restricted access 6. Larsen and Gender: Doing the Impossible

From: Libby Larsen

University of Illinois Press colophon
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6 Larsen and Gender Doing the Impossible Given the range of experiences within her family, the church, and the academy that seemed to turn on Larsen’s being female, the composer’s naming gender as one of the most important influences in her life follows logically. Although she never felt that gender was the immediate cause of her parents’ desire to silence her or the primary justification of various household practices, Larsen understands that the family system, a reflection of American society, was stacked against strong women of any age who acknowledged, pursued, or insisted upon their ambitions. In this structure the man was the head of the house (or the company, or the school), the wife (or the secretary) was his dutiful and subservient helpmate, and the children were there to be seen but not heard. Disciplined silence was reinforced by Larsen’s church. Despite the powerful influence exerted by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet, the Roman Catholic Church was (and remains) an overwhelmingly male domain. Women were welcome only within circumscribed spheres, and the same holds true today. In January 2015 Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of Saint Louis and the highest-ranking cardinal in the United States, blamed “the advent of the women’s rights movement during the 1960s, which pushed for female participation in the Catholic Church” (what he identified as “radical feminism”) for the current crisis state of the church.1 Burke connected everything from “feminized and confused . . . disordered men,” child-abuse scandals, the declining interest of young boys serving as altar boys, and the discomfort of men within the fold to the presence of women in the church.2 He saw it as a crisis of “manliness.” Burke argued this even as he acknowledged that “girls were also very good at altar service.”3 As Terrence McCoy reported in a Washington Post article: “While [Burke] directs most of his ire at ‘radical feminists,’ he also appears rankled by ordinary women doing ordinary Church activities. To him, that act alone constitutes the dangerous feminization of the Church that has alienated, disenchanted, and made men sexually confused.”4 A thoroughly exasperated Burke observed: “Apart from 146 chapter 6 the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women.”5 The reality, however, is that the church has always depended upon the largely volunteer efforts of women to keep its doors open and its local efforts alive. One can only wonder how uncomfortable the recently demoted cardinal would be if women had any real power within his church.6 Larsen’s growing reputation as an important “woman” composer put her in a new position in the 1980s.7 In 1980 she received an individual artist’s fellowship for $10,000 from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music Panel. Minnesota named her to their State Arts Board and in 1981 honored her as “Outstanding Woman of the Year in the Arts.” Recognition grew when in 1982 the American Music Center elected her to its board of directors, and then she was chosen to be a member of the National Advisory Board of Meet the Composer. While still administering the Minnesota Composers Forum, in 1982 Larsen helped launch a new MCF initiative, Innova Recordings, a much honored, nonprofit label that continues to distribute the works of American composers and performers.8 In 1983 Larsen was named Composer-in-Residence with the Minnesota Orchestra through the Exxon/Rockefeller/Meet the Composer residencies program. Her star continued to rise in 1984, when she became vice president of the American Music Center. In 1985 she learned that her orchestra residency had been extended through fall 1986. Faculty who had not taken Larsen seriously when she was a student in their program had to reconsider the composer in the face of these accolades. Larsen had become something of an expert witness when it came to women in the field, and the composer Janika Vandervelde (b. 1955) acknowledged as much in a 2014 conversation when she reflected on a conference she had attended that involved Libby Larsen. Vandervelde studied composition at the University of Minnesota from 1978 to 1985.9 Prior to that she had been an undergraduate music education and piano major at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and only switched to composition in the fall of her final year; the senior piano recital she had planned became a composition recital instead.10 Vandervelde admits that she was “amazed” that...


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