Groundbreaker #8: Florence Price

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” from a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky from Florence Price, trying to convince him to program her music 

As I noted in my recent post about black cellist Donald White, where I discussed the lack of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, the lack of women in the classical music world is also a real issue. In today’s post I will be discussing a composer who fits into both categories: Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a piece debuted by a major American symphony. As a musician, I had heard her name only in passing, but when the good news broke this week that her catalogue will now be published by major classical publisher G. Schirmer/Music Sales Classical, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally learn more about her.

Florence Beatrice Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist and a music teacher. Her father was the first black dentist in town, and rumored to have been the governor’s dentist. Her mother was her first music teacher. The family was successful and respected in the community despite the racial tensions in the South, and also traveled to Europe (see Baranello article, The New York Times). Price gave her first piano performance when she was four years old, and published her first piece when she was eleven.

At fourteen, she had finished high school at the top of her class and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that admitted African-Americans at the time, where she studied the piano and the organ (see New Yorker article). As racism was not limited to the South, Price passed as Mexican when she first started at the conservatory to avoid painful encounters. She began studying composition, having the great opportunity to study with the conservatory’s president, writing a string trio and a symphony (see Baranello article, The New York Times). It would be this teacher who would encourage her to incorporate elements of her black southern musical culture into her own music. She graduated with honors in 1906, with an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

After leaving Boston, Price returned to Arkansas to teach and then moved to Atlanta to assume a position as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically black university. After marrying attorney Thomas Price in 1912, the couple moved back to Little Rock, but fled to Chicago after a lynching took place in 1927. It was this move to one of the centers of American music that would turn out to be the most important in her career.

Price studied at various schools throughout Chicago including the University of Chicago, where, in addition to music, she studied languages and the liberal arts. She improved her composition skills while studying with a number of influential teachers in the city at the time, and turned out four more piano pieces in 1928.

In 1931, Price became a single mother to her two daughters after she and Thomas divorced after he became abusive (see New Yorker article). She played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote songs for radio ads under a pseudonym. She moved in with a fellow black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, who introduced her to black luminaries of the time, writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson. Anderson sang a Price arrangement in her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

In 1932, Price had her first lucky break when she won first prize ($500) for her Symphony in E Minor, her first symphony, in a competition (and third prize for her Piano Sonata). This led to the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, one of Price’s few supporters during her lifetime, premiering her symphony in 1933, making Price the first African American female composer to have a piece played by a major orchestra.

The Symphony in E Minor is a good example of Price’s musical style. While she follows the overall European classical style, Price incorporates elements of black southern culture, particularly church hymns, using the rhythms of how they would have been sung, such as call and response. Her music is a lovely blend of traditional European classical and blues, giving it a truly American feel. She stated that her goal for another one of her symphonies was “a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day” (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

Unfortunately, due to both her gender and race, Price didn’t haven’t as much success and fame as she should have after that premiere. She wrote many other works for orchestra (including concertos), chorus, voice and piano, solo piano and organ, and chamber ensembles. She also wrote arrangements of many Negro spirituals. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940. But once she died of a stroke at the age of 66, her work was largely forgotten until relatively recently.

While it is unfortunate that Price did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, recent events have helped cement her legacy for future generations. In 2009, a large collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned house, which turned out to be her summer house in a town outside of Chicago. These works and papers are now housed at the University of Arkansas library. This lucky find was the start of Price gaining back some well-deserved attention. Musicians have been performing and making recordings of her music, including her symphonies and violin concertos (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

And in an even more exciting development, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as of this week she finally has a widely respected publisher! This week, publisher G. Schirmer announced that it has acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue. This is a step in the right direction for classical music, which is infamous for its lack of inclusion of non-male, non-white musicians. We can hope that in addition to celebrating composers who were not properly acknowledged during their time, current musicians/composers outside the “circle” will also be welcomed in and properly recognized.

A discussion of a composer like Florence Price, just like the discussion of a musician like Donald White, brings up important issues of race, gender, and inclusion both in the world of classical music and American society in general. The first, which should be relatively obvious, is the double struggle Price dealt with not only as an American or even as a musician, but as a composer, a profession where it is particularly difficult to succeed and make a living: being both female and black. She said herself in one of her letters to Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race.” She also said, rather simply, “I would like to be judged on merit alone” (see Music Sales Classical announcement). Also, let’s recognize that she accomplished all that she did while raising two kids on her own!

Price’s story, which is sad enough, makes me wonder: how many other composers (and musicians, just like the story of Donald White) were there just like her, who we likely will never hear about? Even since the premiere of Price’s symphony 85 years ago, very few black female composers (or black male composers, for that matter) have had their music performed by major orchestras or elsewhere.

The lack of exposure given to female and non-white composers is one that continues to be debated in programming departments of major orchestras. As American society slowly begins to accept that our mainly white, male “heroes” were seriously flawed, and that minorities were essentially erased from history, we need to do the same in the arts (see more in New Yorker article). Major orchestras, who have the majority of the press, should seriously consider planning programs devoted solely to the work of minority composers, in their main concert program schedule. As Micaela Baranello explains in her profile of Price, the Boston Symphony programmed one of her string quartets in a community concert. While this is better than nothing, and a great opportunity both for raising Price’s profile and bringing her music to audiences who might not normally hear her, it’s still not good enough; orchestras like Boston need to consider performing her symphonies at Symphony Hall as part of their regular concert series.   

