‘What we’re aiming for is big’: Esperance and the drive for gender equality

Emily Portman and Rosie Hood
Emily Portman, left, and Rosie Hood set up Esperance with Sarah Jones and Nicola Beazley.

The Me Too movement against sexual abuse and harassment has spread around the world and sent shockwaves through politics, sport, music and film since it was sparked by the series of revelations about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017.

And folk music is not immune. In the past year a number of young female musicians have started speaking up about their treatment at the hands of men in the UK and Irish folk scenes. The Trad Stands With Her and Mise Fosta (Irish for “Me Too”) campaigns in Scotland and Ireland are highlighting both the scale of the problem and the determination to change it – to make folk the safe, inclusive, equal scene it ought to be, and that many wrongly believed it already was.

This is the backdrop to the launch last year of Esperance, a grassroots group aimed at tackling gender inequality in the English folk scene. Its founders are the musicians Rosie Hood, Emily Portman and Nicola Beazley plus Sarah Jones of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who is programme manager for the National Youth Folk Ensemble. All of them work with young people as educators or organisers in the folk scene in England.

Trad Stands With Her was “the beginning of the four of us coming together”, says Jones. “I started speaking to lots of women about it and we all started speaking with each other and decided that we needed to do something in the English scene, to respond to the women who’d come forward.”

She adds that a blogpost by a young woman living in England about abuse and predatory behaviour she had suffered in the folk scene “was the catalyst, really, for the conversation suddenly happening in England.”

But although Esperance was launched as a direct response to allegations of men abusing women, its remit – and the problems in folk music – are much wider. Portman points to research called Counting the Music Industry, which showed the gender inequalities that musicians face.

The research shows that, although male and female musicians are studying music in equal numbers, fewer women are continuing on to forge careers in the music industry.

The folk scene, like the wider music scene, is still male-dominated and the research indicates that although “the folk scene was better than some scenes – the electronic music scene didn’t come out shiningly, for example – overall there is still a significant gender disparity. There’s a gender pay gap. There’s also a gender disparity between the musicians who are signed to publishing companies as songwriters,” says Portman.

“Although we are all really proud to be part of a really friendly, warm and welcoming scene, as we see it, that doesn’t mean that it’s not really important to take a look at what’s going on within our scene and say: ‘Can we do better?’”

She says: “We know this problem is intersectional as well so it’s not just about gender, but we decided that’s a good place to start for us so that’s our focus for now.”

Hood adds: “We know of accusations of abuses of power by men towards young women. We have the treatment of women based on their looks and the condescension that women and other gender minorities can have to face, whether that’s the way they’re introduced or the assumption by technicians that a woman doesn’t know how to use their equipment.

“There’s the fact that you see fewer female performers higher up the bill on bigger stages; you see fewer women as hired musicians stood behind ‘the name’.”

Esperance hosted a Zoom discussion in February about MCing of professional folk events, which highlighted that artists have had to contend with offensive introductions, with inappropriate references to their looks or sexuality instead of a focus on their musicianship.

‘Homophobia, sexist language, transphobia – we don’t think these things deserve a place in our folk scene’

Portman says: “Homophobia, transphobia, sexist language – we don’t think these things deserve a place in our folk scene. In order to really enact that friendly folk scene we need to make sure that we aren’t blocking a whole host of brilliant people out.”

So what are Esperance planning to do, and how can people in the folk scene support them?

Hood says bluntly: “What we’re aiming for is big. We’re very aware of that. We want a shift in culture within the folk scene.” Esperance aims to make the scene safer and more equal and inclusive by highlighting gender inequalities and giving people confidence to ask for change. The emphasis is very much on creating an environment where positive change is how we move the scene forward.

She stresses that “it’s not just the four of us, that’s not the idea at all … we have a community and what we really want is for lots of people to come and be part of that. Lots of really diverse people as well, so that we get a range of voices and opinions.”

Beazley says: “It was really important for us when we first started that it was a grassroots, upward-moving thing. So before we went public we had a lot of meetings – we sat down and spoke to as many people as we could to try and involve them in the process from the very beginning … so it’s a movement as opposed to, like Rosie said, just the four of us.”

They met festival organisers, artists, educators, agents and event managers working in the English folk scene, and they have since established a group of advisers to help them make key decisions.

Esperance’s aims are still being shaped by what people tell them at open meetings, says Portman.

“We’re wanting to hear what people need … we’ll be addressing different issues in monthly meetings and we’re hoping that through those we can start to make changes.”

Assertiveness workshops are one idea; others include addressing safety for solo women on tour; writing guidance for MCs; and safeguarding artists, children, young people and vulnerable adults at festivals and in the more informal education spaces that exist in the folk scene.

They are concerned that if young people don’t want to come into this scene because they feel unsafe or experience prejudice, it won’t continue to thrive.

‘There is a sense that we are already equal and as soon as you mention the word “feminism” there can be baggage attached’

Another focus is parents and carers, particularly those who are freelance artists. Parents & Carers in Performing Arts has recently published research that shows how hard parents and carers in the performing arts have been hit by Covid-19, with seven out of 10 UK artists considering abandoning their careers.

Esperance is hosting meetings to discuss the effects of lockdown and find out what support or change could enable parents and carers to balance touring, creative and family life in the future. Vick Bain’s Counting the Music Industry report indicates that one of the reasons for the gender gap in the music industry is what she terms “the motherhood penalty”. This is something Esperance is keen to address.

Portman emphasises that although our discussion has focused on problems facing women, Esperance is broader than this. “The reason that we didn’t set ourselves up as a women’s group was just the recognition that gender inequality isn’t just something that women are experiencing, that it happens in various ways.”

