of male privilege and female subordination. One needs always to keep in mind that men's constricted choices, unlike women's, helped prepare them for successful careers and for dominant, sometimes tyrannical control over the family's property, finances, and major life decisions (such as a child's choice of spouse); bourgeois men were indeed limited yet, as Marilyn Frye puts it, not oppressed. But perhaps the renewed interest in the workings of the women's realm can be more fairly described, not as ignoring the dissymmetry of power, but
as taking it as given in a particular historical situation, the aim being, not to endorse or reinscribe the patriarchal system, but rather to explore the often meaningful lives that women made for themselves and their children within it and sometimes despite it.
Rigid gender differentiation was, one should stress, urged upon daughters at least as much by their mothers as by their fathers. Indeed, central to family relations in the nineteenth century was what might be described as a female "apprenticeship system," through which, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg puts it, "older women carefully trained daughters in the arts of housewifery and mother-hood." These arts receive less respect today than they once used to, given the increasing tendency among women to flee and sometimes to denigrate the lives of service that their mothers and grandmothers lived, and to model their own lives according to definitions of success and identity that are traditionally male (more or less equivalent to what Adam Smith described as "economic man," earning his own living and acquiring goods and services in the commercial marketplace). Today, women and men alike are faced with the challenge of balancing these competing ideals of economic interdependence and independence, resisting or accepting (colluding in?) "our society's widespread devaluation of care," as the "transformative feminist" Suzanne Gordon puts it. As for earlier days, we should remember that many of the "arts" most despised today—housework, food preparation, sewing and darning, various physical aspects of child-care—required more skill, time, and physical exertion than they do today, yet were either essential to family health or helped limit expenses and thus formed in a sense a second income. And, at least in certain families, exercising these accomplishments and managerial skills graced the women who knew them with dignity and authority.
The tension between negative and positive readings of women's lives is thus not so much a matter of disagreement among scholars as a reflection of the tensions within those lives. And so there remains a certain peril for anyone who would attempt to comprehend just how women of an earlier era perceived themselves, their mission, and the relationship between that mission and other aspects of their lives. In some cases described in subsequent chapters of this book, the tugs and pulls are apparent: ambition for a career and for a sense of public validation is viewed as being incompatible with devotion to husband and children, and both of these may be hard to reconcile with societal expectations of other sorts. Seen in this context, a woman's activist work in the arts, especially when undertaken as part of a cooperative venture with other women, comes to seem a brilliantly functional solution to the contradictions of the life of the middle- and upper-class "lady": it reasserts her bond to others of her family and class and, simultaneously, enables her to "connect purposefully" to the larger community (the phrase comes from Nancy Cott's discussion of women's organized church groups), all without threatening her husband's prerogatives as breadwinner in what one (male) observer at the time sensitively qualified as "the field of immediately productive work"
(our emphasis) and as player—if the husband were so inclined—in the arena of governmental politics.
How clubs, and especially music clubs, helped connect women to other women outside their homes and to the larger world will become immediately apparent in Chapter 2. For the moment, we can glimpse some of the feelings that such clubs tapped, including a sober desire for self-improvement and a generous willingness to share one's own privileges, by taking a brief look at the Friday Club of Chicago, founded in 1887, three years before the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Ellen Martin Henrotin, one of the group's prime movers, addressed the first gathering of these Chicago ladies in terms that left no doubt as to the implications of the club movement for the members themselves:
For years most of you have been hard at work at your studies. You have doubtlessly many original thoughts and theories which you will be glad to impart to others and also many of you have enjoyed educational advantages peculiarly your own, which you can thus share with others. If you never discuss literature and art, and if you allow society [i.e., empty socializing] to engross all your time and attention, you will even lose your love for serious things, and what can be more valuable to you as life goes on . . . ? The formation of such a club as this should be a very serious matter, for the mere fact of being a member of it may influence the term of your whole life.
The Friday Club may have been making a bold statement in even designating itself as a "club." The word was more commonly associated with men's groups, which is likely why the (admittedly rather more "stuffy") Fortnightly of Chicago, founded fourteen years earlier, chose to eschew it in its title. That the ladies of the Friday Club enthusiastically supported issues that reflect a turning of attention toward the needs and aspirations of women is shown by papers read at meetings, such as "Women in Municipal Government" and "Modern Women in Recent Literature." The group also maintained an active, indeed activist, music and art department: during the Depression, the club purchased and distributed season tickets to the Chicago Symphony, thus in a single stroke assisting the orchestra, its players (some of whom might otherwise have had to bear pay cuts or be laid off), and music lovers who in chilly economic times could not afford the privilege of attending.