As students going through public school, we all could have benefited from learning about the lesser known characters in history, who were generally non-white and sometimes non-male. Similarly, as a musician and musicology student myself, I know that learning more about composers like Florence Price would have been not only inspiring, but would have given me a more diverse and accurate account of who actually participated in the musical sphere. The rediscovery and recent publishing of Price’s music is a great achievement that should be celebrated; but I only hope it is the first of many to come.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Florence Price and the lack of recognition of minorities in music interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. I’ve also included a couple of links to her music.

Wiki bio:

Announcement by G. Schirmer of acquiring Price’s catalogue:

Profile on her and the recent performances of her music by Micaela Baranello in The New York Times:

New York Times article on the G. Schirmer acquisition:

Profile in The New Yorker by Alex Ross:

Bio from Music Sales Classical website:

WQXR radio program on Price:

Her music:

Symphony in E Minor & Concerto in One Movement:

Violin Concertos:

[top image from Southern Arkansas University website]


A Special Groundbreakers Post: Celebrating the Women Elected to Congress

If you’re in the US (and even if you’re not), you may have heard that we had midterm elections this past Tuesday (and hopefully participated!). While the results were far from perfect for progressives, and some races still haven’t been called, there was still plenty worth celebrating. Over 100 women were elected to Congress, an historic high, many of whom broke the usual mold of white, straight, and Christian. I’m thrilled to have the rare opportunity to share the stories of Groundbreakers who are making history at this very moment!

I won’t be profiling every women who was elected, but there are a few historic milestones of these women elected to Congress that are particularly exciting:

Youngest Woman: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY)


[image from]

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history earlier this year by defeating 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of both the Bronx and Queens boroughs of New York City. Crowley was part of the Democratic leadership in Congress and the 4th-ranked House Democrat, and was also known as “The King of Queens” for how powerful he was in his district. Although her victory was assured since she’s in a heavily Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez officially made history by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at age 29.

Ocasio-Cortez, like many of the other women I will discuss here, is quite progressive compared to most establishment Democrats–she is a democratic socialist, more similar to Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats but is actually independent. She supports Medicare for All, tuition-free college, going green to help fight climate change, among other left-leaning positions.

What was particularly inspiring about her campaign is that she took no corporate money (an increasingly popular position even amongst some establishment Democrats), only taking small-dollar donations similar to Sanders’ average $27 donation. She also spoke with voters individually, going door to door in a real grassroots effort. This was part of what made people vote for her over Crowley, who assumed he had the district in the bag since he had for so long, and was essentially phoning it in. The district, which is heavily Latino, had had enough of someone who wasn’t really representing them, and Ocasio-Cortez, who was working as a bartender, was sick of seeing what was going on in politics, which made for the perfect storm. And, best of all, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She promises to be an excellent representative for her district, and I count myself among the people who look forward to seeing what she will accomplish in this important role.

First Muslim Women: Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN) 


[image from Tlaib’s Twitter account]

An incredible milestone has been reached by the first two Muslim women being elected to Congress this year. Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, but 12 years later we finally have the first Muslim women: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Rashida Tlaib is of Palestinian heritage and grew up in Detroit. After earning her law degree, she got involved in politics and won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. She ran in 2018 to represent the 13th District of Michigan and won the primary, running unopposed in the general election. She not only became one of two Muslim women elected to Congress, but also the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib holds progressive positions. She is also a democratic socialist, and supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. She also believes in abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), due to their participation in separating families at the US-Mexican border. And she is even more outspoken than Ocasio-Cortez, and not afraid to raise her voice. She will undoubtedly will be a voice for the interests of the people in her district, much of which is African-American and poor and needs the improvements that Tlaib is seeking.


[image from Minnesota Monthly]

Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia. After fleeing with her family to Kenya during the Somali Civil War, she moved to Arlington, VA, then to Minneapolis. She learned English quickly, participated in local politics with her grandfather, and became a US citizen in 2000 at age 17.

After working as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota, she became involved in politics, serving as campaign manager for candidates for the Minnesota State Senate and Minneapolis City Council. She was a Senior Policy Aide for for the City Council member. She later became Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, which helps women in East Africa get civic and political leadership positions.

In 2016, Omar became the first Somali American legislator in the country by winning her election for the Minnesota House of Representatives. She won the seat in Congress, replacing Keith Ellison who has since been elected Minnesota Attorney General, becoming the first Somali American elected to Congress. She supports many of the positions already described. As a member of a heavily Somali part of Minneapolis, she has a promising career ahead of her politics.

First Black Women from New England: Ayanna Pressley (MA), Jahana Hayes (CT) 

While there have been a number of black women elected to Congress, many states have not yet elected any. Enter Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Jahana Hayes from Connecticut.


[image from]

Ayanna Pressley was born in Chicago and attended Boston University, but never received her degree. She worked as a district representative for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, eventually becoming his political director and senior aide. She also served as political director for Senator John Kerry.

