We Know Women Rock–Tell Us Something New

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has a reputation for being a boys club. Since 1986, when its first annual list of inductees consisted of men only, women have been snubbed three additional times (1992, 2003, 2004). But now that the Cleveland museum has a new exhibit, “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” (May 13, 2011 through February 26, 2012), we can stop calling them sexist and start celebrating, right?

Not so fast. “The numbers don’t really merit a celebration,” says Carla DeSantis Black, founder and editor of  ROCKRGRL magazine (1994-2005) , who recently started the Facebook group Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women (MEOW). “Women are not part of the conversation if they’re not part of the male gaze.”

Gillian Gaar, author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, wrote me this email:

I think it’s good on the one hand; on the other hand, I’d hoped we’d be beyond the ‘women in rock’ tag by now. … It’s good they have these kinds of exhibits, but I wonder why it took them so long. It’d be interesting to know if they address the political sides of why women have been shut out of rock.

DeSantis Black points to rock writing as a major factor in creating a hostile climate for women musicians. She sees one magazine as a particular offender:

The way we look at rock writing is through the lens of Rolling Stone, and they only support women in rock on special occasions, not in any consistent way.

Rolling Stone has earned a place in feminist halls of shame for its uneven and sometimes downright dismissive treatment of women (see, for example, here and here). With Rolling Stone cofounder Jann Wenner also being at the helm of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he co-founded and chairs the foundation that runs the museum and selects the award recipients), the new exhibit has a lot to make up for. “Women Who Rock” is divided into eight areas, covering almost a century of history and featuring more than 70 artists, according to the website. Here’s how they divide up the story.

Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas: The Foremothers/Roots of Rock

Get Outta that Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock and Roll Emerges

Will You Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s/Girl Groups

Revolution, the Counterculture and the Pill: The Late 1960s

I Will Survive: The 1970s–Rockers to Disco Divas

Dance this Mess Around: Punk and Post Punk

Causing a Commotion: Madonna and the Pop Explosion

Ladies First: The ’90s and the New Millennium

I was unable to get a complete list of which women will be included in the exhibit, but the thematic organization makes me wonder whether women’s musicianship will be on display. The suffragette reference is a problematic metaphor at best, and the rattling pots and pans are a long way from drum kits and amplifiers. If the point is to mark the progress of women’s involvement in music over time, how do we end up with “Ladies First”? We know it was a Queen Latifah song (featuring Monie Love), but it’s also a phrase that reeks of condescension and clearly comes from a male point of view. DeSantis Black affirms that “Women Who Rock” is “not about musical expertise.” But in her interview on the exhibit website, she talks about how important it is for young girls to see women musicians:

The Go-Go’s were instrumental for me in playing music. I saw them, and I went, ‘Wow!’ You don’t realize that it’s even a possibility unless you see other people doing it.

She thinks it’s ironic that the Go-Go’s aren’t in the exhibit but the Spice Girls are. Gaar notes that “the Go-Go’s were the first all-female band to reach #1 in 1982 with Beauty & the Beat. And then the Spice Girls got to #1 in the ’90s, but they didn’t play any instruments … is this progress?” [UPDATE: It looks like the Go-Go’s will be added in after all.]

Exhibits–like award winners, best-of lists and hall-of-fame inductees–always give rise to discussions about the politics of selection. My hope is that this exhibit will spark conversations and get people thinking, and I agree with Gaar, who says,

One good thing about these kinds of exhibits is that it gives people the chance to make new discoveries. Maybe they’d heard of Wanda Jackson because of her work with Jack White … but now they learn she has a history of her own.

If one girl, walking through the exhibit or web surfing sees Sister Rosetta Tharpe or The Breeders–women playing their own instruments–she might come to learn that women musicians have a rich and varied history. She might also motivated to write and play music herself, and that would really rock.

Photo of Tina Weymouth’s (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club) bass guitar, courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.


  1. Right on, Audrey! Love the insistence on displaying technical skill & not over-emphasizing women as vocalists. This has been a problem in the canons of blues & jazz as well, so that we don’t hear as much about, e.g., Memphis Minnie or Elvie Thomas or Mary Lou Williams or Emily Remmler as we should.

