Women and the Music Industry in the 1970s

by Elizabeth L. Wollman

The 1970s gets a bad rap. Rarely revered as a glorious—or even particularly memorable—time in contemporary American history, the seventies is more often seen as the sad stepchild to the 1960s, which is celebrated as a decade of peace, love, and revolutionary social change. In sharp contrast with the 1960s, the 1970s was painted, even as it progressed, as an era of crushing disappointment: defeat in Vietnam, bad or downright corrupt political leadership, staggering economic problems, disenchantment, disenfranchisement, and inane fads.

Yet to dismiss the 1970s is to forget the immense strides that Americans made toward sex and gender equality during that decade. Through the 1970s, members of groups considered minorities began to demand equal rights and treatment under the law. Increasing numbers of gay men and lesbians stepped out of the closet, while women—black, white, straight, and gay—began, in myriad ways, to demand equal treatment in private and public realms. Most people assume that the women’s movement was a 1960s movement, but it belongs, without question, to the 1970s.

There are several reasons for the confusion. In the first place, mass movements are often associated—and thus occasionally lumped in—with the widespread struggle during the 1960s for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In the second, many of the women involved in the women’s movement had been deeply involved in 1960s activism. Because many 1960s movements emphasized grassroots organizing and personal experience, feminist activists often applied those tactics to the women’s movement. Finally, while the women’s movement began to gain real momentum through the 1970s, it had origins in earlier decades. The women’s movement is often referred to as the “second wave” of feminism in a nod to the first wave, which took place during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which focused primarily on women’s suffrage. The second wave took root in the United States between the early 1950s and late 1960s; the publications of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in English in 1953 and of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 are regularly cited as important.

The second wave had a highly publicized, if largely symbolic kickoff on September 7, 1968, when about one hundred women from across the country, organized by a New Left offshoot called the New York Radical Women, converged on Atlantic City to protest the Miss America Pageant. Protesters chanted, waved signs with slogans like “No More Beauty Standards” and “Welcome to the Cattle Auction,” displayed a giant Miss America puppet wearing a bathing suit and chains, crowned a sheep Miss America, and threw items symbolic of women’s oppression—hair curlers, high heels, girdles, dish soap, bras—into a “Freedom Trash Can,” which was, contrary to lore and the expression “bra-burning feminists,” never set on fire. Although the Atlantic City protest merely scraped the surface of feminist concerns, it was colorful and freewheeling enough to garner enormous press coverage, and thus to bring the women’s movement to national attention. As the second wave snowballed, it influenced both mass and grassroots entertainment, and thus many of its messages were reflected, either overtly or more subtly, in popular music of the time.

In 1971, the Brill Building songwriter Carole King released her first solo album, Tapestry, to thundering success. The album, which held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 40 for fifteen consecutive weeks, remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. The release of Tapestry coincided with a rise in number and popularity of singer-songwriters, many of whom combined the performance style and acoustic sounds of the earlier folk revival with introspective, often deeply personal lyrics. Like punk, which would emerge later in the decade, the singer-songwriter tradition allowed a larger number of women to make places for themselves in the genre. Many rock critics at the time attributed this to the “gentler,” “prettier” quality of the singer-songwriter,[1] but the egalitarianism more likely relates to the genre’s folk roots. The primary instrument of the singer-songwriter—the acoustic guitar—had not become as gendered as its electric counterpart, and the genre’s low-key performance style does not typically emphasize the sexuality of its musicians. While such male singer-songwriters as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon—who were often heralded as direct descendants of Bob Dylan—enjoyed critical and commercial success through the 1970s, they were rivaled by formidable talents like Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Janis Ian, and Laura Nyro.

Yet the relative openness of the singer-songwriter genre did not result in true egalitarianism. While King had enormous commercial and critical success as a recording artist, musician, and songwriter, other female singer-songwriters did not enjoy quite the same acclaim. Nyro, for example, wrote music that featured a highly distinctive blend of pop structures, avant-garde jazz, and social consciousness, and that most often connected with audiences when recorded by other groups or people. Her songs “Eli’s Comin’,” “Stoney End,” and “And When I Die” became hits for Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, and Blood, Sweat & Tears respectively, but Nyro herself was uncomfortable with what she perceived as the commodification that came with fame. She chose to retreat from the spotlight, and the music business, in 1971 and recorded and performed live only sporadically until her death in 1997.

