Women's music (also womyn's music or wimmin's music) is the music by women, for women, and about women. The genre emerged as a musical expression of the second-wave feminist movement as well as the labor, civil rights, and peace movements. The movement (in the USA) was started by lesbians such as Cris Williamson, Meg Christian and Margie Adam, African-American musicians (including Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, Gwen Avery) and activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and her group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and peace activist Holly Near. Women's music also refers to the wider industry of women's music that goes beyond the performing artists to include studio musicians, producers, sound engineers, technicians, cover artists, distributors, promoters, and festival organizers who are also women.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, some people perceived that there were few "positive women's images within popular music" and a "lack of opportunities for female performers" in the USA. They viewed women as having a disadvantage in the field because of their difference in gender. At the time, major US record labels had only signed a few women's bands including Fanny, Birtha, The Deadly Nightshade, Goldie and the Gingerbreads and the band that they evolved into, Isis. In reaction to this perceived lack of inclusion of women in the mainstream, some feminists decided it necessary for women to create a separate space for women to create music. Lesbian and feminist separatism was then used as a "tactic which focused women's energy and would give an enormous boost to the growth and development of women's music".
Out of the separatist movement came the first distributed examples of music created specifically for lesbians or feminists. In 1972, Maxine Feldman, who had been an "out" openly gay performer since 1964, recorded the first lesbian record, "Angry Atthis," (Atthis was lover of the poet Sappho) a single with lyrics specific to her feelings and experiences as a lesbian. In the same year the feminist all-woman bands The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band and the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band released Mountain Moving Day. In 1973, Alix Dobkin, flautist Kay Gardner, and bassist Patches Attom created the group Lavender Jane, and recorded an album entitled Lavender Jane Loves Women, the first full-length album for and by lesbians. These early recordings relied on sales through mail order and in a few lesbian-feminist bookstores, like Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C., as well as promotion by word of mouth.
Feminist musicians aimed to show a positive, proactive, and assertive image of women that not only critiqued the rifts in regards to gender, but also demonstrated the goals of the feminist movement such as social justices regarding gender as well as the right of privacy concerning abortion and birth control. With the goal of breaking down the gender divide and level the gender differences, some women in this genre of music "adopt[ed] male dress codes and hair styles". Women also voiced their opinions and the goals of the feminist movement through lyrical contributions. In "I Am Woman," Helen Reddy sings, "I am woman/hear me roar/And I've been down there on the floor/No one's ever gonna keep me down again. Reddy creates a feeling of "girl power" that reflected the ambitions of the feminist movement.
Record labels, distributors, and publications
Olivia Records, the first women's music record label, was created in 1973 by a collective including artist Meg Christian. Starting with a single that was successfully sold by mail order, Olivia was able to release Meg Christian's I Know You Know and Cris Williamson's The Changer and the Changed. The Changer and the Changed was "one of the all-time best selling albums on any independent label" at that time, and was also the first LP to be entirely produced by women. "Changer" is the all-time best-selling album to come out of the women's music genre.
Several other independent labels were created by artists such as Kay Gardner with the record label Wise Woman/Urana, Margie Adam with the record label Pleiades, Ani DiFranco with the record label Righteous Babe Records, and Holly Near with the record label Redwood Records in 1972. Redwood records expanded the scope of women's music recordings to include women of color by recording Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group of African-American singers founded by Bernice Reagon in 1978. As these record labels grew so did the music genres represented, and the ethnic and social diversity of the artists expanded. Several other labels were also formed by artists; Berkeley Women's Music Collective, Woody Simmons, and Teresa Trull were distributed by Olivia through their network.
With the growth of independent record labels and increasing demand for women's music, an organized system for distribution and promotion became necessary. Goldenrod Music was formed in 1975 to distribute for Olivia records, and later expanded distribution to include other labels. Ladyslipper, a non-profit organization formed in 1976 to promote and distribute women's music. Olivia's informal network formed WILD (Women's Independent Labels Distributors) formed in 1977 to distribute music into different regions of the United States. The organization had two purposes - to formally network and educate distributors on sales and business issues, and to bargain with Olivia while Olivia's financial pressures in turn pressured the distributors. In 1978, a national booking company, Roadwork Inc. was formed to promote women artists.
Between 1984-1994, HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture was created and published in Chicago by a large group of volunteers. It was founded by Toni Armstrong Jr., Ann Morris, Michele Gautreaux, and Yvonne Zipter. The publication focused exclusively on lesbian feminist musicians, festivals, venues, and various topics pertaining to writing, theater, dance, comedy, and the arts. HOT WIRE came out three times/year and each 64-page issue included a soundsheet with at least four songs by lesbian and/or feminist artists. It had international distribution and a website is in the works to provide downloadable articles from all of the back issues. Former editor Toni Armstrong Jr. has continued to be involved in women's music as a performer, concert producer, and currently edits the "Long Time Friends" e-newsletter "for veterans of the women's music industry."
Women's music festivals
The first women's music festival occurred in 1973 at Sacramento State University. In May, 1974 the first National Woman's Music Festival was held in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, founded by University of Illinois student Kristin Lems. It celebrated its fortieth year in Middleton, Wisconsin, from July 2-5, 2015. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was created in 1976, and became the largest festival in the United States. Newer festivals include Lilith Fair which toured from 1997–1999; The Ohio Lesbian Festival, near Columbus Ohio, was created in 1988 and continues to be an ongoing celebration of womyn's music and culture. The Eastman School of Music’s Women in Music Festival was begun in 2005 as a celebration of the contributions of women to all aspects of music: composition, performance, teaching, scholarship, and administration. From its modest beginnings of Eastman students and faculty members performing music by women composers, the Festival has grown to include additional concerts and events throughout Rochester, NY and to host composers-in-residence, who have included Tania León (2007), Nancy Van de Vate (2008), Judith Lang Zaimont (2009), Emma Lou Diemer (2010), and Hilary Tann (2011). To date, the Women in Music Festival has presented more than 291 different works by 158 composers. Many other festivals have been created throughout the United States and Canada since the mid-1970s and vary in size from a few hundred to thousands of attendees. The newest festival is the Los Angeles Women's Music Festival, which kicked off in 2007 with over 2500 attendees, and which will return in 2009.
Though the festivals are centered on music, they support many other facets of lesbian and feminist culture. Designed to provide a safe space for women's music and culture, many festivals are held on college campuses or in remote rural locations. Many festivals offer workshops on topics concerning the lesbian and feminist community, offer activities such as arts, crafts, fitness classes, and athletic events, and serve to provide opportunities for women to take advantage of resources they often cannot find in mainstream culture. Bonnie Morris describes in her book Eden Built by Eves, how festivals serve women throughout the stages of their lives. Festivals support a safe space for coming of age rituals for young women, adult romance and commitment ceremonies, the expression of alternative perspectives on motherhood, and the expression of grief and loss. Currently, festivals continue to thrive in the United States and other countries.