Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Helen May Butler

Episode Summary

Helen May Butler (1867-1957), called "The Female Sousa," had an extremely successful and public career as a band leader, organizer, and composer at a time when that simply wasn’t done by women.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan, and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

In case you’re tuning in for the very first time, welcome! Here’s the deal: Every day, we’re telling the stories of women from around the world and throughout history who you may not know about, but definitely should. Each month is themed. 

For the month of May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. This theme is perhaps not as obvious as some of the others so far. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. Some deserve a bad wrap, some did deeds that were remembered negatively simply because they went against the norm and deserve to be reconsidered. All in all, the collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we’ve enjoyed researching, writing, and putting these episodes together. 

Today we’re talking about a woman who had an extremely successful and public career as a band leader, organizer, and composer at a time when that simply wasn’t done by women. Called, “The Female Sousa,” we’re talking about Helen May Butler. 

Helen May Butler was born on May 17, 1867, on a farm in Keene, New Hampshire. Her father, Lucius Marshall Butler, was a railroad engineer. He had designed some of the early Pullman cars. 

When Helen May was a little girl, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island. From a young age, it was clear that Helen May was musically inclined. She learned to play the violin and showed such promise that she was given the opportunity to  study with the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Listerman. 

Though Helen May enjoyed playing violin as a soloist, the era of popular musical bands had arrived and Helen May wanted to play music with a group. For a female musician, that was much easier said than done. 

When she was approximately 25 years old, Helen May decided to form her own group, the Talma Ladies Orchestra. The band formed from members of the Talma Ladies Club and they performed for private parties in the homes of the wealthy. They were so successful that the group eventually purchased its own theater. But Helen May was not satisfied. She wanted to helm a band that could perform in public, like other popular marching bands. 

At the time, playing music in public  was  seen as inappropriate for women. Women were rarely taught how to play brass instruments. Military-style bands full of brass were en vogue and were viewed as especially masculine at the time and into the 20th century. Still, with the help of her father, Helen May found a teacher and mastered the cornet. She then helped teach other women how to play. Brass instruments were seen as such a male-dominated category of instruments that some of the women had trouble buying them. Some stores would only allow men to purchase on credit, not women, because the store owners believed women wouldn’t be able to make a living playing music. Helen May’s father and brother helped Helen May’s students out by allowing them to purchase instruments in their names. 

Around 1896, Helen May created the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band with brass and woodwind instruments. The band initially started small, but grew to at least 25 to 35 women and up to 60 women, depending on the venue and occasion. The women donned military-style outfits and hats with ostrich feathers. 

Helen May and the U.S. Talma Ladies MIlitary Band were soon being noticed by the right people. A businessman named John Leslie Spahn heard them play and was such a fan that in 1898 he sponsored the band and became its manager. The U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band rebranded to become Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band also known as Helen May Butler and her Greatest American Ladies Concert Band.

While the band members’ genders had previously been used against them, Spahn saw the all-women group as a marketing opportunity and even altered his own name on marketing materials to maintain the image of an all-women operation. Promotions called the group an “Adam-less Garden of Musical Eves.” 

Armed with its new name, Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band played at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. They were the only group of women to perform. 

The band was unique for the time due to the gender of its members. It was also very, very good, earning the appreciation of many as one of the top bands in the country. While it was initially made up largely of women from the northeast, the band’s constant travel schedule meant that Helen May gained exposure to excellent musical talent across the country. 

Helen May and her group traveled from coast to coast performing music by American composers. They performed more than 100 times in St. Louis, Missouri, Charleston, South Carolina, and Buffalo, New York. They played over 200 times in Boston. Spahn is noted as once saying that the band was booked for 54 weeks a year, and he was working on 56. Helen May’s forceful style and personality earned her the nickname, “The Female Sousa.” 

In 1902, Helen May and John Leslie Spahn took their business partnership to the next level -- they got married. The couple had two children together. 

The year after her wedding, Helen May was appointed the musical director of the International Women’s Exposition in New York City. That year she also performed at a landmark we’ve all heard of: The White House Lawn. 

President Theodore Roosevelt was a fan of Helen May and her band, so much so that he made one of her compositions the official march of the Republican Party during the 1904 election and the band played at the Republican National Convention. 

Helen May, John Leslie Spahn and the band continued touring until 1914, even though Helen May and John got divorced in 1908. Helen May remarried and eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Helen May continued to teach music even after she retired from the band. She had earned herself quite a reputation and was once spotted at a concert and invited to conduct John Philip Sousa’s band by the man himself. 

Later in life she became engaged in politics and even ran for Senate. 

Helen May died on June 6, 1957, at the age of 90. 

All month, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly.  

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!