Like Nyro, Joni Mitchell’s music defied easy classification. She enjoyed her greatest commercial and critical success through the mid-1970s, but her unconventional songs—which often feature unique guitar tunings, complicated piano arrangements, and densely poetic, deeply introspective lyrics—grew increasingly influenced by jazz and world music as the 1970s progressed. While frequently described as one of the most innovative popular musicians of her generation, Mitchell struggled mightily against a music industry that initially attempted to market her by focusing primarily on her looks. When her first album was released, she was openly critical of an ad that her label, Warner Bros., ran describing her as “99% Virgin,” and when Rolling Stone magazine ran a diagram connecting her with several high-profile alleged lovers and dubbing her “Old Lady of the Year,” she refused to grant the magazine an interview for eight years.[2]

Although Nyro, King, and Mitchell all wrote songs drawing from their personal experiences as young American women living through the 1960s and 1970s, they were not as directly outspoken about women’s issues as were other musicians of the time. While Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 song “Respect” is widely perceived as a feminist anthem, the song that is perhaps most directly associated with the second wave is “I Am Woman,” with lyrics by the Australian pop star and feminist activist Helen Reddy and music by the guitarist Ray Burton.

“I Am Woman” was released in the summer of 1972, and entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 99. It fell off the charts three weeks later, because radio stations refused to play it. Many music critics, too, dismissed the song as representative of “all that is silly in the women’s lib movement.”[3] Convinced that the song would catch on, however, Reddy took to television, performing “I Am Woman” on dozens of variety shows. Soon, women across the country began calling their local radio stations demanding to hear the song. “I Am Woman” re-entered the Hot 100 at No. 87 in September 1972 and climbed steadily, reaching No. 1 in December. When Reddy received the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop-Vocal Performance in 1973, she made headlines by thanking her record company, her husband, and “God . . . because She makes everything possible.” Meanwhile, on both the commercial and grassroots levels, popular music was slowly but surely reacting to and reflecting the impact of the second wave.

Despite the success of musicians like King, Reddy, and Mitchell, major labels were notoriously slow to add female musicians or bands to their rosters; the few groups to be signed between the late 1960s and early 1970s included the now-little-known groups Joy of Cooking, Fanny, and the Deadly Nightshade. Frustrated with the industry’s response to feminism, a group of women who had been affiliated with one of two Washington, DC-based lesbian collectives—Radicalesbians and the Furies Collective—established the country’s first woman-owned-and-operated record label, Olivia Records, in 1973. Olivia released its first record, Cris Williamson’s “If It Weren’t for the Music,” with a cover of Carole King’s “Lady” by one of Olivia’s founders, Meg Christian, on the B-side, that same year.

The record sold well, so Olivia relocated to Los Angeles, and then to Oakland, where it released Meg Christian’s debut album, I Know You Know, in 1975. Despite little advertising or marketing, the album sold about 70,000 copies, exceeding even Olivia’s expectations. Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed was released later in 1975 and surpassed Christian’s album in terms of sales and reception. As Olivia cemented its reputation, an alternative music industry developed around it. At first, this small, burgeoning industry was described as making “lesbian music,” but eventually, the term “women’s music”—and, subsequently, sometimes womyn’s or wimmin’s music—stuck, both because it was less threatening to the dominant social order and because it was ultimately more inclusive of its performers and audiences.[4]

As the 1970s progressed, other musicians to become affiliated with women’s music included Alix Dobkin, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Ferron. Olivia’s success influenced a number of women’s music organizations on both the grassroots and national levels, including the recording and distribution company Ladyslipper (est. 1976), the National Women’s Music Festival (est. 1974), and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (est. 1976). While the women’s music scene developed during the course of the decade, other female musicians struggled to gain footing in the mainstream, by choosing to challenge from within the music business’s formidable reputation as a traditionally masculine stronghold. While many women managed to make important strides, those who attempted to establish themselves as hard-rock musicians often struggled the most in their quest to be taken seriously by audiences, peers, and an industry that viewed them as sex objects or novelties.

The Detroit-born Suzi Quatro, for example, got her start as bassist for the all-female bands the Pleasure Seekers and Cradle, before seeking a solo career. Yet the press was unable to get past her look—she preferred to dress in leather and to cultivate a tough-talking biker persona—in order to take her music seriously. While Quatro directly influenced a number of female rockers to come after her, including Pat Benatar, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, and Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, her career suffered because she refused to embrace traditional female roles as a performer, and the press was thus unsure how to deal with her. 

The group that Quatro influenced most immediately, the Runaways, struggled in similar ways. Formed in Los Angeles in 1975 by drummer Sandy West and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett, the Runaways featured Micki Steele on vocals and bass, and lead guitarist Lita Ford; Steele was soon replaced by Cherie Currie on vocals and Jackie Fox on bass. The group had success as a live act, especially in Japan, and most of the bandmembers went on to notable solo careers or success with other rock groups in the 1980s. Yet like Quatro, they were often viewed, in the press and by hard-rock fans, as a highly sexualized gimmick.