In 2009, Pressley was elected to the Boston City Council, the first woman of color to do so. She was reelected four more times. She ran for the US House seat against Michael Capuano, who was also relatively progressive, but won the primary in September despite the polls favoring Capuano. She ran unopposed in the general election and became the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, in a seat once occupied by President John F. Kennedy. She represents a district that is racially diverse, and supports universal health care, defunding ICE, and fighting sexual violence as a victim of it herself. She has already had a very impressive career in political service and is now on the national stage, where she is sure to shine.


[image from EMILY’s List]

Jahana Hayes’ story has a true “American dream” story if that still exists anymore. She was born to a drug addict and grew up in public housing in Connecticut, and got pregnant when she was 17. She went to school to become a teacher and became a government and history teacher in her hometown of Waterbury. She was named Connecticut Teacher of the Year in 2016, which earned her media attention to speak about education in America.

She won the Democratic primary in August and the general election, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from her state. In addition to supporting universal health care, she also supports stricter gun control, as she experienced first hand the effects of guns in her poor neighborhood. Hayes’ background in education will make her an excellent representative for people she has already gotten to know well.

First Native American Women: Deb Haaland (NM), Sharice Davids (KS)

Last but certainly not least, it is a shame but perhaps not surprising knowing our history that it has taken until 2018 for Native American women to be elected to Congress, but now it has finally happened!


[image from Haaland’s Twitter account]

Deb Haaland of New Mexico was born in Arizona and is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She received both her bachelor and law degrees (in Indian law) from the University of New Mexico. She’s done a ton of work with Native American people, including serving as a tribal administrator and the state vote director for them in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. She became the chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party in 2015, during which time the Democrats got back control of the state House. After that, she decided to run for the seat in the 1st district and won the primary in June, winning the general election. She believes in clean energy, particularly as a Native American who went to the protest at Standing Rock. She also has similar progressive positions to the other women described here.


Sharice Davids of Kansas, besides being Native American, has the additional distinction of being the first openly gay representative from Kansas. A member of the Ho-Chunk nation, Davids received her law degree from Cornell. After a brief stint as a mixed martial arts fighter, Davids held a number of different positions, including directing community and economic development at a reservation, owning a coffee shop, and working as a White House Fellow in the Department of Transportation between the Obama and Trump administrations. She defeated a Sanders-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary, and the incumbent Republican in the general election. Her eclectic background will make her someone to watch as she heads to Washington.

Roundup: Looking Ahead to a Brighter Future

The great thing about all these women is that, while they have different specific issues that they care about, they are all progressive and see this country as more diverse and inclusive than some on the other side would have us believe. But what’s also great is that these women are from all backgrounds and walks of life, which is exactly what our Congress needs more of. Unlike the typical representatives and senators of the past who all went to the same few prep schools, Ivy League schools, etc., these women could not have more different upbringings and educations. They are reflective of what America truly is, not what only the privileged can afford.

We still have a long way to go in the fight for more equitable representation, but I hope these results would make Pauli Murray proud.

[top image from The New York Times]

Groundbreaker #7: Madeleine Kunin, first Jewish and female governor of Vermont

“As a feminist, an immigrant, and a Jew, I was perhaps too different from the average Vermont voter, yet it was this identity that inspired me to enter public life and shaped my values.”

In light of both last week’s horrific attack on Jews who were simply praying at their synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the highly anticipated midterm elections on Tuesday (VOTE NOV 6!), I decided I wanted to write about a Jewish Groundbreaker in politics, since I haven’t written about anyone Jewish yet. After doing some searching, I came across Madeleine Kunin, who I’m honestly surprised I’ve never heard of before. She is not only the first Jewish and female governor of Vermont, but the first Jewish woman governor of any state and the first woman of any state to be elected 3 times (among many other things!). And she is my first Groundbreaker who is currently living, at age 85.

Madeleine May Kunin was born in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland. After the death of her father, which she later learned was a suicide, her mother moved the family around Switzerland, trying to escape the threat of the Nazis. Her mother eventually applied for a visa to enter the United States, and the family arrived in New York in June 1940, while many of her relatives died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. It was this early experience that would later shape her career path (see Jewish Women’s Archive and Kunin’s autobiography).

Kunin received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and another master’s in English from the University of Vermont. She later had a series of jobs and became involved in local community groups in Vermont, particularly dealing with women’s and children’s rights, and literature. While looking for work in journalism, she often experienced sexism or limited opportunities. After marrying her first husband and raising four children while living in Burlington, Vermont, and after several local community organizing victories, she finally decided to enter local politics in the early 1970s.

Kunin’s first political position was as a state representative in 1972, serving on the Government Operations Committee. She was elected Minority Whip in 1974 and during her third term was appointed Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in 1976, the first woman to hold this position. She also spoke in favor of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and increasing funding for childcare and education. She experienced this struggle firsthand as a mother of four who was also working (see Boston Globe article).

In 1978, Kunin was elected Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, serving with a Republican governor even though she is a Democrat. During her time in this role, she helped produce studies on energy and day care which she presented to the Governor and Legislature. She ran against the incumbent governor in 1982 and lost, but in 1984 ran again and was elected governor, and would serve three terms, becoming the first woman in US history elected governor of a state three times.

