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particular male musician, any attempt “to impose equality” is rooted in Marxist ideol- ogy. And he notes that “The wee area of identity politics this conversation has grown from is arguably the product of a Marxist think tank called the Frankfurt School.”

Thus, the reasoning goes, arguments for equality are dangerous given the mass slaughter brought about by the likes of Stalin. [Never mind that a) identity politics has its roots in the American Civil Rights movement and b) in Russia the conditions necessary for the successful application of Communism as outlined by Marx did not exist. His ideas were tailored to suit the needs of those seeking to put their feet up in the Kremlin]. On Newton’s page this individual then explains that campaigns such as hers, as well as being inherently dangerous in terms of mass genocide, “seem virtuous on account of their label ‘equality’ but in actual fact divide a divid- ed society even further and attack and alienate men.”

This was as far from Newton’s thoughts when setting up her project as it probably was from Jenny Hill’s when she created the brilliant line-up for Songs Of Separation, where she and nine other illustrious women musicians (including Karine Pol- wart, Eliza Carthy and several interviewed here) tipped up on a Scottish Island. Separa- tion in terms of ‘dividing a divided society’ was not what they were about.

Indeed, rather the opposite, as after a week working together they created an award-winning album from scratch, with all the joining together of people and communal celebration that their music implies. The experience also encouraged Rowan Rheingans to think of herself as a songwriter, which resulted in her own award-winning song Mackerel on the Rheingans Sisters album Already Home.


veryone that I spoke to expressed very strongly how much they enjoy playing in bands with men, that in this sit- uation there is absolutely no question about their feeling equal. They are there because their musicianship is val- ued. And the experience is absolutely underpinned with mutual respect. Harbour says her Spiro band-mates are “like family.”

So the equality issue is not in playing with men, but getting the opportunity to do so. Newton says, “I don’t experience being overlooked for sessions much because of my instrument (the harp is con- sidered a female instrument) but women are passed over in favour of men.”

Although herself a harpist, Mary Mac- Master says, “I get overlooked as an instru- mentalist because I always sing. I say I play the harp and I sing, it’s the other way round.” And MacColl says, “Why is Eliza Carthy never musician of the year? Because she sings.”

This bias is very British, Máire Ní Chathasaigh says. “I’ve been playing pro- fessionally since the early ’80s, at first on my own. In the UK, if you didn’t sing, peo- ple didn’t want to know you. At the time there were very few instrumentalists and lots of singers. In Ireland it’s balanced between singers and musicians.”

hese people include self-styled ‘involuntary celibate’ (‘Incel’) men who feel marginalised by their feelings of unattractive- ness to women. Peterson’s ideas feed into a culture of blame that in the extreme fuels acts of violence against women. For example, an Incel group was implicated in the mowing down of pre- dominantly women on a Toronto pave- ment this April.


On a very fundamental level, fear of male aggression is likely one of the under- lying issues relating to women not wanting to antagonise or alienate men, and informs women’s ‘natural agreeableness’ in main- taining a status quo that works against them. The threat of potential violence is perhaps not from those seeking equality, but springs from arguments against it.

Eliza Carthy

Phil Beer – a more considerate, ego- free, open-minded both musically and oth- erwise man you’d be hard pushed to find – agrees with Newton. He told me once that “to his shame,” when he needed a guitarist for his band, it just never occurred to him to consider a woman player he knew, until after some time, someone suggested her. “And the penny dropped. She was perfect.”

Newton reckons that “Men ask other men

because it’s who they’re hanging around with, who they think of first. It’s not deliberate.” It’s this unthinking that’s rooted in a rationale that upholds the status quo. When issues are raised that threaten it, that – to return to Newton’s Facebook critic – “seem virtuous on account of their label ‘equality,’” the rationale allows those issues to be seen “in actual fact” to “divide a divided society even further and attack and alienate men.”

That critic’s voice is not a lone voice howling in the wind. The phraseology he uses is taken from the ‘alt right’ Canadian psychologist and populist author Jordan Peterson, in whose work the Marxist ideology/equality = death equation can also be found.

Peterson likes to anchor his outpour- ings in references to scientific studies, though this can involve arguably false equations. For example, he roots his justifi- cation for the continuing of an unjust sta- tus quo in concepts of ‘natural hierarchical structures of society’ observed in creatures from which we have evolved, notably those of lobsters.

Briefly, male domination is seen as nat- ural within the hierarchy thanks to (also natural) male traits such as aggressiveness. Female traits such as ‘agreeableness’ are also seen as natural and help keep the whole thing afloat. So in this lobster-based scenario, it’s natural that women serve the hierarchy dominated by men.

These ideas, which also call into play the religious texts and creation myths that have over the ages been used to bolster up subsequent human iterations of what I thought was the patriarchy but now know is the lobster hierarchy, have gained trac- tion with people, male and female, alien- ated by women questioning their place within it.

Rationales for ‘the natural order’ of things feed into narratives that the tradi- tional way of doing things is inherently ‘right’ and questioning is therefore wrong.

Freya recalls turning up at sessions with her saxophone, prompting male musicians to grab their coats and head for the door. A double whammy – a woman playing an instrument and one that ‘has no place in folk.’ To which she suggests that the saxophone is no less traditional (in terms of its relationship to wind instru- ments played historically in the genre) than the guitar.

Kerr says that anyway innovation in instrumentation is not something that can kill the tradition and besides, “we’re in such a healthy position in terms of how much source material is available and peo- ple who want to find it.”

Every single one of the women to whom I spoke is steeped in folk tradition. They are working within it from a place of intrinsic understanding and inspiring oth- ers. Máire Ní Chathasaigh says “Loads of people are doing what I did when I started out. It’s no longer unique.” They are role models for good practice.

For folk to remain relevant, dynamic, it needs to get oxygen from the society in which we live to keep breathing, a society in which women have been in the work- place since the second world war. This has meant men can no longer necessarily enjoy the dominance in the domestic envi- ronment that dances hand in hand with the status of ‘sole provider’. You might think this would be a relief if you’re a male self-employed folk musician, but Jane Har- bour believes it’s a source of fear.

It goes, she says, back to the issue of our basic assumptions. “The ‘we’ that I mentioned before. Women are focused on ‘us’, in society; we are nurturing, com- passionate, empathetic. If we go striding about saying, ‘Hello look at me, look what I’ve done,’ it’s about me, it’s about I. The fear is, then, who’s going to take care of the ‘we,’ which of course includes men and children.”

Home is at the heart of “the wee topic” of ‘women’s right to work’. Their ‘agreeableness’ and ‘natural’ instincts mean women bring up the kids and work their work around it.

Photo: © Judith Burrows

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