Long before legalized same-sex marriage became a reality and the #Metoo movement crashed the patriarchal gates, a women’s music movement existed under radar of mainstream and even the punk rock scenes going back to the 1970s. Bolstered by performers like Cris Williamson, Holly Near and Teresa Trull and, later, Tracy Chapman and Ani diFranco, the scene separated itself from the corporate world and, largely, from the male world. Fiona McQuarrie, with the aid of a new book An Army of Lovers by Jamie Anderson, chronicles the highs and lows of the women’s music movement.
In histories of music made by women, a piece of the story is usually missing amidst the Riot Grrrls, the Jonis, the Carlys, and the girl groups. That missing piece is the “women’s music” scene that flourished during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Articles like this one, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/09/an-oral-history-of-lilith-fair ,
about the Lilith Fair festivals in the ‘90s, celebrate women musicians rejecting music industry sexism – but fail to acknowledge that for more than two decades not that long ago, there were record labels, festivals, and concert tours run almost exclusively for and by women.
Women’s—or womyn’s—music may get overlooked because it deliberately separated itself from the mainstream music business. The feminist and lesbian pioneers of women’s music weren’t interested in conforming to the heterosexist norms imposed on female performers. They also knew that established record companies and concert venues were not interested in women singing songs about women’s rights or about loving other women. They had to create a different way to tell their stories and reach their audiences.
For more than two decades not that long ago, there were record labels, festivals, and concert tours run almost exclusively for and by women.
But despite women’s music being largely separate from the corporate music world, its impact and importance is gradually being recognized. Olivia Records, the most prominent of the women’s music record labels, has appointed an official archivist and is making its historical documents available to researchers. Libraries at several US colleges and universities now include archival material donated by participants in the women’s music movement. And this month sees the publication of Jamie Anderson’s book An Army of Lovers, the first comprehensive history of women’s music.
Women’s music had its roots in the political activism and social commentary of mid-‘60s folk music. However, even in that allegedly progressive scene, women musicians were often treated as inferior to men, and songs about women’s issues were frequently dismissed as unimportant or uninteresting. Lesbian musicians were also expected to keep their sexuality a secret, which is why the 1973 album Lavender Jane Loves Women was such a major breakthrough. The album, released by the Women’s Music Network based in New York City, was acknowledged as the first compilation of music by lesbians and for lesbians.
The Woman in Your Life by Lavender Jane
Olivia Records was founded that same year, and in 1975 it released Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed, which became the top-selling women’s music album of all time and is still in print nearly 45 years later. The album was literally life-changing for many listeners, because of the power of its message; Anderson interviewed one fan who grew up convinced that “there were four lesbians in the whole world besides me” and for whom “that album was a lifeline”. Although albums by Williamson and her peers were largely sold through mail order and promoted through word of mouth, they found an enthusiastic and passionately devoted audience.
Cris Williamson, “Sweet Woman” from The Changer and The Changed album:
The earliest big names in women’s music, such as Williamson, Holly Near, and Teresa Trull, were all primarily known as solo acoustic artists. But as the women’s music scene developed, it encompassed an amazingly wide range of musical styles. There were solo artists and ensembles playing rock, jazz, funk, a capella, experimental music, spiritual music, and orchestral and classical music. There were even spoken-word performances, stand-up comedy, and music for children.
Heather Bishop & Louise Seliski, “The Song of the Dustballs,” live performance
Live venues for women’s music ran the gamut from small clubs to conventions and rallies, concert halls, and large annual festivals. The biggest festival, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – also known as “Michfest” – ran for nearly 40 years, finally ending in 2015. At its peak, it drew audiences in the tens of thousands, and featured many artists who went on to more widespread success, such as the Indigo Girls, Ani diFranco, Sia, and Tracy Chapman.
By the late ‘70s, there were enough women’s music record companies to create a women’s music distribution network and an industry association. There were also experienced women producers, promoters, engineers, technicians and other behind-the-scenes staff supporting the movement. But there was also, as Anderson describes it, “trouble in paradise” – internal and external conflicts that contradicted the messages of collectivity and unity in the music.
Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed, which became the top-selling women’s music album of all time and is still in print nearly 45 years later. The album was literally life-changing for many listeners.
