The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
The Instrumental Women of Fender
Jayme Kurland is a PhD student in US history at George Mason University, where she focuses on twentieth-century labor history and digital history initiatives. She is an AMIS board member and chairs the Ethnomusicology working group. Previously, Jayme worked as a research fellow in musical instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a curatorial assistant at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
“The absence of women in the standard music histories is not due to their absence in the musical past. Rather, the questions so far asked by historians have tended to exclude them.” Musicologists Judith Tick and Jane Bowers wrote this statement in their book Women Making Music in 1986, yet it is still relevant today. While we know the realm of musical instrument manufacturing has traditionally been dominated by men, scholars have begun to uncover stories of women working in family businesses, of women replacing men in factory work during World War II, and finally, the wave of women who entered the artisan workforce in the later part of the twentieth century. This paper will introduce the digital history project “Instrumental Women,” which I founded to tell the stories of women in musical instrument manufacturing, and to provide a database of women currently working in the industry. I will then share my research on the women of Fender. In the early days of Fender Musical Instruments in the 1950s, Leo Fender hired many Latina women to wire the tube amplifiers and guitar pickups. These women were hired, in part, because of a commonly held belief that women’s hands were small and delicate, and ideal for the kind of detailed work. Furthermore, his decision to hire them was an economic one, as he relied on their low paying labor. I will discuss the women who worked for Fender in the 1950s but will also assess the women who have worked in Fender factories in Japan and Mexico. Using a labor history lens and oral histories, I will also consider issues of sexism and race, and will contextualize their experiences in the broader history of factory work.