You have to start with the two women on the stage, sharing a drink in a red Solo cup with a straw. The drink belongs to the fiddler. The woman she’s sharing it with plays lead guitar. Maybe she plays lead guitar. Maybe not, but we’ll get to that.
We don’t need to know what’s in the cup. Maybe it’s water. Maybe it’s straight bourbon and they are the kind of women who suck it through a straw. It doesn’t matter.
They’re standing close together on the stage and that’s partly because it’s a small stage to begin with. There isn’t a lot of room. Small venue, small crowd, small town. There’s not a lot of room on the stage, but on the other side there’s a guy with a guitar. He’s not sharing a Solo cup with anyone. He looks like the lead guitarist every small boy dreamed of being when he was little. Long hair, but appropriately unkempt. A bandana tied around his head. He’s playing a bright red guitar and wearing an obscure t-shirt that means something only to him and a few of the other coolest people on the planet.
This guy, with the long hair and the red guitar—he has all the room in the world.
I have never played in a band and there are lots of reasons I could give you to explain why this is so. My sister and I both took piano lessons. My sister got a guitar at some point, but it mostly just sat around until the strings broke. It would take another twenty years or so before I learned to play anything besides the piano.
Here is a list of all the boys I knew who played guitar, some in high school and mostly in college—Jared, Tom, Brooks, Noah, Jefferson, Jack, Brian, Forrest. Here’s a list of all the girls I knew who played guitar—none.
There’s a gender to everything so it’s no surprise that there’s a gender to music. Just take a look at a marching band. Or the concert band. There are girl instruments and there are boy instruments. You can try to construct an underlying logic if you want. Boys play the bigger instruments like the tuba because they’re stronger. Girls play instruments like the flute because the higher pitch matches their voices.
But, really, there is no logic. Some instruments are seen as masculine and some are seen as feminine because gender has that kind of power. Gender has that kind of power because gender is the magic that allows us to go on believing that gender exists. Gender is Kaiser Soze. Our belief in it makes it real. Our belief makes it powerful.
Boys play guitars in bands. Girls sing or play the flute. Or they sit and watch the boys playing guitars in bands. If I had really wanted to play in a band when I was a girl, it might have happened. But there were a lot of obstacles in my path. Many boys walk a relatively straight line towards being in a band. Girls have to follow a twisted and difficult maze to find themselves at last on stage.
Of the two women on the stage, neither of them is really in the band. The fiddler is a guest star. They picked her up in Nashville on the way to the show. The fiddler’s real band is made up of all women. The woman on lead guitar plays with the band sometimes, but really she’s a session musician—a very in-demand session musician. You might say both of the women did the band a favor by playing with them tonight. You’d never know it watching them on the stage.
To be fair, the bass player is crowded on this corner of the stage with the women as well. He has to keep moving the neck of his bass out of the way of the fiddler. She offers him a sip out of her Solo cup, but he shakes his head no. He has fuzzy hair and a seventies mustache and is barefoot. He looks like he belongs in a band.
The woman playing guitar has long hair like the guy with the bandana and the red guitar. Her hair is more styled than his, but not styled in a way that screams, “I play lead guitar.” And then, really, what would that hair look like for a woman? This woman is not wearing a bandana or an inside joke t-shirt. This is the second time I’ve seen her play with this band. The first time, I saw her before the show, walking around the concert venue with the rest of the crowd. I thought to myself, “Who is this awkward-looking woman from out of town?” She was wearing a plain sort of coat over a white shirt and black jeans. The jeans were not particularly tight. That first time, I did not think, “Oh, she’s in the band.” She had absolutely zero “she’s in the band” vibe about her. Which makes sense, because she’s a session musician. She plays in studios.
Tonight she’s wearing a similar pair of jeans and another white shirt. This time it’s short-sleeved, so I can see she has some tattoos. She smiles tonight, which didn’t happen the last time I saw her. She smiles at the fiddler.
The woman who plays lead guitar looks like someone who is working very hard at pretending that the audience is not there. She stares down at her guitar. Her face is mostly blank. The guitar is a huge thing held tight against her body. She is a not a big woman. I find myself thinking about the rough feel of her fingers, calloused from holding down the strings. I wonder what those fingers would feel like brushed against bare skin.
I teach college students, young people who are scratching and crawling their way into adulthood. They’re freed for the first time from the more constricted world of high school and parents. College is a chance for many of them to turn the page and start a new story of their lives.
I never make them sit in assigned seats in class. Such is the power of habit and social structure that by the end of the first week, they’ve usually settled into their own assigned seats which they will keep until the end of the semester. They have re-created their own social order without any prompting by a higher authority.
