Women's music

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Women's music is music by women, for women, and about women.[1] The genre emerged as a musical expression of the second-wave feminist movement[2] as well as the labor, civil rights, and peace movements.[3] The movement (in the USA) was started by lesbian performers such as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian and Margie Adam, African-American musicians including Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, Gwen Avery[4] and activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and her group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and peace activist Holly Near.[3] Women's music also refers to the wider industry of women's music that goes beyond the performing artists to include studio musicians, producers, sound engineers, technicians, cover artists, distributors, promoters, and festival organizers who are also women.[1]


The genre, which first came to be known as "lesbian music",[5] has its roots in certain musical contributions of the 1960s and is defined by the artists and labels in the 1970s who built upon this foundation in order to foster a lesbian-oriented musical movement.[5]

In 1963, Lesley Gore came up with song "You Don't Own Me" expressing threatened emancipation, as the singer tells a lover that s/he does not own her, that they aren't to tell her what to do or what to say, and that they are not to put her on display. The song's lyrics became an inspiration for younger women and are sometimes cited as a factor in the second wave feminist movement.[6] Lesley Gore was later criticized for the rest of her songs not matching feminist aspirations and expectations.[7][8][9]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, some people perceived[10] that there were few "positive women's images within popular music" and a "lack of opportunities for female performers".[11] They viewed women as having a disadvantage in the field because of their difference in gender.[12] At the time, major US record labels had only signed a few women's bands, including Fanny, Birtha, The Deadly Nightshade, Goldie and the Gingerbreads and the band that they evolved into, Isis.[13] In reaction to this perceived lack of inclusion of women in the mainstream, some feminists decided it necessary for women to create a separate space for women to create music. Lesbian and feminist separatism was then used as a "tactic which focused women's energy and would give an enormous boost to the growth and development of women's music."[14]

Out of the separatist movement came the first distributed examples of music created specifically for lesbians or feminists. In 1972, Maxine Feldman, who had been an "out" (openly gay) performer since 1964, recorded the first overtly lesbian record, "Angry Atthis" (Atthis was a lover of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho). Feldman had been performing the song since 1969, and its lyrics were specific to her feelings and experiences as a lesbian. In the same year the feminist all-woman bands The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band and the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band released Mountain Moving Day. In 1973, Alix Dobkin, flautist Kay Gardner, and bassist Patches Attom created the group Lavender Jane, and recorded an album entitled Lavender Jane Loves Women, the first full-length album for and by lesbians. These early recordings relied on sales through mail order and in a few lesbian-feminist bookstores, like Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C., as well as promotion by word of mouth.[15] In May 1974, the women who would go on to form the first European women's rock band performed at a women's music festival in Berlin.[16] They formed the German women's rock band Flying Lesbians and released one self-titled album in 1975.

Goldenrod Music Distribution, founded by Terry Grant in 1975, has been credited by Lauron Kehrer as a major influence in the launch of the women's music movement.[17] Kehrer noted that although the organization was founded on the basis of helping women and lesbians, it was unable to work around the contradictions surrounding the company's ethics[specify] and place in a capitalist society.[17]

Lesbians additionally found ways to express themselves through musical composition. There are common European classical semiotic codes that have been used throughout centuries to express either masculinity or femininity.[18] These musical gestures changed over time as the meaning of femininity changed, but they always kept to their purpose: truthful expressionism. Ethel Smyth, a composer, encoded her lesbian life experiences in her music.[18] Genders of composers, writers, artists, and more have a lot to do with how music is perceived and interpreted. Cues such as tempo, articulation, and other dynamics signify many different types of meanings – they are not standard.[18] Each musician uses these codes and cues to suit their music, and thus express themselves through song.

