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The Women’s Music Movement

Women Breaking Barriers and Radical Harmonies

Photographer Robert Altman has just released a book of photographs called The Sixties, which he aims to be a tome indicative of the free-thinking, politically charged decade. But in addition to being a time of social unrest as manifested by the politically charged music of the time, it was also a time of great change for women as well.

When thinking about female music from the time, many images come to mind -- images of then songwriter and future singer Carole King, of the sun-kissed locks and dreamy harmonies of Mamas Cass and Michelle, of the musical bravado displayed by Phil Spector’s girl groups -- the Ronettes chief among them, and of the empowering Aretha Franklin demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But those pictures only show half the story.

For the complete picture, visitors to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society (GLBTHS) can witness the current exhibit entitled “Women Breaking Barriers: Women’s Music from 1964 to 1984". The idea behind this show is to pad out the history of women’s music by presenting highlights in music album covers, concert posters and photos to bring to the forefront the importance that lesbian culture and community building had on the movement. There is apparently more to the story of women’s music than a short history of Tina Turner to Cyndi Lauper.

The women’s music cultural movement can be called Women’s Music, also interchangeable with Womyn’s or Wimmin’s music, and it emerged as a genre by, for, and about women during the second-wave of the feminist movement. In response to the lack of opportunities for female artists, the pioneers of the movement sought to turn the industry on its head by being their own greatest advocates. To these artists, visual imagery was often as important as music to the whole package, as conveyed by song lyrics accompanying melodies. Moreover, the visual elements of their work often reflected the ideological and cultural values of their creators and intended audience.

As the idea and movement evolved, it gave birth to an alternative industry that changed women and continues to change the music industry. Through the art exhibited at the Historical Society, visitors can see how women were able to reinforce and challenge established norms in the music industry by being subversive, and thereby creating an entirely new artistic legacy, the effects of which we are still feeling today.

Many of the themes that were important at the time of the Women’s Music movement still resonate with audiences today. Topics addressed by artists were related to racism, civil justice, peace as well as labor struggles. Initially, most founders were women who loved women themselves. Many being openly lesbian, Women’s Music envisioned and enabled women-centered production, studios, sound engineering, promotion and distribution. This “do it yourself” mantra gave birth to the lively women’s music festivals of the 1970s that continue to this day, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival that in its 30+ years has seen acts like Alana Davis, Animal Prufrock, Sarah McLaachlan, Jill Sobule, Le Tigre and Lez Zeppelin just to name a few.

On September 23, the GLBT Historical Society will be screening the documentary Radical Harmonies as a part of this groundbreaking exhibit. The film seeks to highlight the struggle of Women’s Music against the status quo. Directed and produced by Dee Mosbacher, the documentary weaves together joint histories through interviews and concert footage to help define Women’s Music.

The purpose behind the movement wasn’t just to take on the power of “cock rock,” which is how some interviewees refer to that all male mentality of music festivals and radio programming. The pioneers of this movement also had to deal with stigmas against females playing music with other females, and to be exact, lesbians playing with other lesbians. These experiences of community building are at the core of the documentary because more than any visual imagery, they stand as the lasting effects of this pivotal moment in music history.

To her credit, Mosbacher doesn’t shy away from the taboos, sexism and homophobia that women musicians and their music faced in the 1960s and early 1970s. As integral to the lesbian music revolution that followed, these sounds presented the foundation for pioneering artists like Ronnie Gilbert, Gwen Avery, Chris Williams, Holly Near, Linda Tillery and Meg Christian. It is a torch happily carried today by artists like the Indigo Girls, Bitch and Animal, the Butchies and Ani DiFranco, and hopefully by future artists for many years to come.

Boasting interviews and concert footage from many of the artists mentioned above and many others, Radical Harmonies was the recipient of the 2002 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival, and it was also awarded OUTstanding Soundtrack at the 2003 OUTFest Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

For more information about “Women Breaking Barriers” Exhibit, please visit

For more information about Radical Harmonies, please visit