Women and Fiddling | Bowing Down Home

In the old days on Prince Edward Island, fiddling was generally considered a man's calling. Part of this was simply a reflection of the division of labor that had men doing the heavy cultivation on the farm, while women devoted themselves to more domestic pursuits. But there was also a general feeling – because of the rough and rowdy atmosphere at some Island dances – that fiddling was not only too physically taxing for women, but also no "proper" activity for them.

Young girls who were drawn to the fiddle were rarely discouraged outright. It just seemed that in many households they received less encouragement and fainter praise for their attempts at fiddling than did their male counterparts. On the other hand, the situation was quite different with regard to accompaniment instruments. A girl's explorations on keyboard instruments like organ or piano, or on fretted instruments like guitar and mandolin, would generally elicit much in the way of encouragement and helpful hints.

Most women who did learn to play grew up in large fiddling families. But even most of these practiced their art in the privacy of their own homes. When it came to house parties and dances, it was usually only the men who played.

The Island family most noted in the old days for its female fiddlers was that of Joe Bibienne Arsenault of Abram-Village. Several of his daughters – including Zélie-Anne Arsenault Poirier - not only became accomplished fiddlers, but were called upon for decades to provide a significant proportion of the local dance music.

Zélie-Anne and her sisters set such a strong example that community attitudes changed markedly in the Abram-Village area. In fact, when Louise Gallant Arsenault (no relation) took up the instrument as a youngster in the 1960s, she experienced none of the subtle discouragement described above.

As the Island's Fiddling Revival gathered steam through the 1980s and 90s, all three branches of the PEI Fiddlers’ Society and all local fiddle instruction programs welcomed females into the fold. As a result, literally hundreds of women and young girls took up the instrument during that period. By the first decade of the 21st century, young females far outnumbered their male contemporaries both as professional performers and at virtually every fiddle-instruction program on the Island. This dramatic shift in role is addressed by Fr. Charles Cheverie, by Sheila MacKenzie, and by a gathering of Teresa MacPhee Wilson’s female friends and relations.