Also referred to as womyn's music or women-identified music, women's music emerged around 1970 as part of the second wave of the feminist movement. Generally understood as music by, for, and about women, the majority of performing artists, producers, and listeners of women's music are lesbians. Women's music is rooted in earlier musical traditions of the women's suffrage movement; African American blues queens of the 1920s and 1930s such as Gladys Bentley; and the protest songs of Anglo-American folk music, especially those of Malvina Reynolds and Peggy Seeger.
Women's music has been shaped by several social, political, musical, and economic factors. Socially, women's music created and nourished lesbian culture and communities throughout North America, much like women's softball leagues. Women's music venues themselves attest to this: women's coffeehouses and women's music festivals
are the usual sites for live performances and enthusiastic performer-audience interactions. Disgruntled by the sexism of mainstream, male-dominated popular music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, women's music both reflected and energized feminist commitments to confront institutionalized misogyny and homophobia. In addition, women's music was notable for the many songs that engaged lesbian life, desire, and sexuality. For this reason, women's music is often understood among cultural insiders as a euphemism for lesbian music. Largely a vocal genre, women's music practitioners commonly write autobiographical lyrics that feature a range of women's relationships with women—as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, friends, lovers, and workers. As a musical genre, women's music is eclectic: it draws primarily from the acoustic folk tradition, although it also incorporates the sounds of pop, rock, jazz, funk, reggae, and classical music. Most women's music features guitar or piano as the main instruments, while percussion, strings, or winds create secondary accompaniments. The voice and words of the singer comprise the most important elements.
Economically, women's music attempted to function as an anticapitalist feminist enterprise by creating a network of women-owned and operated record labels, distribution companies, and festival producers. Intentionally avoiding the mainstream recording industry, radio, and television, this community-based, low-budget effort gave women an unprecedented opportunity to design, record, engineer, produce, and distribute recordings in a feminist context and to apprentice with more experienced women in all aspects of the music industry. The best-known women's music label was Olivia Records, founded in 1973 by Mary Watkins and Linda Tillery in Washington, D.C.; Olivia relocated to Oakland, California, in 1977. With over forty albums recorded, Olivia's shining moment was the production of Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems in 1977, a collective musical response to Anita Bryant's antigay campaign in Florida, and one of the first recordings to use the word "lesbian" in the title. The proceeds were directed to the Lesbian Mothers' National Defense Fund. Other women's music labels that thrived during the 1970s and early 1980s are Women's Wax Works, Sister Sun, Redwood Records (founded by Holly Near in 1973), Urana Records (founded by Kay Gardner in New York City), and Pleiades Records (founded by Margie Adam and Barbara Price in Berkeley, California). Ladyslipper in Durham, North Carolina, was established in 1977 and remains the largest distributor of women's music (as well as other related genres). The economic downturn of the late 1980s forced most of these companies to change direction or go out of business. In 1990, Olivia Records expanded into Olivia Cruises and Resorts, selling all-women vacations to lesbians and bisexual women.
African American women are among the most prominent leaders in the women's music genre as songwriters, performers, and producers. Mary Watkins, a classically trained pianist, incorporates jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and soul music into her compositions. Some of her recordings are Something Moving (Olivia Records, 1978), Winds of Change (Palo Alto Records, 1982), Spiritsong (Redwood Records, 1985), and Dancing Souls (Ladyslipper, 2000) with Kay Gardner. She has performed and co-produced extensively with Linda Tillery, one of the most highly respected composers, arrangers, producers, and performers of women's music. Inspired mostly by funk and rhythm and blues, Tillery's best recordings are Linda Tillery (Olivia Records, 1977), Secrets (411 Records, 1986), and Good Time, A Good Time (Tuizer Music, 1995), a collection of blues and spirituals with the Cultural Heritage Choir directed by Tillery. Her own
songs are marked by recurrent themes of political and economic oppression, liberation, and Christian hypocrisy. Both Watkins and Tillery—along with Filipina American sisters Jean and June Millington—can be found on the album credits for numerous women's music artists throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Working in the folk music tradition, Deidre McCalla is a guitarist and songwriter within women's music as well as on out lesbian. Her recordings include Fur Coats and Blue Jeans (Roulette, 1973), Don't Doubt It (Olivia Records, 1985), With a Little Luck (Olivia Records, 1987), and Everyday Heroes and Heroines (Olivia Records, 1992). Ubaka Hill remains an extremely popular artist in women's music circles; she performs as a percussionist— on conga and djembe—and storyteller. Faith Nolan of Toronto continues to perform in the women's music network; she is a folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter whose music often addresses the lives of black Canadians. Her recordings include Africville (1986) and Sistership (1987), both on the Multi Cultural Women in Concert label, and a collection of protest songs called Freedom to Love (Redwood Records, 1989).