While in office, Kunin had many important accomplishments, including working on environmental, educational, and children’s issues, particularly universal access to kindergarten (see Boston Globe article). She also appointed the first woman to the Vermont Supreme Court and created Vermont’s family court system, promoted women’s reproductive rights, and helped stabilize the state’s economy (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

Most importantly, however, Kunin used her opportunity as Vermont’s first female governor to advocate for women’s inclusion in government. She hired women for various positions in the executive and judicial branches, promoted feminist ideas, hung women’s portraits in the governor’s office, and speaking to children about being governor. She was also an inspiration to countless other women around the state (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

Kunin decided not to run for a fourth term in 1990. In 1993, she was appointed deputy secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, and in 1996 she became US Ambassador to Switzerland, where she was born, and later to Liechtenstein. In this role, she helped establish a compensation fund for Holocaust survivors in the Swiss banks. She returned to Vermont in 1999 (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

More recently, Kunin teaches at the University of Vermont, continues to write, and makes various TV and radio appearances. During the Democratic primary in 2016 she supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, which on one hand, with her ultra-liberal track record, is perhaps somewhat surprising, but on the other hand makes sense, since I’m sure she as much as anyone would have wanted to see the first female president elected in her lifetime. Perhaps she will still get that chance.  

And forever devoted to issues important to average people, Kunin recently wrote a book called Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties, which is both a memoir and a discussion of the physical and emotional effects of aging.

While Madeleine Kunin is not exactly obscure, why isn’t she more of a household name? Just like the first black president, we should know more about the first women and Jewish Americans in high political offices, like Jeannette Rankin of my last post. Especially since she’s devoted her career to helping the most vulnerable in our society, she should be a role model not only for young women, but for anyone looking for people who have tried to make society better through government. She also has the (relatively) unique experience of being a woman in charge of an entire state government, and the societal and psychological consequences of that (see more in her Boston Globe piece).

And while her being female seems to have made more of an impression on her life than being Jewish, her experience fleeing from the Nazis in Europe at a young age and having family members murdered in the Holocaust surely influenced her worldview and how she prioritized her policymaking. 

As we look to the elections this coming Tuesday, I hope you can be inspired by the story and legacy of Madeleine Kunin, who always did her best to serve the people who elected her. With all the corruption and messiness that is politics today, I am hopeful that the people who are elected on Tuesday and beyond are more like her.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Madeleine Kunin interesting and/or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Wikipedia bio:

Entry in Jewish Women’s Archive encyclopedia:

Piece in Boston Globe about 2016 Democratic primary:

Personal website:

Living a Political Life, her autobiography

Coming of Age, recent memoir on aging

The New Feminist Agenda




Groundbreaker #6: Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress

“I may be the First woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”

When you think of “women’s firsts,” who do you think of? Names like Sandra Day O’Connor (first to become a Supreme Court justice), Amelia Earhart (first to fly solo across the Atlantic), or Indira Gandhi (first and so far only to serve as Prime Minister of India), are some popular examples. [And maybe someday the first to be president will be on this list, but I digress…]

But you may not think of Jeannette Rankin, the first elected to Congress. As I hope to show on the eve of these crucial midterm elections (Vote November 6th!), Rankin should be just as well-known as these other famous firsts.

I first remember hearing of Jeannette Rankin in the charming picture book Lives of Extraordinary Women by Kathleen Krull, and occasionally saw her name pop up in history books or articles. She has been on my list of Groundbreakers to profile since I started this project, but she moved up the list this week after I listened to the WNYC podcast that questioned her sexuality.

Where does one start with Jeannette Rankin? Besides being the first woman elected to Congress, she is still the only woman elected to Congress from the state of Montana (more on that later). She was also the only member of Congress to vote against US participation in both World Wars, and one of the only suffragists elected to Congress (see US House History site). But she also had some views that seem less than stellar today. Regardless, she was a true rebel who was never afraid to speak her mind on important issues, even as late as the Vietnam War when she was in her late 80s.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana in 1880, while Montana was still a territory. She was the first of six children, including a brother, Wellington Rankin, who was the attorney general of Montana and on the Montana Supreme Court. Growing up in Montana was complicated; while it was on the frontier, which meant that men and women were often equal in labor, women still did not have the right to vote or do much of anything else politically. Her worldview was much more aligned with that of big cities, where she would later end up.

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology, Rankin moved to San Francisco and became a social worker. She then moved to New York and enrolled in what is now the Columbia University School of Social Work. Later she moved to the state of Washington where she continued in social work, attended the University of Washington, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. After working as an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she enjoyed the victory of seeing Washington State giving women the vote in 1910. Rankin soon helped win women’s right to vote in her home state in 1914.

