There may very well have been women playing the Sousaphone prior to the 1920s, but it is during that decade, according to my research, that they began getting much-deserved publicity.
For example, Cleora Miller, pictured at left, began playing when she was twelve years old, and while she was still in her teens, she was considered "One of the most remarkable lady Bass Virtuosos." In a 1924 edition of C. G. Conn's Musical Truth (vol. 14, no. 34, p. 15), in which the quote is found, Miss Miller is further described as
an Artist on the Bass of exceptional ability. Her Bass solos consist of heavy numbers demanding rapid technique which she executes with perfect ease and assurance on her Conn Sousaphone. The audience always marvels at the versatility of Miss Miller for she is so "tiny" and yet handles the Monster Sousaphone with such apparent ease. . . . Miss Miller is the star of her own Musical Company which is considered as one of the highest class musically on the stage of all time.
Toward the end of the decade, all-girl bands began to appear (as the men didn't want the ladies in their groups, regardless of how talented they were!), such as the Parisian Red Heads, shown here in 1929:
|Click here for more info about female jazz groups starting in the 1920s|
|Note how the Sousaphone is being held! Click here for another group similar to this one|
The photo at the right is floating around the internet (can't imagine why), and while I cannot confirm this, one source contends that it is the Sousaphonist from Spitalny's group. If so, she would totally blow away the stereotype of Sousaphonists being large, overweight men!
Before leaving this topic, check out this ad I came across when browsing old editions of The Instrumentalist. It is promoting King Sousaphones in the November 1955 edition: