Just as the 1930’s popular music archetypes defined and reflected women’s position in society, so too did the pervading images of post WWII America sculpt the experiences for female musicians, specifically the widely popular and prevalent all-girl swing bands of the 1940’s. While the Civil War and WWI had broken boundaries in expanding opportunities for involvement in the public sphere for women, WWII undoubtedly allowed for the greatest increase in employment and public participation for women. An unprecedented amount of women engaged in the fields of manufacturing, nursing, teaching, and public service. The music industry was no stranger to these societal changes, facing an onset of female replacements to compensate for the lack of male musicians as a result of the draft. Two prevailing images of women emerged in response to this new demographic of the work force, the first being a more masculine representation of the working woman, Rosie the Riveter, and the second being the more feminine yet equally subversive Swing Shift Maisie.
The “swing shift” was a shift in the workplace created specifically for women, meant to accommodate female workers for a short period of time and intended to be eventually be eliminated, revealing society’s intentions surrounding the concept of employed women. With women replacing job’s that had previously been reserved for men, women were seen as just that: replacements. Rosie the Riveter and Swing Shift Maisie enforced this notion, encouraging women to contribute to the war effort but only long enough for men to eventually return to their rightful places, with women once again dutifully submitting to gender norms and forfeiting their temporary power in the workplace. This idea of impermanence in positions of power for women carried into perceptions of women in all-girl swing bands, who weren’t taken seriously as musicians and appeared to the general public as temporary substitutes for the seemingly more accomplished male musicians. While the music industry was seen as frivolous and unnecessary during wartime, it slowly became accepted into mainstream culture as a way to boost morale among soldiers and the general population, the consequence to this paradigm being that female swing bands weren’t perceived as true work for women or contributing to culture in an artistic sense, undermining and trivializing women’s power in the industry. Women’s power was also diminished in the pressure for women in music to appear glamorous and highly feminine to appeal to mass culture and normalize females in what had traditionally been a male-dominated setting. With the onset of the masculinity crisis after WWII, the harsh enforcement of gender roles and femininity led women in music to wear uncomfortable and incompatible outfits while they performed, the emphasis of female performance being on their image rather than their sound. Though girl groups of the 1940’s were highly segregated, both black and white groups faced largely the same problems, the exaggerated importance of sexual appeal and femininity being equally shared. Take for instance, the white all-girl swing band of Frances Carroll and her Coquettes.
Watch the band here.
The video introduces a female tap dancer with, “Another young lady doing a men’s type of work…” with the ensemble band in the background. This performance’s introduction disassociates the female from her work, making it about “men’s work” rather than simply a dance number. The dancer’s outfit is highly feminized, especially contrasted with the outfits of the musicians, purposefully sexualizing dance to appeal to the “male gaze” of the audience. Take Joy Cayler, for example, who led an all-girl swing band yet felt highly sexualized by her portrayal in the media.
These images of Cayler are a representation of society’s focus on the surface level appeal of female musicians during the 1940’s rather than concern over musicality. Her outfit is akin to what was modeled in “pin-up” advertisements at the time, sexualizing Cayler’s work as musician and diminishing her credibility as an artist. The incredible amount of pressure for female musicians to appear a certain way was simply a hallmark of being a musician during the 1940’s, it was expectation and encouraged by the male dominated industry. While male musicians didn’t have to worry about appearances, weight, or their aesthetics, these were all major components of the identities of female musicians. The more beautiful, youthful, and traditional a woman looked, the more widely she was celebrated and idealized in society. This contortion of the female image by music culture, I believe, has been extremely damaging not only to women of this era, but for women throughout history. The harmful perceptions concerning the value of women’s work in relation to beauty and aesthetics has created a long-lasting narrative in society that diminishes the true value of women and lessens their true potential. A common compliment for female swing bands was that they played, “like men,” attributing talent to men and making it an anomaly for women, a trend that continues to exist in the experiences of modern female musicians.
The characterization of women in music is elevated to a completely different level in the context of African American all-girl bands such as the Darlings of Rhythm and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. These bands, catering primarily to black audiences in the south, were portrayed in distinctly separate ways that differentiated their playing styles. The Sweethearts were idealized as traditional, glamorous beauties who lacked the ability to “swing,” while the Darlings were perceived as rough-looking and “raggedy”, which resulted in their music being received as more powerful, masculine, and better than that of the Sweethearts. Racial stereotypes of the Darlings as looking as though they had just come from washing clothes and dishes testify of the lack of opportunities available to African American women, primarily limited to domestic labor. The disparity between these two bands possibly exists in colorism, seeing as the Sweethearts hired musicians with lighter skin and urged musicians to change their appearances to fit into the band, whereas the Darlings enforced no such color bias. The lighter appearance of the Sweethearts likely contributed in their music being received on a broader scale and conversely the lack of acceptance and inclusiveness of the Darlings. Although speculation of colorism within the Sweethearts is disheartening (no pun intended), they were also simultaneously progressive in being the first racially integrated all-girl band, including two white musicians within the band in 1941. Influential jazz pianist Earl Hines called the Sweethearts “the first freedom riders” for breaking stereotypes and boundaries within the Jim Crow South, a reputation they are hardly recognized or celebrated for.
Although all-girl bands weren’t necessarily a creation of the WWII era and the years that followed, the increased availability and encouragement for women to work elevated their status in society, including the music industry, if only for a short time. The advent of heightened power for women in music was limited in some respects due to a lack of seriousness concerning women’s abilities, but ultimately began to pave the trail towards even greater opportunities in the near future.