Opinion

Letter to the Editor: School song has feminist roots

This month the most diverse United States Congress in history was sworn into office. Bostonians elected the first African-American woman ever to represent the city, and Michigan and Minnesota elected the first Muslim women. Today 131 women hold national office, the highest number ever. Nancy Pelosi has resumed her role as speaker of the house. And there are at least three U.S. senators—Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillenbrand—poised to declare themselves candidates for president in 2020, which is, not coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

Earning that right to vote was not easy. The “suffragette” protest moved in parallel motion in Great Britain and the Unites States. It began in the late 19th century with peaceful means such as canvassing, lecturing, and writing to political leaders. By the first decades of the 20th century, women in Great Britain took a more confrontational approach—heckling politicians, smashing windows, setting fires, and engaging in other acts of civil disobedience, including hunger strikes. 

The British movement received great inspiration from the composer Sir Hubert Parry and his wife, Maude, who were ardent supporters. At the height of the First World War in 1916, Parry was asked by a friend to compose a song supporting the “Fight for Right” movement, rallying the army and inspiring British citizens to strengthen their resolve in the war effort against the Germans, British musicologist Jeremy Dibble wrote. Parry chose the text—‘Jerusalem,’ by William Blake—an aspirational poem celebrating universal human values. The song became an instant hit and was performed frequently over the next few years, including at several suffrage events, according to The Guardian. 

“The sound of ‘Jerusalem’ when the audience joined in was tremendous,” noted Parry. Leaders of the suffrage movement thought it should become the hymn for the Women Voters organization. Parry enthusiastically agreed: “People seem to enjoy singing it. And having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy, too. So they would combine happily.” As ‘Jerusalem’ evolved into the new rallying cry for the British movement, women on this side of the Atlantic noticed. When American suffragettes began singing the tune, the compelling text and stirring music attracted many educators of young women. It was adopted as the school song by the Buckingham School as well as several other girls’ schools on the east coast. 

From the Browne and Nichols School, we received our noble knight, a symbol of courage and competitiveness. From the Buckingham School, we received our school song, ‘Jerusalem,’ a tune that inspired women in both Britain and the U.S. a century ago. These ambitious women unsheathed “arrows of desire,” they did “not cease from mental fight, or “let the sword sleep in [their] hand…until [they had] built” their own version of ‘Jerusalem’—a country where women had the right to vote and where today, in the United States, we just elected more women to Congress than ever before in our history.

Sincerely,

US Music Teacher Joseph Horning

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