Women’s Music 101

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These days music by lesbians and bisexual women, from Sia to the Gossip to Melissa Etheridge, is categorized more by its musical genre — pop, punk, etc. — than by the sexual orientation of its performers. But mainstream acceptance is relatively new; before Etheridge came out, before riot grrl, there was the genre known as “women’s music.”

“Meg Christian invented the term women’s music,” said women’s music pioneer Cris Williamson in an interview with AfterEllen.com. When asked if she knew what it meant then, she replied: “I had no idea. No one did.”

In the early years, women’s music was a handy term that made de-dyking the house easy. While books such as Lesbian/Woman had to be hidden in a box under one’s bed, one could proudly display a Meg Christian album and say to Mom, “It’s women’s music.”

Meg Christian performs in the early 1970s

While it’s true that straight women have been involved in women’s music from the start, it’s mostly been a lesbian thing. In 1963, a folk singer named Maxine Feldman got kicked off the Boston coffeehouse circuit for “bringing around the wrong crowd.” Billing herself as a big loud Jewish butch lesbian, she opened for comedy duo Harrison and Tyler as well as doing her own gigs. She recorded her first song in 1972 on a little 45 that she sold at gigs.

Meanwhile, women in mainstream rock — Joplin, Slick, you know the names — were kicking booty and taking names. At the same time, all-female rock band Fanny (with June Millington on guitar) released six albums, starting in 1970. David Bowie called them “one of the finest f—ing rock bands of their time.”

Also popular during that era was the Deadly Nightshade, a trio known for songs such as “Dance, Mr. Big, Dance.” The all women’s jazz/rock ensemble Isis was fronted by out lesbian singer Carol McDonald and featured a horn section. (They auditioned for Herb Alpert of A&M Records who said, “They’re great but I think women look stupid playing horns.”)

The New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band cranked up their amps, too. They released an album together in 1972 featuring one of their most popular pieces, “Papa Don’t Lay That S— on Me.”

It wasn’t all decibel-blasting rock. In 1973, folk singer Alix Dobkin released Lavender Jane Loves Women, the first full-length album to feature only women, from the musicians to the engineer.

Around this time, folk singer Meg Christian was performing in the Washington, D.C., area. She collected music by women and started incorporating it into her act, sometimes changing the pronouns to include lesbians. She quickly developed a large following of dykes.

One of Christian’s favorite albums that she found in a dusty bargain bin was by Cris Williamson. Her song “Joanna” made its way into Christian’s performances. When Williamson came to D.C. on tour, 400 lesbians showed up to hear her. She was so startled that she forgot the words to “Joanna.” Christian’s voice soared out from the crowd to help her.

Christian was part of a radical women’s collective hell bent on setting the world on fire, but they were unsure how to do it. The day after that fateful Williamson gig, Christian and fellow collective member Ginny Berson interviewed Williamson on the radio. She casually suggested that they start a record company.

Berson and Christian brought the idea to the group, and the others agreed even though they had no experience and no money. Starting in 1973, Olivia Records (now the lifestyle and travel company) went on to release 40 albums, including Williamson’s groundbreaking Changer and the Changed, an album that still sells today.

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