Feminist musicians aimed to show a positive, proactive, and assertive image of women that not only critiqued the rifts in regards to gender, but also demonstrated the goals of the feminist movement such as social justices regarding gender as well as the right of privacy concerning abortion and birth control.[19] With the goal of breaking down the gender divide and level the gender differences, some women in this genre of music "adopt[ed] male dress codes and hair styles".[20] Women also voiced their opinions and the goals of the feminist movement through lyrical contributions. In "I Am Woman," Helen Reddy sings, "I am woman/hear me roar/And I've been down there on the floor/No one's ever gonna keep me down again.[21] Reddy creates a feeling of "girl power" that reflected the ambitions of the feminist movement.

Record labels, distributors, and publications[edit]

Cris Williamson, whose 1975 album The Changer and The Changed was the best-selling women's music album and one of the best-selling albums by an independent label during the 1970s, in concert in 2013

Olivia Records, the first women's music record label, was created in 1973 by a collective including artist Meg Christian. Starting with a single that was successfully sold by mail order, Olivia was able to release Meg Christian's I Know You Know and Cris Williamson's The Changer and the Changed. The Changer and the Changed was "one of the all-time best selling albums on any independent label"[22] at that time, and was also the first LP to be entirely produced by women.[23] "Changer" is the all-time best-selling album to come out of the women's music genre.[23]

Several other independent labels were created by artists such as Kay Gardner with the record label Wise Woman/Urana, Margie Adam with the record label Pleiades, Ani DiFranco with the record label Righteous Babe Records, and Holly Near with the record label Redwood Records in 1972. Redwood records expanded the scope of women's music recordings to include women of color by recording Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group of African-American singers founded by Bernice Reagon in 1978.[24] As these record labels grew so did the music genres represented, and the ethnic and social diversity of the artists expanded. Several other labels were also formed by artists; Berkeley Women's Music Collective, Woody Simmons, and Teresa Trull were distributed by Olivia through their network.

With the growth of independent record labels and increasing demand for women's music, an organized system for distribution and promotion became necessary. Goldenrod Music was formed in 1975 to distribute for Olivia Records, and later expanded distribution to include other labels. Ladyslipper, a non-profit organization formed in 1976 to promote and distribute women's music. Olivia's informal network formed WILD (Women's Independent Labels Distributors) in 1977 to distribute music into different regions of the United States. The organization had two purposes - to formally network and educate distributors on sales and business issues, and to bargain with Olivia while Olivia's financial pressures in turn pressured the distributors. In 1978, a national booking company, Roadwork Inc. was formed to promote women artists. [25]

All throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many women's bookstores that sold women's records relocated into smaller spaces or shut down. As a result, Olivia Records spread out to different industries to help its music projects become more profitable. With this expansion Olivia Records entered the travel industry, and Olivia Cruises and Resorts was founded in 1990. However, even with this expansion, sales in women's music continued to decline dramatically.[26]

There were many social and economic components that caused the women's music business to start failing in the 1980s and 1990s. In order to solve these different issues, the MIC (Music Industry Conference) came together to figure out what could be done. For an entire week around 80 women in the music business discussed the prevalent questions/concerns that were affecting women's music at that time. The main topics at the conference were the drop in concert sizes, the unreal pay demands by the female performers, the lack of diversity in women artists, and how Olivia Records, which was initially intended to be a female ran company, was giving high positions to men.[27]

HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture[edit]

HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture was a women's music magazine published three times a year from 1984–1994.[28][29] It was founded in Chicago by volunteers Toni Armstrong Jr., Michele Gautreaux, Ann Morris and Yvonne Zipter; Armstrong Jr. became the sole publisher in 1985.[30] Tracy Baim of Windy City Times called HOT WIRE "the national voice of the burgeoning women's music movement and a wide-ranging chronicle of lesbian feminist culture."[31] The magazine was a separatist publication and named after Zipter's erotic poem "Finding the Hot Wire".[32][33] The publication focused exclusively on lesbian feminist musicians, festivals, venues, and various topics pertaining to writing, theater, dance, comedy, and the arts.[34] Each 64-page issue included a soundsheet with at least four songs by lesbian and/or feminist artists.

