Faculty of Music creates reading group to discuss women in music after student campaign

This comes after students raised concerns at the Faculty’s decision to remove its ‘Women and Music’ paper

The Faculty of Music has announced a new extra-curricular reading group on “Women and Music”, as well as online access to this year’s course content on the subject, amidst concerns raised by students over the removal of the Faculty’s “Women and Music” paper from the 2021/22 paper options for Part 1B Music students.

Students responded to the Faculty’s decision to remove the paper by creating an open letter (now closed), calling on the Faculty to reinstate it. The open letter garnered over 200 signatures from both students and alumni, with 93 of those coming from current undergraduate Music Tripos students

According to the open letter, the current “Women and Music” paper, lectured by Professor Susan Rutherford, explores the “rich, diverse history of women’s involvement in music” and why much of it “remains relatively obscure.” The course also explores gender, sexuality, and other topics and “intersectionality areas” which were “otherwise inadequately represented” within the Tripos course.

“Perceived tokenism” was one of the reasons the Faculty considered when removing the paper, and this was criticised by the open letter, which argued instead that the paper offers students a “fantastic opportunity” to study “intersectionality studies” which were “poorly represented” elsewhere in the Tripos.

They continued, saying the paper puts “women in the spotlight” after “hundreds of years of being shunned out” of music history and the music industry, and added that there are currently no papers in the course dedicated to a single female piece of work, unlike there are for men.

As a result of the student campaign, the Faculty of Music has released a statement explaining that in the 2020/21 academic year, course uptake was low for a second year running. The student open letter, however, included figures stating that 37% of the cohort would “strongly consider” taking the paper next year.

The Faculty’s statement also addresses other reasons for the paper’s omission, including staffing considerations – they felt it “unethical” to stand down staff who had already been contracted previous to the open letter’s release in early April. They added that the papers they have chosen for next year “includes subjects that afford intersectional approaches and the foregrounding of women’s experience in relation to other key decolonial themes.”

The statement elaborated more on the paper’s omission: “Student feedback in the latter half of the 2020 prioritised a wish for decolonial agendas to be fully integrated across the teaching programme. Irrespective of its quality, the ‘Women and Music’ paper was cited by students as emblematic of an ‘add-in’ approach that hindered such integration.”

Whilst the paper has not been reinstated, the Faculty has said in future years it will consult with students each November, to understand their aspirations for the following year.

As a result of the Faculty’s “discussion with student representatives” and their “unwavering” commitment to the study of women and music, the Faculty have offered students their new extra-curricular “Women and Music” reading group.

The group will begin with a seminar chaired by students, in which “Women and Music” lecturer Susan Rutherford and Chair of the Music Faculty Katharine Ellis will share their own thoughts on women and music. Students will also be given access to the online course content from the “Women and Music” course ran in 2020/21.

A statement from the student campaign has responded positively to this outcome, describing the plans as “exciting” and saying that they “will undoubtedly assist in the diversification and promotion of equality and inclusivity within the Music Tripos at Cambridge University.”

Furthermore, Music Undergraduate Academic and Library Representative Edoardo Chidichimo has commented that “the seminar offers a fantastic opportunity for students to still engage with what are critical, current, rich discourses in women’s involvement in music and music-making across the centuries.”

“We will continue to work closely with the faculty in general discussions of decolonisation, representation, and general EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity) within out curriculum and we believe this was another great step for both the student body and the faculty.”

Feature image credit: Tom Booth