Confessions of a bad feminist

Published 08/20/2019

By Miranda Mulholland

Let’s play “Four truths and a lie.

  • I had a tour manager try to crawl into my tour bus bunk night after night, ripping the Velcro open when I was asleep and laughing when I was startled at the uninvited – not to mention unwelcome – intrusion. After wrestling with whether or not I should say something about this behaviour, I told the band’s manager, only to be told he might not hire him again.
  • I was told I was too expensive to take on the road because I was the only girl, so therefore I needed my own room, and that was too costly (despite the fact that all the married male musicians’ wives made it very clear they would much rather I didn’t share with their husbands).
  • I have witnessed women coming to shows, getting on buses, seeking out my bandmates at after-parties – not just at our shows, but at shows of famous bands we knew and were backstage for, while either opening for them or guest-listed – and being told over and over that “what happens on the road stays on the road.” Lying to bandmates’ girlfriends about what happened, or didn’t happen, on tour was what I was tacitly asked to do. If I told the truth I wouldn’t be in the gang anymore – and by gang, I mean my paid employment: playing the instrument I had studied since I was four years old, and the hard-earned, steady job I had secured in a notoriously unstable industry.
  • Whenever I’m the only woman in the band, I’ve been asked by someone at almost every show which bandmate was my boyfriend.
  • I have had a powerful agent stick his tongue down my throat without consent, and I had no recourse available to me.

So, which one is the lie? The sad truth is, the only lie is that throughout all of those events, I told myself I was a feminist. What’s even sadder is that a great many other things have happened to me that are much worse, and those I am not ready, or even able, to talk about. I was trapped in the prison of being the token girl in a band, and the whole time I was proud of not being like other girls. And here’s the absolute worst part: I assimilated. I kept quiet, I thought this was the way it was supposed to be. The second wave of feminism had happened in the ‘60s, hadn’t it? I lived through the pop-powered Girl Power movement of the ‘90s, didn’t I?

Things had changed, right? If I was still a victim, it was my fault.

Truth? I’ve been a terrible feminist. The worst part about this is that I didn’t even realize it until recently. I was sitting in the Grand Assembly Room in Bath, England – which is an austere court right out of Jane Austen’s biography –  listening to Caroline Criado-Perez speak about her book Invisible Women, and she hit a raw, raw nerve by describing herself as a young woman not wanting to be like “other girls.”

If you haven’t encountered Ms. Criado-Perez’s work yet, I advise you to stop reading this right now and order her book. Preferably from your local bookshop, but I’m not going to get picky here. I’ll wait… Great choice. You’ll love it. It’ll fill you with passion, rage, and understanding, but in a good way. Moving on.

I was basically born boy crazy. When I was told by boys growing up that I “wasn’t like other girls,” I felt like I’d received the highest compliment.

What were “other girls” like? Emotional, petulant, needy, and gossipy. What was I being praised for, then? Being stoic and tacit, calm and complicit. I am a quick learner, and I molded myself into the girl I thought they wanted. It was my first act of treason against feminism and all womankind.

This continued into University, where I was a prime target for a professor who made me feel chosen and clearly knew I wouldn’t tell anyone about our secret relationship because I “wasn’t like other girls.”  I found out much, much later that he had a talent for finding women who “weren’t like other girls,” and the worst part was, we all fell for it. In this case, we were all just like “other girls.”

I tried out for several musical groups after leaving University – eventually landing with one, a punk Celtic Band, in which the same rules of not being like other girls applied. As I segued out of a more gender-balanced university setting to being the only woman in my working sphere, I got a real crash course in another key component of the “only woman in a band” lifestyle, and what that means. This feeling was described as The Smurfette Principle in a New York Times Magazine back in 1991, referring to the lack of blue female characters in the popular cartoon. (FYI, there are three female Smurfs out of 105: Smurfette, Sassette Smurfling, and Nanny Smurf.) –

I read the Coles notes in tokenism really quickly. Tokenism comes from the Old English word for symbol, and the definition is, “The practice or policy of making no more than a token effort or gesture, as in offering opportunities to minorities equal to those of the majority.” I was now an “only”.

Research into the side effects of tokenism was pioneered by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School. She wrote a book in 1977 called Men and Women of the Corporation. In it, she cites some negative consequences an “only” can face, in this case an only woman:

  1. You’re highly visible, and therefore intensely scrutinized.
  2. You’re isolated by the majority, who exaggerate their differences, and “onlys” may respond by either accepting outsider status, or striving to become an insider (although obviously never a complete one).
  3. You’re expected to act within pre-defined gender roles. Here “only” women can either fight assimilation (very challenging), or accept some form of “role encapsulation.”

Kanter discovered that women in the study most often did the latter, adopting one of four typically female caricatured roles (the mother, the pet, the seductress, or the iron maiden).  Interesting. Remember the three female Smurfs? I guess they need a Smurfiron Maiden to complete the caricature quartet.

