Influential Women in Rock
by Marissa Bergen
It used to be that rock n’ roll was a man’s world. But today, women are gaining ground. It’s not unusual to see women on stage singing, playing guitar, drums, bass and more.
If we go back to the start of rock n’ roll, there weren’t a lot of women who played in bands, but there were a few icons who paved the way. This article will review the pioneers as well as those that stand out today for their contributions to the world of music.
Tina Turner’s career can be traced back to the roots of rock n’ roll. She started out playing in Turner’s Kings of Rhythm in 1957 and went on to perform with her husband in the Ike & Tina project before going solo.
The singer was known for her flamboyant dressing, her commanding spirit, and her spectacular voice. But she also made waves for being outspoken regarding domestic abuse incidents involving her husband who she eventually divorced. Tina continues to actively participate in music and was inducted in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.
You can’t talk about the most influential women in rock without giving a shout out to Janis Joplin. This brazen belter was known to sing her heart out with a bottle of whisky by her side. But behind her bold image was a vulnerable outcast spirit that made her even more relatable.
Janis tragically died of an overdose in 1970 at the tender age of 27. But no one will forget her colorful boas, her rose colored granny glasses and her voice which touches the souls of her listeners to this day.
Fanny was one of the first all-female rock bands to achieve commercial success. They were active in the mid-70’s and had two Billboard Top 40 singles. The group was founded by sisters, June and Jean Milligan (guitar and bass respectively) who started playing music when they moved from the Philippines to California.
The band signed to Reprise Records but disbanded when June left the group. They continue to be a major influence on other female musicians such as the Go-Gos, The Bangles and The Runaways.
The Runaways were an all-female band active from 1975 to 1979. Starting out as young teenagers, they were known for their sexy image and undeniable talent. Their age made them vulnerable to gender issues and it was suspected that their manager, Kim Fowley was somewhat of a predator. In 2015, Jackie Fuchs, the former bass player, came out with allegations that Fowley raped her, but he had already passed and was unable to address the subject.
Although the band was somewhat short lived, the members went on to have their own impressive careers. Joan Jett formed Joan Jett and the Blackhearts while Lita Ford embarked on a successful metal project. Singer Cherie Currie also still performs and recently put out an album guest-starring members of Guns N’ Roses.
Patti Smith kicked off her career in the late 60’s but she really broke through with her 1975 album ‘Horses’. She stands out for her androgynous looks and her ‘zero f**ks given’ attitude. She is an icon in the punk rock community, a wonderful songstress, and a fantastic poet and lyricist.
Slowly but surely, women started making waves in rock n’ roll. But heavy metal was still largely male dominated. Then came Girlschool, an all-female band formed in London in 1978. They had a gritty down to earth attitude and could outplay any man that came their way. They remained active as a band until 2019 with all original members except for guitarist Kelly Jackson, who sadly died of cancer in 2007.
Wendy O Williams
Wendy O Williams had a spirit the world will not soon forget. She rose to fame as the lead singer of The Plasmatics and quickly caught the media’s attention for her standout looks and wild onstage antics. She wore as little as electric tape and a thong while performing, exploded equipment, fired guns and chainsawed guitars.
After leaving The Plasmatics, she went on to form a heavy metal influenced solo project. She performed under her own name.
Despite her outrageous spirit, Wendy had a caring attitude. She loved animals and spoke up for women’s rights.
She eventually retired from the music industry in 1990 and moved to Connecticut with her husband and former manager to work as an animal rehabilitator. She stated that she was ‘fed up with people’ and was battling with depression. She tried to take her own life several times before committing suicide in 1998. She was found in a secluded part of the woods with a self-inflicted gun wound.
L7 was the all-female answer to grunge. Formed in 1985, they weren’t afraid to get gritty in jeans and flannels and sing lyrics that brimmed with attitude.
They may have made the ultimate feminist statement while playing at Reading Festival in England. They had to stop the show due to technical difficulties. When the crowd started to get rowdy, singer Donita Sparks threw a used tampon at them. Apparently, this was a signature move for the band and a way to express the ultimate f*** you.
L7 broke up in 2001 but reformed in 2014. They are still active and go on tour every couple of years.
Pussy Riot is a feminist protest punk rock art movement based out of Moscow, Russia. They made headlines when they did a pop-up performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior as way of speaking up for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights which they felt were being discriminated against by Vladimir Putin. Following that incident, three members were forced to go on trial for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
The group continues to play and fight the good fight to this day.
Women have a voice that can be well expressed through rock n’ roll music. The musicians in this article stand out for speaking up and making valuable contributions to society. Who would you add to the list?
Marissa Bergen is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, CA. She is passionate about health, fashion, and music. When she is not writing, she enjoys playing music with her son, daughter, and husband in their family band The CheeseBergens.