Last updated on February 29th, 2024 at 02:10 pm

Written By Paul Shaw, Faculty
Monday, March 8 was International women’s day. Moreover, we are in the midst of Women’s History Month. To commemorate both, I want to reflect on the importance of second wave feminist lesbian songwriters—their impact on and role in cultural and social change. During second wave feminism, the emerging music of lesbian feminist songwriters functioned as a sounding board and safe sanctuary for feminists across the United States. Yet comparatively less scholarship on these songwriters exists than that of feminist artists in the fine arts and literature. Most available scholarship discussing the rejection of patriarchal values of art during the second wave feminist movement focus on visual rhetoric and written forms such as novels, short stories, poetry, and the like. For example, Peg Brand and Sonja K. Foss have each indicted patriarchal oppression and describe revolt in the fine arts through Judy Chicago’s, The Dinner Party and several other works. Additionally, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial—a sculpture—has been the focal point of political and feminist discussion. And while Ellen Koskoff’s observations on music in culture are helpful, they are primarily examinations of global cultures and are not reflective of a uniquely American, feminist songwriting tradition born in the 1970s. To put it another way, referring to Sisterhood Is Powerful author Robin Morgan, Harker and Farr note in their introduction to This Book is an Action:

It is striking to me that the rich canon of second wave lyric writing is barely mentioned in this literary trove. Moreover, Peg Brand’s feminist art epistemology (FAE) embodies the qualities of songwriters such as Cris Williamson, Holly Near, Meg Christian. Foss’s four criteria for rhetorical evaluation and her thoughts on generative theory provide a framework through which feminist lyrics can be evaluated and duly recognized as significant feminist rhetoric. Additionally, David Hesmondhalgh has posited five dimensions in which music can be critically examined in less traditional, empirical ways and in more social and cultural ways. Two songwriters—Cris Williamson and Holly Near—have received some degree of scholarly musical and textual analysis by Fred Everett Maus and Cynthia M. Lont, respectively. More is needed.

From mid-century through the 1990s, female and feminist art has compelled an epistemic shift from entrenched patriarchal constructions to distinctly feminist ones. Three clear periods encapsulate this shift; namely, mid-century beginnings, when patriarchal constructions of meaning predominated, second wave feminist-inspired art and songwriting—signaling an epistemic shift beginning in the 1970s, and a culminating, female songwriter/performer renaissance in the 1990s. The work of Sandra Harding, Theodor Adorno, and ethnomusicologist Ellen Koskoff serves to illuminate mid-century perspectives on feminism and associated perspectives on women in music. Taken together, the authors contextualize in detail conditions necessitating a break from overbearing, pervasive, androcentric social constructs which disenfranchised women professionally and artistically. Second wave feminist lesbian songwriters helped provide that break. Seek them out. Listen. Discover for yourself the power and importance of their music. Theirs is a message of love and acceptance. That should be music to everyone’s ears.


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951). Verso, 2005.
– “On Pop Music.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17-48.

Brand, Peg. “Feminist Art Epistemologies: Understanding Feminist Art.” Hypatia vol. 21, no. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 186.

Foss, Sandra, K. “Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party: Empowering of Women’s Voice in Visual Art.” Women Communicating: Studies of Women’s Talk. Edited by Bate and Taylor, Ablex Publishing, 1988, pp. 9-26.
– White, Cindy L. “Liberating Laughter: An Inquiry into the Nature, Content, and Functions of Feminist Humor,” pp. 75-90.
– Lont, Cynthia, M. “Redwood Records: Principles and Profit in Women’s Music,” pp. 233-250.

Harding, Sandra. “Two Influential Theories of Ignorance and Philosophy’s Interests in Ignoring Them.” Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 20-36.

Holden, Stephen. “After Six Years of Silence, Ferron Expresses Herself.”

Koskoff, Ellen. A Feminist Ethnomusicology: Writings on Music and Gender. University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Harker, Jaime and Konchar Farr, Cecilia. This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. University of Illinois Press, 2015. EBSCOhost,

Maus, Fred Everett. “Music, Gender, and Sexuality.” The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton, Routledge, 2012, pp. 317-329.
– Hesmondhalgh, David. “Towards a Political Aesthetics of Music,” pp. 364-374.

Morris, Bonnie J. “How Should We Archive the Soundtrack to 1970s Feminism?”, March, 2018.


  • Categories

  • Recent Posts