first published in FolkWorks, March-April 2005; revised 2014
Ross Altman’s recent Folkworks article on the music of the IWW featured the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike by women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts and the now-famous song that the young strikers inspired. In the same issue, alongside Larry Wines’s cover story on present-day songwriters, all four artists pictured are female.
Between these two stories, along a 90-year trail of feminism, lies a little-known but significant way-station in time and space: March 8, 1973, Seattle. I know, because I was there.
Folkworks readers may be aware of March designated as Women’s History Month, with March 8 singled out as International Women’s Day. This celebration of women, especially in their roles as workers and activists, began in 1905 and was solidified in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. For the next decades, however, the holiday was observed only in countries affiliated with the USSR.
In the 1960s, feminists in western countries reclaimed the day of commemoration. Seattle in the early 1970s, where I happened to be going to college, was a city with several vigorous feminist organizations. So it was that on a rainy March night in 1973, I joined about a dozen women poets and songwriters onstage at a community center, before an enthusiastic crowd.
Recall that in the tumultuous 60s-70s, Joan Baez was the best-known female folksinger, but not yet a songwriter; she offered her exquisite voice to traditional ballads and political songs written by others, generally men. Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell completed the trio of J-named white-girl songbirds on the folk-becoming-folk-rock scene, with hit-songwriter Carole King just beginning to emerge as a solo performer in the pop world. Mitchell may have written brilliant lyrics and unusual music, but she has rightly complained that the Woodstock-era media were far less interested in her artistic voice than in which male stars she slept with. Even Aretha Franklin’s powerful R&B anthem “Respect” was written by a man. The entire notion of women having a right to a public voice drove the First Wave of feminism in the 1840s, and remained a radical one.
Back to Seattle, 1973: Kate Millett, an important political theorist, had been invited to my university for International Women’s Day. After her campus lectures and panels, she was a special guest at the “cultural night” arranged by the local feminist center, where perhaps a dozen of us read or sang original work.
Many had never shared their writing in public before, but the movement was young enough that no one seemed to care WHAT we wrote. There were words of anger, humor, social analysis, and romantic delicacy. Some women sang a-capella, some out of tune. I honestly don’t remember what I brought. Everything was welcomed and applauded, so long as it was our own.
Kate Millett, herself a veteran of song-rich civil rights and anti-war struggles, was visibly astonished and moved by what she heard. I heard her say several times, “Now we are a movement, because we have music!”
As soon as she returned to her home in Sacramento, CA, Millett organized a festival of women’s music, which took place there in May 1973. I was invited to sing, and heard groundbreaking artists such as Naomi Littlebear and Margie Adam. Although less well-known than the National Women’s Music Festival founded in Illinois the next month, this festival was probably the first event of its kind.
Holly Near’s first album appeared that summer too, and Olivia Records soon established herself as the first music company run entirely by women. In the next few years, the Michigan Women’s Music Festival sprouted as a wilder, woodsy-pagan sister to the university-based NWMF, and newsletters by and for women musicians began to circulate in Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, with columns on songwriting, politics, what-to-put-on-a-demo, and audio gear.
Meanwhile, in the mainstream music industry, Bonnie Raitt’s recording contract still stipulated that she was a singer only; guitar-playing was for guys. The Deadly Nightshade, a female country-rock trio for whom I opened a few shows in the later 70s, told of contract negotiations with a major label where they were warned not to get pregnant on the road because “the label won’t pay for your abortions.”
But the political and artistic movements continued, and over the next 20 years women musicians gradually won support and acceptance in genres from hard rock and country to symphonic conducting and instrumental jazz. In 1992, I sat on the floor of the Folk Alliance conference in Tucson AZ, as the alliance’s first women’s caucus tackled topics from which microphones best suited women’s voices to child-care problems on tour.
Sarah McLaughlin’s famed “Lilith Faire” travelling festivals, begun in 1996, may have seemed fresh-sprung from nothing, just as women’s rights to vote and to use birth control are taken for granted by the daughters known as generation D. But I’m not as upset by ignorance as are some of my graying peers. The freedom and ease experienced by younger women artists, even those oblivious of their history, are what we’ve all been fighting for.
I now keep a glossy page tacked to my office wall: a beautiful woman embracing the neck of a pearl-inlayed guitar neck. (She’s probably a star, but from a generational galaxy I don’t recognize). Her fingers are bedazzled by dramatic rings, because it’s an ad for Cartier jewelry!
Unimaginable by the young textile laborers who first sang “Bread and Roses,” the image of a woman musician has travelled from ridicule to high chic. International Women’s Day is a great chance to celebrate how far we’ve come.