Thoughts on the Achievements of Women

The other day I found myself listening to a lively and rich Sicilienne written by a friend of Mozart, its composer noteworthy for having laboured under two handicaps, those of being blind and a woman. Maria Theresia von Paradis is one of the very few women to have made a name as a serious composer. There are people like Sofia Gubaidulina, whose work I would like to know better, but the experiences of Clara Schumann are a reminder of just how difficult it has been to be a female composer. And exactly the same could be said of female artists. Would the history of western art be significantly different had no woman ever approached an easel?

Things are different in Australia. The immensely likeable music of Elena Kats-Chernin is being more and more wisdely performed; it is becoming difficult to avoid hearing Wild Swans (Eliza’s Aria), and only this morning I was relishing the Get Well Rag. She joins other talented and well regarded female composers, such as  Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde.  And the same is true of visual art. Margaret Olley, who died last year, was a serious artist whose works are nevertheless very easy to like, as was Margaret Preston in her day; Judy Cassab has twice won the Archibald Prize.

This is a bit hard to understand, given that Australia has often been thought of as a blokey kind of place. But I’ve tried to make sense of the role of women in medieval literature, something which, while intermittent and far less powerful than it is today, was nevertheless much stronger than it had been in the ancient world. It looks as though female writers of the Middle Ages flourished in genres or when dealing with dealing with topics that were new and still marginal; if they became part of the mainstream, women came to be excluded. Is there a sense in which Australia has been a fringe kind of place, open to talents in a way that other, more central parts of the West have not been? If it has, what kind of a future would we want for it?

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