31 Feminist Moments in Classic Rock: Part 2: 1971-1990s

Since 31 is a lot of moments and stories to tell, I decided to split my Women’s History Month post into two parts. You can read part 1 here, where I cover the pre-rock and roll years up to 1970. In this part we’ll mainly be talking about the 70s and a bit about the 80s and 90s. During those decades, more and more female musicians were writing their own songs, but it wasn’t perfect. In the 80s MTV music video era, there was an even bigger focus on image. It wasn’t just about sound, but about looks. In the 90s, you started seeing more empowering feminist messages. It was the decade of girl power and a big part of it was the Riot Grrrl scene, which we will be talking about at the end of this blog post. Let’s get started!

17. Sandy Denny contributes guest vocals on “The Battle of Evermore”. The only musician to contribute guest vocals on a Led Zeppelin song (1971)

For the most part, Led Zeppelin didn’t have a lot of musicians come in and play on their studio recordings. They’re such an amazing band that they don’t need studio musicians. Who needs another guitarist when you have Jimmy Page? Who needs another drummer when you have John Bonham? Who needs another bass player when you have John Paul Jones (who can also play piano keyboard really well)?

Only a few times did they have studio musicians play on their songs: Viram Jasani played tabla on “Black Mountain Side”and Ian Stewart played piano on “Rock and Roll” and “Boogie With Stu”. That’s it! That’s how legendary Led Zeppelin are.

Who needs another vocalist when you have Robert Plant? He’s one of the best rock frontmen ever. Led Zeppelin don’t always have guest vocalists, but when they do, it’s Sandy Denny on the Lord of the Rings inspired folk duet “The Battle of Evermore”. Robert Plant said that he needed another voice to sing the parts of the town crier and he picked Sandy Denny of folk group Fairport Convention, who shared a bill with them at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music. You can’t picture “The Battle of Evermore” without Sandy Denny and Led Zeppelin recognised that and gave her a symbol, three pyramids.

18. Helen Reddy writes and records “I Am Woman” (1971)

In 1971, Australian singer Helen Reddy got a record deal and was asked to record an album. The standout song of the 10 presented to the label was “I Am Woman”. She wrote the song because she wanted to express her passion for women’s empowerment and felt that there were no songs that expressed that. Of writing the song, she said:

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that. The only songs were ‘I Feel Pretty’ or that dreadful song ‘Born A Woman’.”

Being a musician, she was around a lot of men who would condescend to and objectify women. She was the target of misogynistic digs and she was tired of it. Writing the song began with an affirmation “I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman”.

The song reached #1 on the Billboard charts and in Canada and reached #2 in her home country of Australia.

In 1973, National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan played the song at the end of a gala entertainment night for the NOW convention. This song inspired women to achieve their dreams.

19. Yoko Ono and John Lennon release “Woman is the N***** of the World” (1972)

This is a controversial phrase, but a definitely a historic moment in women’s rock and roll history. Yoko Ono first said the phrase in 1969 in an interview with women’s magazine Nova. The phrase was likely inspired a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The title was all shock value, but there is an important message under that. Back in the 60s and 70s, women didn’t have all the rights they have now. And even today in many countries, women are still not even equal on paper. However, I think it’s important to note that some women have it more difficult than others, especially if they are poor, disabled, single mothers, an ethnic minority, gay/bisexual, or transgender.

The National Organization for Women recognised the pro-feminist statement in the song and honoured John Lennon and Yoko Ono for it.

The b-side also has a feminist message and the title is the way less controversial “Sisters, O Sisters”.

20. Argent release “Hold Your Head Up (1972)

I’m bemused when I see smug rock and roll fans putting down rap because of misogynistic lyrics. Classic rock isn’t the most feminist genre as a whole because a lot of songs (even ones I admit to enjoying) have sexist lyrics: “Brown Sugar”, “Under My Thumb”, “Run For Your Life”, “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Stranglehold”, and “It’s So Easy”. And that’s not even counting all the songs that straight up objectify women.

Rod Argent and Chris White showed in this song that you can write a song with a positive message for women, or just anyone who needs confidence, courage, and strength. Only recently did I realise it’s not “hold your head up, oh” but rather “hold your head up, woman”. Also that organ solo is incredible. Rick Wakeman praised it as one of his favourites.

