Women in 1940s Big Band: The Case of Glenn Miller

by Brooke Eichenlaub on April 28, 2015

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The role of women in 1940s big band music was very different from that of male musicians. Although there were all female jazz orchestras, the musicianship of the ladies involved was rarely considered with any seriousness; instead, emphasis was placed on the highly constructed presentation of gender and sexuality by these groups. As shown through bands such as the Glenn Miller big band, women were treated as polished accessories in the big band dynamic, much the same as African Americans were in society at large during the time. They were involved in the music making, but in a very distinctly different way than the white, male musicians. The Glenn Miller Big Band perfectly exemplified the “typical” big band of the era.

The band was carefully crafted into an idealistic microcosm of America. Miller carefully selected mostly white, but also Italian, Jewish, and often other non-African races to paint the perfect picture of a multicultural melting-pot of American society. His occasional inclusion of woman singers in the band served this same purpose: to put America on display as an all-inclusive egalitarian nation without crossing too many lines or risk tipping the white-male power dynamic. Of course, this hypocrisy is the very reason that many American jazz artists chose to move and work abroad; over seas women and people of varying ethnicities, so long as they were talented jazz musicians, had many more genuine opportunities than here in America. Just like his music, Miller kept his women from being too “hot” and cultivated the image of a sweet girl-next door to give troops abroad the hopeful idea that their sweethearts would still be waiting at home for them when they returned from war. In recordings of “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” (featuring Anne Rutherford in Orchestra Wives) and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (featuring Paula Kelley from “Sun Valley Serenade), the female vocalists are shown encircled by a group of men made slightly comedic by their obvious enthrallment with the young ladies. In the background, “manly” musicians stand stiffly raising their phallic horns into the air. This stark contrast between these serious musicians and the woman bobbing and smiling with her goofy posse up front was a deliberate tactic by Miller and many other big bands of the time to ensure that each gender group be encouraged to enthusiastically support each other in the united struggle against Nazi Germany, while also encouraging women to stick to their subordinate role in the status quo.

Wooing the soldiers in this way definitely improved morale, but had severe implications for women musicians. Because women musicians were set up as idealistic images for army men to long for, they essentially became nothing more than models who could also sing or play an instrument.  While men who valued for their ability to play, bassist Carline Ray recalls that “Females were not looked on with the same attitude. The guys can have white hair and glasses and can weigh 300 pounds, but if they can play, great; the girls have to look like a bunch of film starlets.” This expectation of women in jazz big band can be easily exemplified just by examining the names of some of the all female big bands. The international Sweethearts of Rhythm, The Harlem Playgirls, and Miss Babe Eagan and Her Hollywood Redheads are just a few of these titles, and they all articulate an expectation aesthetic and sexual appeal for women as opposed to superb musicianship. However, these women were forced to market themselves in this way because without this appeal  they would never be hired to play venues, and it was already an unspoken rule that women would not be hired in jazz orchestras run by men, with very few exceptions. As a result of this sexism and the need for popular big bands such as the Glenn Miller Jazz Orchestra to present what was seen as the traditional, idealistic picture of American society women were largely unable to achieve the musical respectability that they desired at the time. Instead, the pressures of traditionalism and war ensured that women were forced to fill the passive role of “model” and “sweetheart” for men audience members to enjoy. This stigma against women continued far beyond the 1940’s as well, and for many this blatant sexism is a motivating reason to venture into European jazz. European jazz bands tend to pride themselves on being “colorblind” and integrating members in their band regardless of sex or cultural background. The idea of “masculine” jazz is very often associated with American Jazz, where as other transatlantic parties such as the European Steve Lacy big band boast ideals of equality and often have just as many female members as male. This contrast is one of the factors in the modern day enthusiasm for non-American jazz orchestras.


Erenberg, Lewis A.. Swingin’ the Dream : Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p 209.

Mcgee, Kristin. “The Feminization of Mass Culture Andthe Novelty of All-Girl Bands: The Case of the Ingenues.” Popular Music and Society 31 (2008): 629-62. Web.

“Girls In The Band Chronicles Women Of Jazz in 1930s and 1940s.” Tribunedigital-thecourant. N.p., 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.

Rouy, Gerard. “Farewell Paris.”  Down Beat.  Oct. 2002.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

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Emma Anderson April 30, 2015 at 9:21 pm

I think it’s really interesting how a lot of the first female icons of this time period (and before) had to compromise a lot in order to to do the things we look up to them for. The concept of women “improving the morale” of soldiers during WWII is a very interesting element that shaped what kind of women served in big bands. Playing the “sweetheart” girl next door definitely limits your expression as an artist. At the same time, at least women were injecting themselves into the music industry. I really enjoyed the topic and article! I can see a lot of ways it could be expanded on.


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