The Chatham Band Celebrates The Centennial Of Suffrage

By: Debra Lawless

Carole Lewis photo/graphic

Women Now Make Up Half Of The Town's Famous Musical Group

Women were given the right to vote in the United States in August 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, but they weren’t given the right to join the Chatham Band until January 1982.

Today, over a full generation later, women playing in the beloved band don’t raise an eyebrow, and in fact half of the Chatham Band’s 40 full-time members are now women. To commemorate these twin milestones — a century of women’s suffrage (which was also to be the theme of the town's canceled July 4 parade) and women joining the band — band director Tom Jahnke worked up a stirring summer program that featured pieces such as “America the Beautiful” by Falmouth’s own Katharine Lee Bates and a Patti Page medley including “Old Cape Cod.” Because band concerts have been canceled for the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Jahnke hopes to present the program next summer.

So why were women not allowed to join the band? Band manager Anita Harris conjectures that the band, when it was formed in 1931, served as a kind of men’s club. It was even written into the band’s bylaws that the band was “male only.”

Flute and piccolo player Aileen Domos was eventually the third woman to join the band. When she taught art in the Chatham Schools, Whit Tileston, who directed the band for 48 years, was a colleague. Domos recalls that while Tileston told her he wished she could join the band, he was afraid the male band members might “say something,” she recalls, explaining that Tileston was referring to off-color remarks. But her retort was, “I’ve been in the Army for 11 years, I think I’ve heard everything.” Still, she could not join the band due to the “male only” bylaw.

In December 1981, Chatham resident Juliet Bernstein brought the “male only” provision to the attention of the Civil Rights Division of the Attorney General’s office. Since the band accepted town funds and performed in a town-owned bandstand, not allowing women to join appeared to violate the law. A brouhaha ensued, with the story even making its way into the New York Times and the national press. In January 1982 the band voted to accept women. But it was not until a decade later, in April 1992, when Sharon Ferguson tried out for a seat as a baritone horn player, that the band accepted its first woman.

Once women joined the band, everyone seemed to accept them without fuss.

“We had a fine time,” Domos recalls. “No one ever said anything to us, or said a bad word.” Domos took over as the band’s librarian after Tileston retired in 1994. Domos, now 93, retired from the band a couple of years ago.

Harris was the fourth woman to join the band, in 1997 or 1998, shortly after she moved to town. A local merchant suggested Harris join, and she contacted George Goodspeed, who was then the band’s manager, to see if she might audition. Soon she joined the flute section.

These days women make up the entire flute section, 90 percent of the clarinet section, and 50 percent of the percussion section, Jahnke says.

Harris has played with the band for nearly a quarter of a century now, and even took over Goodspeed’s position when he stepped down. She describes her job as that of “chief cook and bottlewasher.” And her love of the band is unwavering.

“There’s nothing like the bond between the audience and the band and the energy that creates,” she says. “People all around are smiling and laughing.”

Harris, who owns Violet’s and Jackie’s in Chatham, says the celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage is well timed. “Anything that shines the light on women is good.

“Five years ago, the band was 30 percent women—now it’s 50 percent,” she adds. “It’s a good representation of our community.”

For Libby Chace of Orleans, who was the youngest member when she joined the band at age 15, during her sophomore year at Nauset Regional High School, women being barred from the band was never a concept. She was welcomed by the older musicians, and “contributed to the dynamic,” she recalls. She hopes to return to the band next summer, following her freshman year at the College of the Holy Cross, where she plans to perform in marching and pep bands.

Sally Davol, a special education teacher at Monomoy Regional Middle School, joined the band in 2001, the same year she and her family moved from Central Massachusetts. Davol plays the flute and piccolo.

“I had tried to start a community orchestra where we lived, but was only able to create a trio, so I was ecstatic to have a group to join,” she says. “Over the years my whole family has played in the Chatham Band.”

Davol’s two sons played through high school and college, and her husband and daughter are current members. Davol has served as the band’s president for about six years.

“I always say, in regards to the band’s decision to admit women, that I can’t imagine a band without them,” Jahnke says. If the band hadn’t voted to admit women back in 1982, “the Chatham Band might not exist today. We are all indebted to them.”