Women and Music

March 19, 2009

There are other, more qualified music experts in my family, but as a music enthusiast (some might say snob), I volunteered to write about women in music. In my opinion, just about every woman who has made it in music has broken through major barriers to get there. As in other fields, women often have to go above and beyond to prove themselves and to avoid or overcome stereotypes about their appearance or their just being another “chick with a guitar.”

And there’s a fascination with the personal lives of female musicians that I don’t think exists with men: think about what you know about Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, and Rihanna. Read any articles lately on what inspires them as artists or how they go about their craft?

Anyway, for this series, we were supposed to write about a woman who broke through barriers in this field. But I had a hard time just picking one. I dismissed many of the obvious choices (Ani DiFranco, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Madonna) because I just don’t know that much about them, and I thought it would be disingenuous to write about them based on what I read on their Wikipedia pages.

Instead, I’ll just ask you to share some of your favorite women artists. And if you don’t have any, seek them out (not in the tabloids!). Let’s celebrate women musicians and give them some AAUW blog publicity. Share your favorite women musicians and links to their music in the comments. I’ll go first.

This is pretty much a list of my favorite musicians, not just my favorite women musicians: Jenny Lewis, Martha Wainwright, Feist (you’ve heard Feist before), and Neko Case.

This post is part of a special Women’s History Month series.

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Elizabeth Bolton By:   |   March 19, 2009


  1. Avatar Osob S. says:

    I have to admit I am a huge music fan myself. I like all types of music and am never without my ipod or at least my laptop filled with songs. Here are two ladies I will always love:

    Queen Latifah- “Ladies First” Although I could not find it on youtube, she is the first female rapper that I fell in love with and now is a household name.

    Lauren Hill- I can honestly say I dont have a favorite Lauren Hill song because I love them ALL!! but listen to “Superstar”

    Just remember— “Music is supposed to inspire!”

  2. Avatar KNKoehler says:

    How far back do you want to go? Fannie Mendelsohn who wrote a lot of the songs attributed to her brother for starters.

    Lena Horne, Bonnie Raitt, Ella of course, Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and the first woman to conduct a MAJOR symphony in the U.S….we’ve actually had two in Virginia but I don’t think our very good orchestras are considered MAJOR. My tastes, as you might judge, are varied. Emmylou Harris in the country genre, Sarah Vaughn is another jazz great, Mahalia, … in opera, Callas for starters…
    But you are right, Caruso would probably outrank just about any other opera singer if people were asked to name ONE in 10 seconds….Jenny Lind made quite an impression in her time, though.

  3. lizbolton lizbolton says:

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing. I’m so glad I opened it up–I never would have thought of all these amazing women myself! Anyone else?

  4. Gloria Gloria says:

    The first woman that comes to mind for me when we talk about breaking through barriers is Marian Anderson

    who performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the “ladies” (and I use the term loosely) of the DAR wouldn’t let her perform in Constitution Hall to an integrated audience. She was also the first Black woman to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Beautiful voice.

    Coming of age as a young woman in the 1980’s I have to agree with Ashley that Chaka Khan was a favorite, but I recently discovered some of my other favorite artists from that time on YouTube.

    I used to adore Randy Crawford, with her distinctive R&B/jazzy style. A very unique voice and still as moving– more than twenty years later! This link is a performance with the great jazz pianist Joe Sample in 2006:


    There were so many great female singers back in the day! A few other favorites include:

    Angela Bofill:

    Roberta Flack:

    Anita Baker:

    These days I don’t know how I would survive without my gospel favorite –CeCe Winans–who I listen to 24/7:

    Kudos to all of these awesome women!

  5. Lisa Goodnight Lisa Goodnight says:

    Great post on Women in Music. My faves include:

    Billie Holiday:

    La Lupe “Queen of Latin Soul”:

    La India:

    Jill Scott:

    Can’t wait to see her in the new HBO series ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’. She’ll play Precious Ramotswe, described by the New York Times Book Review as the “Miss Marple of Botswana.” Series premieres March 29th.


  6. In July 2005, Marin Alsop was named the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Alsop became BSO’s Music Director Designate in the 2006-2007 concert season, and in the 2007–2008 season, she assumed the orchestra’s directorship, thus becoming its 12th music director. Her selection is noteworthy because Alsop is the first woman to lead a major American orchestra.

  7. Avatar Ashley Carr says:

    I’m going to stick with my longtime favorite women musical artists here, just to keep this within some limits. ; )

    My overall #1 favorite would have to be Chaka Khan. Have loved her strong, very distinctive voice and style as a performer for a very long time and she certainly broke through barriers early on in her career when she was the female lead (and there was no question she was the leader and not just the lead singer) of her band Rufus. If I could sing (which I can’t at all) Chaka’s would be the type of voice I’d most like to have. (Besides, how could I not love her with her signature mane of red hair, and like me, freckles. Ha-ha!)

    Although I think her range and innovativeness — from R&B and funk, to jazz — have never been fully appreciated, I know there are many other diehard Chaka Khan fans like myself in the world. Fortunately, she has never totally disappeared from the music scene, including her successful 2008 CD, Funk This.

    Chaka Khan

    Another personal favorite, this time in the jazz arena, would be the always elegant Nancy Wilson. Luckily, I have my mom to thank for exposing me to Wilson’s music (along with a diverse array of other music and performers). There is no better version of Miss Otis Regrets or her signature, Guess Who I Saw Today, than hers. Nancy Wilson not only broke through barriers as a performer but she did it with a level of class and sophistication that has been a hallmark of her long career.

    Nancy Wilson http://www.njacdst.org/images/NancyWilson.jpg


    And lastly, because I love women rockers, I have to count among my favorites another Nancy Wilson and her sister Ann Wilson of Heart. The Wilson sisters broke down barriers and paved the way for a lot of women rockers who came after them. Their songs from back then still have a certain power. Even the McCain-Palin campaign used one of their classic songs, Barracuda, for Palin’s campaign. But the Wilson sisters weren’t havin’ it!

    Nancy and Ann Wilson/Heart

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