The 50 Most Important Queer Women in Music

Popular music is one of the most influential forces of the last century. It has the power to entertain, but also to educate. And with women being a growing force in the industry, it was only a matter of time before lesbian and bisexual women would make themselves known in the very straight, very male-driven music business. With this list of the 50 most important queer women in music, we highlight those females who have proven to be influential, not only to their own specific gay and female communities, but to the world at large, through their being successful musicians and open about their sexuality.

While there are several others who could be considered for the list, we weighed them on a scale of accomplishment (awards, chart positions), perceived influence (specific genres, areas of the world they come from and directly speak to) and how their sexuality has fit into their career (age/point in time in which they divulged their sexuality, speaking out for LGBT equality, working with other queer artists).

By honoring these women, we hope to remember the ones that have paved ways, made definitive statements and maintained celebrated musical careers that make us happy, make us want to sing, make us think, make us want to do something. It’s the music we live to, and it’s made all the more important to us because it’s from women who have something to say for us, and they set it to beautiful music.

50 Chely Wright

At the beginning of her career in 1995, Chely was named Top New Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. Since then, she’s had 15 singles on the country music charts, including the hits “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” When she came out this year, she became the first country star to publicly announce she was a lesbian after already having had success in the genre as a perceived straight woman. Her new single, “Broken,” came in at number one on the Country Music Indie Charts. Throughout her career, she’s won several awards from the Country Weekly Awards, Country Music Television and the International Bluegrass Music Association.

49 Gretchen Phillips

The singer from Austin, Texas was a member of several band, most notably Two Nice Girls, a quintet that scored a hit with “I Spent My Last $10 (on Birth Control and Beer).” In 1991, the band won a GLAAD Award for being an openly gay group. After they broke up, Gretchen continued as a solo artist, recording several albums and was inducted into the Austin Chronicle‘s Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

48 Skin

The bisexual frontwoman of English band Skunk Anansie was part of the Britpop movement in the 1990s. In 2004, the band was named one of the most successful UK chart acts between 1952 and 2003 by the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles & Albums. Their five albums, including some on Virgin and Epic Records, have peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 and have been international hits.

47 Judy Dlugacz

Before she moved on to Olivia Cruises, Judy helped found Olivia Records, the first ever womyn’s music record label that released music from Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Teresa Trull and Linda Tillery. Judy put on concerts and musical events for women around the United States, and put out 40 records by female artists, several of them identifying as lesbians.

46 Patricia Barber

The out jazz/blues vocalist has released 10 albums throughout her career, and she has been highly regarded as one of the best vocalists on the contemporary jazz circuit. In 2007, her label released The Premonition Years: 1994-2002, a box set of Barber’s originals, covers and pop music tracks.

45 Donna Dresch

As the founder of Team Dresch, Donna is also a pioneer of queercore, the art and social movement that evolved from punk music. The band released two albums on Kill Rock Stars and one on her own label, Chainsaw Records, which released albums from pivotal riot grrl and queer bands including Heavens to Betsy, The Need, Sleater-Kinney and Tracy and the Plastics. The label still functions today.

44 Kristen Hall

The out songwriter (left) was once part of the country outfit Sugarland, co-writing most of the songs on their debut album, Twice the Speed of Life. Since leaving the band, Hall has recorded several solo albums and is continuing to work on her songwriting career.

43 Bitch

First made famous for her violin and ukelele playing in the lesbian folk duo Bitch and Animal, the out musician later went on her own to release three solo efforts. She founded her own label, Short Story Records, and has collaborated with several heavy hitters in the women’s music community, including Ani Difranco, Ferron and the Indigo Girls.

42 Sarah Bettens

The singer of the Belgian band K’s Choice had a hit with “Not an Addict” in 1996, and the band toured with alt-rock icons like Alanis Morrisette. Though she didn’t come out publicly until 2002, being openly gay only gave Sarah more fodder to sing about when she began recording solo albums, including Scream and Shine.

