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Dame Ethel Smyth (1858 to 1944)
Composer and writer
Ethel is best known for being a friend of Virginia Woolf but that’s not really fair or indeed doing her justice as she was a very interesting woman in her own right.
Ethel was born in 1858 so she was twenty four years older than Virginia. She met Virginia when she was 71 years old and Virginia would have been 47. Ethel fell in love with Virginia but it wasn’t wholly reciprocated. However, the two ladies did become good friends and they corresponded frequently.
Despite her father’s objections to her following a career in music, Ethel was one of the first women to write an opera and she composed five in her lifetime. She also composed many orchestral works and piano music. In 1913 she began to suffer with hearing loss and it brought her composing career to an early end. So, she went on to pursue literature instead and between 1919 and 1940 she wrote ten successful books; these were mainly autobiographies.
As if this wasn’t enough, Ethel was the first woman to be made a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her achievements. There had been DBEs before but they had been awarded on status and position rather than achievement. Ethel was also awarded honorary doctorates in music from Durham and from Oxford. However, she also served a two month prison sentence for her suffrage activities of participating in a window smashing frenzy.
During her career, Ethel was a victim of double patriarchal standards. It was bad enough that she was referred to as a ‘woman composer’, which kept her on the margins of her profession but in addition, if her music was powerful she was criticised for not being feminine; if her music was not powerful then she was criticised for not meeting male artistic standards.
Don’t get me on.