Women in Music: A Progress Report

Guest Commentary

Volume CII, No. 3March, 2002

Florence Nelson, Secretary-Treasurer, AFM

It never ceases to amaze me how far women have come in the music business since I began working as a professional musician in the 1960s. We are a long way from the days of all-male orchestras and jazz bands. We still have a long way to go.

As I reflect on our history, I can measure some of the changes by looking back at my own experience. When I was hired for my first MPTF job from Local 802, I got to the bandstand and realized that I was the only woman on the job. To this day, I wonder if this was because I was the only woman available that day, or because the card in the file was misspelled and they thought I was “Lawrence.” Today, one looks at a band or orchestra and sees a fairly even balance of men and women. Women hold positions in symphony brass and percussion sections – once a most definitely male bastion. There is no doubt that we must attribute these advances to the advent of screened auditions that began in the mid-’70s.

Again, I recall my early years in the New York City Opera, when I had just given birth to my first child. Maternity leave? Unheard of in the music business. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, women had to get right back to work, and maternity leave was limited to the generosity of the sick leave provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. Since those days, musicians have benefited enormously from changes in federal law and progressive negotiations. Now, not only do women in many orchestras have generous maternity leave provisions, but men also have paternity leave.

As equality has become more accepted, we now see more women conductors on podiums and more women in the club date genre. These are two fields of our business that were totally male-dominated in the past. In the “olden days,” the only way women could perform in big bands was to play with one of the all-woman bands formed to assure that female jazz musicians could find an outlet for their talent. Women are seen more in music prep, music stores and instrument repair departments. And there are an ever-increasing number of women graduating from arts management programs.

With these important advances come problems such as sexual harassment. The changes in federal law have made it easier to stand up for our rights, but the union must continue to educate its members that they can speak up and express their discomfort without fearing loss of employment.


While women’s participation in the music business has increased dramatically, it is disappointing that there are still few women in union leadership. One explanation could be a lack of role models – so few women serving as officers. When I attended my first AFM convention in 1989, there were 17 elected women delegates. In the eleven years that I have been an AFM officer, this number has tripled. However, this is still not enough.

As if the balancing act of family and a music career isn’t difficult enough, the added responsibility of being a union activist, committee member or elected officer creates an even bigger challenge. Until we have more women in leadership positions, the pool of mentors, role models, confidants and cheerleaders remains disappointingly small.

I believe this is one of my challenges as the first woman elected to serve as a fulltime international officer of the AFM. For the AFM to grow and for us to retain a presence in the work place and an influence at the negotiating table, we are going to have to be relevant to our members. Local 802 long ago established a woman’s caucus that motivated women to meet and discuss pertinent issues. Our Musician’s Assistance Program expanded this, to present speakers and provide symposiums for discussions of musician and family issues. We must look at this more closely, to ensure that we address our issues, respond to current concerns, and demonstrate that the union is interested in the entire person, the political issues and the quality-of-life items that make us better musicians and better members.

We need only look around to realize that, while our union membership may be very diverse, its leadership is not. If this union is going to continue to grow and prosper, its officers and activists must reflect the membership they represent. We who have been able to break that glass ceiling have an enormous responsibility to our brothers and sisters, by encouraging leadership out of the rank and file. We can’t wait for people to raise their hands and volunteer – we must be proactive, approach them and say, “I think you’d really be dynamite on this team.”

My biggest challenge is assuring that, while I am the first woman to hold this office, I am not the last. Each of us has potential. As a young professional flutist practicing scales with a metronome for hours on end, I never dreamed I would speak to my future colleagues as Secretary-Treasurer of the AFM. Try it. You might enjoy it.

Florence Nelson was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AFM at the 2001 Convention. She had been an assistant to the President of the AFM and Director of Symphonic Services since April 1994, and previously served as Vice-President of Local 802, in which capacity she supervised the symphony, opera and ballet fields as well as the Music Performance Trust Funds. Prior to her full-time union service, she played flute and piccolo in the New York City Opera Orchestra, from 1966-1988, and was active in the freelance concert field.