The interdisciplinary “studies” that formed on the margins of the traditional disciplines toward the latter part of the twentieth century—American/ethnic studies, cultural studies, film studies, gender/women's studies, performance studies—experienced feminist sound studies interventions as evidenced by Kaja Silverman's pathbreaking work of the late 1980s.1 Building on Julia Kristeva's writings, Silverman insisted upon an expanded film theory, one that included film sound. Her consideration of female sexual difference and the voice in cinema pushed feminist film theory by creatively wedding the acoustic and the psychoanalytic. A majority of the feminist sound studies interventions of this era were not, however, in film. The pioneering efforts of those working in the 1990s, scholars like Sherrie Tucker, Hazel Carby, and Frances Aparicio, focused their interventions on music: Carby brilliantly challenged the centrality of “race men” in African American uplift through a critique of popular culture; Tucker emphasized the importance of Black women performers in swing bands of the 1940s; and Aparicio brilliantly unpacked the racialized gendered sounds of salsa music.2 

Prior to the current interdisciplinary formation of “sound studies,” the music disciplines, including musicology, ethnomusicology, and the anthropology of music, experienced an important feminist turn in the late 1980s and through the early 2000s as a result of critical interventions by feminist theorists like Susan McClary, Suzanne Cusick, Ellen Koskoff, Ruth Solie, Jocelyne Guilbault, Maureen Mahon, Louise Meintjes, Georgina Born, Deborah Wong, Erika Brady, and Kay Shelemay, among others.3 These scholars employed feminist theory to reread genres and composers and reinterpreted disciplinary canons to make them more inclusive of women. Within the last ten years there has been an explosion of feminist sound studies scholarship across all of these fields, much of which has been an intersectional reconsideration of everything from overlooked historical actors to the role played by women in hardware development and sound recording, as well as the gender and race of the sensible and of perception.4 My own work has been indebted to all of these predecessors, but I will focus my genealogy in particular on sound recording and the music industry.

I have written about some of the earliest sound recordings, which were made by women who performed a central role in the development of the ethnomusicological sound archive (referred to then as comparative musicology). I did so with the objective of not only making audible their significant influence on the formation of the discipline of ethnomusicology, which itself is not widely known, but more importantly, emphasizing the darker side to their work: Native American land dispossession. A figure like Alice Fletcher, comparative musicologist and later author of the Dawes Act, represents just how complicated this history has been.5 White female comparative musicologists like Fletcher helped usher in an era I and other sound studies scholars understand to be one defined by the feminization of listening, but they did so at the expense of others who were targets of their “civilizing” mission and instruments of white women's social mobility.6 

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by a feminization in listening, and more specifically a white feminization in listening. This feminization was inaugurated by the ascension of the bourgeois woman as the head of the domestic sphere. Chamber music was tailored to her and her race and class equals, whom she would entertain in her chambers. As the piano gained in popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Victorian woman replaced chamber musicians and performed her genteel status upon and through it. With industrialization came the automation of the player piano, which freed the Victorian woman of the responsibility to perform, and directed her attention more completely toward listening. The gramophone or phonograph—the modern version of the player piano—was marketed directly to this listening bourgeois woman at the turn of the twentieth century. Sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne describes it thus: “The listening white woman thus supplanted the image of the Victorian woman expressing herself and entertaining the family at the piano.”7 

The phonograph and the recordings made to be played upon it were designed with white women in mind. According to William Kenney, “Women dominated purchases [of phonographs] in large and small cities, department and specialty music stores; and 95 to 100 percent of these female phonograph buyers bought machines for domestic use.”8 White women not only reigned supreme as consumers of phonographs and phonograph records, they also dominated the emerging field of sound recording. While inventors had tinkered with sound recording since at least the mid-nineteenth century (the oldest known recording is currently attributed to Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph of 1857), by 1936 anthropologist George Herzog could declare that a majority of the “pioneers” in the collection of “primitive music” were female sound collectors (or “songcatchers”).9 The Bureau of American Ethnology hired Alice B. Fletcher, soon followed by her protégé Frances Densmore, to record the indigenous soundscape—a frantic attempt to salvage the very same groups targeted by the US government for extermination and removal.10 Densmore and Fletcher were just two of the earliest examples of women prominent in early sound recording; by the mid-twentieth century, there were dozens of women working as professional sound collectors.11 

This era of “salvage” was paranoid about the “cultural extinction” of Indigenous groups as a result of the successful efforts of dispossession on the part of the US military. Additionally, due to the Great Migration, there was a growing concern for the survival of African American cultural forms. Among Franz Boas's students, Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham were instructed to head to the US South in search of “negro folklore.” Both took up Boas's call to “record, record, record” by experimenting with recording media and techniques; they also recalibrated his ethnographic objectives by focusing on the cultural productions of dance, song, and storytelling. Hurston was recording sound and film as early as 1921 in ethnographic research conducted during her PhD training, as well as in subsequent expeditions to Georgia and Florida with Alan Lomax and Mary Barnicle for the Works Progress Administration and during independent research expeditions in Haiti. But very quickly commercial record producers were becoming aware of the potential held by women on record.