Rankin’s victories in the women’s suffrage movement helped propel her to victory when she ran for Congress in 1916 as a Republican, realizing in her own small way her belief that the government needed women in order to function properly. She served on the Woman Suffrage Committee, among others, introducing the Nineteenth Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920. She proudly proclaimed, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

But it was early in 1917, just after she started her term, when she entered the national stage by voting against US involvement in World War I, the first vote cast by any woman in Congress. She was part of a group of 56 members of Congress who voted against entering the war (see Collins, America’s Women). She later stated, “I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” She became just as devoted to pacifism and peace for the rest of her life as she was to the suffrage movement. This stance did not help her politically, as she was not reelected in 1918, but she never shied away from what she believed (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Her persistence eventually paid off, as she ran for Congress again and won in 1940, when she was 60. And almost poetically, yet another war started around the time she took her seat, this time World War II. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Rankin was the lone no vote. She explained her vote: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send someone else.” Her decision was massively unpopular, even more so than her vote against entering the first World War more than 20 years earlier. As a result, she again served only one term, leaving Congress in 1943. The backlash to both of her no votes was somewhat ironic, as Rankin had been elected on a pacifist platform; but once Pearl Harbor was attacked, most people’s views changed.

But Rankin was hardly finished making her mark. She lectured on world peace and often traveled to India, studying the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, perhaps the world’s most famous pacifist. In 1967, at the age of 87, she led a march against the Vietnam War in Washington, consisting of five thousand women dressed in black. She thought, incredibly, of running for a third term in Congress, but died at 92 before she could entertain the possibility (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Rankin’s personal life was also unusual for her time. She never married, as she always wanted to remain independent (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women). More recently, some have wondered if she may have been a lesbian. There is not much to back this up other than close friendships she had with women in her lifetime. But what we can say for sure is that her life of protest and speaking out against authority set her apart from most women of her time (hear more in Nancy podcast).

Like any figure, Rankin harbored some views that would be less than popular today. Despite her devotion to women’s equality, particularly in voting, she did not extend that same level of dedication to black women. This flaw was not unique to her, as many of the early suffragist leaders were mainly looking out for white, relatively privileged women (see Constitution Center article). Additionally, a more controversial view she had, which contributed to her vote against World War II, was that Roosevelt was trying to get the US into the war, and that the attack on Pearl Harbor was provoked (see Cullen-DuPont, American Women Activists’ Writings). There are some who believe this to be true, but on the whole it is an unpopular view.

While Rankin’s name is not a household one like some of the others I named above, her legacy is still making a mark today. She is still the only woman elected to Congress from Montana, but another woman from Montana is trying to change that this election. Kathleen Williams, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s one congressional seat against incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte, best known for bodyslamming a reporter who dared ask him a question. Williams is well aware of her potentially historic campaign, stating recently that she hopes to be Rankin’s “long overdue successor” (see Missoulian article). Ironically, Rankin was elected by a more “liberal”, pacifist (frontier) Montana than exists today, but perhaps women (and men) in Montana will recognize the opportunity presented to them and make her the second woman sent to Congress from their state in more than 70 years.

Despite some flawed and controversial views, Rankin’s dedication to her efforts even in old age is admirable. She easily could have gone along with her male Republican colleagues while in the House, but she chose, as she did throughout her life, to strike out on her own. Her fierce independence is an important example to young women who may be shy to fight for causes that are meaningful to them. The lack of women in Congress is still a problem today. We will see on November 6th whether the road she started on almost a century ago will be continued.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Jeannette Rankin interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

WNYC podcast Nancy, “The First Queer Woman in Congress”:

Wikipedia entry:

Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought), by Kathleen Krull

Entry on House History, Art & Archives website:,-Jeannette-(R000055)/

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, by Gail Collins

“Jeannette Rankin’s war”, National Constitution Center:

American Women Activists’ Writings, edited by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Rankin Foundation, Women’s Scholarship Fund:

Article on Kathleen Williams’ campaign for Congress in Montana:

Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, Gretchen Woelfle

A Woman in the House (and Senate), Ilene Cooper

Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience, Norma Smith

Groundbreaker #5: Donald White & the Lack of Black/Latino Musicians in American Orchestras

Even if you were not steeped in classical music for most of your life as I was, you have probably heard of cellist Yo-Yo Ma at some point, either from Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 or on Sesame Street, among many others.  

But you almost certainly haven’t heard of cellist Donald White, the first black musician to join a major American orchestra. I had not heard of him myself when I set out to learn more about minority musicians who never really got the credit they deserved, both for their talents and their resolve in the face of great intolerance; and, like some of my other Groundbreakers, there is not all that much information out there about him, or not as much as there should be, anyway. But despite that, I hope to give him at least some of the credit he deserves in my own small way in my little corner of the Internet. I also hope to use White’s story as an opportunity to explore an issue that has intrigued me for some time: the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras, even today.

Those who have been involved in the classical music world (and even those who haven’t) know just how cutthroat the competition can be. The competition for coveted spots in America’s greatest orchestras has always been fierce. But multiply this by ten or a hundred for those who have been historically marginalized from the classical music world. In years past this would have included essentially anyone who wasn’t white, but that has changed in the last few decades as more Asian musicians have joined the ranks, making the minority almost exclusively black and Latino (see more in League of American Orchestras studies provided below). My next Groundbreaker is just one example of the many talented musicians who never got a fair shot due to his not being born white.