There have been a lot of studies about how many “onlys” exist in various spheres, (not just gender but also race, age, you name it). Two notable examples are Women in the Workplace, and, specifically on the music business, the shocking (not so shocking) Annenberg study

So I assimilated. I condoned the behaviour I witnessed. Even worse, I engaged in it myself, because I wanted to fit in and to belong. I’m not pointing the finger at my male bandmates here, many of whom were, and are, individually great people. It’s just that in the music business, being male was normal and I was “other”.

If I had had even one woman in my corner, maybe I would have seen the system for what it was, broken and stacked against me., But I wasn’t like other girls, remember? I was one of the guys. In my efforts to define myself as “not like other girls,” I had isolated myself from potential role models and allies who could have sat me down with a stiff cocktail and said, ‘’Miranda, don’t put up with that shit.” The Kanter tokenism study speaks about the importance of role models and allies, of all genders. I can say with certainty that in each band I’ve been involved in, the music for the audience and for the musicians was better when I felt comfortable to be the artist I know I can be.

Exhausted from feeling like an “other” all the time, I started a band called Belle Starr. I introduced Stephanie Cadman and Kendel Carson – two of my favourite people and musicians — and together we formed a trio. It was my first lesson in true social democracy, respect, and inclusion. We discovered our own strengths, and the combined power of being a trio of strong women. This didn’t shield us from the inevitable “where’s the man doing sound?” question, or the constant sexualization, or underestimation of our skills, that we encountered on a regular basis. Still, it remains the best lesson I ever had in being bigger than the sum of your parts by valuing every member’s contributions.

My main project now is Harrow Fair, a duo with Andrew Penner. We work really hard to maintain balance. We talk over every decision, and negotiate, and sometimes argue. But we do it with mutual respect, and with the art that we’re making at the heart of it all. Andrew has been understanding as I regained the confidence I’d lost from feeling diminished and underestimated for much of my career. (Thanks, Pal!)

We all need to be better feminists. Feminist isn’t a dirty word. It isn’t about trying to take anything away from anyone. It means that gender-neutral does not mean male. It means women are not “other.” In order to change what’s become the status quo, we need to open our eyes, and act intentionally. Be aware of language; “Sound engineer” instead of “sound man.” Be aware of who the decision-makers are. Women are more than 50 % of the population; is that represented in your Board of Directors, festival line-up, roster? If not, change it. More voices at the table allows for better discussion, not to mention a safer space for more people to share their opinions, less of all the “-isms,” and with less room for the garbage my female colleagues and I have experienced. I applaud those who are already doing this, and we all need to support them.

For my bit, I started The Muskoka Music Festival (previously Sawdust City Music Festival), and since its inception we’ve been striving for, and making aggressive progress for, gender parity and inclusion. I’m on the board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall, and we’ve made significant moves towards gender parity. I’m the chair of the Music Canada Advisory Council, and I’m so proud that we have wide representation and diversity on that board. There’s much to be done in all areas of representation, and I want to do better.

The truth is, I want to be a better feminist. Won’t you join me?


About Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. Her debut full-length solo album, Whipping Boy, was released in 2014 to critical acclaim, and became the flagship of her own label, Roaring Girl Records. In August of 2017, she launched the Sawdust City Music Festival in historic Gravenhurst, ON. She's a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire, and with Stephen Kellogg and the South West North East Band. She has sung and played fiddle with Jim Cuddy, Steven Page, Joel Plaskett, Rose Cousins, and Alan Doyle, among others. She's also played or sung on more than 50 albums, including those by Donovan Woods, Justin Rutledge, Sarah Slean, and Cowboy Junkies. She's a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall and is the Chair of the Music Canada Advisory Council.


  1. Carolyn Pisani

    Brilliant and brave! Thank you

  2. Gord Durnan

    Wow Miranda ,thank you for your powerful ,sensitive leadership in creating a platform for Feminism and Equality not just in the music world but in all of Canadian society at all levels. You remind us that together with respect and support a greater more empowering future will be created for all future generations of women and men.
    May every one who reads this join with you and each other in this quest. Best wishes and love , Gord Durnan ,Gravenhurst , Proud to share our heritage as cousins.

  3. Aengus Finnan

    Hear hear.

    Much respect for all you do, and how you do it, Miranda.
    This is an important piece, and I appreciate you taking the time to write it, and caring enough to put it out there.
    Much to learn and do, daily.


  4. Monica Corton

    Thanks for telling your story. I believe it’s only by opening up the conversation that we can shine a light on these particular difficulties for women in the music business. Cheers to you!!

  5. Lara st John

    Yessss Miranda! Time to shed light on this in all types of music and the arts. 👏


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