Women's music festivals[edit]

The first women's music festival occurred in 1973 at Sacramento State University. In May, 1974 the first National Women's Music Festival was held in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, founded by University of Illinois student Kristin Lems.[35] It celebrated its fortieth year in Middleton, Wisconsin, from July 2–5, 2015. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was created in 1976, and became the largest festival in the United States[36] before ceasing operations after the fortieth festival in August 2015.[37] Newer festivals include Lilith Fair which toured from 1997–1999 and the Ohio Lesbian Festival, near Columbus Ohio, was created in 1988 and continues to be an ongoing celebration of womyn's music and culture. Many other festivals have been created throughout the United States and Canada since the mid-1970s and vary in size from a few hundred to thousands of attendees. The newest festival is the Los Angeles Women's Music Festival, which kicked off in 2007 with over 2,500 attendees, and which was originally scheduled to return in 2009, but has been on indefinite hiatus after the first event.[38]

Though the festivals are centered on music, they support many other facets of lesbian and feminist culture. Designed to provide a safe space for women's music and culture, many festivals are held on college campuses or in remote rural locations. Many festivals offer workshops on topics concerning the lesbian and feminist community, offer activities such as arts, crafts, fitness classes, and athletic events, and serve to provide opportunities for women to take advantage of resources they often cannot find in mainstream culture. One festival that provides such workshops is the National Women's Music Festival. In 1992, the festival provided workshops covering topics such as “drama”,” film and video,” “access-abilities,” “women’s health/sports and fitness,” “older women,” spirituality,” “women’s empowerment,” “women of color, and a writer's conference in addition to other topics in a "general workshop series."[39]

Bonnie Morris describes in her book Eden Built by Eves, how festivals serve women throughout the stages of their lives. Festivals support a safe space for coming of age rituals for young women, adult romance and commitment ceremonies, the expression of alternative perspectives on motherhood, and the expression of grief and loss. [40] Though historically controversial, The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is sometimes posed as an example of an environment that celebrates all women, not just those who conform to stereotypes in mainstream media. Morris describes attendees at the festival as "women who are sexy in wheelchairs, women who are sexy at 260 pounds, women who are sexy at age 70, long-term interracial romances - and all the rest of womenkind that television will not show or will tell us does not count."[41] Festivals also help create a sense of community for the lesbian community. The National Women's Music Festival has in addition to the many lesbian participants and organizers, the festival's music, humor, and crafts promote a "positive lesbian identity." The festival has also been a place where women can openly display their sexuality including same-sex affections.[42]

Currently, festivals continue to thrive in the United States and other countries.

Michigan Womyn's Music Festival transgender exclusion controversy[edit]

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, or MWMF or MichFest for short, was a subject of controversy for much of its existence due to its exclusion of trans women. In 1991, Nancy Jean Burkholder was dismissed from MichFest on the basis of her being a trans woman;[43] the festival subsequently implemented its "womyn-born-womyn" policy[44] that would face fierce criticism from trans and LGBTQ+ activists and organizations. In 1995, Camp Trans was established and would stage a protest just outside the festival's venue[45] each year until 2010, when it was forced to shut down.[46] Petitions and boycotts ensued from notable organizations like GLAAD[47] while MichFest founder Lisa Vogel insisted that it is not transphobic to have a "healthy, whole, loving space" for women who were assigned female at birth to come together.[48] The festival ceased operations after its 2015 rendition.[49]

