Political and Legal Change
American social and political movements have had their own soundtracks. In eras with low literacy rates and limited mass media, many political movements used songs to reach public audiences. Abolition, temperance, and suffrage activists used songs to promote their causes. These political efforts resulted in the passage of the 13th, 18th, and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In the early nineteenth century, women took an active role in the Abolition Movement. Several contributed to Liberty Minstrel, written in 1844, which used the popular entertainment medium of minstrelsy to promote the abolition of slavery.
Women played a pivotal role in the American Temperance Movement. Their songs were not subtle, but they were catchy. Songbooks helped reinforce a sense of solidarity and resolve among performers, encouraging them to “take the pledge” against alcohol. Their efforts led to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. The amendment was repealed in 1933.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement produced a prolific song repertoire, written by both men and women, that advocated for women’s right to vote. Many songs simply created new lyrics for popular melodies, making them more accessible to everyday people.
Fannie Lou Hamer — The Fight for Suffrage Continues
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was a strong advocate for voting rights and women’s rights, as well as a talented singer. She cofounded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, sang for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and pushed for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which helped to clarify the bounds of the constitutional right to vote.
Women’s labor music expresses the conditions, desires, and experiences of women workers and organizers. Through the years, the labor movement has won legal protections for workers and instituted labor laws that benefited women’s working conditions in the United States. Music has played an important role in creating and maintaining cohesion in the movement, conveying values and warnings across geographies, and strengthening resolve among advocates.
Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910–1983) was a Kentucky folk singer and union supporter. With her older half-sister, Aunt Molly Jackson, Gunning sang songs that advocated for coal mining laborers despite strong resistance from company bosses and their privately hired guards.
Which Side Are You On?
Florence Reece penned the famous labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” after she and her family were threatened with police violence for her husband’s organizing work with miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. Decades later, the song’s lyrics would be reworked across different contexts, playing a prominent role not only labor, but in the civil rights movement as well.
I’m Gonna Be an Engineer
Peggy Seeger’s album Different Therefore Equal (1979) was groundbreaking in its exclusive focus on women’s issues, ranging from gender conditioning in childhood to women’s health and education. Perhaps her most well-known song, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer,” tackles the marginalization and determination of women in engineering.
Musicians Fighting for Civil Rights
During the civil rights movement, many renowned women musicians were practicing activists. They used their music to protest and raise awareness about injustices facing the Black community.
Music of the civil rights movement was intentionally catchy and compelling. Artists wrote songs designed to unify the voices of protesters, strengthen their resolve, and communicate with the public at large.
In 1939, Marian Anderson (1897–1993) boldly sang at the Lincoln Memorial after being denied a performance at Constitution Hall because of her race. The concert became a defining moment in the desegregation movement. In 1955, she performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, becoming the first African American to sing a leading role within the company.
Lena Horne (1917–2010) broke the color barrier as a singer, actress, and civil rights activist. During World War II, she advocated for fair treatment of Black soldiers, refusing to sing for segregated military audiences. She performed at civil rights rallies throughout the South and at the 1963 March on Washington.
Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon—along with Cordell Reagon, Rutha Harris, and Charles Neblett—founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, an early and influential group of civil rights singers. She would later cofound the women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and work as Director of the Program in Black American Culture at the National Museum of American History.
Music for Women, by Women, about Women
Through topical songs and strong networks, women musicians have flourished making music for women and about women. These artists have challenged stereotypes and brought a purposefully gendered lens to the fore of artistic expression.
Building a Women’s Music Network
In order to create music for women, by women, and about women, some artists built their own community of music professionals. As equipment became easier to acquire and operate, artists began producing their own work. This newfound artistic control let women artists create the image and sound they wanted without going through a male-dominated record company.
Ladyslipper was a catalog and review publication dedicated to publicizing women musicians. It was a key discovery tool in the women’s music community.
Women’s Music Movement
The women’s music community encompassed all parts of the music industry. Record companies, producers, publishers, distributors, festival organizers, bookers, magazine editors, and other roles were all a part of this system. Olivia Records was a prominent part of the Women’s Music Movement. Founded by members of the radical lesbian feminist Furies collective in Washington, D.C., it operated from 1973 to 1988.
Sweet Honey in the Rock
In 1973, Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the Grammy-nominated all-woman African American acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, an important voice for Black women's experiences in the women's music movement and beyond.
Roadwork was founded in 1978 by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Amy Horowitz as a multiracial feminist collective. Through political activism, cultural expression, concerts, and workshops, they strived to create social change both within and outside of the performing arts.
Argentinian American musician Suni Paz was an early Latina voice in the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.
Paid My Dues
Paid My Dues was a feminist music journal, published quarterly between 1974 and 1980. The publication served as an important outlet for women to express their musical point of view.
In the 1990s, rock and roll took center stage with the creation of new networks, movements, and media aimed at supporting young women and girls. The Riot Grrrl punk movement broke taboos with zine publications and songwriting about gender harassment, women’s health, self-image, reproductive choices, free expression, and sexual violence.
Founded by Carla DeSantis Black (born 1958), ROCKRGRL was the first nationally distributed magazine that specifically targeted women musicians. Through its run, ROCKRGRL published 57 issues, and at its peak, it had a circulation of approximately 20,000.
Riot Grrrl zines were popular, self-published periodicals, distributed freely through an informal economy of punk music fans.
First published in 1989, Jigsaw, produced by Tobi Vail, connected like-minded readers and musicians through writing about women’s issues, perspectives, and experiences.
Founded in 1990, Bikini Kill is an iconic band of the Riot Grrrl movement. Its original members included Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox, and Billy Karren. In addition to making music, they wrote and published their own zines.
Published by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman, both of the band Bratmobile, Girl Germs was an influential zine of the feminist riot grrrl movement.