The Teenage Girl Who Changed Music Education Forever


If I were to go back and do my teens again, I'd want to do them like Jessy. Jessy Mccabe is the inspirational woman from Oxford, who at the age of just 18 managed to campaign to get female composers on the A-Level Music syllabus after coming to the insanely depressing realisation that there were no women featured in the curriculum

I reached out to Jessy after seeing her featured on the BBC website for their own version of 30 under 30, in which she hands town took centre stage. She's the kind of baby feminist we all wish we'd had the guts to be at her age, and so I thought I'd try and allow her to pass on her enviable wisdom to us all.

Clara Schumann 

Clara Schumann 

Tell us about what first inspired you to make the petition to get women on the syllabus?
I was first inspired to start my petition while taking part in an in-school gender equality programme run by Fearless Futures. It was while taking part in this that I first began to think critically, I first began to notice the omission of women, people of colour, heteronormativity etc. I began to look through an intersectional gender lens and subsequently noticed the omission of women from the A Level Music syllabus I was studying. With the encouragement and great support of Fearless Futures, I knew that I had to muster up my courage, put myself out there, in order to correct this injustice by drawing public attention to it through a petition. This was particularly difficult for me as I was incredibly shy - I spoke so quietly people struggled to hear me even if they were a metre away! So the thought of voicing my ideas was particularly terrifying for me. But after months of discussion, Fearless Futures persuaded me that our voices, experiences and ideas matter and change cannot occur unless we let people know about it. With that, I was eventually convinced that I needed to start a petition to begin the path to making change happen. 

Why do you think they'd been so overlooked before?
I think female composers have been overlooked before due to the creators of our history. Patriarchy today obviously devalues the work of women who put themselves out there even when they had great barriers facing them historically - and this is often put behind the poor argument of there simply weren't any female composers, or there were very few and due to a lack of education at the time they aren't as good. However, these arguments are fundamentally flawed. True, due to patriarchy, there weren't as many female composers (that we know) but as a result of canon formation we only focus on a few white men anyway so I think we can delve into the 6000 known women composers in our history to include them too! As far as quality goes, this is incredibly subjective and I think it's fair to say we can't simply paint a picture of ALL women's composition from pre-20th century being too poor to include in education - I know plenty of men's compositions fall into this category too! Marcia Citron also advocates that the omission of women's compositions comes with our idea of 'valuable' pieces being those that stand up to the 'test of time'. However, a lot of women's compositions are 'lost' (or not looked for) as more women composed at the piano at home or music was passed on aurally and therefore, in some circumstances, does not stand up to our current view of the 'test of time'. Therefore, we need to re-evaluate how canon formation occurs in order to make canons more inclusive and representative so it's history - not white, middle-class men's history!

I'm imagining that you came across a few people who told you what you were doing was too ambitious for someone so young, how did you find the strength to go on and do it anyway?
There were definitely some responses to my campaign stating that I was pushing female composers into the limelight prematurely using the arguments I stated above. However, fortunately, I had some amazing supporters around me to keep me going, including the amazing women I met at the Southbank Centre's Women in Classical Music Breakfast, as well as other supporters on Twitter. Hanna McCloskey, CEO of Fearless Futures, was also incredibly supportive. She helped me analyse criticism in order to understand where those voices are coming from, she supported me when I was upset because I simply couldn't handle media attention and she helped me practically by diverting emails to her first for a while when I was too overwhelmed to deal with the hundreds of notifications an hour! I definitely would not have been able to continue had I not had Hanna and other amazing supporters there for me.

Who is the most inspiring woman in your life right now?
There are lots of inspiring women in my life! My mum is an obvious inspiration - her perseverance in life is something anyone would look up to! Hanna McCloskey is also very inspirational - her ambition and drive to transform her career in order to set up her own enterprise to help tackle the root causes of inequality is amazing! Without Hanna's dedication to Fearless Futures and working with young people to make them realise their power in society, I would be a very different person now. Hanna taught me that it's ok to feel fear, but then instead of conceding the battle, we should always feel the fear, and do it anyway. And 'it' can be anything, from deciding to put your hand up and ask a question in school, to launching a national campaign! All of these acts require courage and this is something that needs to be practised - Hanna definitely taught me this growth mindset.

What advice would you give to young girls who feel disenfranchised by something they love like you did with music?
To young girls who feel disenfranchised by something they love: act! If you see an issue in a system, a problem where people are being marginalised and oppressed, start talking about it. Talk to your friends, put a tweet out on Twitter, send off some emails. In doing so, you are simply putting out an idea - someone may come back with a perfectly reasonable reason as to why an issue may actually be justified - and if so, great! Now you know the reason, it may not be a problem. But, more often than not, people will start to talk about it, people will be on your side and think why they didn't see that problem earlier and help you nuance the idea to ensure you are not, accidentally, perpetuating further stereotypes. By creating conversations, talking about your ideas, opinions and findings, discussions start happening - which is when you can take action and change can take place!

Follow Jessy on twitter here