Esperance is advocating for gender equality in the broadest of terms, believing that no person should have to encounter barriers because of their gender or sexuality. It welcomes trans and non-binary people and wants to create a more inclusive scene where gender or sexuality simply isn’t a barrier to playing and enjoying folk music.

I wonder whether, despite this, Esperance has encountered resistance from within the folk scene. “We haven’t had so much yet ourselves,” says Jones, “but I think it was interesting seeing what happened when the English Folk Dance and Song Society promoted the new Thank Folk For Feminism podcast.

“Some people were not particularly happy that EFDSS promoted them and got behind them. There were also lots of people who were really supportive and pleased that they’d shared them!

“But I thought that was interesting, that it was seen as something negative by some people in the scene.”

“The response to that blogpost by an abuse victim last summer was pretty shocking too,” says Hood. “There was a lot of victim-blaming and a lot of people saying: ‘Oh, well, this happens everywhere, it’s not just the folk scene.’ Some very defensive responses.”

Portman suggests that if people haven’t personally encountered gender barriers they sometimes have trouble believing that inequality exists at all. “I think there can be a sense that we are already equal, and as soon as you mention the word ‘feminism’ there can be a lot of baggage attached.”

Hood adds: “We are a feminist group, because we want equality!” but she doesn’t see equality as a “women’s issue” and stresses that we can’t assume that all women will always agree. She emphasises that they also want to pass the mic to trans and nonbinary people in order to better understand how to make them feel safe and welcome on the folk scene: the aim is to empower people, all people, with the confidence to recognise and challenge sexist and abusive behaviour.

‘The fact there is such a diverse crowd of young people coming up and finding an interest in folk is really encouraging’

Esperance thinks it’s equally important that men are involved in the conversation and movement for change and that this isn’t just seen as a male/female binary issue. It has already received a lot of support and positivity from male musicians on the folk scene, who are keen to get involved and make positive change.

Despite this Hood admits that they wouldn’t be surprised if they encounter challenges in future: “I suspect we will still get some backlash at some point. We’re preparing ourselves.”

However, says Jones, “what’s been lovely so far has been the huge amount of support that we’ve had. We first started meeting with people in about June last year, and that was all behind the scenes. People were really happy to come and talk to us.

“And then when we launched in November, when Emily spoke on a panel at English Folk Expo’s Folk Talk Live, we just got so much support and people came and joined the Facebook group. We’ve got about 150 people in there now.

“A range of people as well, across the scene, just getting behind the message and offering their support and offering to help. So I’m really buoyed by that and really pleased that we seem to be doing what people want to happen.”

It has been suggested that folk music is a family – and so, like a family, there’s a tendency to close ranks in the face of criticism.

“It’s totally that,” says Hood. Folk music “is so precious that any suggestion that there’s something wrong” can cause people to go into denial mode. She says: “We’re really trying not to focus on blaming people for past misdemeanours. We’re trying to focus on saying: ‘How can we move forwards?’”

Portman adds: “People are very protective about the folk scene, quite rightly, because we love it and we don’t want it to be any less friendly and any less inviting – quite the opposite!”

Perhaps, looking on the bright side, that love and care for the folk scene means Esperance is pushing at an open door? “Absolutely,” says Portman. “There is already so much positive change happening and that has happened over the last few years, and I think the fact that there is such a diverse crowd of young people coming up and finding an interest in folk music is really encouraging.”

It’s a collective effort, too. They speak of working with the Bit Collective, the Scottish group behind Trad Stands With Her, which was established in 2017 and has recently broadened its aims to address equalities issues in the Scottish traditional arts.

They are in contact with FairPlé, which aims to achieve gender balance in Irish traditional music, as well as Folk Talk Together’s Access All Areas, another new group seeking to improve accessibility for disabled people in the folk scene.

Gender equality and safeguarding is being looked at internationally and across most genres of music, so Esperance has been linking up with organisations outside the folk scene too, including the Musicians’ Union and Keychange.

“We’re trying to keep ourselves very much in communication with other groups that are trying to promote change within the scene, to make sure that we’re not all doing the same bit of work over and over again, and just to be able to feed into each other’s discussions,” says Hood.

They are also aware that Esperance comes not only in the wake of the work and support of the Bit Collective and FairPlé but also the other women who have been working in the scene for a long time.

As Hood says: “We’re really aware that we’re being lifted by what they’ve already done. We are not the first, by any stretch.”

Portman says: “We are part of a movement that has been under way for many years. It comes in waves, and we are proud to be part of this particular wave.”

The timing of all of this – during lockdown, when we’re re-examining all aspects of the way we live and work, and when the slogan “build back better” is being used around the world – isn’t a coincidence, either.

Jones says: “We’re thinking about rebuilding and going back and opening up the venues and folk clubs and events again. And can we open them up to be even more inclusive and more safe? I think that’s why these conversations have been happening this year.”

Hood adds: “Say it’s a new policy, a safeguarding policy or an anti-abuse policy or something like that that you want to enact, if that is there already as you go back to things opening up, then it feels like it could be a good moment for those things.”

And how can people in the wider folk scene get behind Esperance? “Join the group!” says Hood. “Join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, send us an email if you don’t use those things. Come to our open discussions – we’re having an open meeting looking at a different area that relates to gender equality.

“So if people want to come and just listen then that’s great, if they just want to understand what’s going on in the scene a bit more.

“If they want to come and tell us their experiences or if they’ve got some ideas for things that they want to change, all of those are very much possibilities.”

Portman says: “We also have a website and we have resources that we’re adding to regularly that will hopefully be helpful for anyone who’s interested and wanting to find out more.”

For more details, see esperancefolk.com. This article appeared in Folk London 312, April-May 2021