Dame Ethel Smyth at a Women's Social and Political Union meeting, 1912 | © London School of Economics Library

Dame Ethel Smyth at a Women's Social and Political Union meeting, 1912 | © London School of Economics Library

Dame Ethel Smyth: Still Fighting for Equality 100 Years Later

Over a century ago, British composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1885-1944) created her generation’s version of the Women’s March and #TheFutureIsFemale. Now, over 100 years later, The Cecilia Chorus of New York gave her last major work, The Prison, its New York premiere and North American co-premiere on May 11, 2018, at Carnegie Hall. This performance of The Prison (Blachly edition) by The Cecilia Chorus of New York was the second phase of a joint initiative; the Johnstown Symphony (PA) performed The Prison on April 7. The Prison explores the escape from our own metaphorical prison of the mind, of lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves, in pursuit of the truth which will set us free for immortality.

Dame Ethel made lifetime career of breaking the glass ceiling. Born to a strict military father, she defied his wishes and left home to study music in Leipzig, where she gained the respect of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and other greats. In 1910, her fight continued on a larger scale—she joined the U.K. suffrage movement, working closely with Emmeline Pankhurst, and composing the movement’s anthem, The March of the Women. Only a year after that, she was arrested with her fellow Suffragettes and, while they sang her anthem, she conducted them through her prison bars with a toothbrush.

Ethel Smyth was vocal about her politics and her love life – both unconventional for her era. She filled her books, essays, letters, and diaries with details of her personal and professional evolution, including her passionate romances with Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Craig, and Christabel Marshall. She wrote about her unrequited love with Virginia Woolf, though the two did become great friends.

Smyth proudly broke the social norm that women should only compose hausmusik (little piano pieces for dinner parties). Her music and life promised far more than mere musical fluff and novelties. She broke the windows of misogynistic members of Parliament, rallied feminists and suffragists with her music, and outfitted herself every day in the purple, white, and green of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant suffragist movement. Her political influence and cultural power earned her the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922. Dame Ethel’s motto?  “Deeds, not words!”

Every day we rediscover even more great and forgotten women of history. Judy Chicago’s art installation The Dinner Party, now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, has a place setting for Dame Ethel Smyth as one of her 39 tributes to important women from history. Our co-premiere this past spring continued to give her name the historical significance it deserves.

Watch our mini-documentary about Dame Ethel Smyth and The Prison, below:

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