Donald White was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1925. He began playing the cello at the age of sixteen. He served in the Navy during World War II while continuing his music studies. He moved to Chicago, a major classical music city, where he earned a music degree at Roosevelt University, and played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra as well as an all-black orchestra. He also studied in New York and became assistant principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra after winning a fellowship from the University of Hartford, where he eventually earned a master’s degree. He also taught in Cleveland and encouraged minority children to get involved in music (see article).

White really made waves after auditioning for George Szell, the famously strict conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. Szell took a risk by accepting White into the orchestra at a time when none of the orchestras known as the Big Five (New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra) were integrating their ensembles. White would play with the Cleveland Orchestra for almost 40 years, retiring in 1996. His wife was also a musician, as are both of their children. He died in 2005 at the age of 80.

As I mentioned earlier, there is not much information on White, which is not surprising in the context of the lack of interest in minority musicians. But the tensions surrounding White’s appointment to the Cleveland Orchestra boiled over when the orchestra traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to perform in 1961. Since audiences and performers were still segregated at the time, the manager of the concert hall told Szell that White would not be allowed to play with the orchestra. Adding insult to injury, White could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the musicians. Szell refused to have the orchestra perform without White, and organized with the orchestra manager a petition signed by all of the musicians and presented it to the mayor of Birmingham. Szell got his way, and the performance went on–following the concert, many members of the audience asked White for his autograph (see video). This was particularly groundbreaking as it took place 3 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, which prohibited discrimination in public places and integrated public facilities. White’s daughter Dianna White-Gould remembered Szell as supportive of her father’s unique ordeal (see Cleveland Magazine article).

The lack of information out there about Donald White makes his story all the the more significant in considering the lack of black/Latino musicians particularly in major orchestras. This is still an issue today, compounded by the lack of opportunity given to these groups as early as childhood–music lessons and instruments are expensive, and public schools are cutting music programs all the time, and these issues are worse in economically disadvantaged areas. Another contributing factor is the lack of representation of these groups on orchestra boards and executive positions, which are still majority white.

Fortunately, there are organizations doing important work to try to improve these admittedly complex issues. The League of American Orchestras recently commissioned two studies on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in orchestras (here and here) that shed light on how these issues came to be, and offer possible solutions to improve them in the future. Additionally, the Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, has been working for 20 years to diversity the arts, particularly the traditionally closed world of classical music.

Additionally, major orchestras like the Baltimore Symphony are dedicating time and resources like never before to programs for black and Latino children in their surrounding communities. Programs based on Venezuela’s wildly successful El Sistema program teaching children music have grown in cities throughout the country, including New York and Philadelphia. These are just some examples of the legacy of musicians like Donald White. He didn’t get the credit he deserved during his lifetime, but we can hope that his example will inspire others who will, thanks to the work of organizations like Sphinx and the League.

[Important Note: the lack of women in orchestras is perhaps just as big an issue as the lack of black/Latino musicians. I will not be exploring this issue in this post, but it’s worth exploring on its own and I plan to do so in a future post.]

As for White himself, it’s truly a shame he doesn’t have any name recognition or barely any Internet presence today. One never knows how he would have fared going up against other cellists, but the fact remains he didn’t have a fair chance. Yes, he was fortunate enough to be accepted into a major orchestra, but what else could he have accomplished? What other opportunities did he miss out on because of discrimination? At the very least, his name was certainly never very well known.

But what gives me hope is all the organizations doing work to make sure future musicians with just as much talent and drive have more of a chance to succeed. I encourage you to learn more about the great work these organizations are doing, particularly if you’re interested in classical music, and even if you’re not–this is an example of how many of the cultural institutions in American life have traditionally been exclusionary (this has been true in the world of ballet as well, to name one additional example). There is not enough space in this post to provide a full explanation as to why black and Latino children don’t tend to get involved in classical music, but I encourage you to read the studies to learn more about these very issues. These issues transcend the particular art involved and are reflective of our society as a whole. Keeping out a whole segment of society from the cultural institutions around them does no good for anyone.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Donald White and the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles, websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Short profiles:


History of African Americans in classical music:

Links to League of American Orchestras studies:

Groundbreaker #4: Dorothy Kenyon

“One of the most important precepts of the movement for women’s rights is that the aspirations of women are bounded only, by their talents, abilities and potentialities as individual human beings.”

You likely know at least a little bit about feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine. She has fought for decades for women’s equality, particularly equal pay. But it’s also just as likely that you haven’t heard of my next Groundbreaker, Dorothy Kenyon. While she doesn’t get the credit she deserves, she was an important forerunner to (and early participant in) the women’s equality movement that would gain traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was a crusader for civil liberties, particularly for the poor, in the 20th century as late as the 1970s.

Dorothy Kenyon was born in 1888 in New York City. She enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing, growing up on the Upper West Side with a family summer home in Connecticut. She attended the private Horace Mann School and Smith College in Northampton, MA (as did Gloria Steinem! And as did I!), where she studied economics and history. A few years after college, Kenyon spent a year in Mexico, which opened her eyes to the “poverty and injustice” that existed in the world. It was after this trip that she decided to give up her life as a “social butterfly” and become a social activist. She began law school at New York University, receiving her degree and admission to the bar in 1917 (see Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College).