Although not devoted exclusively to the women's music network, Sweet Honey in the Rock should be included in this genre for their feminist commitments to a wide range of issues, women-oriented themes (including sexuality), and musical stamina. Founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a former worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Sweet Honey in the Rock is a Grammy Award–winning all-female a cappella ensemble well-known for reinvigorating African American spirituals and political songs; their music has inspired many other women's music artists. Among Sweet Honey's seventeen albums are Sweet Honey in the Rock (Flying Fish, 1976), B'lieve I'll Run On … (Redwood Records, 1978), Good News (Flying Fish, 1981), and We All … Everyone of Us (Flying Fish, 1983).
Other pioneering artists in women's music are Alix Dobkin, Kay Gardner, Cris Williamson, Tret Fure, Meg Christian, Holly Near, and Margie Adam. Alix Dobkin is credited with recording the first album of women's music, Lavender Jane Loves Women (Women's Wax Works, 1973), with Kay Gardner. Still active on the festival circuit, Dobkin performs in the folk music tradition, and in addition to being an openly lesbian feminist also involves herself with Jewish political groups. Dobkin has recorded Living with Lesbians (1976), XXAlix (1980), Never Been Better/These Women (1986), and Love and Politics: A 30-Year Saga (1992), all with the Women's Wax Works label.
Cris Williamson's first album, The Changer and the Changed (Olivia Records, 1975), is considered a classic and is the best-selling record in women's music (over 250,000 copies). Her musical style blends folk, country, and pop sounds with impassioned lyrics of lesbian desire and spirituality. In addition to maintaining an active touring schedule, Williamson has made numerous recordings throughout her career, including Blue Rider (1982), Prairie Fire (1985), and Wolf Moon (1985) on the Olivia label. With her longtime partner Tret Fure, she recorded Postcards from Paradise (1993) on Olivia Records and Between the Covers (1997) and Radio Quiet(1998) on Wolf Moon/Goldenrod Records. Working solo in the first years after the century's turn, Williamson released Ashes in 2001 on Wolf Moon Records.
Meg Christian holds a degree in music from the University of North Carolina and is an accomplished guitarist in the classical, folk, and Appalachian styles. On her first album, I Know You Know (Olivia Records, 1974), she recorded both original music and songs by other artists. Her music is celebrated for its humorous depictions of lesbian life, as exemplified by her anthem "Ode to a Gym Teacher." Like other veterans of women's music, Christian collaborated on many other albums, including Meg/Chris at Carnegie Hall (Second Wave Records, 1985). In 1985 she left the United States to study Syda Yoga with Guruyami Chidvilasananda in India, and in 1986 she recorded The Fire of Love: Songs for Guruyami Chidvilasananda on the Ladyslipper label. Along with Williamson, Near, Adam, and Bonnie Raitt, Christian appears in Olivia's 1990 documentary, The Changer: A Record of the Times, an excellent source of the early days of women's music.
Holly Near is an important pioneer in women's music and political activism; she has been incredibly productive as a songwriter, performer, activist, and recording artist. She is one of the few women's music artists who criticized anti-bisexual sentiments in the lesbian community. With twenty-five recordings to her credit in a variety of musical styles, her work in women's music is best represented by Hang in There (Redwood Records, 1973); This Train Still Runs (Abbe Alice Music, 1996), with Ronnie Gilbert; and Simply Love: The Women's Music Collection (Calico Tracks Music, 2000).
By the mid-1980s a network of economic, political, and aesthetic shifts had altered the scope of women's music and the women-identified culture it spawned. Economically, women's music artists and producers found it increasingly difficult to stay afloat in a low-budget arena. Several women musicians in a variety of genres emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s, earned their way into the mainstream music industry, and recorded on major labels: Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, Michelle Shocked, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, and Sinéad O'Connor. These artists' unconventional expressions of gender and sexuality attracted listeners from the women's music scene while also making the Top Forty, winning awards and critical acclaim from mainstream audiences. Although women's music is often criticized for lacking musical originality, its fan base of queer feminist women contributed to the success of mainstream women musicians. Furthermore, younger women artists such as Ani DiFranco and the Riot Grrrl bands who produce their own records, espouse proqueer feminist politics, and actively eschew the corporate music industry are clearly indebted to the earlier generation of women's music.
Buffalo, Audreen. "Sweet Honey: A Cappella Activists." Ms. (March–April 1993): 25–29.
Lont, Cynthia M. "Women's Music: No Longer a Small Private Party." In Rockin' The Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements. Edited by Reebee Garofalo. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Pollock, Mary S. "The Politics of Women's Music: A Conversation with Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins." Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 10:1 (1988): 14–19.
Post, Laura. Backstage Pass: Interviews with Women in Music. Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria, 1997.
see alsolesbian feminism; music: popular; music: women's festivals; olivia records.