41 Ferron

The Canadian folk singer released her own albums in the 1970s and ’80s and she found way through the women’s music circuit. In 1995, she won a Juno Award and was later featured in two documentaries based on her life and music. Her work has inspired several contemporary artists, including those who have collaborated with her on more recent works, such as Bitch, JD Samson, the Indigo Girls and Ani Difranco.

40 Fergie

Stacy Ferguson became well-known as the female entity of one of the biggest hip-hop/pop groups in the world, Black Eyed Peas. An out bisexual woman who isn’t afraid to discuss past relationships with women, Fergie has won several awards for her solo work, as well as her work in BEP, which includes American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards and Grammys, among many, many others.

39 Kate Pierson

As the lead singer of The B-52s, Kate is not only the voice of the classic mega-hits, “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster,” she also lent her unmistakable pipes to songs like “Shiny Happy People” with R.E.M. Every album her band released has peaked on the Hot 100 Billboard charts. Kate has collaborated with several other notable artists including The Ramones, Debbie Harry and David Byrne. Pierson didn’t come out until 2008, when she met her partner.

38 Rosie Lopez

As the Vice President at Tommy Boy Entertainment, Rosie has brought several gay artists on board under their Silver Label, including The Cliks and Hunter Valentine. She also served as the producer of soundtracks for Queer as Folk, The L Word and Goldfish Memory.

37 Jenny Hoyston

San Francisco’s Erase Errata shook up the indie rock scene in 1999 when the riot grrrl era had been deemed “over” by releasing new and exciting political, queer no wave music. The band’s three albums were loved by critics, and when they finally disbanded, Hoyston continued to make records under the moniker, Paradise Island and with a new trio, LESBIANS. This year, she founded Fabulosa Fest, a music and arts festival for women, queers and allies.

36 Sophie B Hawkins

In 1992, her single “Damn Wish I Was Your Lover” hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100. Three years later, “As I Lay Me Down” came in at number 6. The bisexual musician has had success with several other singles throughout her career, and was the focus of a 1998 documentary about her life, The Cream Will Rise. In 2009, she remade “Lover” to become “Damn We Wish You Were President” for then-hopeful Hillary Clinton.

35 Mary Gauthier

The New Orleans-based artist didn’t begin her musical career until age 35, but was clearly born to be heard. Her 2002 album, Filth and Fire, was hailed as  the “Best Indy CD of the Year” by the New York Times. Her next record was with Universal Records, winning her the American Music Award for New/Emerging Artist of the Year.

34 Emily Saliers

As one half of the Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers is an accomplished instrumentalist who makes solo appearances and performances when she and Amy aren’t on tour together. The Indigo Girls recorded “Dear Mr. President” in 2009 with Pink, and the single hit the charts at #101.

33 Sinead O’Connor

Though she’s always been controversial, Sinead O’Connor has inspired many artists, including Prince. The Irish singer-songwriter has been recording since the 1980s, gaining fame with her album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. She came out as a lesbian in 2000, but has made statements since implying her lesbianism is on-and-off.

32 Maja Ivarsson

The Swedish singer of The Sounds is often referred to as a modern-day Debbie Harry. Her stage presence and trademark voice helped make the band a hit in Sweden and in the U.S. Their three albums have peaked in the top 100 in both countries, and earned them some famous fans like Dave Grohl, who wore their T-shirt in a Foo Fighters‘ video. Maja is openly bisexual.

31 Missy Higgins

The Australian-born musician has been nominated for 19 ARIA awards and won seven of them, as well as two APRAs and an MTV Australia Video Music Award. Her 2008 album, On a Clear Night, helped her cross over in the U.S. market, where her songs were featured on several television shows, including So You Think You Can Dance. She is openly bisexual and sings songs about relationships with women.

30 Lady Sovereign

The grime hip-hop MC signed to an indie label for her first U.S. release but was soon scooped up by Jay-Z‘s Def Jam Records in 2006. Her singles “Random” and “Love Me or Hate Me” did well, but Sovereign was eventually dropped by the label. She released 2009’s Jigsaw independently and came out as a lesbian later that year while on Celebrity Big Brother.