This social order often includes small-scale gender segregation. The men sit with other men and the women sit with other women. Friendship and other allegiances can sometimes cross-cut gender. LGBT men and women are more likely to sit together, as well as men and women of color. In general, though, in the face of their new freedom, college students go on re-creating the gender segregation they’ve known throughout most of their lives in a classroom context. Boys with boys. Girls with girls.
So maybe this explains why the two women on the stage are standing together. The guys in the band didn’t tell them to. They didn’t order the women to crowd together on their little corner of the stage. They chose to, because the fact that gender isn’t real doesn’t make it matter any less in our day-to-day life. Kaiser Soze may not have been real in the way everyone imagined, but that didn’t make the idea of him any less scary.
We believe gender is real, and if gender is real, we’re more like the other women in the room than we are like the other men. So we’ll feel more comfortable with the women than we will with the men. We can laugh with each other. We can feel a little less scared in a space that is terrifying, like a live stage for a session musician. We can share our red Solo cup with other women.
There is nothing the least bit oppressive happening here. It’s all about what feels right. Follow the line of thinking out from there. Women choose the flute because it feels girly and right. Women choose occupations filled with other women for the same reason. That those occupations are paid less than occupations filled with mostly men? Coincidental. Not important. Women make less than men because that’s what they choose. Choices, choices, all around. No one’s to blame.
Still, you can’t ignore the guy on the other side of the stage playing guitar. I mean, you really can’t ignore him. He’s playing guitar exactly how you imagine a guy with long hair and a bandana who has the whole half of the stage to himself should play guitar. He’s into it. He’s not standing like the woman guitarist, who looks like she’d be very happy if the stage would open up beneath her and swallow her whole. She could still play guitar down there; she clearly loves doing that. But it would be better if so many people weren’t watching her.
The guy on the other side of the stage looks like he needs a spotlight all to himself, even though this venue doesn’t have one. If it did, it would be shining on him. He’s doing all the things you expect a lead guitarist to do. Making all the lead guitar faces—the grimace of artistry and concentration. He’s curling his body over his instrument as if it were something precious and beautiful that must be loved in all its intimate details. He’s moving around, jumping up and down. He is performing. She is not.
When the lead singer nods toward the fiddler and the women guitarist for their solo, they don’t step forward. There’s no room on the stage. They play and then they pass the solo to each other. The fiddler to the guitarist. The guitarist to the fiddler. They share back and forth like the Solo cup. They are both amazing musicians, but people don’t applaud at their solos. Maybe they’re not paying attention or maybe they can’t tell they’re playing a solo at all, crowded together as they are.
Then the solo passes to the guy on the other side of the stage. And he’s good. He also sells it. There’s no chance of anyone not noticing that he’s playing his solo. He’s got the space to maneuver, to move his guitar around. He’s got room to step forward. He nods his head. He gets that cool look of concentration as his fingers race across the strings. And then at the end, he gets applause.
When everyone’s on the stage at once—regardless of how much room they have—there are four men and two women. I catch myself thinking, that’s not so bad. One third of the people on the stage are women. That’s better than the percentage of women in Congress in the U.S. (20%). Much better than the percentage of women on the list of Fortune 500 CEOs (4%). It’s worse than the percentage of women in the top orchestras around the U.S., which at about 50 percent actually reflects the percentage of women and men in the population. That parity was achieved through gender-blind auditions. It turns out women are much more likely to make it into the orchestra when the people doing the judging can’t tell what their gender is.
One third isn’t so bad, I catch myself thinking, and then I stop. In 2017, I’m done being happy with one-third. I’m done being happy with 20 percent, and I’m definitely done with 4 percent.
Here’s where it’s probably important to admit that not long ago, this band ditched their backup singer. She was a woman and she had a voice that made time stand still. I’m not exaggerating. I heard her do it on a stage by the Ohio River on one May afternoon. She sang an acapella version of Hazel Dickens’s “Hills of Home,” and the river stopped flowing. For me, she was the heart of the band and now she’s gone. On their poster, it’s all boys now and, in 2017, I just don’t find that very interesting.
I’m lucky. There are lots of great bands that are all women and not in that gimmicky way The Bangles were an all-girl band in the 80s. There are a lot of bands with women in them and there are a lot of women solo artists. It’s not hard to find great women musicians. So I have options. I don’t have to watch this band again and, honestly, I probably won’t unless they’re cheap and close.
I’m not asking for a quota system, but I also don’t think it’s a good idea to not pay any attention to gender. If there are 4 or 20 or 30 percent women in whatever field you’re in, someone should be trying to figure out why. Maybe someday when we’re all closer to the orchestras in terms of equality, it won’t matter anymore. But we’re not there yet.
For now, I like watching women on the stage, playing some bad-ass guitar and fiddle. I like hearing them sing so beautifully they stop time. I like to see them laughing and passing a red Solo cup back and forth. I wish there were more of them and I wish they had a little more room.