Valley Voices

As Women’s Equality Day arrives, Fresno Philharmonic’s conductor is honored

Rei Hotoda, the first female music director/conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic, is being honored as woman of the year by the Fresno League of Women Voters.
Rei Hotoda, the first female music director/conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic, is being honored as woman of the year by the Fresno League of Women Voters. © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Cracks in the glass ceiling may be spreading.

The League of Women Voters of Fresno tries every year to recognize the breakthroughs.

The non-partisan organization accomplishes this by celebrating Women’s Equality Day annually. The official national date is August 26, which commemorates universal voting rights granted to women under the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

Yearly recognition has been in effect since 1971. The year before, banners were hung from the Statue of Liberty and huge rallies were held in 100 cities with marches of more than 50,000 women as a protest against the lack of equality for women.

When the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, Congress decided to honor Women’s Equality Day on August 26.

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Francine M. Farber of Fresno is a retired educational administrator and community volunteer. Fresno Bee file

Each year the League selects a local woman who is outstanding in her profession, especially one that does not traditionally welcome females. This year the league is honoring Rei Hotoda, the first female music director/conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic.

On August 27 Maestro Hotoda will be the guest speaker at the league’s annual celebration. A petite dynamo, Hotoda believes in introducing audiences to new music while also presenting traditional fare. She also reaches out to diverse audiences to try and engage younger people in thrilling to good music.

Other past League winners include Judge Hilary Chittick; Fire Chief Kerrry Donis; Clovis mayor and council member Lynne Ashbeck; retired Clovis Community College president Deboroah Ikeda; former Fresno County supervisor and attorney Susan Anderson; Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth; and Irma Olguin, founder of Bitwise Industries.

Symphony orchestras are one of the last bastions of extreme male dominance. There is still only one female conductor of the largest major symphony orchestra in the United States – Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony. She also conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the symphony in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

She established a prestigious fellowship to mentor women conductors, which was awarded to Maestro Hotoda in 2006. Despite Alsop’s success, there still aren’t a lot of women music directors.

“And of course, if you’re a woman, you not only have to be perfect, but to look perfect, too,” Alsop says. “So you have to have it all, to do it all, to be perfect and look gorgeous while you do it. Those are things that require superhuman strengths.” On the concert podium Hotoda has favored formal black pants and jacket with a loose white or colored blouse and modest black heels.

Why are there so few women conductors of major orchestras? The arguments sound like the familiar boardroom plaints.

The Munich Philharmonic music director insulted his players by saying “you sound like a ladies’ orchestra.” Zubin Mehta, who had been the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was quoted as saying, “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra. Men treat them as equals: they even change their pants in front of them. I think it’s terrible.”

What makes a great conductor? In a recent New York Times obituary on the Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, he was quoted : “There are no secret formulas. It largely depends on intuition, or perhaps the weather. If one could explain conducting, there wouldn’t be 1,000 conductors, but 10,000. We’d put them in a class and tell them how to spin their arms. Fortunately, some things cannot be explained.”

Women musicians have been excluded from positions in the orchestra in addition to being excluded from the podium. The first woman to play in a major American orchestra was a harpist in 1930, who joined the Philadelphia Symphony. It took until 1982 for the Berlin Philharmonic to appoint its first women member, a violinist. When the conductor tried to hire its first woman wind player shortly thereafter, that was too much, and the orchestra voted 73-4 against her employment.

Attempting to rectify discrimination, many institutions have instituted blind auditions. The candidates are behind a screen and walk in on thick carpeting to hide identifying heel sounds. This has been very helpful in reducing male dominance in orchestras.

Francine M. Farber of Fresno is a retired school district administrator and a fulltime community volunteer. She can be contacted at