21. Olivia Records is established (1973)

You can’t have an article about women’s rock history without talking about women’s music label, Olivia Records, started by a group of lesbians who felt that they weren’t being properly represented in music. It’s not the first record label owned by women, but it was the first women’s music record label. Owned by women and signing female musicians who sing about women’s issues. They also had no interest in signing prominent female musicians, turning down a collaboration with Yoko Ono.

The label’s first release was a 45 with one side Meg Christian singing a cover of the Goffin-King penned “Lady” and Cris Williamson singing her own song “If It Weren’t For The Music”.

They made $12,000 with that release and reinvested it back into the record company to release a Meg Christian album I Know You Know. In 1974, the label moved its headquarters from Washington DC to California.

Sadly, the label had financial problems because of its idealistic and DIY business philosophy and there was a lot of infighting within the label. People criticise Olivia Records for being too white and bourgeois. In response, Olivia signed and promoted black musicians Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

In 1977, in response to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” ordinance, Olivia Records released a spoken word/women’s music album, Lesbian Concentrate, the title being a reference to Bryant being a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. Part of the proceeds of the album were donated to the Lesbian Mothers National Defense Fund.

Olivia had a few sell-out concerts at Carnegie Hall for their 10th and 15th anniversaries, but the 80s were a decade of decline for the label. They left LA for Oakland to save money; Meg Christian left the label; the members of the collective who pooled money to fund it started leaving; and they made the mistake of rejecting Melissa Etheridge, who went on to be one of the most successful lesbian musicians of all time.

By the 90s, it was over. Olivia failed to reinvent itself to adapt to new scenes in women’s music like Lilith Fair and Riot Grrrl. Instead, Olivia moved its focus on being a lesbian travel company, mainly focused on upscale cruises. They are still in business as a travel agency to this day.

22. Suzi Quatro gets famous in the UK (1973)

Suzi Quatro is a glam rock trailblazer. Before she got famous in the early-mid 70s, there weren’t a lot of famous female bass players (there was Carol Kaye, but she’s a session musician) and it was hard to be taken seriously as a woman in rock and roll. Suzi Quatro first realised she wanted to be a rock star when she saw Elvis on TV and said that that’s what she wanted to do, she didn’t see gender when she watched rock stars on TV.

While she was born in the US, she got famous in Europe and is better known there. She moved to England in 1971 and was discovered by Mickie Most, who was looking for a female musician who can be the fill in the void left by Janis Joplin, since she passed away at the beginning of the decade. Songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman wrote many of her hits, including “Can The Can”, “48 Crash”, “Devil Gate Drive”, and “The Wild One”.

Later in the 70s, she played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days.

Musicians who cite Suzi Quatro as an influence include Tina Weymouth, Chrissie Hynde, and The Runaways.

23. Loretta Lynn writes and records “The Pill” (1975)

Loretta Lynn is one of the most interesting stories in country music. Her story is a true rags to riches story. She was born into a poor family in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. Her father was a coal miner, hence the autobiographical song “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. She got married to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn at the age of 15 and left for Custer, Washington. Her marriage was turbulent with her husband cheating, hitting her, and even leaving her once when she was giving birth. She would always defend herself.

At the age of 21, her husband got her her first guitar and she taught herself to play and joined bands and played in local bars.

She wrote many of her own hits: “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”, “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”, “Fist City”, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “The Pill”, “Wings Upon Your Horns”, and “Rated X”.

What makes her songs special is that she wrote many of them about her life and about working class/blue collar issues. The 60s were a time when female musicians mostly sang love or heartbreak songs written by men, so it’s refreshing and different to hear it from a woman’s point of view, especially when she writes it herself. Writing political and feminist songs means that you’re taking chances and as a result, some of her more political songs were banned from the radio.

Her most controversial song is “The Pill”, about a woman who keeps getting pregnant and because she was annoyed, she started taking the pill and is celebrating her freedom. She doesn’t have to go through childbirth anymore and can wear the clothes she likes. Like a lot of her political songs, they were inspired by her own life. By the age of 18, she had 4 kids. In total, she had 6 kids.

She criticised middle/upper class feminist movements for ignoring the concerns of working class women. She said of bourgeois feminism, “I’m not a big fan of women’s liberation, but maybe it will help women stand up for the respect they’re due”.

24. Heart release “Magic Man” (1976)

Ann and Nancy Wilson weren’t really the first sisters of rock and roll, but they were the stars of the show in Heart. They wrote the songs, they played flute and guitar on the songs, and in the 70s and early 80s they did everything on their own terms.

