When most people think of rock stars, most people's thoughts instantly turn to people like Elvis, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, or Jimmy Page. Rarely do they think of Genya Ravan, Jane Wiedlin, Joan Jett, or Kathleen Hanna. Though their names might not be as instantly recognizable as those of their male counterparts, they and countless other musicians have made significant contributions to popular music. Rock and roll might be the ultimate boys club, but many women have successfully broken through the glass ceiling.
When rock and roll broke in the 1950's, it was acts like Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry that became instant superstars. One of the only successful female acts during the time was Wanda Jackson--a rockabilly singer who, before she signed with Decca Records, was denied a recording contract by Capitol Records because "girls don't sell records". Jackson was unique for her time because she did not leave the music business after getting married like many of her contemporaries. Still touring sporadically, Jackson will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
The 1960's ushered in a new phenomenon in pop music--the all girl band. One of the first all girl bands to be signed to a major label was Goldie and the Gingerbreads, lead by spitfire Genya Ravan. The Gingerbreads caused excitement wherever they played--not for their music, but for the sheer novelty of an all female musician group. Though their presence was memorable, the Gingerbreads failed to establish themselves musically. Their single, "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat", was released simultaneously with Herman's Hermits version of the same song, and was ignored in the United States in favor of the Hermits version. Frustrated, the group broke up in the late 60's, but Ravan went on to become a prominent character in the 1970's punk scene as both a producer and musician.
The punk rock scene of the 1970's-1980's saw many female musicians coming into their own. Like the Gingerbreads before them, The Runaways were an all girl band; unlike the Gingerbreads, they actually had hit songs. Originally conceived as a novelty act, the Runaways transcended the gimmick by having excellent songs and phenomenal musicianship. Their dual lead guitarists, Joan Jett and Lita Ford, are highly respected for their skills to this day. Punk also saw bands featuring members of both sexes, such as The Germs (featuring female bassist Lorna Doom) and X-Ray Spex (featuring singer Poly Styrene). Another band that had roots in the punk subculture was The Go'Go's--arguably the most prominent all girl band of all time. The Go-Go's were notable for not only playing their own instruments, but writing their own material as well.
The 1990's saw the birth of the only musical movement specific to all-girl bands: riot grrl. Riot grrl was an underground punk scene catapulted by third wave feminism and was more a do-it-yourself community than just a style of music. Song topics included hot button issues such as rape, domestic abuse, and female empowerment. Bands such as Bikini Kill (led by Kathleen Hanna, who would later go on to front the all-female Le Tigre) and Bratmobile never gained mainstream popularity, but made a lasting impact on their listeners. Unfortunately, the phrase "riot grrl" became a blanket term for all bands in the 90's with female musicians--even ones that it didn't apply to, such as The Breeders, No Doubt, and Hole--and the movement imploded by the mid 90's.
Unfortunately, females still have a hard time in rock and roll. Girls are not encouraged to be rock stars, but pop stars. Though things may be quiet on the female front in music right now, a revival of women in rock might be just around the corner. And, hopefully someday, there won't be a glass ceiling to break.
Don't Need You - A documentary about riot grrl
A list of all-female bands, from Wikipedia
A firsthand account of being in an all-girl band in the 1960's
A Wanda Jackson retrospective
Grace of My Heart - A film based on Carole King's experiences as a female songwriter in the 1960's
Venus Zine - Contemporary magazine focusing on women in music and the arts