Two of the most critically and commercially successful female hard-rock musicians of the 1970s were Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters who formed the band Heart and served as its lead singer and its guitarist, respectively. The Wilsons occasionally had unpleasant, overtly sexist battles to fight. The song “Barracuda” was written after Heart’s own label, Mushroom Records, ran an ad that the sisters did not approve—a picture of them with bare shoulders and a caption reading “Heart’s Wilson Sisters Confess: It Was Only Our First Time!” Following the ad’s release a male reporter asked them to confirm that they were lovers as well as sisters. Yet as bandleaders who were integral to the group and who wrote or co-wrote a vast majority of the songs, the Wilsons usually managed to avoid being dismissed as mere ornaments, and their band was enormously successful through the 1970s and beyond.

Hard rock proved particularly resistant to woman performers, Heart notwithstanding, through the 1970s. Yet other genres were far more egalitarian and accepting of woman musicians. Disco, for example, was not only more open to women, but also racially and ethnically diverse.

The unofficial soundtrack of gay liberation, disco emerged from New York City, Philadelphia, and Fire Island, where DJs at dance parties and discotheques served up a blend of Motown, funk, and Philly soul to their predominantly black, Latino, and gay patrons.[5] The genre grew in popularity between the mid- and late-1970s, reaching its peak in December 1977 with the release of the hugely popular film Saturday Night Fever. Although disco would experience a particularly vicious backlash due largely to its gay, black, and Latino roots, it dominated record sales through the later 1970s, making superstars of female solo artists like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, and groups like Sister Sledge, LaBelle, and the mixed-gender outfit Chic. Summer, in particular, dominated the charts during the 1970s, handily earning the nickname “Queen of Disco” during the height of her popularity. An aspiring singer-songwriter who spent the late 1960s and early 1970s performing in rock musicals in Germany, Summer catapulted to stardom in 1975 with the release of “Love to Love You Baby.” As the disco era declined, and until her death in 2012, Summer focused increasingly on gospel, ballads, and rhythm and blues, and also began producing other acts.

Like disco, punk developed in New York City (and Britain) through the 1970s. A reaction to the commercial trappings and spectacle of hard rock, punk adhered to a DIY (“do-it-yourself”) aesthetic, stripped-down sound, and straightforward performance style. Like the singer-songwriter movement, it did not place particular emphasis on the sexual bodies of its performers. The movement attracted eclectic artists, many of whom were women. Prominent female artists in the punk scene include Blondie’s Debbie Harry; Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads; the vocalists Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banshees), and Exene Cervenka (X); and the all-female band the Slits. One of punk’s most important pioneers, Patti Smith, transcended the very scene she helped define. Raised in Pitman, New Jersey, Smith worked in a factory before moving to New York City in the late 1960s. Fueled by her love of rock music, the visual arts, and poetry, Smith worked in bookstores and lived with Robert Mappelthorpe at the famed Chelsea Hotel while she pursued the life of an artist. In the early 1970s, she began to give spoken-word performances, and enlisted the guitarist Lenny Kaye to accompany her as she read her poetry. Pianist Richard Sohl and Television guitarist Tom Verlaine joined her by 1974. Smith and her group released their first recording, “Hey Joe (Version)”/“Piss Factory” that year; “Piss Factory” described her experiences on the factory assembly line she worked back in New Jersey. Smith’s debut album, Horses, was released in 1975; its iconic cover featured a photograph by Mappelthorpe of the gaunt, androgynous Smith staring placidly and defiantly at the camera. While punk ostensibly rejected the trappings of the music industry—and, due largely to Smith, eschewed traditional roles in performance—it very quickly grew into a viable commercial genre, gaining critical attention and wider audiences as it morphed into post-punk and new wave by the end of the decade.

In the decades since the 1970s, women’s involvement in all aspects of popular music has improved, and many contemporary artists acknowledge their foremothers. While 1970s musicians as diverse as Holly Near, Joan Armatrading, the Wilson sisters, and Joan Jett remain active as performers, their work during the 1970s paved the way for younger woman musicians. Too often, the 1970s is viewed as the disappointing end of the 1960s; but for women and popular music, it was a glorious, monumental beginning.

[1] David Brackett, The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 238.

[2] Gillian Gaar, She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992), 189.

[3] Gaar, She’s a Rebel, 123.

[4] Cynthia M. Lont, “Women’s Music: No Longer a Small Private Party” in Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, ed. Reebee Garofalo (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 242.

[5] Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 298.

Elizabeth Wollman, Assistant Professor of Music, Baruch College, City University of New York, is an ethnomusicologist who writes on, among other subjects, music, gender, and sexuality. She is the author of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig (2006) and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City (forthcoming).

Recommended Resources

Professor Wollman recommends these resources for more information:

Bailey, Beth and David Farber, eds. America in the Seventies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Brackett, David. The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Gaar, Gillian. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press, 1992.

Lont, Cynthia M. “Women’s Music: No Longer a Small Private Party.” In Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, edited by Reebee Garofalo. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

McDonnell, Evelyn and Ann Powers, eds. Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1995.

Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York: Da Capo, 2001.


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