The herstory of females in military bands is one often overlooked by history books, and tuned out in contemporary discussions. This apparent silence, however, is hardly reflective of the ruckus these women raise on their battle drums. From the Bible to the suffrage movement, and decorative drum-pieces to soldier-musicians, women have been marching to the beat of their own drumming for centuries. And in World War II, America and the Western world began to listen.
Whether leading a parade, or leading a high school football team to victory for Homecoming, marching bands cause a scene to create a scene, ushering in the masses to celebrate a momentous (or even not-so-momentous) occasion. Military bands, similarly, may lead troops to war or welcome them home from battle–often a defining moment in a civilization’s history, and a government-mandated cause for celebration. And certainly the textbooks have taken great note of battles. What they haven’t warranted attention, however, are the identities of the military bands, and specifically the drum corps, that edge them forward, step by step, beat by beat.
The military drum corps of the 17th century followed their troops to battle convey orders through music. Each beat translated to a specific command from the Colonel that could be heard over the smothering sounds of war and death. Soldiers have also reported the sound of the beating drums have a unifying, spiritual quality. Such is the significance of drums in battle, that it has long been considered dishonorable to intentionally strike or wound a military drummer.
Meanwhile, women have been drumming for centuries in far-reaching regions of the world. One of the earliest mentions of women and marching bands is the story of the Prophetess Miriam. She became the Hebrew namesake of “tambourine” (which translates to “Tof Miriam”) when she led women in celebration of escape from the Egyptian army. That sounds like an early marching band! The Hebrew Bible repeatedly describes women playing the frame drum to spread news of battle and victory. This use of female drummers for military ceremonies is echoed some time later during Prophet Muhammad’s time, with women offering support on the battlefield itself. Women are viewed as the face of the bleeding heart of many communities, exemplified by beating their drums faster than their own hearts as their loved ones return home from battle. In Ancient Egypt, bands of women extended to include hand drummers, rattle players, and occasionally a lyre player. While they never saw battle firsthand, they did take charge of welcoming warriors home. Their separate sphere of domestic support granted them space to create a unique community of female musicians. Women ranked low in Egyptian society, but they were held competent as performers; they took pride in their music, and rehearsed routinely.
More recently in Africa, female drummers are rare, as membrane drums are typically associated with masculinity. Among Senufo groups, drums are played by men. But because of the size of the instrument, female bearers become necessary for parades and funeral processions. The image of a female bearer is so fundamental to this musical culture that many baga drums feature sculpted caryatid figures. The divisive nature of the tradition has weighed heavily on women, however, and they may use their own drums and “call-and-response” songs to communicate their frustration. Through taunting songs, they insult their male counterparts through a secret language only they understand.
In Northern Ireland, the “blood and thunder” Protestant bands of the last century have been notoriously exclusive of females. Despite this, women do maintain their patriotic interest in these bands and some even make it into the ranks; for the rest of them, small family-run bands are often organized by women, in which they allow children to explore the instruments they themselves are publicly deprived.
And until the 1920s, the United States had a similar policy on female military bands: they could serve as mentors to the next generation of male musical performers, but their skills were mostly transferable. Women participated in a wide array of bands during the height of big bands from 1870-1920, but their participation remained taboo (particularly with “unfeminine,” “unpretty” instruments like brass and percussion) until the school band movement of the twenties produced larger quantities of female musicians. By WWII, Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, finally called upon women to join the labor force with his eventual epiphany that “the largest and potentially… finest single force of labor available” was none other than “woman power.”
With physically fit young men–the bulk of the work and military force–an ocean away, America turned finally to the soldiers’ mothers, wives, and sisters to pick up where these men left off. Women’s Army Corps bands formed to entertain troops, sell war bonds, and perform for wounded soldiers returning from war. In 1942, the first all-female band was activated in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, with a half dozen more bases across the country soon to follow.
In some regards, WWII was the war of the women, who maintained the country in place of their men. The privileges granted female musicians in the military caused a sense of guilt for some, who battled to contextualize their new, liberating experiences within the larger war effort in Europe. For these twenty-to-thirty-somethings, multiple branches of the military provided greater freedom and independence than they experienced as young women during peacetime. These musical instructors were being permitted, finally, to work. More than that, they were allowed to perform.
Dr. Jill Sullivan is a professor at Arizona State University and author of Band of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II, whose research entailed 79 interviews with these women. She notes the loving detail in which they remember their service with Bonnie of Smallwood, Oklahoma, describing the matching lipstick and nail polish paired with the red accents of her marine uniform. Early into their meeting, she brought out an original tube of lipstick, and proudly donned it for the remainder of the interview. From subtle touches and accessories, to their provided duplicate uniforms, these women were seeing a degree of luxury the general public was denied with wartime rations. Then there was the constant traveling. On one hand, they were not permitted to follow the troops to Europe, to play directly on the battlefield behind them–unlike their Canadian sisters, who traveled, in one instance, to Paris to march through the city in support of their troops. The US government instead deployed these women across state lines. This gave young women who had never left their hometowns a glimpse of their homeland. Significantly, the military was responding to a backlash campaign that questioned what “kind of woman” would enlist in the military. The added accents of formal femininity combated the criticism that only lesbians or prostitutes would join the army.
But if the buzz surrounding the female music corps portrayed them as gender outlaws or social activists, the news never made it to these women themselves. Patriotism, more than politics, inspired them to join military bands. In fact, political activism, even the word feminism, surrounded these women, but many were too deep in the trenches to notice. Their mothers were suffragettes, and years down the road, their daughters would be inspired partially by their WWII involvement and form second-wave feminism. But in that moment, women in military bands were making their own waves with W.A.V.E.S.
After they retrained the country to view women as legitimate musical performers, these former music teachers had to learn this themselves. Seventy years ago, gender dictated which instruments young women could play to retain her femininity. During the shortage of male musicians in WWII, women got their opportunity to learn how to play “male” instruments like brass and percussion. “None of these women ever thought of themselves as percussionists,” Dr. Sullivan explains. “They were sort of specialists–they had to be taught sets.” While women today may be more likely to fight for their right to learn drum kits, the reality for instrumental instructors like Sullivan is that these gender norms permeate young girls’ consciousness even now.
Following the war, female military bandmates were given the same privileges as their combatant brethren. They received GI benefits including assistance buying homes, support on school tuition, and they officially became veterans. Although many women were displaced from their newfound professions when soldiers came home, Dr. Sullivan’s interviewees overwhelmingly recalled their time of service as the best time of their lives.
Just sixteen years ago, the first female was appointed to command the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps–one of the U.S. Army’s four premier bands. Women are continuing to make strides in US military bands, although it has been a slow process. Even as caucasian women were being accepted into military bands during WWII, it took until 1943 for black women to be granted the same opportunity. Ultimately, they started their own all black female corps: the 404th.
Across the world and throughout history, women have marched to the beat of their own drumming; whether their music falls on deaf ears is another story. The lack of literature on women’s military drumming says more about the countries they drum for than it does their own experiences. For centuries, they have been sounding the battle drums, but it doesn’t have to be a battle of the sexes they’re drumming for.
By Liouxsie Doyle