29 Jennifer Knapp

The first Christian singer to publicly come out, Jennifer Knapp is a Grammy-nominated performer that has dual citizenship in America and Australia. Her most recent album was her first outside the Christian genre, and aimed to reach the adult contemporary and folk markets instead. The album, Letting Go, debuted at #73 on the Billboard charts.

28 Otep Shamaya

An out lesbian at the center of a metal band named after her, Otep has been at the forefront of LGBT and equality politics in the metal music community since 2000. The band’s first two albums were with Capitol Records, but Otep has since moved to indie label Victory. Their 2009 album, Smash the Control Machine, peaked at #47 on the U.S. charts and the band was also nominated for a GLAAD Award.

27 Electrelane

Before disbanding in 2007, the all-girl band had four queer members (Mia Clarke, Emma Gaze, Verity Sussman and Ros Murray). They recorded four albums and were critical darlings, often singing politically-flavored tunes and often toured with like-minded groups such as Le Tigre and Arcade Fire.

26 Romy Madley Croft

As the lead singer of Mecury Prize winners the xx, Romy is part of one of 2009-2010’s hottest new bands. At only 19, she is the frontwoman of a group that hit number 3 on the UK Billboard charts and has released three hit singles. Though she doesn’t talk about her sexuality in interviews often, Romy is out about having a girlfriend, a photographer who lives in England.

25 Brandi Carlile

Straddling the line between country and folk rock, Brandi Carlile has recorded three successful full-length albums, two with major label Columbia Records. Her single “The Story” peaked at number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100 and her 2010 album, Give Up the Ghost, debuted at #26. She’s had several songs used in TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and has recorded with the Indigo Girls and Elton John. Though she’s always been out, Brandi didn’t talk about her sexuality “on the record” until 2009, when according to Carlile, was the first time she was ever asked about it.

24 Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore was first known as a pop singer in the 1960s with her hit “It’s My Party” which sold more than one million copies and was nominated for a Grammy. Several other hit singles followed including, “You Don’t Own Me” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Despite a few brief hiatuses, Lesley has continued to record, as well as write songs, and came out in 2005 (having known her sexual orientation since her teens.) She currently serves as a host of the PBS program, In the Life, a gay-themed documentary series.

23 Holly Near

Initially an actress known for shows like The Mod Squad, Holly later became famous for her folk feminist music, founding Redwood Records and collaborating with other protest artists like Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Pete Seeger. As one of the pioneers of the women’s music movement, she has won several awards including the Legends of Women’s Music Award.

22 Amanda Palmer

Out bisexual musician Amanda Palmer built a fanbase from her cabaret/punk in the Dresden Dolls and later expanded it when she recorded her solo LP, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? The queen of self-promotion, Palmer controls everything she puts her name on, from musical projects to books, art and collaborations with other artists, which include Kill Hannah and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. After infamously asking her record label, Roadrunner, to drop her, Amanda has become an independent entity that makes the most of her own product: herself.

21 Me’shell Ndegeocello

With 10 Grammy nominations in her career, Me’shell has been a critical favorite since her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies. Her bass playing and signature alto voice helped her become a driving force in neo-soul, a genre she is widely credited with creating. Ndegeocello is an out bisexual.

20 Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga came out as bisexual, it seemed like it could be a stunt. She was relatively new at the time, but has since gone on the record (with Barbara Walters, no less) to say she’s had several sexual relationships with women. Gaga has also been outspoken for LGBT rights and kissed women in two of her music videos. Her success as a pop star is unparalleled today, spawning comparisons to Madonna and earning her mentions as one of the most influential people in the world by Time and Forbes magazines. Before fame became a monster, Gaga wrote songs for Britney Spears, Fergie and the Pussycat Dolls.

