A Brief History of Women in Rock

by guest writer KC


Women have been the backbone of rock and roll music for decades. Starting with jazz and soul, transitioning into the punk, grunge, indie, and emo movements, women have been a vital part of the music industry. Today, they are an integral force in rock and roll. Therefore, this article takes a retrospective and brief look at the rock industry and the women who shaped it.

Prior to 1960, women really shone in the jazz scene such as Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston. In the 1960s, women like Aretha Franklin took the jazz tones and instruments and made it more expressive with guitars and drums. Gloria Gaynor started in a jazz/r&b band known as the Soul Satisfiers. After that, she started a solo career as Gloria Gaynor, and released “She’ll Be Sorry/Let Me Go Baby” in 1965. Her debut album, Never Can Say Goodbye, went gold. Gaynor and Franklin paved the way for women in their respective genres. By the 1980’s Aretha Franklin became known as the “Queen of Soul”. Franklin’s iconic song, “Respect” represents the journey of women seeking respect in the nation as well as within the music industry.

As the rock genre came to be, all female bands, female fronted bands and artists became more mainstream. Suzi Quatro was one of the very first female rockers to get extremely popular, along with Joan Jett, Vixen, Janis Joplin, and many more artists. Quatro flew to England to kick off her career and released “Can the Can” which charted as hit #1. According to her website, Quatro has sold approximately 55 million records worldwide throughout her 50+ year career. The hard driving beat of Quatro’s music appealed to fans of pop and rock. She also dipped her toes into the TV industry from 1977-79, with one of her roles as a guest star on Happy Days. After Quatro, many more women followed in her footsteps.

Although performing since the mid-1960s, Stevie Nicks became an overnight sensation when signed with Fleetwood Mac in 1975. Nicks’ music has a country vibe, which appealed to fans of country music along with pop and rock. She released some solo albums that also did very well, hitting diamond, platinum, and multi platinum. Examples of these albums include Bella Donna in 1981 and Rock a Little in 1985. Into the seventies and eighties there were many more female solo artists, female fronted bands, and all girls bands that became very popular. Heart, Pat Benatar, The Slits, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, and others produced charting songs.

By 1975, the punk movement had begun in the U.S and quickly moved to Britain. Women in punk influenced women in other genres to take the edgier route for their aesthetic and music. For instance, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts combined punk and rock in their iconic songs such as, “I Love Rock’ n Roll”, and, “I Hate Myself for Loving You”. As punk arose from garage bands of the seventies, the term and genre began to spread worldwide.

By 1990, Indie Rock was established as a part of the industry. Originally meaning independent rock, or rock produced by an independent label, the term developed into an ideal. Artists came from independent labels, or creating an “independent” style which was also described as guitar pop/rock.
The grunge movements included female artists like Kittie, Hole, and more. Indie rock also kept thriving through bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Be Your Own Pet, and others. In contrast to a lot of the other bands of this time, the Independent Rock genre was a time when many bands and artists had one song that defined their careers. Some of these songs are: “You Oughta Know”, “Violet”, “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “You Were Meant For Me”. Avril Lavigne stepped into the scene and became known as the, “Pop Punk Princess”. She was the preppy punk in her scene. Pop Punk took hardcore punk and added a more mainstream and light twist to it.

Currently, there are hundreds of female fronted bands and artists of all different styles. “Older” bands like Evanescence, Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac, Paramore, and more are still performing and recording. For instance, Evanescence formed in 1995, and released their first album Origins and an EP in the years 1999-2000. After that, Evanescence released their debut album Fallen which was a major hit. “Bring Me To Life” did extremely well alongside “My Immortal.” The album went on to sell over seventeen million copies. From then on, Evanescence has been a major female fronted band in emo/emotional rock. Evanescence has released many albums since, one being The Bitter Truth in 2021. In the late 2010s and 2020s new movements started with dubstep and techno music being mixed into the Rock scene, especially in the pop punk genre. Additionally, women have been starting and running women-led producing studios/companies for decades, including: This Could Go Boom, Saddest Factory Records, and Cafe Rooster Records. As a teen, I have noticed that independent artists use social media to create and sustain their platforms. Mitski, Em Biehold, Anna of the North, Girl in Red, and others are gaining followers and fans among my generation.

Women of rock have always been a relevant force. From Aretha Franklin to Avril Lavigne to Lzzy Hale and Amy Lee, hundreds of female artists and female fronted bands, and bands of all women participated in the rock scene. Women from all around the world have helped to create new movements and genres, new art, new studios, and new impacts on an industry conventionally run by men.

Image courtesy: Rediscovering Black History

Music data verified using: https://www.billboard.com

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