While this controversy highlighted some of women's music's key issues with inclusivity, it is still notable that the "movement was engineered by an out trans woman" and that "Olivia Records, the radical feminist lesbian separatist music collective, was itself trans inclusive".[50]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Lont 1992, p. 242.
  2. ^ Peraino 2001, p. 693.
  3. ^ a b Mosbacher 2002.
  4. ^ Hayes 2010.
  5. ^ a b Dougher, Sarah (Fall 2010). "Sex and Laughter in Women's Music, 1970-77". Current Musicology (90). ProQuest 918124143 – via ProQuest.
  6. ^ Stos, Will (2012). "Bouffants, Beehives, and Breaking Gender Norms: Rethinking 'Girl Group' Music of the 1950s and 1960s". Journal of Popular Music Studies. 24 (2): 117–154. doi:10.1111/j.1533-1598.2012.01322.x.
  7. ^ Aquila, R. (2000). That old-time rock & roll: a chronicle of an era, 1954-1963. University of Illinois Press. pp. 114–116, 234. ISBN 978-0-252-06919-2.
  8. ^ Everett, W. (2008). The foundations of rock: from "Blue suede shoes" to "Suite : Judy blue eyes". Oxford University Press. p. 366. ISBN 978-0-19-531023-8.
  9. ^ Marcus, G. (1999). In the fascist bathroom: punk in pop music, 1977-1992. Harvard University Press. pp. 217–218. ISBN 978-0-674-44577-2.
  10. ^ Others disagree and highlight examples spanning all popular genres of music such as The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Nancy Sinatra, Billie Holiday.
  11. ^ Lont 1992, p. 243; Mosbacher 2002
  12. ^ McCarthy, Kate (2006). "Not Pretty Girls? Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women's Rock Music". The Journal of Popular Culture. 39 (1): 69–94. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00204.x.
  13. ^ Lont 1992, p. 243.
  14. ^ Lont 1992, p. 244.
  15. ^ Lont 1992; Mosbacher 2002
  16. ^ Sterneck, Wolfgang (1998). "Das Zeichen Der Frau: Frauen und Lesbenmusik" [The Sign of the Woman: Women's and Lesbian Music]. 'Der' Kampf um die Träume: Musik, Gesellschaft und Veränderung [The Struggle for Dreams: Music, Society and Change] (in German). Hanau, Germany: KomistA. ISBN 978-3-928988-03-2.
  17. ^ a b Kehrer, Lauron (September 11, 2016). "Goldenrod Distribution and the Queer Failure of Women's Music". American Music. 34 (2): 218–242. doi:10.5406/americanmusic.34.2.0218. ISSN 1945-2349. S2CID 193493400.
  18. ^ a b c Sergeant, Desmond C.; Himonides, Evangelos (March 31, 2016). "Gender and Music Composition: A Study of Music, and the Gendering of Meanings". Frontiers in Psychology. 7: 411. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00411. PMC 4815278. PMID 27065903.
  19. ^ Roberts, Robin (1990). "Sex as a Weapon: Feminist Rock Music Videos". NWSA Journal. 2 (1): 1–15.
  20. ^ McCarthy, Kate (2006). "Not Pretty Girls?: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women's Rock Music". The Journal of Popular Culture. 39 (1): 69–94. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00204.x.
  21. ^ McCarthy, Kate (2006). "Not Pretty Girls?: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women's Rock Music". The Journal of Popular Music. 39 (1): 80.
  22. ^ Lont 1992, p. 245.
  23. ^ a b Koskoff 1989, p. 208.
  24. ^ Lont 1992; Koskoff 1989; Carson 2004
  25. ^ Lont 1992; Koskoff 1989; Mosbacher 2002
  26. ^ Mockus, Martha. "Radical Harmonies." Women & Music 9 (2005): 111.
  27. ^ Tilchen, Maida. "A New Wave in Women's Music." Gay Community News Jun 23 1984: 7.
  28. ^ Cassell's Queer Companion. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 1995. pp. 123. ISBN 9780304343010.
  29. ^ Martin, Dawn L. (May–June 1994). "They Went That-a-way". Feminist Bookstore News. 17 (1): 57.
  30. ^ "Toni Armstrong, Jr". Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. 2019. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  31. ^ Simonette, Matt (September 23, 2015). "1985 Music". Windy City Times. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  32. ^ Doyle, JD (September 2005). "QMH Sept 2005 Script". Queer Music Heritage. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  33. ^ Albright, Jean (October 13, 2004). "Chicago's Place in Women's Music History". Windy City Times. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  34. ^ Jorjet, Harper (2008). "Hot Wire: Documenting Women's Culture". In Baim, Tracy (ed.). Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community. Agate Publishing. p. 163. ISBN 9781572841000.