They are a huge inspiration to me and I named my blog after the song “Crazy on You”. When reading the two sisters’ autobiography, I could relate so much to Ann’s story as someone who struggled with her weight, moved around a lot as a kid, and was considered an outcast in school. Rock and roll was a sausage fest and full of sexism, but they persisted and now they’re considered rock legends and trailblazers for women in rock.

Heart have so many iconic songs, but if I had to pick one moment to showcase in this, it’s “Magic Man”, although “Barracuda” was a great song and a real “fuck you” to the sexist pigs in the music industry.

“Magic Man” was the origin story of Heart in a song and based on Ann falling in love with her boyfriend at the time, Michael Fisher, and leaving Seattle for Vancouver. A rock and roll love song written by a woman from the point of view of a woman. It’s a song that I could personally relate to because when I was 20 I fell in love with the man who I ended up marrying 3 years later and my parents had to come to terms with the fact that I’m growing up and want to leave the house. A truly magical song and what put Heart on the map.

Dreamboat Annie is my favourite Heart album and it’s a must listen and an album that you can listen to from start to finish.

25. Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks write most of the hits on Rumours (1977)

Fleetwood Mac’s most successful years were their 70s pop years. Ask people to name the first Fleetwood Mac album they can think of and they’ll probably say Rumours. There’s a reason they say that, it’s one of the best albums of the 70s. It’s a great example of a solid album because a lot of the songs were released as singles, or if they weren’t, they would have made great singles. This is how you make an album. All killer, no filler.

The sad part though is that this album was a bunch of diss tracks about each other because the band members were all cheating on each other. At least we got Rumours out of it, right? And the band made lots of money from the critically acclaimed 20x platinum album (and one of the top 10 best selling albums of all time, only behind Thriller, Back in Black, Bat Out of Hell, Dark Side of the Moon, The Bodyguard, Eagles Greatest Hits, and Saturday Night Fever). Fleetwood Mac did that.

Most of the songs on the album were written by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, the two female members of the band. A lot of people just talk about Stevie Nicks, but I think that’s unfair to Christine McVie, keyboard player and vocalist who wrote a lot of hits as well and she was in the band since the early 70s and had a music career outside of Fleetwood Mac, being a solo musician as Christine Perfect (her maiden name) and being in the band Chicken Shack.

These songs were written by Stevie Nicks: “Dreams” (the band’s biggest hit), “I Don’t Wanna Know”, and “Gold Dust Woman”.

Christine McVie wrote “Don’t Stop”, “Songbird”, “You Make Loving Fun”, and “Oh Daddy”.

The band as a whole wrote “The Chain”.

26. X-Ray Spex release “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (1977)

You can’t write a list about women in rock without mentioning punk rock. One feminist punk rock classic that I want to highlight is “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”. X-Ray Spex got a deal with Virgin Records for one single and this is what they released.

Lead vocalist Poly Styrene was inspired to become a punk rocker after seeing the Sex Pistols in concert. As a response to the band’s name, she wrote the anti-capitalist call for liberation. The song opens with her saying “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…” and then she shouts the song’s title.

The band didn’t just have one female member, the saxophone player (yes, unconventional for a punk band) was a girl named Susan Whitby, also known as Lora Logic, who was 16 at the time of recording “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”.

27. Wendy Carlos comes out as transgender (1979)

Wendy Carlos is a composer and electronic music innovator who popularised the Moog Synthesiser, which she helped develop at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Before getting famous, she studied physics and music at Brown University. In 1965, she graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in music composition. She is best known for Switched on Bach and the scores for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron.

She is also one of the first famous people to come out as transgender. She had gender dysphoria from a young age and remembered wanting to wear her hair long and wear dresses. Sadly, her parents didn’t understand. Before transitioning, she went on a date with a woman and she felt jealous. When she moved to New York City in the 60s, she learned about transgender issues and realised she is transgender. She started HRT in 1968, but didn’t feel comfortable yet appearing in public so she still disguised herself as a man with fake facial hair and even into the early 70s was releasing music under her deadname for marketing purposes.

She came out as transgender in 1979 in a series of interviews with Arthur Bell for Playboy. She was happy to have come out and said this about the public accepting her:

“The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent … There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”

28. Joan Jett releases “Bad Reputation” (1980)

Joan Jett got her start in the Runaways, but is best known for her solo work and is the most famous member of the band. For the most part, she did covers of other songs like The Arrows’ “I Love Rock n Roll” and Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”, but she wrote some original material too, like “Bad Reputation”. This is one of her best known songs and a liberating one too, makes you feel like a badass. The music video for it is funny with a silent film theme and a diss to record labels and how they are hesitant to sign someone who wants to shake up music.

