Dame Ethel Smyth was not only an astonishing composer, but she was also an active member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Not only did she make the public change their minds about women composers, she also stood up with her fellow suffragettes as they took political matters into their own hands. For these reasons, her name is in our history books today and her actions will not go unremembered.
Ethel Smyth was born on April 22, 1858 in London, England. She was the fourth child of a family of eight kids and was also born to a wealthy family. Against her father’s wishes, Ethel Smyth decided to pursue her dream of having a musical career. Her works included songs, orchestral works, operas, and so much more. She was mostly thought of as a “woman composer” and her work was not always accepted as mainstream by the public view. When she tried to compose more delicate pieces, she was criticized for not being up to par with her male counterparts. Nonetheless, she was eventually granted status as a Dame, the first female composer to be honored with such a title and she proved her father wrong.
Getting into her personal life, Ethel had many love affairs. The first of which being Henry Bennet Brewster, her only male lover. At one point, she fell in love with a fellow suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. However, Emmeline was married to Richard Pankhurst. Then at the age of 71, Ethel fell in love yet again with Virginia Woolf. The two became friends later on and even helped each other with their own fields of work. Despite her many lovers, Smyth never married. She also bore no children, yet, she cared deeply for her dog, Marco. In her time, her sexuality would have been somewhat scandalous to the public eye. Yet, that didn’t stop her from loving who she wanted to love. You could say she was an independent woman and didn’t care about what others perceived her as.
Giving up music for two years, Ethel remained focused and devoted to the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was delving further into the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Smyth was one of the 109 members who responded to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call, sending people to attack the home of colonial secretary Harcourt. They would throw rocks at any politician’s window who opposed the votes of women, their next victim being Harcourt. Around 100 people were arrested as a result of this attack, Ethel included. She was later released due to a medical assessment but still continued to stay in contact with the women of the movement. After her involvement in the movement had died down, Ethel Smyth conducted the Metropolitan Police Band at the unveiling of the statue dedicated to Emmeline in London, in 1930.
Her life’s work had not gone unnoticed. She inspires so many young women and musicians to this day. I do not know where the world would be without her. She paved the way for so many of us and if she could see where we stand today, I know she would be proud.