This year, we celebrate the musicians and producers who, across five decades, gave us the soundtracks and spaces affirming our lives.
She was a big, tough woman, the first to come along
Who showed me being female meant you still could be strong.—Meg Christian
And you’re flowing like a river
The changer and the changed.—Cris Williamson
We are a gentle, angry people
And we are singing, singing for our lives.—Holly Near
I’d like to get to know you, in a special kind of womanly way.—Linda Tillery
Amazon women, RISE.—Maxine Feldman
Here come the lesbians! The leaping lesbians!—Sue Fink
With the early 1970s now 50 years into the past, there are abundant golden anniversaries to celebrate: the founding of Ms., the passage of Title IX, Billie Jean King’s victory over smug challenger Bobby Riggs. What was once radical is historical, with highlights and hallmarks of 1970s feminism now introduced to millennials through film and television (Battle of the Sexes; Mrs. America). But the women’s music movement of the early 1970s is still with us a half-century later, reaching new fans through archives, cruises, exhibits, books, radio shows and, yes, live concerts.
Both a product (albums! cassettes! posters!) and a destination (rallies! concerts! festivals!), women’s music fused feminist politics, woman-staffed sound production and grassroots folk traditions to create a bold new recording and performance network. When we had no rights at all, women’s music was also the sound and site of the lesbian revolution. This year, we celebrate the musicians and producers who, across five decades, gave us the soundtracks and spaces affirming our lives.
When we had no rights at all, women’s music was also the sound and site of the lesbian revolution.
Let’s start with Olivia Records, marking 50 years since its origins as a lesbian-owned and -operated recording label in Washington, D.C. In 1973, Olivia was a radical collective of 10 women (soon reduced to a dedicated five), searching for an economically sustainable means of advancing lesbian-feminist concerns. They found an approach, and an art form, in what came to be called women’s music.
The same year saw the emergence of Holly Near’s Redwood Records label and Alix Dobkin’s release Lavender Jane Loves Women; earlier releases included the earlier Chicago and New Haven Women’s Liberation Bands album Mountain Moving Day and Maxine Feldman’s lesbian single “Angry Atthis”; even more rare is Madeline Davis’s single “Stonewall Nation.”
The early 1970s saw boldly lesbian-identified artists reach audiences not only through performance touring, but also through women’s bookshops and college radio, producing a songbook of albums that fans still treasure today.
Judy Dlugacz and Ginny Berson, founding members of the Olivia Records collective, also hoped that the emotional resonance generated by their recorded soundtracks would forge political alliances across race and class: an awakened audience ready to demand change.
Anti-racism work, fostered through long discussion sessions, resulted in concerts at the California Institute for Women prison, Olivia’s “Varied Voices of Black Women” tour, and collaborations such as the 1976 spoken-word album Where Would I Be Without You?, featuring the poetry of Pat Parker and Judy Grahn. The Redwood company’s work with a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and with the D.C. area Roadwork production company modeled intersectionality as a women’s music value well before the concept was popularized by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.
And, in response to Anita Bryant’s homophobic “Save the Children” campaign in 1977, Olivia brought together a litany of artists for the groundbreaking Lesbian Concentrate album, with proceeds going to a lesbian mothers’ defense fund.
The visionaries who launched these networks of music production, performance and distribution brought hope to millions of isolated women: women who had never before heard, let alone purchased, love songs for lesbian relationships. And the cassette revolution made the sound of lesbian culture discreetly transportable: You could drive around playing lesbian artists’ music in your car. College radio shows featuring women’s music, such as “Breakfast in Bed” on KZSC-FM at the University of California-Santa Cruz, magically transformed a home or a car interior into lesbian space each time a woman-loving song played on the air. In this way, a closeted lesbian—unwilling or unable to attend a concert or a weekend festival—still experienced being in an audible community, and gained a diverse soundtrack expressive of her own romantic feelings.
The visionaries who launched these networks of music production, performance and distribution brought hope to millions of isolated women: women who had never before heard, let alone purchased, love songs for lesbian relationships.
