Innovation. Courage. Perseverance. Countless women musicians have broken new ground in their careers, expanding opportunities for themselves and paving the way for others. From being “first” in their field to serving as a voice of their people, groundbreaking women made music history.

Formal photographic portrait of ‘Her Majesty, Queen Liliuokalani,’ from the book, Hawaii's Story, by Hawaii's Queen.

Queen Liliʻuokalani from Hawaii's Story, by Hawaii's Queen
Boston, 1898 

Black and white photograph of Big Mama Thornton singing and Buddy Guy playing guitar, 1960.

Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy, 1965
Photo by Chris Strachwitz 
© Arhoolie Foundation

Shaping Genres: Country, Folk, and Bluegrass 

Women have always had an important place in country, folk, and bluegrass music, even if their work has not always been elevated. As recently as 2019, researchers at the University of Southern California found that women comprised just 10 percent of charting artists on country radio, due in part to the predominance of male disc jockeys. However, women’s rich contributions have shaped, and continue to define, these musical genres across generations. 

Kitty Wells, “The Queen of Country Music” 

In the 1950s, many country songs blamed women for the demise of relationships, but Wells (1918–2012) flipped the script with her recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The 1952 hit, written by J.D. Miller and recorded for Decca, was a lyrical response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Initially banned by some radio stations, it quickly topped the country chart—a first for a solo woman artist—making Wells into a country music superstar. 

Kitty Wells with her guitar on the cover of published sheet music for the song, ‘I Heard the Jukebox Playing.’

Kitty Wells
“I Heard the Juke Box Playing”
Words and music by Webb Pierce, Linda Baggett, and Kitty Wells 
New York, 1952 

Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten

Best known for her song "Freight Train," Cotten (1895–1987) built her musical legacy on a firm foundation of late 19th- and early 20th-century African American instrumental traditions. A self-taught guitarist, the left-handed Cotten played a right-handed guitar “upside down.” Her fingerpicking technique was innovative and continues to be referred to as the “Cotten” style.

Illustration from 2018 children's book, Libba, depicting Elizabeth Cotten writing her first song, ‘Freight Train.’

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten
Laura Viers
San Francisco, 2018 

Cover of 1958 LP record, Elizabeth Cotten: Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, inscribed by Cotton.

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten
Elizabeth Cotten: Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar
Folkways Records, 1958 

Loretta Lynn

Country star Loretta Lynn often sang from a feminist point of view, breaking new ground with hits like "The Pill," a song about birth control.

People magazine feature article about Loretta Lynn's song ‘The Pill,’ with photo of Lynn.

“Loretta Lynn’s ‘Pill’ is Hard for Some Fans to Swallow”  
People magazine  
March 31, 1975 

Black and white photograph of Loretta Lynn performing on stage in 1971.

Loretta Lynn, 1971
Photo by Henry Horenstein 
National Museum of American History

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were among the earliest women to front a bluegrass band. Their groundbreaking work went on to inspire generations of women performers.

Cover of 1973 LP record, Won't You Come & Sing for Me, with photos of artists Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard 
Won’t You Come & Sing for Me?
Folkways Records, 1973 

Color photograph of Hazel Dickens performing with Phyllis Boyens and Carl Nelson at the 1978 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Carl Nelson, Phyllis Boyens, and Hazel Dickens performing at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, 1978
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton consistently centers women’s stories and experiences in her music. She became the first woman to win a country music award.

Cover of 2018 book, Dolly Patron, Gender, and Country Music, with photo of Parton on the cover.

Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music
Leigh H. Edwards
Bloomington, Indiana, 2018 

Instrumentalists and Composers

For much of American history, women musicians have primarily achieved distinction as vocalists. Women instrumentalists and composers, while perhaps less prominent, have been foundational figures of rock 'n' roll, jazz, and other genres. These artists have made lasting contributions that influence many generations of musicians.

Liliʻuokalani, Queen of Hawaiʻi 

Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha (1838–1917), known better as Queen Liliʻuokalani, was the last sovereign monarch of Hawaiʻi. In addition to her savvy political skills, she was a gifted musician and composer. Best known for her song “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee), her compositions inspired, and continue to inspire, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians).

Colorful cover of 1912 sheet music for the song ‘Aloha ʻOe,’ composed by Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Queen Liliʻuokalani
“Aloha ʻOe” (Farewell to Thee)
Los Angeles, 1912
Sam DeVincent Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Gold and red embossed cover of the 1898 book, Hawaii's Story, by Hawaii's Queen, Liliuokalani.
Queen Liliʻuokalani with her lady-in-waiting and Hawaiian secretary, from the 1898 book, Hawaii's Story, by Hawaii's Queen.

Hawaii's Story, by Hawaii's Queen
Queen Liliʻuokalani
Boston, 1898  

Hawaii’s Story was published by the queen in 1898, five years after U.S.-backed forces overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

America’s first racially integrated all-female jazz band to tour nationally rose to prominence during World War II, when many male jazz musicians were serving overseas. A band with diverse racial backgrounds—Black, White, Latina, Asian—was unique for the time period. One of their strategies for enduring travel in the Jim Crow South was to sleep and eat on the tour bus rather than patronize segregated facilities. 

Illustration of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm performing onstage from the children's book, Swing Sisters.

Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Karen Deans 
Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
New York, 2015

Saxophone section of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm posing with their instruments, 1944.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm saxophone section, 1944
International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

International Sweethearts of Rhythm performing in St. Louis in 1944, with Tiny Davis and Ana Mae Winston in the foreground.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Tiny Davis (left, with trumpet) singing, Ana Mae Winston (right) conducting. 
St. Louis, Missouri, 1944
International Sweethearts of Rhythm Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History


Musician, educator, and Indigenous rights activist Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird) (1876–1938), composed one of the first Native American operas, The Sun Dance Opera, in 1913. She was of Yankton Dakota and European descent.

Illustration of Zitkala-Ša playing violin from the children's book, Red Bird Sings, with a description of her life from 1891-1895.

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Ša, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist
Gina Capaldi and Q. L. Pearce
Minneapolis, 2011

Black and white photograph of Zitkala-Ša holding a violin and bow, around 1989.

Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) 
Photo by Gertrude Käsebier, around 1898  
National Museum of American History  
Gift of Mina Turner

Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926–1984) was a blues pioneer and harmonica virtuoso. In 1952 she was the first to record the rock and roll staple “Hound Dog.” She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. 

Cover of the LP record, Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966, with a photo of Thornton singing.

Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966
Arhoolie Records, 1966