American women have been composing since the founding days of the Republic, when an early compendium of music listed five songs written by women. Despite the dominance of men in the classical music canon, women composers persevered throughout the 19th century, penning ballads, waltzes, and sacred music. When women weren't allowed to join all-male orchestras, they assembled their own, such as the Fadette Women's Orchestra, pictured above. Formed in 1888 in Boston, it played over 6,000 concerts until it was disbanded in 1920. The late 19th century also saw the first performance of a work by a woman composer by a major American orchestra (Margaret Ruthven Lang's Dramatic Overture, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1893), as well as the debut of significant symphonic and operatic works by Amy Beach. The early decades of the 20th century brought the experimental piano and orchestral work of Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the quintessentially American sound of Florence Price, author of four major symphonies and three concertos for piano and violin.
Though the work of Price, the first major African-American woman composer, has drawn attention in recent years, the powerful and expressive compositions of most of these women is still largely ignored by the mainstream classical world. The new podcast docuseries The Ladies Speak – whose name is taken from the expression place aux dames, used by some early classical music critics to make the case that works should be judged without regard for the sex of the composer – aims to fill the void by giving these women pioneers their due. Each episode will examine the life, work and legacy of an American woman composer, arguing that they deserve to be considered within the pantheon of great music produced by this country.