Picture your ten favorite bands. Now group all of these people together and compare the numbers of men and women. I’m willing to bet that considerably more than half of these people are men. This imbalance never really struck me as noteworthy until I actually started becoming a musician. I’ve recently realized that as a female musician, I am inevitably subject to a certain set of expectations that have more to do with my status as a female than with my status as a musician. I’ve come to discover that the world of music is a gendered one. From the CEO of the record label all the way down to the music store clerk, music is a largely male-dominated world—much of music is played by men, produced by men, managed by men, and sold by men. “Serious” rock and jazz musicians are often assumed to be men, and female instrumentalists are often considered a cute, fun addition, like a dancing bear at the circus. There’s no question that female musicians (excluding the likes of pop stars such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Adele) are greatly outnumbered by male musicians. Women are often expected to sing rather than play instruments, and even the ones that do play instruments are also expected to sing. Why must women be singers? Because the singer is the visual centerpiece of the band. And what do all successful female singers have in common? Beauty. The visual appeal of a female musician often supersedes her sheer musical ability. This is just an extension of the way our society evaluates women on their physical traits. In other words, for female singers, as much as it’s about the voice, it’s about the look. These limitations are an extra obstacle that female musicians must overcome in order to “make it” as musicians.

You may have noticed that the great female painters, composers, politicians, musicians, aviators, athletes, film directors, scientists, and more are known for just that—being female. While Mary Cassat, Marie Curie, and Joni Mitchell are undeniably talented, their fame is more a result of their female-ness than of their talent. For instance, we tend to refer to Amelia Earhart as a “female pilot” and Charles Lindbergh a “pilot.”

I believe that there are two ways to go about making your talent a profession: being quietly competent, and being loudly competent. Those who are quietly competent rise to success cautiously, are sometimes overly modest about their achievements, and tend to be women. When I start to compose a piece, I simultaneously expect everything and nothing of my abilities: everything in the sense that I really want the piece to be great, and nothing in the sense that my modesty—and my fear of failure—will ensure my failure. This is the tragedy of female modesty: it causes women to unnecessarily second-guess their abilities. The loudly competent, on the other hand, are effective at getting what they want and have mastered the art of self-promotion—a useful skill lacking in the quietly competent—and tend to be men. Girls learn from a young age that modesty is attractive, and that nobody likes a braggart. Girls bond through collaboration; boys bond through competition. These respective traits instilled in childhood live on in our adult lives. Women and men are conditioned to wield their talents differently. But talent is talent, right, so why should there be a difference at all?

I was recently having a conversation with a male friend about the current state of feminism. My friend expressed disdain at feminists who seem to believe that women are superior to men. Let me be clear that these are not real feminists. This should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. Aside from flippant comments in romantic comedies about the stupidity of men, very few women seriously believe that women are better than men. The definition of feminism, originally a call for gender equality, has been warped and led astray into a place of near stigma. People of the millennial generation seem to have forgotten what it’s really about—it’s about equality between the sexes, but more than that, it should be about eliminating the gender distinction altogether. Notice that all of the feminist motions in history (even before feminism was called feminism) were about empowering women to have the same rights as men—not more, but the same. Feminism is not some outlandish request, like the employee asking for a raise that’s higher than his or her colleague’s salary—it’s simply a call for equality between the sexes.

But a striking number of young men and women still answer “no” to the question “Are you a feminist?” Some young women I’ve encountered even resign themselves to the same female roles as their 1950s predecessors. It seems that to our generation the institution of feminism has waned and become obsolete, a dusty relic of dated 1960s style that your mother keeps in the attic. We have failed in the upkeep of one of the most important movements in human history. Feminism is in need of a serious renovation, starting with the name. The word “feminism” is a misnomer and should be changed to something that more appropriately emphasizes the gender egalitarianism at the core of the movement. I even hesitate to call it a movement, because it’s even bigger—it should be far-reaching and ingrained in every mind. All humans who want to call themselves enlightened and modern should identify as feminists. We fight for equality among people of all sexual orientations, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds—why should gender be any different?

I am a music major. I have been involved with music my whole life—I play several instruments and sing. Up until college, my musical career was mostly contained to private lessons and playing alone, so when I came to here, I was surprised to find how dramatically gendered the music world is. Prior to college, I had noticed that there were never women working at music stores, but I had simply become accustomed to being the only girl in the guitar shop. By deciding to enter the contemporary music world, I was unwittingly stepping into a boys’ club, just like any 60s-era corporate setting. Reading The Feminine Mystique in tenth grade had not prepared me for this. It didn’t occur to me that a creative, progressive institution such as music could have its own issues with sexism. Among the rock and jazz musicians I’ve encountered at Princeton, the majority of which are male, the general consensus seems to be that women sing and men play instruments.

I used to think that music was a safe haven from the tension of gender categorization. I’ve now learned that it’s not. This is why: talent in music, or any creative discipline for that matter, is not as quantifiable as talent in, say, medicine or business. This makes creative talent more subjective, which means it is in the eye—or in this case the ear—of the beholder. And society has conditioned the beholder to assume fundamental differences between women and men. So it is only natural that male and female musicians are assigned different musical roles. Before I have a chance to pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano, it’s assumed that the appropriate role for me is that of the singer, the visual centerpiece, the final decorative touch to your otherwise all-male band.

I am fascinated and infinitely frustrated by this. My life goal is to work with music in some way, because it’s what I love most in the world. I want to be a great musician and I want to be respected for what I do, not for the fact that I have a vagina and amazingly still do what I do. My fear is that I will either be written off as a not-serious musician or held to a lower musical standard because I’m female. What I really want for myself—and for future generations of men and women—is to walk the perfect line between quietly competent and loudly competent. I want to take pride in my talent without losing sight of other people I respect, and I want to find my success in being respected for what I do, not what I look like. I want all of this for women as well as for men. In order to reconcile our assumptions about our sexes, we need to walk the same middle path. It’s not about what genitalia you have. It’s about what you do in your life. Until we can effect a fundamental overhaul of our gender-discriminating social norms, women will continue to be subject to these paralyzing constraints. It is our generation’s responsibility to reverse this trend and proactively resurrect feminism as it was meant to be: a doctrine of equality.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.