We all know that playing the banjo is the polite thing to do, but is it appropriate behavior for ladies?
Associate Professor of Music (Hamilton College) Lydia Hamessley, says that the banjo manufacturers of the late nineteenth century engaged in an effort to elevate the banjo to the status of “a respectable instrument for ladies” by prominently featuring women in their marketing.
Unfortunately, during this same time, certain elements of society were promoting an image of the “New Woman,” meant to free women from the constraints placed on the gender by the culture. Part of this “New Woman” image included three-dimensional photographs known as stereoview cards. These cards were popular as parlor entertainment, and many of them
…presented humorous and sometimes risque scenes of banjo-playing women. Further, virtually no stereoviews exist that show the banjo played by a lady in a parlor setting.
Hamessley goes on to argue that
…the link between the banjo and the New Woman had a decisive and negative impact on the effectiveness of the banjo elevation project. Through an examination of these three-dimensional views, and drawing on late-nineteenth-century writing and poetry about the banjo, I show how the banjo in the hands of the New Woman became a cautionary cultural icon for middle- and upper-class women, subverting the respectable image of the parlor banjo and the bourgeois women who played it.
So while it might have been polite, ladies, who valued their reputation, didn’t play the banjo during this period of American history.
Fortunately things have changed for the better and the banjo is now a perfectly respectable instrument for ladies to play. The International Bluegrass Music Association recently celebrated the accomplishment of one such lady with the awarding of Banjo Player of the Year for 2008 to Kristin Scott Benson.
So, in 2009 the answer to the question is: Yes, ladies should play the banjo!