  2. putting together historical curriculum is a daunting task, and no matter what you do, some people are going to feel left out. i find it somewhat frustrating that all of this hand-wringing is going on about an exhibit that 1) has not opened yet and 2) has the potential to grow (and indeed will be a touring exhibit). why are we knocking it instead of celebrating it? is it long overdue? absolutely! but everything has to start somewhere.
    the go-go’s were not excluded from the exhibit. they are not “featured” (highlighted), but they are part of it. depending on what camp you listen to, they were asked to contribute and didn’t, or claim to have no knowledge about requests to participate. but to say that they are not included (and compare their exclusion to pop act the spice girls’ inclusion) is misleading at best.
    there is room for everyone to grow and nurture a community supportive of female musicians. let’s stop in-fighting over certain kinds of recognition and start creating the cultural discourse that celebrates the multitudes of female artists.

  3. ummmm, I know they have some pix of Fanny, but no mention? I’m getting to the point where I find that totally bizarre.

    June Millington

    guitarist, Fanny

  4. Erica – while I absolutely agree that certain people are always going to feel left out – and that is the nature of the beast – isn’t it depressing that rock is 60 years old and we STILL “have to start somewhere?” Sigh.

  5. I’m at the exhibit right now and interviewig the curators. I asked about the GoGos, and she said they tried several times to contact the band and they never responded. But that if they want to be in the exhibit then they will certainly be incorporated.

  6. Does anyone know if the exhibit will properly appreciate the women who pioneered LGBT popular music? Laura Nyro “Emmie” “Timer” “Roadnotes” and “Désiree”- Patti Smith “Gloria”- Rindy Ross “Valerie”- Cris Williamson “Sweet Woman”- Cathy Young “Maggie May”- ISIS “She Loves Me”- Joan Jett “Crimson n Clover”- Carole Pope “High School Confidential”- Blondie “Sunday Girl”- Jill Sobule “I Kissed A Girl” Lucille Bogan “B.D. Womens Blues” aka Bull Dyke.

    • Rabdrake: You are off the mark on the meaning of some of Laura’s songs, especially Emmie, as I said in my private email to you on youtube. You should take a step back and think through the things you say. If you talk to people who knew Laura, you might gain some insight.

      Dan Nigro

  7. I read from the Go-Go’s side that management denied being ever contacted by the Rock Hall. Sounds like CYA to me, on both sides. But, frankly, if the Rock Hall was discouraged enough to not keep trying, it shows a great lack of initiative on their part. The Go-Go’s are the first (and only, I think) all female band to have a #1 album. You don’t hear from management? Then you call. Or you contact the record label. Or you contact the band members (they must have their own websites, some of them). Or you draw on the wealth of contacts you must have by working for the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and reach out that way. The curator’s response in Rachel’s comment sounds really condescending too (“If they want to be in the exhibit…” uh, why is that their responsibility?).

    Also puzzled by Erica’s comment; if they are “part of” the exhib, but not “featured” it sounds like they *are* in the exhibit in some way…but if they are, why do the comments from the Rock Hall and management sound like they’re trying to explain why the band is *not* in the exhibit?

    It gets tiresome to see the same old “women in rock” tag, that’s what bugs me. Like Carla’s comment about having to start somewhere again, and again, and again, and again.

    I don’t feel that women will ever get their due in rock.

  8. According to the RnRHoF, the exhibit will not feature the women who pioneered LGBT popular music? The term LGBT will not even be mentioned!

  9. There are many artists who are part of the lgbtq movement featured in the exhibit: cyndi lauper, Joan jett, Laura nyro, ma rainey, and others who challenged gender stereotypes including patti smith. Yes this is just a start, and women who created this exhibt are aware of the rock halls history of ignoring women. They have been pushing for this exhibit for a long time and it is the first of its kind in the world, and I think we should respect and appreciate what these women curators have put together.

