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How ‘pushy women’ joined boys in the band

Marilee Johnson
Photo courtesy of Marilee Johnson
Marilee Johnson circa 1971

In 1971, I was 30 years old, working as a nurse at the University Hospitals and taking a class titled, “Life Styles of Educated American Women.” One day, while studying in the library, a young woman I had never before seen burst into the room and demanded of me whether I thought it was fair that the University of Minnesota marching band was all male. I said, “No, of course it’s not fair.” We decided to form a group. In my naiveté, I thought all we needed to do was ask the band to let girls march and they would say, “OK.”

I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d never been a joiner, but several life experiences prepared me for this role. I had been raised by parents who assured me I could be anything I wanted, I had played a horn from fourth grade through high school and both my husband and my brother were marching-band alumni. If they were allowed, why wasn’t I?

The group we formed was called “The Commission on the Status of Women Students,” a small student group but actively supported by mentors in the academic community.

Integration took a year. Meetings were held with the band on one side of the room; the boys in the band grouped around their leader, protecting him from the “pushy women.” The whole proceedings were moderated by a university official.

‘Too strenuous … not enough uniforms …’

We were told women would destroy the fraternal spirit of the band and the band’s marching style. It would be too strenuous for girls, we don’t have enough uniforms, we already have a girls’ marching band, girls might get pregnant on band trips and, finally, no girls want to be in the band. This last statement made me mad!

I stood that day and said to the assembled group that if they had no age limit, I would join their (insert your own adjective here) band. I had not played a horn for 12 years and didn’t even own a horn at the time I made this little announcement.

Ultimately, the reason the band integrated had to do with it being against the law to deny equal opportunity on the basis of race or sex in a tax-supported institution. That, plus the university promised to buy the band new uniforms.

I loved the band. I marched two years, 1972 and 1973, and it changed my life. Now, making music is one of the most joyous and social things I do. It involves me in life in ways that would not be available to me if I had kept quiet.

Marilee Johnson lives in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood and still plays the horn. This article is reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Women’s Press, where it first appeared. 

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