19 Leisha Hailey

Before she was known for her role on The L Word, Leisha was part of The Murmurs, a 90s rock duo that gained so much popularity in NYC, they were swiftly signed to MCA Records. They recorded four albums over a seven-year period, and became an underground hit at a time when women in alternative and indie rock were slowly making their way into mainstream consciousness. Since then, Hailey has formed Uh Huh Her, which has released one album and had a song featured on the soundtrack for The Kids Are All Right. Hailey has also written a song for Shakira, and is working with bandmate Camila Grey on their new CD.

18 Janis Ian

In 1975, Janis Ian won a Grammy for her song “At Seventeen.” It was a huge hit, and Janis performed the song on Saturday Night Live‘s season premiere that same year. Though she didn’t come out as a lesbian until 1993, her songs were frequently about social injustice, interracial dating and societal violence. In 2009, she released a collection of her greatest hits along with her memoir, Society’s Child.

17 Ani Difranco

As one of the most prolific folk-rock musicians of the last 20 years, Ani Difranco has been a bisexual icon since she debuted her self-released, eponymous album in 1990. With songs about loving other women and featuring other out women on her tours and record label, Righteous Babe Records, Ani has been a steadfast advocate for women’s rights and gay equality.

16 Kaia Wilson

When the out musician created Mr. Lady Records in 1996, Kaia Wilson created a way for queer bands like Le Tigre and Electrelane, as well as her own band The Butchies, to be found in your local record store. Kaia was also a founding member of Team Dresch, one of the first bands on the queercore scene that presented lesbian politics in its lyrics and images. While both of her bands have since split, the Butchies had a recent reunion and Kaia continues to record solo work and perform with Amy Ray as part of her band.

15 Sharon Isbin

Juilliard graduate, Sharon Isbin, is a master of the classical guitar. Besides recording her own albums, she’s done important work: founding the guitar department at her world famous alma mater, and performing at Ground Zero a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center. She also participated in the Academy and Grammy Award-winning score for The Departed. Last year, Isbin’s album Journey to the New World won the Grammy for for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance.

14 Alix Dobkin

As one of the pioneers of “Womyn’s Music,” Alix is known best for writing songs about the lesbian experience. Her first album, Lavendar Jane Loves Women, came out in 1973 and was made fun of on national television by David Letterman and Howard Stern. It was unprecedented for women to be so unabashed about their sexuality at the time, and Dobkin made singing about dyke culture possible in the years that followed.

13 Tegan and Sara

After their single “Walking with a Ghost” was covered by The White Stripes, the sister duo received more attention outside of their small (and very lesbian) fanbase. Signed to Neil Young‘s record label, Tegan and Sara have continued to grow in popularity and critical acclaim, having been nominated for several Juno Awards and this year’s Polaris Prize. Their last album, Sainthood, hit 21 on the Billboard Charts. Both Tegan and Sara are out lesbians and aren’t shy about their views on equality and discrimination. They also work with other lesbian artists on their own albums and burgeoning careers.

12 JD Samson

When JD joined Le Tigre in 2001, the electro trio established itself as the face of queer-feminist punk rock. They built such a strong fanbase that Island Records took note, signing them for their third and final album, This Island, in 2004. JD put forth her political and personal views, both on stage and off, and continues to do so in her new band, MEN, in public appearances as a DJ, and on tracks with the likes of Junior Senior. She also contributed to Christina Aguilera‘s latest album, Bionic.

11 Wendy & Lisa

The lesbian pair, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, began working together in 1986 as part of Prince‘s band, Revolution, contributing vocals, keys and piano to his album Purple Rain. Eventually, they went it alone and released five albums before writing Emmy-winning theme songs for shows like Nurse Jackie. The pair won an ASCAP Award for “Composers of the Year” for their work on Dangerous Minds.

10 Carrie Brownstein

When Spin magazine first wrote about Sleater-Kinney in the 1990s, it was not only pivotal because they were writing about the all-female rock band, they also outed guitarist Carrie Brownstein for having dated her band mate Corrin Tucker. Carrie’s guitar playing has always been her focus, and it helped Sleater-Kinney enjoy commercial success in an otherwise not-for-profit-but-not-for-lack-of-trying riot grrl scene. Four of the band’s albums peaking in the Billboard’s Hot 200. The band went on hiatus in 2006, but today, Carrie is part of several new projects and has just announced the formation of her new band, Wild Flag, with Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss.