29. Dolly Parton releases “9 to 5” (1980)

Capitalism isn’t just a women’s issue, but women are particularly affected with women being paid less than men on average for the same job, despite there being laws against wage discrimination. Dolly Parton sang about that on her classic song “9 to 5”.

“Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’.
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it

“9 to 5, for service and devotion
You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion
Want to move ahead, but the boss won’t seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me”

The song was written for the movie of the same name, which got its name from an organisation founded in 1973 that focuses on fair pay and equal treatment for women in the workplace.

Dolly Parton’s first hit single “Dumb Blonde” also has a pro-woman message:

“Just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb, cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool”

Dolly Parton isn’t all talk when it comes to doing good, she supports many charitable efforts through the Dollywood Foundation, the best known project being Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails one book a month to each enroled child from birth to when they enter kindergarten.

30. Transgender recording engineer Sandy Stone defends herself against Janice Raymond (1983)

In the 70s, Sandy Stone lived among lesbian separatists as a transgender woman (this interview she did with Vice is a really interesting read). She worked for the radical feminist music label, Olivia Records, as a sound engineer. She got her start in the music world working as a sound engineer for Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix wasn’t the only big name she worked with in the 60s, she also worked with CSN, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Van Morrison. Even in progressive San Francisco, there wasn’t support for trans people.

Not only is she a recording engineer, she writes science fiction and she taught herself to code and programme computers. She graduated with a PhD from UC Santa Cruz in 1993 and taught courses in sociology, anthropology, political science, English, and communications.

She transitioned in 1974 and joined lesbian groups, where she found acceptance, even though as far as she was aware everyone was cisgender. It was by accident that she ended up back in the music world because when she transitioned, she wanted to start fresh. Olivia Records, who actually headhunted her and were aware she’s trans, were happy to have her working for them and as a part of the collective, but there were a lot of trans exclusionary feminists who were not happy with their decision to hire her as a recording engineer and include her in the collective. They wanted her gone from the record label because she was assigned male at birth.

Trans exclusionary radical feminist writer Janice Raymond, attacked Sandy Stone in her book Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Around that time, Olivia Records were getting a lot of hate mail from transphobic women about them hiring a transgender sound engineer. They would publicly defend her when speaking to feminist publications and even helped pay for her transition surgeries. Gradually, the hate mail got more and more threatening. It got so bad, she left and went into academia.

A few years later, Sandy Stone hit back with her response, The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto. It was liberating for her to publish it.

31. Riot Grrrl starts (1990s)

The 80s in music were a time of excess, glam, and over the top everything: hair, clothes, and makeup. You especially saw that in the glam metal subgenre. With any style, trends come and go. The next trend is a response to the previous one. Grunge and punk over in the 90s and had a totally different sound and mood: dark, nihilistic, back to basics, raw, and lo-fi.

Riot Grrrl started in the same city grunge started in, Seattle. Before riot grrrl, punk was very loud, brash, and male. Even in the 90s, rock and roll was still a sausage fest and women musicians wanted their voices to be heard, a space of their own in the punk scene, and wanted to equalise the gender balance in punk. Like the punk subculture, riot grrrl is very DIY and has a lot of activist elements, starting underground. Riot grrrls would use zines, DIY independent publications, to communicate feminist messages, share art and poetry, and express anger at patriarchal attitudes in society.

Zines provide an alternative to the mainstream media, a platform for marginalised voices, and talk about issues that the mainstream media gloss over – not just feminist issues, but also LGBT issues. The internet wasn’t widespread at that time, so that’s what you did then.

Riot Grrrl bands include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, and Heavens to Betsy. Other bands associated with it, but aren’t as political include Babes in Toyland, The Breeders, Hole, and Veruca Salt. This movement is considered part of the third wave of feminism, which focuses on individual identity and intersectionality (a theory about layers of oppression and how individual identities – gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability, and class – combine in discrimination).

The movement started to decline in the late 90s with the “girl power” message being appropriated by corporations and manufactured girl groups like the Spice Girls. As with any subculture, as soon as it becomes mainstream and co-opted by corporations, it ceases to be cool.

Shoutout to my friends Patrick and Matt for supporting the blog.

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