I had a composition class with another woman once. For one month. It was pretty great. Since we were studying La Mer, we convinced everyone to go on an unofficial field trip to the beach one warm, Floridian, January afternoon. But out of the 11 composition courses that I took, that was the only time I wasn't the sole woman student.
Not to say that the music department lacked women. Non-majors dabbled in music history, advanced students took analysis courses, performed pieces, and served as TAs for music theory. But none of them took composition courses. And I can't say that women at New College weren't creating music either. They improvised, collaborated, and wrote as singer-songwriters in and outside of the classroom. But composition, where you write for other people and dictate how it's performed, differs from these rather more egalitarian modes. During my four years at New College, there was only one other woman composer. And because we were three years apart, we never even shared a composition class.
Your first suspect, if you're not familiar with New College, might be the institution itself. Somehow, women are discouraged from pursuing composition. But in my experience, that couldn't be further from the truth. The professors who taught me composition were friendly, supportive, and approachable. They introduced me to historic female composers I had never heard of. My classmates, all men, were similarly supportive, thoughtful, and insightful.
My work was taken seriously and the possibility that it wouldn't never even occurred to me. The problems of women composers belonged to history.
In the three years that I took or TAed Music Theory I and II (the classes that form the foundation of composition studies) approximately equal numbers of men and women took the class. Yet significantly more men chose to pursue composition afterwards. Why?
Women at New College analyze, perform, and teach music. They create music in collaboration with others. There's no shortage of women pursuing other creative fields at New College, such as writing, painting, and sculpting. What makes composition different?
One possibility is this: in composition, you have to be assertive. As with directing and producing, you have to ask other people to do what you want, and that can be intimidating. Especially if you're not sure you want your voice to be heard.
The upshot? Women have established a presence among award-winning composers, tenured professors, and recorded composers. Which means that the women who choose to compose are finding success. Why aren't more choosing to try?