9 Linda Perry

Since being the frontwoman of 4 Non Blondes, who asked a generation, “What’s Going On?”, Perry has become a sought-after producer-songwriter in the music industry and Clementine Ford‘s girlfriend. Perry is behind huge tracks like Christina Aguilera‘s “Beautiful,” Pink‘s “Get the Party Started” and Gwen Stefani‘s “What You Waiting For?” and Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman.” Perry continues to work with queer and queer-friendly musicians, including Chely Wright and Adam Lambert and is behind the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s annual gala, “An Evening With Women.”

 

8 June Millington

As the founder of the first ever all-girl rock band, Fanny, June paved the way for most women on this list. The band signed to Warner Brothers’ Reprise Records in 1969, releasing four albums and playing on a Barbara Streisand album in 1971. Fanny released a greatest hits compilation in 2002 on Rhino Records. Meanwhile, June and partner Ann Hackler founded the non-profit Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA).

7 Joan Jett

Singer, guitarist, producer, record label owner and member of the first-ever girl band to hit it big on hard rock radio, The Runaways, Joan Jett has become more of a dykon since her career began four decades ago. Guitar maker, Gibson created a guitar in Joan’s name, and she was listed as only one of two women on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time. With the “dyke” sticker on her axe and queer bands like Girl in a Coma signed to her label, Blackheart Records, Joan is consistently working to keep gay women in rock ‘n roll.

6 Beth Ditto

As the frontwoman of The Gossip, Beth has brought a new face to pop music. Her voice blends blues, rock and disco on hit singles like “Standing in the Way of Control” and “Listen Up!” Ditto’s international stardom hasn’t been in vain: Beth is an outspoken advocate for queer rights and plus-sized women. The Gossip’s last two albums peaked in the Top 10 on the UK Billboard charts.

5 Ma Rainey

The blues singer was involved with women when it was still illegal. Her 1928 album Prove It On Me Blues had several songs about being a lesbian and the cover had her posed in a hat and tie while talking to a flapper girl. The title track included the lyrics, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan, talk to gals just like any old man ’cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, sure got to prove it on me.” Rainey recorded more than 100 songs with Paramount Recordings, including one with Louis Armstrong.

4 sk.d. lang

As the original lesbian country singer, k.d. has been successful in several genres, winning four Grammys over three decades and recording several songs for film soundtracks and collaborating with the likes of Tony Bennett. k.d. has never been shy about putting her sexuality out there and letting herself be a dyke icon. She appeared in the coming out episode of Ellen and also posed for the famous “lesbian chic” cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford.

3 Amy Ray

The year before Tracy Chapman won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Album, the Indigo Girls won the same category. As one half of the seminal lesbian folk duo, Ray has also found success with her own record label and solo career, and helping other burgeoning lesbian musicians find their footing in the industry, including Melissa York (The Butchies, Humble Tripe) and Brandi Carlile.

2 Dusty Springfield

The out bisexual singer had one of the most influential country albums of all time with her 1969 release Dusty in Memphis. It was only a year later she told the press she was as interested in women as she was in men, and she continued to record 10 more albums after the fact. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, 10 days after she died of cancer. She lives on with her amazing voice as evident on some of her most famous songs such as “The Son of a Preacher Man” and “Your Love Still Brings Me to My Knees.”

1 Melissa Etheridge

There’s no denying that Melissa’s name has been synonymous with out and proud rock musician for the last two decades. Rejected by Olivia Records early in her career, Etheridge went on to become the highest-selling out lesbian musician and has won two Grammys and an Academy Award. After coming out in 1993 at the Triangle Ball, a gay/lesbian celebration of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, her album Yes I Am spent 138 weeks on the Billboard charts, giving her a breakthrough hits, “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One.” Coming out before Ellen, Melissa was the mainstream lesbian icon of the 1990s.

Who’s on your list?