In many areas of art, politics, economy, and academia, women have a respected place in the world. However, in the field of classical music, the development of women’s visibility is lagging. Classical music is still a man’s world. Why is this the case? This is an enigma to me, and I am trying to understand why it’s happening.

In Fairouz’ (2017) “Women Are Great Composers Too, Why Aren’t They Being Heard?,” we learn that across Europe, 97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was written by men, leaving only 2.3% written by women. In the U.S., only 1.8% of music programmed by major orchestras was written by women. Female performers were also poorly represented in orchestras. The only genre women are more obviously visible in is opera as performers singing music composed by men.

Let’s review two historical examples of famous composers and their companions and/or spouses in their relationship to music. First is when Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck, one of the most talented musicians and pianists of her generation. As a wedding present, he gave her a cookbook. He also composed the music

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A Woman’s Love and Life based on a cycle of poems as a manifesto for a dutiful marriage. Clara concluded later: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one” (de Niese, June 20, 2018)? Gustav Mahler made it a condition of marriage to his bride, Alma, that she give up composing. She said after she agreed: “I have been firmly taken by the arm and led away from myself” (de Niese, June 20, 2018).

In 1997, the Vienna Philharmonic appointed its first woman musician after 161 years of operating without women. In the U.S., at the New York Philharmonic, harpist Stephanie Goldner was the first woman musician, playing from 1932 to 1962. She was followed by Orin O’Brien, an American double bassist, who has been a member of the New York Philharmonic since 1966. And the list goes on. Why is it taking so long?

The examples I gave are not just stories about husbands or partners or individual orchestras. Society at large also stifled women in music: Women learned to play instruments but could not perform in public. Being a female composer or performer was seen as a highly questionable profession, often implying, in earlier centuries, sexual availability. Women’s options were limited. Marriage was a critical economic decision for most. The other option was to take the veil.

Culture and society have a profound impact on what women are allowed and what they allow themselves to become. It strikes me that a parallel process still exists wherein we hold onto some aspects of a vision of the world as seen through the eyes of members of the patriarchy. Equally interesting is the threat of the women’s movement, the current abortion ban, and the gay rights movement. To become successful in the musical men’s world, women must step outside the “traditional” social role as wives and mothers raising their children to exert leadership, but if they are too assertive or too passionate, they run the risk of being perceived as angry. In 2017, the Women’s March and the #MeToo Movement began to assert more forcefully the idea that women should be treated equally to men.

How is patriarchy maintained and how can it be dismantled? Gilligan thinks that patriarchy is an order of domination elevating some men over others and subordinating women (Reciniello, 2011).

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But in separating some men from other men and all men from women, in dividing fathers from mothers and daughters and sons, patriarchy creates a rift within the psyche, dividing everyone from parts of themselves.

Patriarchy persists not only because those in positions of power hold onto their privilege and enforce it but also because it serves a psychological function: a connection between attachment, loss, mourning, and power. Patriarchy acts as a shield protecting from loss. Carol Gilligan and others have elucidated that pathological responses to loss parallel the gender codes of patriarchal masculinity and femininity, which are internalized through an initiation that forces ruptures in relationships and subverts the capacity for repair. This parallel suggests that the gender roles, which uphold a patriarchal order, simultaneously defend against the loss of connection inherent in that order. The loss of pleasure and a change in voice signal the psyche’s induction into patriarchy and highlight a potential within psychoanalysis to foster a healthy resistance against losses that otherwise appear necessary or natural. As Carol Gilligan (2018) explained, “As a culture, we have granted sexual license to powerful men and value guns to the extent that very large numbers of children are killed due to gun violence” (p. 735).

Women’s silence and men’s violence are the mainstays of this patriarchal order. By breaking the silence, women, along with the men who have joined them, are leaving the confines of patriarchy. According to Gilligan (2018), patriarchy is not only unjust and undemocratic, but it also hinges on our accepting or internalizing what through experience we know to be a false story, false in its representation of women, men, and humankind in general.

Some changes are happening now. In February 2020, the New York Philharmonic introduced Project 19, a multi-season initiative to commission and premiere 19 new works by 19 women composersthe largest women-only commissioning initiative in history. Nowadays, there are also more women musicians in many orchestras and as soloists. Some organizations have introduced measures to address this disparity. For example, the BBC Proms have pledged a 50/50 gender balance in commissions of contemporary composers by 2022.

We are living in an amazing time of possibilities that are

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erupting from the present chaos. The only thing that can stop us is the fear of letting go of what we hold onto in our psyches about men and women. Without the equal contribution of women, half of all knowledge will be lost. The original and primal difference among human beings is not only based on race, culture, or religious affiliation, but also gender. Gender reconciliation will go a long way toward assisting in the integration of the other human differences that are inherent in a globalized society. What has been missing in corporate thought, behavior, and responsibility is the contribution of the other half of the partnership.

All institutions that want to thrive today must acknowledge and reflect what the world looks like today. Great artists have constantly cut to the core of the human experience in profound ways. If we are to survive, we need to start by reversing policies that silence the voices of half of humanity.

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  • de Niese, Danielle (June 20, 2018). Women composers: Why are so many voices still silent? The Guardian.
  • Fairouz, Mohammed (2017). Women are great composers too, why aren’t they being heard? NPR.
  • Gilligan, Carol (2018). Breaking the silence or who says Shut Up? Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 54(4), 735-746.
  • Reciniello, Shelley (2011). Is woman the future of man? Organizational and Social Dynamics, 11(2), 151-174.


Ruth Lijtmaer

Ruth M. Lijtmaer, PhD, is a senior supervisor, training analyst, and faculty member at the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis of New Jersey and is in private practice in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She has presented papers nationally and internationally as well as written book chapters and journal articles on discrimination, immigration, human rights, and culture. Dr. Lijtmaer can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Lijtmaer, R. (2023). The absence of women in classical music. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 348-351.

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