On International Women’s Day, a new book celebrates Australian music’s unsung heroines.

Australia may be known as the lucky country, but it must not have seemed that way to many of the homegrown female composers of the past century as they struggled to be taken seriously in their field. Margaret Sutherland’s psychiatrist husband discouraged her from composing by diagnosing her as mentally insane; Miriam Hyde was advised by a publisher to adopt “M. Hydekovsky” as her nom de plume; Peggy Glanville-Hicks declared that a woman must be not as good as men but better in order to succeed – and she wasn’t just talking about composing.

It is these attitudes to women creating music and making their voices heard that prompt journalist Rosalind Appleby to describe classical composition as a “battleground”. It’s the subject of her new book Women of Note, which has its Sydney launch at the Australian Music Centre on March 8 for International Women’s Day.

Appleby’s inspiration came, funnily enough, from Limelight’s July 2007 issue on women, for which she was invited to contribute an article on Australian composers. “I found it difficult to write because there was very little documentation on women composers,” she explains. “What little I could find was very out of date, which was a good thing because it meant I had to contact the women themselves, and I heard some amazing stories. I thought, ‘Someone should write a book on this.’”

The Perth-based clarinetist-turned-music journalist researched the role of Australian women in music – as far back as the Suffragette movement – and began conducting interviews across three generations. “I realised that it was most important to interview the women while they were still alive and record the history before it was lost,” she says.

She admits she was surprised by the instant affinity she felt with her subjects. “I learned from them what it means to persevere, to love both family and work, to pursue excellence, to turn obstacles into opportunities.” Writing the book while pregnant with her son, Appleby found herself “moved by Anne Boyd and Mary Finsterer’s descriptions of the treasured role their children have had in their life.

“I also found Peggy Glanville-Hicks fascinating – a brilliant and troubled woman. She spent many decades working as a music critic and I admired her incisive way with words.”

In 2012 we celebrate the centenary of Glanville-Hicks’s birth. One of Australia’s biggest international success stories, she won a scholarship to study in London with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Sargent before heading to New York to balance careers as composer and a no-holds-barred critic for the New York Herald Tribune. On her death in 1990, her rambling terrace in Sydney’s Paddington was bequeathed as a haven and living space in a creative development residency program for composers (regardless of gender).

Elena Kats-Chernin, today one of busiest Australian composers, is one of many who have stayed at the house on Ormond Street over the years. “While I was there, I was somehow aware of the presence of Peggy’s spirit,” she reflects. “This feeling was a real inspiration. Her generosity has played a vital role in many composers’ lives.”

At the Sydney book launch, Kats-Chernin and Tamara Anna Cislowska will perform Kats-Chernin’s new work Vocalise for piano four-hands. She says she is pleased to take part in the event because “it’s great to have female composers acknowledged and written about in the way that, for example, female writers and artists have been honoured in the past.”

Anne Boyd, the first woman ever appointed Professor of Music at the University of Sydney, will join Kats-Chernin to officially launch Women of Note. She sees the book as one of the first detailed chronicles of its kind “drawing attention to the sustained musical creativity of Australia’s women, many of whom have played leadership roles and who have broken through the glass ceiling again and again by producing work of astonishing originality and quality, often against unusual adversity and without much support.

“It leaves one with the impression that another book already needs to be written about the creative musical achievements of even younger women now in their twenties and early thirties.”

Appleby may just have enough material for a sequel. “Women make up 25 per cent of Australia’s composers, which is more than almost any other country in the world,” she says proudly. “Women composing music in this country are often far more exciting and brilliant than many of the celebrities and sports stars who so often steal the headlines. It’s Australia’s best-kept secret, and it’s time we celebrated it!” Perhaps Australia is the lucky country after all.

Rosalind Appleby’s Women of Note: The Rise of Australian Women Composers is published by Fremantle Press.