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On Feminism and Women Who Rock

Woman With A Guitar – Maria Blanchard

The Spark

I was sitting in the bleacher seats in one of the music classrooms at UMass, and sort of staring top-down at the Music 101 professor. She walked around the podium and said, “Now, some of you have been asking why we’re not covering the sections of women composers, the ones listed in the book. Well, the truth is that they’re just not very good.” My breath caught in my throat. She continued with a smile, “And it’s just more important that we cover the influential composers.”

This was roughly twelve years ago, my freshman year. At the time, I was still hellbent on becoming a singer-songwriter. Hearing the professor–a woman!–say what she did made me feel sick to my stomach. I felt embarrassed. For her, for the class. She might as well have just said: “What women have accomplished in music isn’t worth our time. They’ve made no impact on the world, so we ignore them.” (For the record, there are over 800 listed on Wikipedia alone.) Was that going to happen to me? Was my music just… not important enough to be anything other than a footnote?

To say that women are missing from what most people know as Classical music is an understatement. While there are some standouts, including Felix Mendelssohn’s own sister Fanny, by and large Western Classical music as taught (like most of the Humanities) is dominated by men. And why are men “better”? The major contributing factor: education. Not to mention support. And the non-existence of birth control for women. And their horrifically short lifespans. But that’s sort of not the point. The point is that regardless of the calibur of their work when compared to their male counterparts, women’s accomplishments matter — in fact, they matter so much precisely because they were done against the odds.

Moving Forward

A few years later, when I was in graduate school, I had somewhat of an opposite issue. Most people assumed I was a feminist leaning literary critic because, I guess, I am a woman. Also, I talk a great deal. But I didn’t identify as a feminist critic. As a medievalist, I was fond of the school of New Historicism, which seeks to try its best and read literature in the context of its era, and includes a great deal of historical research. I always replied to the question of feminist criticism in the negative. But in spite of my initial reply, by the end of my degree I found myself writing my thesis on a very feminist subject, the role of Guinevere in William Morris’s poem “The Defence of Guenevere” as well as looking at her in Marie de France’s lai, “Lanval.” Ultimately, I was drawn to one of the most scandalous and often discussed women in English literary history, throwing around terms like “agency” and “proto-feminism” a great deal. So much for that!

Now, I’m an author. And while my first novel featured a male protagonist, nothing since then has. I write women because I am one, because I feel like our stories still need to be told. Because we need feminism now. As a recent interview with Caitlin Moran, hilarious and brilliant author of How To Be A Woman points out, women of my generation and older are often afraid of being labeled feminists. It’s a bad word. It means you’re a bitch. Or a lesbian. Or a hippy. Or you hate men. Or you aren’t feminine. Or whatever. Right?

Moran puts it succinctly:

What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man that you marry? The campaign for equal pay? Vogue by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that stuff just get on your nerves?

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in so short a time. Marriage was never about love or about choice: It was about wealth. Dowries. Status. Political alliances. Until the early 20th century, it was practically unheard of that a woman would have a say in her own marriage, let alone have a career. Pioneers like Mary Shelley (and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft), Ada Lovelace, the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen, had to work against incredible odds to do what they loved. That they produced anything of meaning is nothing short of astonishing.

Women Who Rock

Doing research for Rock Revival I’ve been delving into the history of rock music as best I can. Sure, there are bands with women in them. In the indie scene it’s more common these days, but mainstream popular bands tend to fall into two categories: entirely composed of women and often done so with marketing in mind (The Go-Gos, The Runaways, The Bangles, etc.); or fronted by a woman (The Pretenders, Blondie, Hole, Evanescence). The Revivals, my fictional band, are comprised of men and women (initially two women and three men, a la Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, or Belle & Sebastian) which is the hardest category to find. No matter how you slice it, rock music is still very much a boys’ game, and apparently boys and girls playing together isn’t a terribly marketable concept.

Quoth Moran, rather apropos to the subject of women rocking and marketing:

“In the early ’90s, it was grunge, everybody was fully clothed. Alanis Morissette was one of the biggest artists in the world, never wore make up, wearing Doc Marten boots, and then the Spice Girls turn up, and suddenly it all looks a bit burlesque, suddenly they’re the biggest band in the world. … And as you go all the way through the ’90s, the clothes just fall off the women until you get to the year 2000, and Britney Spears is just wearing a snake.”