In Angela Davis's love letter to Billie Holiday, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), she notes that Mamie Smith was the first blues musician to be commercially recorded, in 1921, inaugurating an archetype Davis calls the “blues woman” whose unabashed claims to her sexuality were previously unheard of on record, which was especially significant given that these records were destined for the parlors of white bourgeois female consumers (African Americans were not yet imagined as a consumer group by the music industry).12 Members of this blues woman's backing band (including Louis Armstrong, in the case of Mamie Smith) went on to form all-male big bands who catered to growing white audiences too scandalized by the “blues woman,” taking instrumental—not vocal—jazz into the mainstream. Not long after the “blues woman” inaugurated the popular American music industry, which would go on to prosper on the model of the “race record” for at least the next century, according to Gayle Wald, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's virtuosic electric guitar playing in the 1930s and 1940s inspired an entire generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians.13 During this same period, according to Deborah Vargas, “dissonant divas” of Tex-Mex corrido, like Rosita Fernández and Chelo Silva, were recording for borderland Chicana/o listeners.14 

In the post–World War II period, the recording studio emerged as a critical site for sound production, especially with the advent of multitrack recording in the mid-1950s. Studios located in different regions throughout the United States became associated with local music scenes and hence local sounds. Unable to get a foothold at Memphis's Sun Studios, where she had been an audio engineer, Cordell Jackson opened her own Memphis-based Moon Studio in the 1950s.15 Just as Sun and Moon were associated with the emerging genre of rockabilly, Motown's Hitsville Studio was giving rise to Detroit rhythm and blues. Sylvia Moy, the first female producer and songwriter at Hitsville, is credited with convincing Berry Gordy to reconsider his decision to drop Stevie Wonder, for whom Moy would later write and record numerous hits.16 

Later, avant-garde and contemporary music scenes employed the recording and radio broadcasting studio as a musical instrument, producing figures like Delia Derbyshire, associated with BBC radio; Maryanne Amacher, a member of the 1960s new music avant-garde; and Wendy Carlos, the moog synthesizer composer whose innovations contributed to the formation of contemporary and electronic music.17 

With an abundance of new research being published in feminist sound studies, one might expect the conditions for female sound producers and recordists, or even feminist scholars within sound studies, to have improved over the last century. On the contrary, the era of the feminization of listening has shifted yet again. Women represent only a small fraction of audio engineers and continue to occupy the margins of mainstream sound studies. Perhaps we should dispense with the presumption that the feminist margins should always wish to be incorporated into the non-feminist hegemonic center. Feminist sound studies reveals that there has always been a sonic undercommons and gendered outside, which has at times become absorbed as the business model or epistemic center. At the same time, the genealogy I have presented illustrates the hegemonic desires fulfilled by sound recording for some feminist suffragists whose positionality as white women was elevated due to their recordings of racialized others. It is my hope that questions of feminist desire and the archive and the ambivalent stories therein (and not just the liberatory narratives) remain central in the budding field of feminist sound studies.


Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Hazel Carby, Race Men (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Frances Aparicio, Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
Notable works include Susan McClary, Feminine Endings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Suzanne G. Cusick, “Gendering Modern Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 46, no. 1 (1993): 1–25; Ellen Koskoff, Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Jocelyne Guilbault, Zouk: World Music in the West Indies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Maureen Mahon, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Louise Meintjes, Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 18501910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Deborah Parédez, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Andreana Clay, The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism and Post–Civil Rights Politics (New York: New York University Press, 2012); Michelle Habell-Pallán, Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana and Latina Popular Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Tara Rodgers, Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Roshanak Kheshti, Modernity's Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Deborah Vargas, Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of la Onda (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Dolores Inés Casillas, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
The Dawes Act of 1887 was one of the most significant acts of Congress that contributed to systematic Native American land dispossession and resulted in the creation of the reservation system.
See Kheshti, Modernity's Ear, 28.
Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 228.
William Howland Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 89–90.
George Herzog, Research in Primitive and Folk Music in the United States, a Survey (Washington, DC: American Council of Learned Societies, 1936), 563.
See Erica Brady, A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), 54.
A list, which is by no means exhaustive, would include Mary Barnicle, Laura Boulton, Natalie Curtis Burlin, Olive Dame Campbell, Sidney Robertson Cowell, Constance Goddard DuBois, Maud Karpeles, Barbara Krader, Gertrude Kurath, Helen Heffron Roberts, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Barbara Smith, Ruth Underhill, and Henrietta Yurchenco.
Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon, 2007).
Deborah Vargas, Dissonant Divas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
Gillian G. Gaar, She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll (Seattle: Seal, 1992), 21.
Craig Hansen Werner, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (New York: Crown, 2004).
On Delia Derbyshire see Louis Niebur, Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); on Maryanne Amacher see Amy Cimini, “Telematic Tape: Notes on Maryanne Amacher's City-Links (1967–1980),” Twentieth Century Music, February 2017, 93–108; on Wendy Carlos see Roshanak Kheshti, Switched on Bach (New York: Bloomsbury 33 1/3, 2018).