Living Legacies | Commemorating the Centennial of the 19th Amendment

Updated: Sep 17

By Caitlin Custer

August 18 marks 100 years since the United States ratified the 19th Amendment, codifying into law women’s right to vote. A change in the making by suffragettes for decades, its impact has echoed through every era since.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was an early advocate of inviting women to the table. Since the 2012/2013 season, the SLSO has led the way with a majority of musicians who are women in its orchestra membership. Far more than just giving women a voice at the polls, the centennial of the 19th amendment provides an opportunity to reflect on how women’s voices continue to shape the SLSO, share gratitude for those who have effected change, and ensure that intersectional equity continues to be an institutional priority.

On Stage

Noémi Neidorff, SLSO Board Vice Chair, explained, “The idea of women within the orchestra is so important because it reflects upon the orchestra as being open-minded, fair, inclusive, objective, and transparent.”

“The SLSO is a living, breathing organism that relies on the breath and voices of everyone in it. We need to hear each other in order to remain one while moving forward. We each bring something of enormous value to the group when we speak.”
Melissa Brooks

The benefit of a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable orchestra is not only the reflection of its audience, but also its unique ability to bring voices together to explore ideas and inspire action. Melissa Brooks, Associate Principal Cellist and member of the SLSO since 1992, remarked, “The SLSO is a living, breathing organism that relies on the breath and voices of everyone in it. We need to hear each other in order to remain one while moving forward. We each bring something of enormous value to the group when we speak.”

Cellist Elizabeth Chung shared Brooks’ sentiment, noting that music offers a way to come together to “create a powerful voice,” and has the power to break “tangible and intangible barriers.”

Susan Slaughter (front, far right) with the SLSO brass section in the 1980s

Many members of the SLSO family are quick to mention the story of legendary trumpeter Susan Slaughter, who joined the SLSO in 1969. Shortly thereafter she earned the principal seat—the first woman to hold a principal brass seat in any major U.S. orchestra—and spent four decades with the orchestra in all. Slaughter was taking orchestra auditions at a time when women brass players were not often welcome at the table. In her SLSO audition, as the Post-Dispatch details, one audition committee member started to walk out, only to have Slaughter’s incredible sound put him back in his seat.


Principal Harpist Allegra Lilly recalled how eye-opening it was to hear Slaughter and Frances Tietov, Lilly’s predecessor, describe their experiences as women of the orchestra early in their careers. Lilly noted that in addition to Slaughter being a “near-lone woman fighting for equal treatment in a man’s world,” Tietov faced discrimination surrounding the limited and unpaid maternity policy at the time.

“It’s remarkable how far we’ve come,” in just a few decades, Lilly said. “All the way to being a majority-women orchestra with a CEO who is a woman and many more board and staff members who are women.” At the time of publication the SLSO’s staff, like its orchestra, is majority women, along with half of the Board’s officers.

Five years after Slaughter’s audition, the SLSO was one of the first professional orchestras to institute blind auditions, wherein a musician walks on stage over a length of carpet (masking the sounds of their steps that might give something away, like high heels or heavy boots), and performs behind a curtain. Through this process, the audition committee selects finalists based only on their musical ability.

Deep Roots

Perhaps one of the longest threads in the story of women’s contributions to the SLSO is the Symphony Volunteer Association (SVA). Chief among their commitments to the orchestra is their support of the Youth Orchestra and events like Picture the Music and Express the Music, which were initiated by Noémi Neidorff. “I thought it was important for children to come to the Powell Hall, and these were transformational programs giving them a chance to really get involved in the music,” recollected Neidorff. She continued, “When the SVA’s then-president Carol James asked me to take on Picture the Music, I realized I had a voice and something to offer. Not only did I care deeply about making the program successful, it motivated me to become involved with the board.”

The SLSO has a long history of women in leadership, as these archival program books show. Left, the 1904/1905 program booklet lists Mrs. John T. Davis as President. Right, the 1925/1926 season was the first where the Women's Committee was printed in the program book.

The SVA can be traced back to the 1904 World’s Fair as the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society, which worked to raise money and increase subscriptions for an orchestra coming of age. The Women’s Committee of the Symphony Society was in full swing by the 1920s, spurred on by the early energy around women’s voting in the region (the country’s first organization dedicated solely to women’s suffrage was started by five women in a meeting room of the St. Louis Mercantile Library in 1867). By 1927, The Women’s Committee included 465 members who supported the orchestra by subscribing to the Guarantee Fund, holding season tickets, or giving service.

The organization continued to grow, spearheading many of today’s most recognizable complements to SLSO concerts, such as pre-concert conversations and radio broadcasts. Now known as the Symphony Volunteer Association, the group continues to share their love of the orchestra through fundraising, stewardship, and education.