It got me thinking about equal footing in the music industry and why there are so few visible female rock musicians. And I think it has a lot to do with lack of empowerment. Take my experience. In spite of the fact I was born 20 years after the 60s, I was something of an anomaly as a female musician. It’s not exactly the norm to hear girls chat about electric guitars or dream about Fender Princeton Chorus amps while leafing through Musician’s Friend.

I remember “talking the talk” a few times around male musicians and sound guys (particularly older ones), and they often expressed a sort of surprise and amusement. Was I posing? Was I serious? Was I any good? “Yeah, how long have you been playing?” “What kind of guitar do you play?” Just like in geek circles, when you’re a female musician you’re often held up to more scrutiny, as if you’re some sort of impostor. And in many cases I think that scrutiny leads to self-consciousness and safe decisions, like starting your own band rather than joining one, or selecting to work with other women. Or becoming a folk singer instead of a rock star. (There are, thankfully, exceptions.)

And how about instrumental choice? I wonder, why did I never branch out from rhythm guitar to something else? Why didn’t I try lead? I think the sad answer to that is I didn’t think I had it in me, as a woman, as a musician. Because, by and large, girls don’t play lead guitar. I’m not flashy, I’m not a “performer” in that sense. Who was I to get up there and shred? (And it hasn’t gone away! My fictional band is real to my experience. Kate and Sara, like me, were encouraged with music but never pushed to be lead guitarists, or gutsy lead singers. Why don’t either of them play lead? I guess I feel like the odds of that happening, even now, are slim to none, in a band that finds a big audience.)

Carry On

I have a daughter. She’s barely three months old — but even before she was born I was worrying about what challenges she’s going to face. Now I find myself thinking about this stuff a whole lot more than I did when my son was born. Because no matter how hard I try, she’ll have a different experience than he will. Pieces like Mur Lafferty’s “Dear Daughter” really get to the heart of what I’ve been contemplating. If women today are so afraid to use the F-word, so worried about what other people might think when it comes to their own empowerment and pride, what does that mean for my daughter’s generation? If we, as mothers and fathers and friends can’t give them the courage to get out there and shred, if our communities can’t get behind them, then all the work that women like my grandmother (who was a first-wave feminist) — and other women in rock, and those who rock — have done won’t mean a thing. It’s a scary prospect.

I don’t want to make this terribly political, but I can’t go without saying that there are people here, in my country and around the world, who don’t believe women really can do these things. That it’s just not in us. Some of their motivations are religious, others experiential, some plain misogynistic. But these are big decision-makers and policy-pushers, CEOs and ad executives, people controlling the stream of what we hear and see. There are people who still see women as baby-makers and child-rearers, and creatures who really should just stay home (because that’s the best for everyone) and surely aren’t capable of raising children by themselves, let alone doing face-melting solos in front of thousands of people.

You know what? We are bigger than they are. If we decide to work at home to be with our kids, that’s our choice. If we decide to put our kids in daycare and go to work and kick ass and take names that way, that’s also our choice. That is what feminism is about. Not about being a bitch, or a liberal, or a “femi-Nazi”. It’s breaking free from the outdated societal constraints we’ve struggled under for so long. It’s about having a choice.

I want my daughter to feel the power of music. If she decides to, I want her to plug in her Les Paul, hear the sizzle of the cord coming to life, and feel every note course through her. I want her to feel the hot lights on her face, to smell the funk of backstage, to see the faces of a crowd when they make that connection. If she wants to strut, I want her to strut. If she wants to scream a primal scream and dazzle the audience with her talent, I want her to revel in every moment. I want her to be a proud, to do what I never did. And I want the world to rise up and celebrate every moment with her. Maybe that’s a lot to ask. But I think it can happen.

The pulse of rock ‘n’ roll beats in all of us, and it’s about power and strength and love and heartbreak and sex and experiences and empowerment. It’s not just a boys’ game. If anything we should be giving girls Telecasters when they’re ten and encouraging them to rock, to tell their stories, and to change the world.

We are not the labels we’ve been given. We are not wallflowers. We deserve to be heard. We are women who rock.


  • Russ Rogers

    Great blog piece. As a father of four daughters, this hits close to home for me. One tiny quibble. “Heart.” You missed “Heart.” Ann and Nancy Wilson. Nobody rocks harder. They are the heart, soul, creative spark and drive behind a band of men and women that has thrived and rocked for decades. (They had an album in the Top 10 as recently as 2010.)