    • Rachel, Thanks for your feedback. I was told expressly that the RnRHoF refuses to honor Laura Nyro for “Emmie” pop’s first lesbian love song. At least two women on the list above Cris Williamson and Carol Macdonald (ISIS) were damaged through the industry because of being out and proud as Lesbians. They still, as did others, persisted even in the face of the threat of ruin. This is a serious exhibition at a museum. Visitors, especially young people, who might be exploring LGBT feelings, would be buoyed by a sense of history. Lucille Bogan, in 1935 sang what probably is the only song written about a “Bull dagger.” They strut and lay their jive just like a natural man. I thought this exhibit was supposed to be provocative.

  10. Great post, thanks very much.

    This gender “imparity” in the world of rock is hardly surprising given the fact that women are under-represented in just about every sphere of human activity.

    I’ve pulled together some relevant facts and figures here:


    Looks like I will have to start on Invisible Women II, leading of with the material from this piece… 🙁

  11. Thanks for this important piece. You did a great analysis.

    I’ve been to Cleveland once to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (intentional) and the Taco Bell (by default).

    I was so disgusted while visiting the R&R Hall of Fame that I actually demanded a comment card to write on at the front desk! Yeah, I’m sure that went right up to Wenner.

    And as a female musician, it felt like visiting the R&R Hall of Fame was nothing different from going to Guitar Center, another vapid boys club where female musicians feel excluded.

    And the Spice Girls??? Seriously????

    -Kristen Strezo

  12. Um, hello? What about Linda Ronstadt?

    She was The Queen of Rock in the 1970s who was the FIRST female solo artist to pack stadiums and was hands down the most successful female star of the 1970s, and whose career as a rock and pop singer has lasted from the late 1960s to today.

    Folk, Country, Country-Rock, Pop-Rock, Rock, New Wave, Big Band, Operetta, Broadway, Mariachi, Salsa, she’s done it all.

    The excuse used against her that she wasn’t a songwriter or covered other songs would exclude more than half of the inductees already in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

    As far as innovation goes, David Bowie and Madonna and Prince and Elvis Costello are all lauded by the critics for changing styles and taking chances. When Linda does it, she’s criticized for being topical, superficial, fickle, dilletantish, and cashing in.

    It’s ridiculous that artists whom I like -U2, the Beastie Boys, The Pretenders, Springsteen, Guns ‘n Roses, et al, who came on the scene years after Ronstadt, are already in the hall, but not her.

    And other artists who are great in their own right but not rock ‘n rollers, like Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Diana Ross and Madonna, are in but Ronstadt isn’t.

    What does Rolling Stone have against female rockers of the 1970s and 1980s? Ronstadt, Heart, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Joan Armatrading and Stevie Nicks are not in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

    What’s the problem?

  13. I can’t argue with anything in this article, except to say I feel Joan Jett is the one female rocker who has had the most impact on acceptance of women in rock bands, even before she “came out,” so to speak. In the 80s I was in a successful local/regional rock band and I was also the lead guitarist’s girlfriend/fiance. I know I got away with speaking my mind and doing a lot of things that I might not have if I had been unattached to any of the members. After 30 years, I rejoined a rock band with four other males (I’m the only female) and I quickly found that I better know my place and not cross certain boundaries. Because I love playing the music, I am trying to “Fit” in the mold but it is very difficult and I doubt it I’ll be able to tolerate it over the long term. So to any women who are trying to keep their dignity while playing in an all male rock world, good luck, it’s almost impossible. It’s only worth the effort if you honestly love the music and love performing. Rock on!

  14. jovan b. says:

    Not only should there be more progressive rock musicians in the hall of fame (they snubbed Yes again!) there should also be more women in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (the Pretenders, Sly & the Family Stone, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads and Fleetwood Mac are the only rock bands with female members currently in the HoF, with Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and Some of the other handful of women who are in the HoF are not recognized by Arbitron and Billboard as rock musicians).

    We are praying that The Runaways, Joan Jett and the Revolution (Prince’s backing band that when it was formed in 1982 consisted of two powerful women rockers – Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin) all get in before too long – they are all eligible to be nominated AND inducted.

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