Behind the Scenes

One of the most fundamental parts of the SLSO family is its Board of Trustees. The board of a nonprofit organization represents the community, serving to ensure the support of the organization’s mission, exercise fiduciary responsibilities, and enact strategic direction. Board member Elizabeth Mannen said the presence of women has added “diversity, authenticity, and vulnerability,” to the group. She reflected, “Viewing an issue from a different perspective is fascinating if you allow yourself to do it. It requires vulnerability and the willingness to let go of your own beliefs for a brief moment. Diverse opinions often lead to better outcomes and voting makes sure that all voices are heard.”


Emily Rauh Pulitzer joined the board after her husband died, “because the orchestra meant so much to him,” she said. Now the Board’s Secretary, Pulitzer mentioned previous Board Chair Virginia Weldon as a standout player in the Board’s history. “When Ginny looked at the financial figures, she said, ‘We go on like this and we’re out of business in a couple of years.’ That took courage.” Weldon would go on to lead the SLSO in a remarkable turnaround which included matching the $40 million Taylor Family Challenge in just four years.

“Viewing an issue from a different perspective is fascinating if you allow yourself to do it. It requires vulnerability and the willingness to let go of your own beliefs for a brief moment. Diverse opinions often lead to better outcomes and voting makes sure that all voices are heard.”

While the Board looks after the SLSO as a nonprofit, the musicians take on roles beyond supporting the artistic and educational mission of the orchestra. Allegra Lilly, who said she “can’t remember a time in life when [she] wasn’t outspoken,” joined the Musicians’ Council during her second season. The Council’s role is to represent musicians’ interests to the union and to management. “This is my first orchestral position; I had never been on an orchestra committee before.” It sounded to her like, “a great way to get to know the orchestra, my colleagues, and how all of this works.” She is still at it six seasons and many different subcommittees later. “I'm honored that my colleagues continue to put their trust in me and that I'm able to advocate for my fellow musicians on so many fronts.”

Malena Smith

Malena Smith, who coordinates the SLSO’s Peer to Peer Program as an IN UNISON Fellow, commented on the “electric, progressive energy,” that flows through the organization. “Being in the SLSO family is super powerful. I love how women play such a dominant role throughout the entire organization, from the musicians to the staff.” Maureen Byrne, Associate Vice President, Education and Community Partnerships, is one of Smith’s “she-roes.” Byrne “is so innovative, intentional, and hardworking,” Smith said, also mentioning how President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard “leads everyone to be forward thinking,” in every facet of the SLSO’s work.

Moving Forward

While the SLSO has made strides in gender equity in the orchestra field, there is still progress to be made. The process will be imperfect, as was the process that led to the passing of the 19th amendment.

What they shared most of all, though, was a desire to inspire future generations of women and underrepresented groups, a gratitude to those who have fought for them, and an unwavering appreciation for the power of their vote.

Elizabeth Chung reflected on what it would have been like to be one of the first women involved with the SLSO. “Being the first to do anything, it takes courage, patience, and resilience,” she said. Chung continued that to be among the first women involved with the SLSO “must have been thrilling and rewarding; we owe a great deal of gratitude to those who paved the way.”

Allegra Lilly and Elizabeth Chung

Many remarked that being one of the first women involved with the orchestra would have been challenging. They discussed their own experiences of being among the first women involved in other groups: wondering if their voices were really valued or if they were the diversity hire, navigating a male-dominated space, and feeling the need to prove oneself.

What they shared most of all, though, was a desire to inspire future generations of women and underrepresented groups, a gratitude to those who have fought for them, and an unwavering appreciation for the power of their vote.

Malena Smith recalled her personal experiences: starting at just 15, she phone-banked, canvassed, and campaigned for a political candidate she supported. She said it means a lot to her to be able to vote, “not only as a woman but of course also as a black woman,” and sees “voting as an opportunity to have my voice heard and to take action in my communities.” Smith remembers “the stories of the women and the black men and women who fought, were violated, and died specifically for the right to vote in the past are imprinted in my mind forever. I think about those stories every time I go to the polls, truly.”

Those stories are also at the front of Allegra Lilly’s mind, along with a gratitude to “the heroic efforts of the brave suffragettes who faced ridicule, violence, and even death, yet ultimately prevailed.” She continued that voting is “a great reminder of the importance of activism and, as the late John Lewis so perfectly described it, ‘good trouble.’”

Noémi Neidorff shared that she holds voting close to her heart after escaping a communist dictatorship during her childhood in Hungary in the 1950s. “It means everything in the world for me to vote, it is a sense of freedom so liberating and so precious, something I never take for granted.” She maintains that an integral part of making progress is to “know your strengths. Surround yourself with advisors in areas you need help in. Take the initiative. Take that one step. Call somebody. Get involved. Don’t sit back and wait for others to invite you, just come with an idea.”

Elizabeth Mannen expressed a similar sentiment and call to action: “Show up. Speak up. Give your time, talent, and treasure. If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.

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