Instead of taking the rather easy road of joining her family’s law firm after receiving her degree, Kenyon worked various other legal jobs, including working for the US government in Washington, where she researched wartime labor patterns and collected economic data for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. She eventually started her own law firm with another Dorothy, Dorothy Straus, which stayed open through the 1930s.

It was beginning in the 1930s when Kenyon started to devote her energies to many progressive social causes. She received many public appointments in New York City throughout the decade, and also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she pushed for more work to be done against sexism. She gave speeches throughout the United States on civil liberties, the law, and women’s equality. She was also appointed by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia to a position on the Municipal Court from 1939-40, after which she was still affectionately called “Judge Kenyon” (Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College). She also became the first delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1947.

Kenyon’s name really became known during the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when she was one of many questioned for having Communist sympathies. She denied involvement of any kind with the Communist Party, though she had been involved with liberal and anti-Fascist organizations. Her appearance and denouncement of McCarthy as “a liar” who “can go to Hell” gained her a great deal of media attention, including a supportive editorial in The New York Times, as well as that of former First Lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. But unfortunately, despite the fact that the Senate declared Kenyon of any wrongdoing, enough people in power found her suspicious enough that she was never offered another political appointment afterwards. But none of this stopped her from continuing to push for what she believed in for the rest of her life.

In the 1960s and 70s, as civil rights and equality work ramped up, Dorothy Kenyon was right in the middle of it. She continued her legal work with the ACLU, where she worked with friend and fellow Groundbreaker Pauli Murray on sex discrimination cases, including a case that ruled that women have an equal right to serve on juries. This was a precursor to the work Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would do on the case Reed v. Reed, which ruled against discrimination in administering estates. Ginsburg included Kenyon’s name on the cover of the brief along with Murray’s (see further details in my Pauli Murray post). Kenyon also prepared briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked to end segregation in the New York City public schools. Towards the end of her life she was involved in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and helped establish legal services for the poor on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. She also supported birth control and a woman’s right to choose.

Kenyon died of stomach cancer in 1972 five days before she would have turned 84. She didn’t tell most people that she was sick, and continued her work until her death. She never married, despite having various romantic relationships with men, but believed most in retaining her independence.

What I find particularly interesting about Dorothy Kenyon was while she believed in fighting sexism and racism, she had very specific views on sexism and how best to fight it. Though she lived right around the time that women were given the right to vote in the United States, she was not a major participant in the suffrage movement. She was also initially against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the proposed amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of sex that has been discussed and debated since 1921. As good as this would sound to crusaders for women’s equality, Kenyon was initially opposed to the ERA because she feared it would negatively affect working-class women. By the end of her life, however, she had changed her views on this and became a supporter of the ERA.

Dorothy Kenyon laid the groundwork for Gloria Steinem and other leaders in the women’s equality movement with her trailblazing work for the women’s and civil rights movements through almost the entire 20th century. She was fully dedicated to this work, as Steinem has been and continues to be today. The two are also similar in their views on marriage; Steinem only married once, late in life.

Kenyon was a fascinating figure and, like many Groundbreakers, very ahead of her time. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of difference she could have made if her reputation hadn’t been damaged by the awful Joseph McCarthy. Though she wasn’t blacklisted like others were, which truly destroyed their livelihoods, just being questioned was enough for some people to not want anything to do with her. What immediately came to my mind was what if she had had the opportunity to run for office? She could have been one of the first female representatives in the House, or even a Senator. Just imagine what she could have fought for if she was in such a position of power. At the same time, however, perhaps she did her best work out of the political spotlight, where she could do things as she wanted, not as the rigid rules of politics and Congress dictated.

I learned a great deal about Dorothy Kenyon while working on this post. As a fellow Smithie, I should know at least something about her! Her beliefs in equality, taking into account people of all economic classes, combined with her fearlessness in the face of obstacles, make her an inspiring figure, even 130 years after her birth and almost 50 years after her death. Much of what she spent her entire life fighting for has still not been solved, so we would do good by her example to consider the plight of those who are given less attention. This is why she is the ultimate example of an Underground Groundbreaker. It is just a shame that she is not more well known and that there is not as much information out there on her as there should be. But I hope this piece on her can improve awareness of her and her life fighting for what is right.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Dorothy Kenyon interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the  articles and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. Unfortunately there is not as much out there on her as there probably should be, but this is what I have been able to find:

Wikipedia bio:

More detailed bio from Dorothy Kenyon Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA:

More on Kenyon Papers:

Short piece on Kenyon Papers from Sophia Smith Collection:

NY Times Obituary:

ACLU biography along with other important figures:

Wikipedia entry on Equal Rights Amendment:

Groundbreaker #3: Eugene V. Debs

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.” 

If you are a fan of Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders like I am, then I hope you will enjoy and learn from my next Groundbreaker, Eugene V. Debs. In fact, if you are a fan of Bernie, you should know about Debs, as he is the man who inspired Bernie. Though he isn’t exactly like Debs, there still might not be the Bernie we know without him.

