“We Have to Reimagine”: Centering Women/Gender/Sexuality in Music Studies

Committee on Women and Gender Endowed Lecture

Respondents: Lisa Barg (McGill University), Nalini Ghuman (Mills College), Samantha Ege (University of Oxford)

At this moment of crisis, when the rights of women and girls have been erased by the June 2022 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade; when in Afghanistan girls may not attend secondary school and music is banned; when ever-present racism and violence sear the lives of people of color, I return to the words of the philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015). In a 2012 conversation with Angela Y. Davis, Boggs asserted that “we have to reimagine.”

In an engaged music studies, music is a social, dynamic, and cultural force, part of a discourse that may draw upon self-identifications, or identifications constructed for us, along the axes of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and so forth. I have found myself constantly made and remade as an Asian woman through music: in opera and musical theatre (Madama Butterfly, The Mikado, Miss Saigon), in popular music (“China Girl,” “Asian Girlz,” “Unconditionally”), and in film and music video (Full Metal Jacket, Mean Girls, “Hello Kitty”).

After a talk I gave in the 1990s on John Zorn’s repeated subjugation of Asian women in his recorded music and live performances, one audience member exasperatedly told me: “If it bothers you, just don’t listen!” But the act of turning away, of not listening, leaving structural racism, structural sexism, and colonialism unexamined and untouched, is precisely the problem. The tiny cut – of a remark, a joke, a performance – that depends on difference reinforces the dynamics of power and the hierarchical nature of otherness (Dominguez 1987); one cut is joined by another cut, then another, carving up one’s humanity, cut after cut.

What we must reimagine is who fills the spaces of speaking, listening, writing, and musical exchange. How can “an I [be] transformed into we”? (Gioni 2020). This talk explores ways in which we in music studies can remake these spaces into ones of radical inclusion.



Ellie M. Hisama

Ellie M. Hisama

Ellie M. Hisama is Dean of the Faculty of Music and Professor of Music at the University of Toronto, and Professor Emerita of Music, Columbia University. She is the author of Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Marion Bauer, Ruth Crawford, and Miriam Gideon and co-editor of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Worlds and Critical Minded: New Approaches to Hip-Hop Studies. Her public engagement projects include Unsung Stories: Women at Columbia’s Computer Music Center and For the Daughters of Harlem: Working in Sound, a workshop that trains young women to work in electronic and recorded music.