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Published lead sheet for Smyth's "March of the Women," published 1911.

Ethel Smyth and “The March of the Women”

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In 2019 the Music Division announced a digital collection of sheet music for and about the women’s suffrage movement. Among the many interesting songs and songsters printed for meetings and rallies, one title certainly stands out as an outright anthem of the suffrage movement: “The March of the Women.”

Black and white photograph of Ethel Smyth, taken between 1920 and 1925.
Photograph shows English composer and women’s suffragist Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944). Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) studied music in Germany and enjoyed public performances of her chamber music at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In 1890 she returned to London for her orchestral debut at Crystal Palace, formally establishing herself as a composer worthy of programming alongside her male contemporaries. Smyth wrote six operas over the course of her career; her second opera, Der Wald, was the first opera by a woman to be produced at the Metropolitan Opera on March 11, 1903 (it would be over a century until the Met would perform another opera composed by a woman with Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin).

From the beginning of Smyth’s career, the issue of the “woman composer” was at the center of discussions in the press. In an 1892 interview published in the London paper Woman’s World (December 24, 1892), the interviewer asked for her thoughts on women’s suffrage and Smyth replied that “she earnestly approved of it, although she feared she had not given much serious thought to the subject.”

Almost 20 years later, however, Smyth met Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and her stance dramatically changed. After being persuaded to attend a speech by Pankhurst, Smyth was instantly impressed and inspired to join the cause. She put her professional projects on pause, committed two years of her life to the WSPU, and published an article in the London paper Votes for Women (Friday, November 18, 1910) called “Better Late Than Never” where she announced her change of perspective on the issue of women’s suffrage:

Last spring I and many other women who had hitherto given no sign of life on the Suffrage question were asked by prominent members of the committee which way our sympathies lay. I, for my part, replied that though the spectacle of any uphill fight inevitably stirs one’s admiration and sympathy, more especially when the fights are found cheerfully facing ridicule, obloquy, and suffering, as do the heroic militants, truth compelled me to confess to lukewarmness on the question at issue. Since then the subject has become to me one of absorbing interest, and nowhere can be found a more unqualified adherent of the cause than myself.

Clipping of 1911 article about Ethel Smyth from suffrage newspapers "Votes for Women," featuring a reproduction of a portrait of Smyth by artist John Singer Sargeant.
Excerpt of “Miss Ethel Smyth, Mus. Doc.” Votes for Women, Vol. IV, Issue 160, 31 March 1911.

While Smyth put her professional music projects on hold for two years, she still found a way to contribute her craft to the suffrage movement with a trio of choral works called Songs of Sunrise. The first two pieces in the larger work, “Laggard Down” and “1910,” are not at all known but described in the article clipping at left. However, the third piece, “The March of the Women” would ultimately become the true anthem of the suffrage movement. The digital collection includes a published lead sheet as well as a choral score.

Smyth based the melody on a folksong from the Abruzzo region in Italy, and Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952) penned lyrics to fit the music (Hamilton is best known for her feminist play How the Vote was Won). The published score is dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU, and Pankhurst herself introduced the song to suffragist ears at a January 1911 WSPU rally organized to welcome newly-freed members back to the fighting line after two months’ imprisonment. According to Christopher St. John’s biography of Smyth, “a suffragette choir was drilled in [the song] by the composer for weeks” before the January 21st performance on Pall Mall in London. Before the performance Smyth spoke to the crowd: “If I have contrived to get into my music anything of the spirit which makes this movement the finest thing I have ever known in my life, then perhaps the March may in some way be worthy of your acceptance…I think it a most marvelous contribution to the fighting force. The poem was written after the music was composed, and that is about one of the most difficult things to do in this world…” (Votes for Women, “The Speeches,” Friday, January 27, 1911).

Two months after the premiere performance at the WSPU rally, Pankhurst bestowed a special honor on Smyth at a mass meeting at London’s Albert Hall. Smyth recalled the honor and concert hall premiere of the anthem in The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth: “We had the organ, and I think a cornet to blast forth the tune (a system much to be recommended on such occasions), and it was wonderful processing up the centre aisle of the Albert Hall in Mus. Doc. robes at Mrs Pankhurst’s side, and being presented with a beautiful baton, encircled by a golden collar with the date, 23 March 1911.”

A year after the Albert Hall event, Smyth joined a call from the WSPU for a host of members to break windows at the homes of government officials opposed to suffrage, the goal being to overwhelm London’s Holloway Prison with at least 100 suffragists. Smyth threw a stone in the window of the Colonial Secretary, Lord Harcourt and received a prison sentence of two months (Smyth describes staying the entire two-month sentence in her memoirs, though a footnote indicates that she only served three weeks). Committing to the WSPU agenda meant that Smyth would miss her opportunity to speak at an International Conference of Musical Composers taking place in Berlin where she was invited to represent “Woman as Composer and Conductor” and conduct one of her works. She publicly responded: “All I know is that it was absolutely impossible to keep my self-respect without throwing my lot in with that of my colleagues in my Union.” (Votes for Women, “Prisoners of Freedom,” March 8, 1912) Legend has it that while in Holloway, Smyth conducted through her prison cell using a toothbrush, as her fellow suffragists sang her beloved march in the prison yard.

Smyth paused her professional work from 1910-1912 in favor of dedication to the WSPU; in fact, it’s arguable that her most impactful musical contribution to society is that which came out of her commitment to the WSPU. Upon returning to her professional musical pursuits, she composed a new comic opera to her own libretto, The Boatswain’s Mate. The opera, suggested to be a feminist work by some scholars, features a widowed inn keeper who outwits her insipid male guest after he plots to win her affection. If there is any question as to whether Smyth intended for audiences to think of the opera as a feminist one, perhaps her quotation of “The March of the Women” in the overture settles the issue.

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