    There are others who would make my short list. Joan Armatrading. Liz Phair. Pat Benetar. Sheryl Crow. Beyonce. Nico. Bette Midler. Barbara Streisand. Taylor Swift. The Roches. Lori Anderson.

    • Natania

      Oh, Heart has a lot to do with it, just didn’t make a direct appearance in this post. It wasn’t intended to be comprehensive in that department. I’ll have lots of posts to come on the Wilsons. 🙂

  • thegourmez

    I am constantly amazed by the wonderful writers I live amongst. This is a great piece, which for me resonates in that I typically have not considered myself feminist, but when I think about it, I really, really am.

  • Hilary

    Love this post! I know, because you’re writing about the rock world that this revolves around the rock music scene, but as a classically trained musician, this misogyny very, VERY much exists in the classical music world as well (stemming largely from what you discuss in the beginning with the whole male vs female composers). As someone who plays a stereotypically “male” instrument, I’ve been pigeon-holed my whole musical life, but there is nothing more satisfying than when I beat out a male player for a solo or a higher chair just so I can show that women trumpet players can be just as bad-ass. I think it also helps me with my career – I love to nurture my little female brass players, and for that matter, my male flautists! 🙂

    • Natania

      Yes, considering that the same professor I mentioned was also an instructor of music, I can easily imagine that it goes through to Classical music. Lead guitar is also stereotypically male, perhaps only a little less so than drums (thankfully ladies like Meg White to Karen Carpenter have blazed the way for that instrument). But it’s weird how much is steeped in stereotypes throughout all the humanities. Frustrating that it’s still this way. I won’t get into the comments I’ve heard in the speculative fiction community by some who still view it as a boys’ club, complaining that women are ruining it with their sparkly vampires. *facepalm* But you’ve done so much with your extraordinary talent! That’s what’s most important. You are, indeed, badass. I’ve known this for… oh, two decades and more.

  • GG Amos

    Hi your name btw!.. I am a lead guitarist for probably 26 years now.. and have experienced all the emotions and judgemental attitudes you describe so well.. I started at age 10 on guitar and for many years played basically rhythm and alot of fingerstyle. When I decided to get into lead.. it was scary at first..but with alot of practice and nurturing by my then boyfriend.. and this is crucial.. getting support and encouragement.. plus practicing your ass off.. I became a pretty proficient lead guitarist. Little by little..over many years I became a damn good guitarist.
    But even now..with thousands of performances under my belt, the old attitudes prevail. Maybe not so overtly, but you can feel the undercurrents sometimes.
    But if I’m in a good place and prepared..and feeling confident.. I can tear it up. When I feel self-concious.. and not prepared, that’s a bad place to be when you have to perform.
    I’m in the ‘blues’ world..where lead guitar first made its appearance in the US and then the world.. it lead to rock ‘n roll directly.. and it’s been overwhelmingly a man’s world. But… even in the early days of blues.. 2 women stand out as great lead guitarists.. Memphis Minnie, who played a more country blues style..but still was able to carve out a career for herself and even beat Big Bill Broonzy in a famous guitar cutting contest. The other woman was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She played lead guitar.. electric lead guitar. And she was a seriously badass guitar player. And singer. There are youtube vids of her that are amazing by anyone’s standards. Now she was very religious.. and did mostly gospel music..but she was the first person to take that kind of gospel ..electric guitar shredding gospel, and bring it into secular nightclubs.
    It’s only in the last several years that she’s been gaining wider fame.
    But she did well for herself in her day.
    I think in the African American community, women instrumentalists are a bit more encouraged than in other ethnic groups.
    When I started out in the mid 80’s there were very few women in blues doing what I did… but little by little more and more women have forged careers as guitarists.. and a few are pretty successful. But unfortunately the same marketing pressures apply in this world.. when I was younger and better looking, people around me treated me like a freak.. but as I got older and am a much better musician.. I feel less confident because of my age.
    We’re not allowed to age. A man can be 65 years old, bald, wrinkled and a pot belly..but he gets respect.
    Sorry for the long post.. but I wanted to put in 2 cents for the women blues guitarists.
    Keep rockin’ Natania.. and your baby girl too.

    • Natania

      GG, so glad to hear you’re rocking out. There are, like you, exceptions. But as you point out, it’s a really hard road to tread. I’ve heard of Memphis Minnie, but never Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I’ve got to check them out!

      Thanks for doing all you do!

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