Women’s Music 101

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The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival began in 1975 and has flourished ever since. Many other festivals have come and gone, from one held in a Las Vegas hotel to outdoor events like Rhythmfest to current gatherings such as Estrojam. While the U.S. has hosted the majority of festivals, there have been others like the Venus Rising Festival in Australia and the Women’s Voices Festival in Canada.

So what exactly is women’s music? Singer-songwriter and activist Ember Swift said that when she first encountered the phrase, it meant lesbian music. From a North American viewpoint, that may still be the case, but a worldwide view presents a broader perspective.

Swift has made several visits to China, where the women she’s spoken with love the freedom to make art and be who they really are. They wouldn’t know Cris Williamson from Amy Winehouse. Swift admitted she struggled with the notion of women’s music because “while it celebrates women who make music, it separates them from the general population.”

She said she realizes the importance of the women’s music movement, though, especially since a lack of respect for women musicians still exists. Sighing, she told me that at a gig just the night before, someone had commented, “You’re good for a girl band.”

Ember Swift



Photo credit: Desdemona Burgin

Over the years, women’s music has sometimes been perceived, derisively, as a genre of patchouli-drenched folk. “It did start as a folk music thing,” commented Millington. “Coming from the lineage of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan is something to be ashamed of? We should be proud of our history.”

Williamson added: “I know what rockers do at 4 a.m. After you unplug all that s— all they’ve got is an acoustic guitar and a broken heart.”

How does R&B singer-songwriter Nedra Johnson feel? “I know that women’s music is much more diverse than is commonly accepted,” she said, “but I understand why that is the perception. Having a band is not an easy task no matter what kind of music one wants to play. One person can travel and stay on a couch … performing at house concerts and small cafes and actually make a living of sorts. It’s hard to find four to five people willing to live like that for very long.”

Johnson continued: “I’m glad that people outside of women’s music audiences like [my music], but it is women’s music. If you like my music, you like women’s music. Unfortunately, I have at times had the experience of having my music used to bash ‘women’s music.’ There are those who have extremely low opinions of … women’s music who instead of saying, ‘I listened to your CD and it turns out I do like women’s music,’ they say insulting things about other women as if that is somehow a compliment to me.”

Millington didn’t have a definition for women’s music at first. “I was busy surviving,” she explained bluntly. Coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s in the rock world, with its blatant sexism and racism, it was a tough battle.

She laughed when she recalled that she’d heard Williamson’s songs “100 or 150 times and honestly, I still didn’t know what she was singing about. It took me a year to really get it.” It was then that she decided that women’s music equaled lesbian music, and that it built confidence and offered empowerment.

But where is this women’s music party headed now? Are we gleefully ripping up the tracks to make way for the mainstream music industry? Sure, every music genre has embraced women, to varying degrees, but the music industry remains headed by men. As it says on the home page of the Institute for Musical Arts, an organization founded by June Millington and Ann Hackler:

What if all-female bands were as common as all-male bands? … What if it was ordinary to see a woman running the sound at a concert, or if female producers and engineers weren’t anomalies? What if there were more women at the top of record companies?

We’ve had a small taste of that with women’s music. Johnson said: “I think women’s music has been the mother of DIY. … It’s inspired many young women to play and write music. It’s inspired women to go into production-related industries. It’s given many women voices. … The festival experience has inspired women and healed them in ways that no one could have anticipated.”

Millington added: “Women’s music will always be there. How can it not? Women will always be here. Music will always be here. Women of the future will be doing the women’s music of their time, doing something completely their own.”

She’s helping that along with IMA, providing training for girls who want to perform and learn about the music industry. She paused and said, “I didn’t have that when I was getting started.”

“We’ll never go back now,” Williamson said. “Are you kidding? All these young women? Giddyup!”

Later on she said: “I’m happy. They’ll have to beg me to stop.” She parodied herself in a creaky, aged voice: “I’d love to sing ‘Waterfall’ for you but I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.”

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