Where are all the female musicians? by Millicent Stephenson

Music plays a strong role in church services, but why are there more men than women playing the instruments?

 This question arrested me in 2014. I’d been invited to perform at a Convention, and noticed there was a young lady playing the bass guitar in the church band. I am very used to being the only female musician on a bill; in fact, over the years, I’ve seen very few female musicians but, for some reason on this occasion, my attention was drawn. A voice (which I can only describe as God’s voice) said to me: “Look at the congregation,” and I noticed it was mainly female. I wondered why was it that church membership is majority female, but there are so few female musicians? This thought came with such a strong compulsion and stayed with me for a few days. I felt as though God was saying: “Do something.”

That week I went through my phone book, and contacted nineteen female musicians I knew, from different denominations. I asked them about their experiences in music, and whether a gathering of female musicians to meet to pray and discuss issues would be a good thing. They felt it would. I also spoke to male musicians and key individuals in gospel music about their observations, and for any contact details of female musicians they knew.

In my conversations I found that women are talented: some are getting on with their music; some, on the other hand, feel isolated, smothered, and under par in the presence of male counterparts. Some don’t feel motivated to play, due to critics, parenting, marriage, or lack of family support or church support. Some no longer play, due to a change in ministerial work. I could understand and relate to these situations.

Based on what I found, I decided to throw caution – and my business training – out the window and to put on a networking event a couple of months later for female musicians. I advertised it on social media and waited to see who would come. Nine women showed up!

Since then, we have been meeting twice a year, and more women are coming along. The event is called Cafemnee (pronounced Ka’fem’nee), and I still enquire about female musicians wherever I perform.


Why women quit

 The drop-off starts in school. Girls as well as boys learn musical instruments. The lessons are part of the school timetable, but clash with academic subjects, such as Maths, IT, Literacy, etc. Some parents and teachers are not keen for pupils to miss any part of their main studies (the old academic-being-more-important-than-the-arts debate!) and so instrument lessons come to an end or are moved to after school. If parents are determined for their child(ren) to continue with music, then these lessons will continue but, if weather, finances or lack of practising (by their child) occur, then the lessons end.

Some of the reasons cited by women as affecting their music include the following:

  • Focus on academic studies
  • Develop other ministries
  • Lack of support from church members (music or their instrument not considered as ‘something a woman should do’)
  • Marriage and starting a family
  • Only play when the men are absent
  • No role models
  • Negative comments from male musicians
  • Not knowing insider information
  • Lack of confidence to play publicly or to go solo
  • Full-time not being financially viable (see ‘The Working Musician’ report, Musicians’ Union, 2012)

Church and the Bible

On a positive note, there are congregations with more than one female musician, but that is still quite rare. In my denomination, when a female band is required for a women’s event, we have to locate musicians from other churches and denominations, as there are no single all-female church bands available to book.

There is no mention in the Bible that women shouldn’t play musical instruments. For example, Miriam and other women celebrated with timbrels in Exodus 15:20; the women who greeted David after he slayed Goliath sang and played instruments in 1 Samuel 18:6-7, and in 1 Chronicles 13:8 we read David and all of Israel sang and played instruments in celebration.

 What is Cafemnee?

Cafemnee (Christian And Female Musicians’ Networking Event) is an organisation, which exists to empower female musicians – at different levels and genres of music – through workshops, masterclasses, jam sessions, prayer and networking. It is a place with no competition but an atmosphere of collegiality to share experiences and expertise. It is also a place where church and spiritual aspects of music can be discussed openly; this is not a comfortable topic in mainstream music courses. There is a time of reflection and prayer.

Although Cafemnee is a Christian-based organisation, non-Christians are welcomed and some do attend.

In September 2016, Cafemnee was widened to include female vocalists, and they have enjoyed and applied the tips they’ve received. In fact, some have dusted off their own instruments after seeing and meeting female musicians.


 “Getting paid has always been a taboo. I’m glad for the information.”’

  • “As a result of Cafemnee, I have gone on to take on solos.”
  • “After the last session, I structured my week to include practising.”
  • “We have gone on to set up a female jazz band.”
  • …boosted my confidence, motivation and determination.”’
  • “I was able to go for it the next day in my playing, because I saw how other women played with confidence and energy.”
  • “I did my grade 8 classical piano many years ago and I played in church, but I couldn’t understand the way the guys speak. I felt put down by their comments. I stopped playing. But when I went to Cafemnee’s ‘Play It Like A Man?’, I was so inspired by what I learnt that when I got home I removed all the junk off my piano and just played.”

Who am I?

I am married and have two adult children. My husband is a minister and part of the pastoral team of the church we attend. I have been a Christian for 38 years, and participate in the life of my church by playing keyboards on a Sunday morning and teaching the ‘Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts’ class.

I wasn’t always a full-time musician. Previously I was lecturing in IT and Teacher Training in colleges of Further Education, and had a training company with my husband which ended due to the recession. Although a hobby, I felt I should be playing my music outside of the four walls of the church. I’d struggled with this feeling since my mid 20s, but years later I plucked up courage and yielded. My music developed, and I moved it into a business three years ago when I became a full-time musician.

I perform various genres of music – blues, soul, pop, reggae and jazz, as well as gospel numbers – in private, public, corporate, church and charity settings. I am a recording artist and songwriter. My annual show, ‘Not Just Jazz’, in the Main House of the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham sells out. I also teach piano and saxophone.

I’m really pleased that BBC1 Songs of Praise featured Cafemnee in March 2017. We have a Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/cafemnee/ – and plans are underway for our own website.

If you would like to find out more about award-winning saxophonist Millicent, visit


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One thought on “Where are all the female musicians? by Millicent Stephenson

  • 4th February 2019 at 3:53 am

    Hi Millicent – My name is Gill Bevis and I attended one of your workshops which was held at Erdington (?) I believe in 2017 (?) It was about the Music Industry.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your Workshop and I believe that at the end of it we drew up a list of names of those of us who wanted to keep in touch.I remember The weather was cold. It’s cold now!
    The reason that I am getting in touch is because, having said, I think, that ‘i would never be doing any of that stuff’ – I think I have changed my mind.
    I had a ‘kick up the wotsit’ with a cancer diagnosis and told (at that point) I had a year left – there is nothing like a cancer diagnosis to focus the mind! When I thought about what I would do with a year left I came up with ‘songwriting’ (as I used to do) SINGING, especially. I have decided to try and sing-my-way OFF PROZAC. I have managed to get myself down to half my usual dose, so far.
    I am afraid this is rather long.
    I have been doing some ‘looking around’ and recently I have become very aware of what I think is an under-representation of older women in music or that of some kind of ‘denial’ going on. However I am pretty sure this does not JUST apply to women – I think it’s the prevalence of certain kinds of attitudes which are not encouraging to ANYBODY who wants to do something with music. It can be very frustrating.
    There’s so much I want to say I am not sure that this is the place – this is just for comments. Sorry!
    Is CAFEMERA(?) still going?
    I would like to meet up with other women who are trying to ‘do things’ musically.
    I am very encouraged by the comeback of the audio-cassette tape on the High Street as an inexpensive and accessible way for people to record their music- very difficult to press a vinyl record at home. It struck me that there must be hundreds of thousands of old cassette tapes hidden away with people’s songs on which have never seen the light of day – for whatever reason. All hail to the cassette tape, I say!
    Most people, I don’t think, can afford studio fees or purchase expensive equipment for Home Studios.
    I believe everybody should SING more.
    Hope you are keeping well, THANK-YOU for reading this and may God be always with you.
    Yours sincerely,
    Gill ?


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