Susan Lachman, who hosted the show Women on Air for WETS in northeast Tennessee, recalls:
“The music … was about women loving women, living openly as lesbians and claiming the right to live authentically … Sending the songs of Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam and Sweet Honey in the Rock out into the airwaves was both informing and cathartic…
“‘Women on Air’ broadcast during a Friday lunch drive time, a high exposure slot in radio land. University women wrote to me to say they packed a lunch rather than be out in their cars lest they miss part of the show; countless other women at home and at work found a way to catch the broadcast which aired only once a week.”
The transformative power of the women’s music movement spread from the 1970s to the 1980s to the 1990s and, ultimately, into the 21st century’s house. It changed and challenged every fan who can recall her first time seeing a woman mix sound at a festival, shirtless … or the first time she heard lyrics that called out the politics of rape.
In March of this year, over 4,000 women, and nearly all of Olivia’s original recording artists, boarded a luxury cruise ship for not one, but two, sold-out Olivia 50th anniversary trips. Commemorating those radical 1973 origins with the signature services and ambiance of an Olivia Travel cruise at sea, Olivia had clearly survived its flannel heyday, reinventing the lesbian path as a vacation. But panel after panel of greying artists, producers and guest speakers took the stage to explain their journey through earlier homophobic barriers, taking questions from a newer, freer generation. How had we survived—as lesbians—by creating a network of regularly occurring women-only concerts? What changed when the collective became a business?
For those of us trying to preserve or share the women’s music story, one challenge is that so much of it is about collective effort, knowledge imparted over time, soundwomen growing together into a dynamic crew.
Is it even possible to recreate, on paper, the feeling of community effort—the coming together of both audience and production staff in creating an event? How did women first learn to tarp a stage in a thunderstorm, run amplifiers to a barn, press soundsheets for a magazine, keep touring artists safe in homophobic territory? How will we archive all that hard-learned competence and teamwork, the situational expertise for specific settings?
A complete history of the women’s music scene calls for interviewing every category of participants, demonstrating just how many roles were played in the production of an album, concert or festival.
Fortunately, this is now happening through memoirs and museums. For her 2019 book An Army of Lovers, women’s music performer and author Jamie Anderson interviewed over 100 artists and activists. Olivia co-founder Ginny Berson’s book Olivia on the Record is being taught on college campuses. Michigan Women’s Music Festival founder Lisa Vogel is preparing her own long-awaited memoir; women’s music photographer Irene Young is releasing a huge portfolio of images and essays, “Something About the Women,” in late 2023; a feature-length documentary film about the Olivia story is in production; Holly Near’s massive archive of Bay Area women’s music artists, “Because of a Song,” is freely available to all online; and the Smithsonian exhibit “Music Herstory: Women and Music of Social Change,” curated by archivist Meredith Holmgren, runs through July 2024 at the National Museum of American History.
Claiming the right to love another woman led audiences to concerts where flirting, dancing and politics co-existed with an almost spiritual vibe.
The job of documenting lesbian music has also been taken up by dedicated men such as Matthew Barton, Brian DeShazor, Vincent Slatt and Steve Weiss.
Perhaps no male activist has done more to preserve the sound of lesbian culture than Houston radio host J.D. Doyle, whose “Queer Music Heritage” interviews, rare music collections, thoughtful images of album art, and website navigations are the ultimate starting point for investigators unable to leave home.
Claiming the right to love another woman led audiences to concerts where flirting, dancing and politics co-existed with an almost spiritual vibe. Music wallpapered those memories; increasingly, a music that spoke to specific sexual freedoms and politics of survival.
To listen, now, to some of the early songs, speeches, slogans and responsive audience cheers is to ride through an auditory museum—one that voices resilience and revolution, art and justice, 50 years of women’s hands clapping to a song.
- Ongoing through July 2024: The Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History’s exhibit on the women’s music movement. It’s also available online.
- A huge archive of resources, interviews, and song recordings by Bay Area women’s music performers is available through Holly Near’s free online project, “Because of A Song.”
- The original issues of Laurie Fuch’s Ladyslipper Catalogue, listing thousands of titles recorded by women artists, are now part of Duke University’s online collection and may be perused here.
- Back issues of HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, edited by Toni Armstrong Jr, are available online.
- Two Library of Congress displays on the history of women’s music and the 50th anniversary of Olivia are viewable: “Soundwaves of Feminism” and “Live! At the Library—The Olivia Records Story.”
- Radio host and LGBT music archivist J.D. Doyle offers a treasure trove of women’s music interviews, images and songs on his website.
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