The issue of inclusivity is one example of those conflicts. Because of the discrimination and harassment that women often encountered at live events, many women’s music performers insisted on playing in women-only spaces or to all-female audiences. However, that exclusivity also limited the potential audiences for women’s music, and also became problematic in very practical ways. It was difficult to staff every show or tour with all-women crews, because there simply weren’t that many women with the necessary skills – and not every performer was willing to be the guinea pig for newbies trying to learn those skills. Some performers also felt that excluding men from women’s music concerts implicitly labelled all men as harassers and sexists, and ostracized allies that were genuinely supportive of women’s music and of feminism in general.
Inclusivity also became a source of conflict when transgender women started to participate in the women’s music scene. Not all women’s music performers objected to their presence, but others felt that women who were born as men did not have the same life experiences as “women-born women”. Michfest eventually prohibited trans women from attending, which caused activists to establish Camp Trans across the road from the festival’s main entrance and to protest their exclusion.
There were also conflicts within the broader women’s music community around the need for performers to make a living versus keeping the music financially accessible to as many women as possible; around alleged racism and unacknowledged white privilege; around different sexualities and the expression of those sexualities; and around how better-known performers interacted with lesser-known performers or newcomers. And since many women’s music performers were or had been romantically involved with each other –in some way, it was a very small community – there were also interpersonal conflicts around former or current relationships.
Ani diFranco’s experience at Michfest, described in her recently released autobiography, illustrates how the conflicts within the women’s music movement affected the experiences of both performers and audiences. diFranco’s first impression of the festival was “a world where everything was a big deal”. First, she was chastised by someone who overheard her calling her friends “you guys”, and one of those friends was told to turn her T-shirt inside out because the front had a picture of an all-male band. Then at soundcheck, she looked out from the stage and saw “thin strings crisscrossing the field where the audience would later be seated”. She was told that the strings marked separate sections of the audience: dancing or no dancing, children or no children, perfume or no scented products. While diFranco appreciated that this huge event was built and run entirely by women, she felt that “the quest to make everyone happy had led to a world of micromanagement” and that Michfest lacked the sense of relaxation and fun that she felt at other music festivals.
“Untouchable Face” by Ani diFranco:
When she later expressed those views publicly, she “made some enemies”, and came to understand some of why the festival operated as it did. The festival owned its own land in a predominately rural and politically conservative region, and its site was regularly targeted by “redneck neighbors” and “shotgun-wielding homophones”, to the extent that its power generators had to be buried underground so they wouldn’t be destroyed. DiFranco notes that while there were many rules at Michfest, there was also an absence of “rules about women’s bodies and behaviour, rules about our very safety, which normally inhibit and control our lives every day”. Ultimately, the experience led her to recognize the importance of “providing a space for women to feel unashamed and unafraid”.
She was told that the strings marked separate sections of the audience: dancing or no dancing, children or no children, perfume or no scented products.
As in many socially progressive movements, the conflicts within the women’s music community contributed to its eventual decline. Other factors also weakened the movement. Several of the earliest women’s music artists are now seniors who have retired from the music business or who have passed away. Other women’s music participants moved on to build more economically stable careers in the larger music business. Michfest shut down because of declining attendance or because it couldn’t defend its policy of excluding trans women, depending on who you believe. Olivia Records closed down as a record company and concert promoter (it now operates as a travel company for lesbian travelers), and several other labels and promoters also went out of business.
Artists like diFranco demonstrated that feminist performers could find their own audiences and independently build and manage their careers, including releasing and marketing their own recordings.
Some of Anderson’s interviewees also wonder about the continued relevance of music that originated in a formerly marginalized community. No one would be so naïve to claim that discrimination against lesbians and feminists no longer exists, but with changes such as legalized same-sex marriage and equal rights legislation, the repressive society that women’s music originally rebelled against is evolving. The Internet gives individuals and communities a way to overcome isolation; they can connect with others around the world and build networks of activism and solidarity. And audiences can turn on the TV, go to a movie, or open a magazine and see out lesbian, transgender, and queer performers. The world is a very different place than it was when the women’s music movement started.
“The Queer Gospel”-Erin McKeown
Nevertheless, the women’s music movement continues, albeit on a smaller scale. There are ongoing annual festivals such as the National Women’s Music Festival, and newer ventures like Yola Dia, and longtime artists such as Tret Fure are being joined by younger women such as Erin McKeown and Carly Calbero. While some women’s music artists express concern about younger generations not understanding the work that was needed, and is needed, to maintain the movement, others are more confident about its lasting impact. As composer Kristan Aspen described it to Anderson, “We showed the world that women could perform on a level that was high-quality, exciting, and fun.”