So who was Eugene Debs? Maybe you’ve heard about him in a history class or textbook, as the five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America. I remember him occupying maybe a paragraph in my high school history books, but that was about it. But he should be taught more extensively than he is, and as we will see, his beliefs are probably the reason he isn’t. In short, Debs was a bad-ass, ahead of his time in many ways.

And yes, as you’ve noticed by looking at his picture, he is white, and my usual practice is to profile Groundbreakers who are non-white, non-male, and other marginalized groups. But Debs is a rare exception to that rule, as he fought for most of his adult life for the rights of poor, working people.

Eugene Victor Debs was born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. After dropping out of high school when he was 14, he started working for a railroad company. He eventually realized that the railroad brotherhoods did not have the real interests of the workers, especially less skilled workers, at heart.

He helped found the American Railway Union in 1893, which was open to all railway workers, not just skilled workers. The ARU gained as many as 150,000 members nationally, making it one of the largest unions in the country. Perhaps most importantly, Debs wanted to include black members in the union, but was overruled by a vote. The railway workers went on strike, known as the Pullman Strike, for 18 days, which won them a significant wage increase. But the rich and powerful bosses were spooked, and did all they could to gut the power of unions so that such a strike would never happen again. Debs believed excluding black railway workers negatively affected the effort, since they were understandably unwilling to work with their white counterparts (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States).

Debs was sent to prison for 6 months for defying an injunction, and the union was busted. It was in prison where he began reading socialist literature, including Marx’s Das Kapital. He went from a Democrat and full believer in the capitalist system to a full-blown Socialist by the time he left prison.

In 1905, Debs was part of a group that helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago. The IWW was for workers who wanted more radical change than was being offered by large unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and to include workers of any sex, race, or skill level. They believed in direct action instead of making contracts with employers, since this would prevent labor leaders from striking corrupt deals with employers or, worse, politicians. The workers would be in charge, a true democracy (see Zinn, A People’s History of The United States). The membership was never high, but their message and legacy had an important effect on labor in the early 20th century, and the union still exists today.

The part of Debs’ life that is perhaps most impressive is what could be called his career of running for president. He ran for president 5 times on the Socialist Party of America ticket, which was formed from the remnants of the ARU: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He did better each time he ran: starting with 87,945 votes in 1900, 420,810 votes in 1904, 420,852 in 1908, and 901,551 in 1912.

And in a move of extra bad-assery, in 1920 he ran while serving a ten-year term in prison for speaking out against World War I. His speech railed against the ruling class who always declares war, while the working class must sacrifice everything. He was convicted of violating Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a case decided by the Supreme Court. It was outlandishly argued that his speech, which should supposedly be protected by the First Amendment, obstructed enlistment in the military for the war, and promoted disobedience by those already there.

He accomplished his last presidential campaign by releasing one press release per week, and in an era before the internet, received 913,693 votes, which is the most ever earned by a Socialist candidate. Not bad for running a campaign from prison! He never won any electoral votes and received a small percentage of the popular vote, but did pretty well while always up against the bankrolled Democrats and Republicans (sound familiar?).

In 1921, at age 66, Debs was pardoned for his “crime” of protesting the war by President Warren G. Harding, and returned home to Terre Haute. He was celebrated upon his return home because of his ultimate commitment to fighting for the people and the workers. He died in 1926 at the age of 70.

Debs’ legacy is important in so many ways, both to the early 20th century and even today. Due to his work, the Socialists had 100,000 members in America and controlled the governments of 33 cities in 1912. There was even a Socialist serving in Congress. Unfortunately this was the high watermark, as this changed once WWI broke out, since Socialists were against the war. Since it was illegal to be against the war due to the Espionage Act, many Socialists lost their jobs and were imprisoned, like Debs. The only war Debs supported was the one for the Socialist cause.

The issues Debs was talking about and fighting for are still a long way from being solved today: fairness for workers, inclusion of all workers in efforts, union busting, and the gap between rich and poor, just to name a few. Bernie Sanders has taken up many of these causes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, following in the footsteps of his hero, Debs. And Bernie came even closer to being president than Debs did (rant for another day), but just imagine what Debs could have done if he was even a congressman or Senator, much less President! Bernie would be the first to say that he stands on the shoulders of Debs, as he lay the groundwork for so much of what has made Bernie popular over the past 40 years. And they probably would have their differences in policy, but much of the overall message is the same. What is particularly fascinating is that despite the message we often hear that we are a capitalist, center-right country, Debs still had a fair amount of support for his policies that simply wanted to improve the lot of the American worker. Despite all the noise, those policies have always been popular.

I find Debs such a fascinating and significant figure in American history, and someone to look to in these troubling times. I will admit that I’ve been having an especially rough time dealing with what has been happening over the past few weeks. But working on this blog helps me cope in some small way, since it helps remind me that there have always been people who fought against the bad stuff. And though days like today make me feel like we’ve made little progress over the years, the Groundbreakers remind me of the progress that has been made due to ordinary people fighting and not giving up. That, to me, is the most important thing Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders have in common: no matter how much BS they’ve had to face, they just keep on fighting.

“…while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Eugene Debs interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.