  35. ^ Huttel, Richard (March 26, 1974). "UI grad student organizing national women's folk festival". Features. The Daily Illini. pp. 19, 21. Retrieved May 8, 2018.
  36. ^ Morris 1999, p. 28.
  37. ^ Trudy Ring (April 21, 2015). "This Year's Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Will Be the Last". The Advocate. Retrieved June 13, 2015.
  38. ^ "Los Angeles Women's Music Festival". lawmf.com. 2015. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  39. ^ Staggenborg, Suzanne; Eder, Donna; Sudderth, Lori (1993). "Women's Culture and Social Change: Evidence from the National Women's Music Festival". Berkeley Journal of Sociology. 38: 31–56. JSTOR 41035465.
  40. ^ Morris 1999.
  41. ^ Bennett, Andy; Peterson, Richard A. (2004). Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual. Vanderbilt University Press. ISBN 9780826514516.
  42. ^ Eder, Donna; Staggenborg, Suzanne; Sudderth, Lori (January 1, 1995). "THE NATIONAL WOMEN'S MUSIC FESTIVAL Collective Identity and Diversity in a Lesbian-Feminist Community". Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 23 (4): 485–515. doi:10.1177/089124195023004004. S2CID 146580782.
  43. ^ "New York Columns - Trouble in Utopia - page 1 - Village Voice". January 15, 2009. Archived from the original on January 15, 2009. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  44. ^ Macdonald, Jocelyn (October 24, 2018). "Setting the Record Straight About MichFest". Archived from the original on December 19, 2018. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  45. ^ "Camp Trans - InYourFace News Interview with Riki Anne Wilchins". August 17, 2000. Archived from the original on August 17, 2000. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  46. ^ "Myths and The Truth About the Michigan Festival". October 6, 2014. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  47. ^ "GLAAD President/CEO Sarah Kate Ellis and wife pen op-ed supporting trans inclusion at Michfest". GLAAD. August 8, 2014. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  48. ^ "IndigoGirls.com: Correspondence: 2005-06-13: Amy - Michigan Womyn's Fest Interviews: Interview #3". March 19, 2006. Archived from the original on March 19, 2006. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  49. ^ "Michigan Womyn's Music Festival on Facebook | Ghostarchive". ghostarchive.org. Retrieved April 19, 2023.
  50. ^ Williams, Cristan (May 1, 2016). "Radical Inclusion: Recounting the Trans Inclusive History of Radical Feminism". Transgender Studies Quarterly. 3 (1–2): 255. doi:10.1215/23289252-3334463 – via Duke University Press.


  • Carson, Mina (2004). Girls Rock!: Fifty Years of Women Making Music. The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2310-3.
  • Hayes, Eileen M. (2010). Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women's Music. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03514-2.
  • Koskoff, Ellen (1989). Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06057-1.
  • Lefebvre, Marie-Thérèse (1991). La Création musicale des femmes du Québec [Concerns women composers of Québec]. Montréal: Éditions du Remue-ménage.
  • Lont, Cynthia (1992). "Women's Music: No Longer a Small Private Party". In Garofalo, Reebee (ed.). Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music & Mass Movements. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. ISBN 978-0-89608-427-8.
  • Morris, Bonnie (1999). Eden Built By Eves. Alyson Books. ISBN 978-1-55583-477-7.
  • Mosbacher, Dee (2002). Radical Harmonies (Documentary). Woman Vision.
  • Peraino, Judith (2001). "Girls with Guitars and Other Strange Stories". Journal of the American Musicological Society. 54 (3).
  • Rentmeister, Cillie (1985). The Sounds of the Women's Movement - Women's Rock Bands in Germany (1974 – 1985).

External links[edit]